Bottom of the Bargain Bin: Alone in the Dark

Bottom of the Bargain Bin shines the spotlight on the forgotten gems, horrifying failures and “how did this get made?” oddities which line the bottom of every bargain bin.

Alone in the Dark (2008)

As the father of the fixed-angle survival horror games which flooded every console in the 90s and early 00s, the original Alone in the Dark released in 1992 was a landmark which felt its influence in classic series like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis and Silent Hill. Its blocky graphics and clunky controls might render it close to unplayable today but simply from a design point of view, it’s not hard to see how important a part it played in the progression of video games in the early 90s.

The first attempt at rebooting the series came in 2001 with The New Nightmare, a by-the-numbers survival horror game which failed to do anything new with a genre that been milked dry by waves of increasingly inferior knockoffs. It was the last gasp of a dying breed of game which was finally ushered out the door when Resident Evil 4 once again reshaped what it meant to be dubbed survival horror.

After a particularly disastrous Uwe Boll film adaptation in 2005 wiped clean what remaining relevance was left for the series to a modern audience, it seemed safe to assume that the shambling corpse the Alone in the Dark series had become would be put out of its misery before more damage could be done to its legacy.

Enter Eden Games, a development team comprised of a bunch of nutty Frenchman with no notion of restraint who were given the go-ahead by Atari to breathe new life into the Alone in the Dark franchise. First announced in 2006, the game faced some delays (but not enough) before finally shuffling out onto shelves in 2008.

Fast forward six years later and their attempt to redefine a genre now sits in the bottom of bargain bins around the world for less than $5.

Most remarkable about this take on Alone in the Dark is its production values; this is a game that clearly had millions and millions of dollars pumped into it and on a purely superficial level, it feels like money well spent. The game still looks impressive years after its release and the soundtrack — a mix of weird sing-chanting, grandiose strings and tons of jingling Christmas bells — is absolutely ridiculous in the best way possible and sounds like some gothic take on the Home Alone soundtrack.

Nearly as remarkable as the amount of money dumped into this thing is how instantly unplayable the game reveals itself to be after picking up the controller. The game’s opening set piece is stunning, your character rappelling down the side of a crumbling skyscraper, an epic choir chanting goofy nonsense in the background, flames shooting out everywhere and the streets of New York erupting into chaos below you. You land on your first ledge, anxious to continue your way down the side of this towering inferno, take two steps forward and then instantly realize that you’re in for one of the most arduous experiences of your life.

There is no gradual reveal of how terrible the controls are- it’s apparent the very first moment the game asks you to step forward on that burning ledge. There’s no thought that maybe there’s a learning curve, or that you’ll just have to get used to them because they handle a little differently than other games like this, it’s very clear very fast that the game is broken beyond repair because you can never move your character with any degree of confidence. 16 years had passed between the original Alone in the Dark and this remake and yet the controls feel no less antiquated.

It boggles the mind trying to understand the gap between the amount of money and effort put into this game and its lack of playability. Was no one assuring quality? Were the moneymen not actually checking to see what their money was being used for? You’d assume that there are systems and checks in place to ensure a project could not go as far off the rails as Alone in the Dark did and yet a simple push forward on the analog stick instantly reveals a game which feels like it is nowhere near releasable quality.

We may never know how Eden Games continually managed to get the funding and resources to move forward for years on such an obviously broken game but you get the feeling that even if they had another ten years and a hundred million dollars to work on it, they’d have never been able to pull all of their disparate ideas together to make a cohesive game. It may have an innumerable amount of problems but a lack of ambition isn’t one of them.

The game’s bizarre hook is that it’s being presented as a season of television split up into episodes complete with cliffhangers and “previously on Alone in the Dark” recaps at their start. It’s a neat idea — one done better in the infinitely superior Alan Wake — but the game’s writing is so horrendously bad that any attempt to treat it as if it’s worthy of such serialization is laughable.

An example of a typical dialogue exchange:

“I taste your fear. So many questions.”

“And I suppose you’re the answer man, shithead?”

Protagonist Edward Carnby might be the most unlikable character a video game has ever seen. He is supposed to be a charming rogue ala Han Solo but instead comes off like a crass, bitter sociopath who reacts to the characters and events around him with the attitude of a petulant 16-year old. Early on in the game he yells “fuck you!” into the face of a woman recently possessed by a demon and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the game’s obnoxious narrative.

Battling those aforementioned demons is what makes up the majority of the game and you soon realize that that is where all creativity in this game went to die. Fire is your main weapon against the monsters and so this leads to the game going absolutely gonzo with its use of flame physics and weapons. You pick up wooden and chairs and sticks from around the levels to fight back, holding them over flames so they catch on fire and then be used to burn the demons into ash. There are gas cans which you can use to pour trails of gasoline onto the ground and then set off with a lighter (an idea later STOLEN for GTA5 by those treacherous thieves at Rockstar). You can throw flammable canned products and shoot them in midair to make an explosion or coat your ammo in lighter fluid to somehow make flame bullets. All of your various tools and supplies are carried in Edward’s jacket which acts as the cool inventory system. Whenever you need something, you open up your jacket and scroll through the various pockets, finding bandages to apply to your wounds or tape which you can use to work up bigger bombs.

There are such great and unique ideas at work here but the simple fact is none of them work properly. The inventory system is great in theory but navigating Edward’s jacket requires all of these elaborate manoeuvrings of the analog sticks which makes it a constant frustration. Simply getting a wooden chair into flames to catch fire is nearly an impossible task on its own so then having to swing it around with the awful controls to actually hit a monster drives you up the wall. Every single encounter with a monster is a battle against a series of broken mechanics so you spend the entire game dreading the game next it actually makes you try to do something.

To be fair though, even when you’re not fighting monsters, the game is an absolute chore. There are a series of driving sections — which of course are overcooked to the point that you actually have to slide in behind the steering wheel and hotwire the car yourself — and they are as abysmal to play through as you’d expect. There aren’t any checkpoints in them either so you can be sure to expect to drive through the same exploding street 30 times before you finally memorize the correct sequence of turns and jumps.

Adding insult to injury, everything about this game was so clearly broken that when it was finally released on PS3, it was as a slightly modified version dubbed Alone in the Dark: Inferno. That incarnation of the game claimed to address many of the control and frustration problems of the original release, problems which the developers probably should’ve noticed a few years before during production and not after it was released to scathing reviews and general disinterest. I haven’t played Inferno but I have a hunch I know whether or not it actually makes this into a good game. Hint: no.

The Alone in the Dark franchise has seen many highs and lows but the 2008 remake seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, an ambitious mess which really tried to do something grand with the brand yet still fell victim to many of the problems that has plagued the series since the start. Its earned its spot in the hallowed plastic grating of bargain bins where it can finally be appreciated by its true audience: connoisseurs of garbage.

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