Halloween is still some months away, but with the ever-changing weather giving us the creeps and also some stormy nights, this might also be the time to see how the survival horror genre started with Infogrames’ classic Alone in the Dark trilogy.
Alone in the Dark (PC)
(France 1992, developer/publisher: Infogrames (defunct), platforms: PC, 3DO)
Private investigator Edward Carnby has to find a piano in the haunted mansion Derceto for an antiquarian, but discovers something much more sinister lurking there.
Classic horror tale
The influences of H.P. Lovecraft’s works and Edgar Allen Poe’s, in particular The Fall of the House of Usher, are prominent in both the setting, storytelling and atmosphere. But it also becomes obvious that the way the plot develops is slow and convoluted. Only by reading manuscripts does one get a glimpse of what is going on and what the mysteries of the house are. The rest of the game is simply about exploring the mansion, which is actually one of the strongest points of the title, making the player curious about what lies behind each door and what lies beneath. Unfortunately, the main character and storyline are pretty flat and uninteresting, making an identification difficult and suspenseful progression problematic. There’s also the option to play another character, Emily Hartwood, an aspiring actress who is a niece of the previous mansion owner. But other than being a woman and having different reasons for entering Derceto, the gameplay and level design remain the same. Still, it’s interesting to note that she appears later in Alone in the Dark 3, even if only as part of the story.
Prototype of survival horror gameplay
Exploration is a key gameplay element, so going from room to room and solving puzzles is just as old-school as the first Resident Evil would go years later, cementing the template of obscure puzzles and weird object combinations for the survival horror genre. It’s not that the tasks or solutions are difficult, because there are usually only a few items to carry around and hints hidden in manuscripts. It’s just that finding them in one room and knowing where to use them in others which are not necessarily close is often an annoying, dated gameplay mechanic. Having no map doesn’t help much either. However, some of the puzzles are pretty imaginative and the mix of exploring the creepy house, reading manuscripts to flesh out the background story and solving problems is engaging enough.
Dated controls are the worst horror case scenario
What is less engaging are the fights of which there aren’t a lot and some can be avoided, but they’re still annoying with clunky controls due to slow movements of the main protagonist, an overcomplicated combat system, and a camera that sometimes switches the perspective, depending on the position of the character. As in Resident Evil, the camera angles are static, and if one is between two screens, it can get disorientating if one is pushed downstairs or through a door. Inventory management is also less than perfect, while changing the walking/running/fighting, searching/pushing/using stances stops the flow as well. In addition, out-of-place platforming sections and unfair death traps unnecessarily increase difficulty and frustration.
Oh the horror, but in a well-presented way
If the control system, level and puzzle design all seem to make this a bad game, this couldn’t be further from the truth, because the atmosphere makes one forget most of these antiquated design decisions. Even if some zombies appearing out of nowhere or a monster sitting in a bathtub aren’t the most subtle of chillers, the pacing is usually well done with moments of suspenseful walking around creepy tunnels, searching through occult rooms and learning more and more about the owner’s mansion and himself.
The horror atmosphere is further highlighted by a great soundtrack with memorable tunes and the right amount of ghostly noises in the dark. Unfortunately, the voice acting is atrociously bad. If this were a shlocky B-movie, it would be entertaining fun, but the overacting and often strange pronunciation and pauses of certain text segments make it difficult to listen to for very long. The graphics haven’t aged well, obviously, although some of the animations still impress (just looking at the jumping frog in the intro). The environments certainly can’t compete with today’s highly detailed backgrounds, and the facial expressions of the enemies and Carnby look rather laughable, but the hand-drawn stills telling some of the story have a certain artistic quality which has partly survived the transition.
The godfather of the survival horror genre aged remarkably well
Alone in the Dark is certainly a game which paved the way for many survival horror titles to come. The atmosphere is creepy, the story, while nonsensical in certain parts, is mysterious, and the puzzle solving and exploration makes for a rewarding experience. Unfortunately, as with so many “classics”, there are also many elements which are outdated, like the horrible voice acting, clunky control and camera system, and unfair difficulty spikes. Still, despite its age, this is a game worth revisiting or discovering anew.
Alone in the Dark 2 (PC)
(France 1993, developer/publisher: Infogrames (defunct), platforms: PC, 3DO, PS1)
Carnby investigates the disappearance of his partner Ted Stryker and the kidnapping of the child Grace Saunders which are connected to a gangster mob playing with voodoo powers.
Of gangsters, pirates and voodoo
With more in-game cutscenes and NPCs who do more than just fight Carnby, storytelling is more elaborate and compelling than in the first game. Including another controllable character also gives it a different point of view, while the mix of classic horror, a gangster and pirate story is interesting enough to make it different but also much more nonsensical. The character development of Carnby is still nothing to write home about. However, his female antagonist’s background story, despite the main plot’s often trash quality, is well written and makes progression in the game less incongruent with the story than in the original. As the enemies the player encounters are also more human-like and the storyline’s emphasis on supernatural elements becomes less prominent, horror is also toned down.
More action and less horror
With many enemies patrolling each level, the frequency of shootouts and fights increases. As the controls and cumbersomely slow movement of Carnby are still an issue, these encounters are frustratingly difficult and often unfair because of the odds stacked against the hero. Fortunately, there are some means to either evade the bad guys or find other ways to dispose of them. These are usually small puzzles in themselves and more fun to do than using up the limited ammo and handling the less than perfect weapons. For example, one can either fight a sleeping nasty or let a barrel push him out of a cave from a cliff. Unfortunately, these inventive means of getting rid of enemies again suffer from control problems and unfair timing. Still, it beats the horrible fighting.
