Release Date: June 2001
Usually when a big-budget game overshoots its projected holiday release date and is then silently slipped on the retail shelves during the dog days of summer, it's a sure sign that this baby is a bowwow of a product. Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare proves to be the exception to this long-accepted dictum in the industry.
Since it has been almost a decade (a lifetime in gaming years) since the original Alone in the Dark, it would be an exercise in futility to evaluate this new incarnation based on the previous three installments, and, in fact, Infogrames has gone out of its way to avoid comparisons by refusing to add a number four to the game title. Yet since comparisons are inevitable, it can safely be stated that not only is AITD:TNN the most well-crafted of the quartet, but it also continues the homage to H.P. Lovecraft evident in the first Alone in the Dark so lovingly created by Hubert Chardot.
As the Monkees once sang, though, "that was then, this is now," and Darkworks' designers have done an exemplary job not only of updating the series, but also of establishing mood, a very important aspect for this type of game. Anyone familiar with the works of Lovecraft--and the percentage of those playing or reviewing this game who have actually read this difficult-to-read author is probably very low--know that books, diaries, journals, etc., usually play an important role in his stories. That is also the case here, as it was in the first Alone in the Dark, as the reading material found scattered throughout the mansion contains clues to solving puzzles, some background on the history of Shadow Island, and descriptions of the secret experiments that are the underlying reason for your visit.
To update the series from the 1920s to present day, our old once-geeky friend Edward Carnby is now 33 years of age and has acquired a Goth look: long dark hair, trench coat, and weapons more reminiscent of Ghostbusters than the Untouchables. He works for a top-secret FBI department that investigates paranormal and supernatural activities. His soon-to-be sidekick, Aline Cedrac, is a 27-year-old professor with a PhD in anthropology, and, as luck would have it, her specialty is the Abkani Indian tribe.
Aline has been summoned to Shadow Island to decipher three mysterious tablets. Her flight partner is Ed Carnby, who is investigating the mysterious death of his partner, Charles Fiske. As they near their destination, their plane is disabled by an unknown force, and Aline and Ed must parachute to safety. The game proper begins as the player must choose between Carnby, who has settled in the woods, or Aline, who has landed atop the roof of the mansion. Your choice is influenced by how you want to play the game. Carnby is more weapon dependant, though not in a brute force aspect but more out of necessity, and Aline is the inquisitive one searching not only for literal bones, but also for skeletons in her family closet. What they both have in common, though, is they will have to solve innumerable puzzles as they both work a path through the mansion and eventually the underbelly of the island to uncover the horrifying secret rituals of the Abkani Indians.
Many of the puzzles are the highlight of the experience; some are so subtle as to escape the detection of the lackadaisical gamer. Not only are there audio clues such as a squeaking floorboard that may be hiding a secret cache, but also barely noticeable visual clues like scratch marks in a wooden floor that expose a hidden door in a bookcase. There are also a variety of "find the key, open the door" puzzles, but unlike the ridiculous ease of the Resident Evilseries where the key is simply provided, you will work to find the keys in this game. And unlike the Resident Evil games that mistake unending hordes of zombies as a challenge and relies on gimmicks like rabid dogs crashing through a window to provide a cheap thrill, AITD:TNN is carefully crafted to build the suspense as the plot and relationship between the characters develop.
The strong point of AITD:TNN is the character and plot development. Though you can only play as one character at a time, both of their paths dovetail throughout the game, and it is especially interesting once you have played as one character to then play as the other and spot details that were influenced by the other character. Communication between the two can also be established via a two-way radio, and there will be moments when they actually meet. The writers are to be commended for actually nurturing a relationship between the characters as the game progresses, especially in a genre--survival horror--that often features superficial personalities and situations.
Many of today's games have beautiful graphics but are soulless; AITD:TNN uses graphics and sound effects to maximum effect even while employing every hoary cliché imaginable: screeching disjointed voices, howling dogs, whistling wind. You're guaranteed to stumble across misshapen trees, a foreboding, deserted mansion, and long, winding staircases. Yet every one of these tried-and-true chestnuts not only works, but also enhances the atmosphere of the game. You will feel as though you are part of a well-made B horror film.
Before I leave you believing that all is milk and honey on the macabre Shadow Island, there are a few niggling problems. A few scenes before the conclusion degenerate into a romp through some unimaginative maze-like tunnels housing respawning monsters. This is really the only part of the game that deteriorates into a console-style survival horror romp. A maximum of only four save slots makes no sense and is especially frustrating if you are attempting to play as both characters at once. The music is sparse but effective, yet it can be annoying at times; it usually consists of nothing more than jarring snare drum or hollow reed rhythms, and sections were very reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails' Closer to God. The voice acting, which is for the most part very good, reaches a nadir in gaming history every time the bedridden mother is center stage. She emits a horrible, feeble, ridiculous-sounding cracking voice that seems to have been voiced by a twenty-something doing her impression of a doddering senior citizen. For God's sake, if you're going to spend a small fortune on a game, spend an extra five bucks and hire a real senior citizen to do the voiceover so maybe she won't have to use her Social Security check to buy dog food for dinner.
The New Nightmare is not for those who shy away from action elements in a game. It is, though, for anyone who enjoys intelligent horror. Though some encounters can be avoided, many cannot, and occasional puzzles consist of plotting an escape route or trying different weapons to discover which one is most effective against a specific monster. A keyboard or gamepad can be used to control the characters, and the game ships on three CDs. In my opinion, though, there is nothing more important in a game than good writing and believable characters, which is probably the main appeal of adventure games. The give-and-take between Carnby and Aline as their relationship and trust in each other grows is actually (God help me, I'm going to say cute) cute, and these are two characters, like Gabriel Knight and Grace, around whom a franchise could be built.
There are very few adventurers who will finish this game without a walkthrough, and that's nothing to be ashamed of; we can't all be Sinjin. But if you do find yourself seeking the occasional hint, at least try not to use the god codes that offer invincibility or unlimited ammo, for half of the fun, and suspense, derives from devising routes through shadowy areas fearing that each step may be your last. Always keep the title of the game in mind, for if you really want to be "alone in the dark," then you will learn to use your flashlight to your advantage to spot hidden clues and chase away the bogeymen.
Final Grade: B+
If you liked Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare:
Play: The original Alone in the Dark
Read: Anything by H.P. Lovecraft
Watch: The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price
PC System Requirements:
Pentium II 400 MHz
64 MB RAM
3D video card
400 MB free HD space
DirectX compatible mouse/keyboard/sound card
DirectX 8.0 (included)