Slowly burning heads, shooting or boring them to death
Exploration and puzzle solving are still present, and despite the lack of clues and some very obscure puzzles, these parts work well, which is also helped by a better inventory system with fewer options to choose from, and an environment with closed spaces that is easier to navigate. It’s only too bad that the stealth sections and second protagonist sequences disappoint. Having a child with no fighting skills is one thing, and as it can be seen later in other survival horror titles like the Clock Tower series, this helplessness can actually add to suspense and immersion. But when the walking speed is as slow as here, it’s just frustrating and no fun at all. Fortunately, these scenes aren’t too long, although they unnecessarily weaken the overall gameplay.
Same old looks, same old sounds
There haven’t been many changes in the graphics department, even though the inclusion of more hand-drawn stills as cutscenes is a nice touch. Unfortunately, the voice acting hasn’t improved much, with some ear-shatteringly horrible accents, inappropriate stresses and pauses in sentences. Only some read-out passages are passable. Music and sound effects are less creepy and sometimes even offer cheerful jingles, which is mostly because of the pirate theme and slapstick scenes which obviously look out of place in a survival horror game.
A sequel suffering the fate of so many others
Despite games having the advantage of developers being able to listen to player feedback and therefore making a better sequel, Alone in the Dark 2 does just as many things wrong as it does them right. A better inventory system and a more cinematic presentation are commendable, while the puzzles and exploration elements with a more linear approach work better, too. Unfortunately, the game becomes extremely frustrating with more enemies and fights, while the action takes over the subtle horror which made the first game so great. It’s not a bad game, only not an improvement or cut above the original.
Alone in the Dark 3 (PC)
(France 1994, developer/publisher: Infogrames (defunct), platform: PC)
Carnby is sent to a western ghost town where a film crew disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Western recipe peppered with a salt of horror
After diving deep into the Cthulhu mythos in the first and mixing a gangster with a pirate story in the second game, the third instalment takes a refreshing take on the western genre, but with an interesting twist with the theme of radioctive danger. As B- or rather C-movie material as it sounds, the presentation of the story works quite well. There’s obviously less horror and more action than in the original (but fortunately without the exaggerated use as in the second one), but at least the emphasis on a more cinematic presentation with NPCs who help the player and talk to Carnby is a nice change of pace. These might not be that memorable, but some of the antagonists are, especially with their unique background stories and the ways in how they have to be killed. What is also pretty cool is how some filmed scenes from the western movie the crew shot is combined with other sources of information making the player piece together the past like a jigsaw puzzzle.
Puzzle heavy and memorable opponents
The inclusion of multiple enemies makes for some interesting fighting scenes and puzzle sequences, as wanted posters or newspaper cutouts hint at what they’re vulnerable to. Calling these segments bossfights would be a bit to much compared to later survival horror titles, but they’re still interesting enough in storytelling and gameplay terms. In general, the amount of puzzles and often inventive solutions make this a joy to play. Without giving anything away, but later in the game, the play mechanics also change for a while and offer a new perspective on proceedings. Orientation problems, easily overlooked items and some unnecessary platform sections aside, the mix of action and puzzles work well. What’s also great is that it’s now possible to lower or increase the difficulty in the options menu which has an effect on the life energies of both Carnby and the enemies.
Mexican standstill of technology
Of course, with only one year in development, the graphics and controls haven’t changed much. The former offer the same well-drawn stills and cutscenes with rather outdated character models and animations, while the latter still suffer from frustratingly slow movement and camera control. It’s also disappointing that one has to select “search” in the inventory in order to pick up items on tables and such, whereas it was possible to do this automatically in the other games. Melee combat and shooting is again not much fun, so it’s a good thing that most encounters usually involve the use of more brain than brawn. The same standstill of technology can be heard in the sound department: a varied soundtrack with some catchy and atmospheric tunes, but also voice acting with horribly exaggerated performances and forced accents.
Third kill’s or chill’s the charm
Alone in the Dark 3 is a strong third entry in the series. It’s far from creepy or fear-inducing like the original and it still suffers from the same control and fighting system like the others, but the mix of point-and-click adventure style puzzles makes for the most imaginative game. The presentation of the story is also better and makes following Carnby’s adventure more accessible, although identification with him or other characters is still a problem. But it’s full of unexpected twists and turns to make this simply the best game of the trilogy.
GOG has the answer to your compatibility issues
As is the case with most retro games, finding them in a boxed version or in jewel cases can be time-consuming and empty your pockets. Then there’s obviously the problem of compatibility with newer Windows systems and the old MS-DOS. Fortunately, GOG (Good Old Games) offers the whole trilogy with an easy-to-use installer so that they’re ready to use. There are still some performance and sound issues (especially with the first one), but the GOG Forum is the place to go when asking for help.
Jack in the Dark or Alone in the Dark 1.5
What is also great about the GOG bundle is the inclusion of Jack in the Dark, a short promo adventure which was released before Alone in the Dark 2. It’s set during Halloween with a girl trying to solve the mystery of a jack in the box. Despite its brevity due to only one location (a toy shop) and not much of a plot development, it’s fun to play, because it relies more on simple puzzles and avoids clunky combat scenes.
More extras for the collector
Also included are the great soundtracks of all three titles, the individual manuals plus 3 ‘Mystery Examiner’ newspapers and Alone in the Dark 2 playing cards, goodies which further add to the immersion.
Buy the whole trilogy on
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