A third-person action-adventure with the beating black heart of a survival horror, Alone in the Dark is a game that needs to be experienced by everybody. Its novel approach of applying shocks into an episodic structure, eight hourly segments in all, is a masterstroke.
By sticking closely to the template set down by TV shows such as 24, with explosive set pieces and a cliff-hanger ending to every episode, it's almost entirely gripping from start to finish. Almost. The problems start when the developer's ambition outstrips its ability, which we'll get to in a moment.
The story takes place over one night, as you guide amnesic Edward Carnby to piece together his past while trying to survive in a Central Park that's becoming part war zone, part hell. We're talking resurrected dark lords, possessed humans and an age-old conspiracy.
Imagine The Da Vinci Code with a better script, produced in the style of Hellraiser.
It's the sort of narrative you'd expect to find in a cheap horror novel, but the gameplay more than makes up for it. In the same way that BioShock required you to learn the ecosystem of Rapture and the potential of your Plasmid powers repeatedly, does AITD give you a new set of rules. Puzzles are solved with real-world logic, applied to real-world physics.
An early example of this is a bus balancing on a tiny ledge, teetering over the edge of an abyss. You've got to walk to the front of the bus to leap to an adjacent platform, but that causes the bus to topple. The solution is to drag bodies inside the bus to balance the weight.
At heart it's a simple physics puzzle, but AITD keeps it exciting by staying neck-deep in tension, keeping the dramatic pacing solid throughout. Problem is, it takes a while to work out what you're supposed to be doing, and the controls can't keep up.
Imagine trying to map the controls of a driving game, an action game, and an FPS onto a single joypad and you'll have an idea of the problem this game faces. The main viewpoint is in the behind-the-shoulder third person, but a press of the Y button slides it into a first-person camera, which is your first choice when exploring new areas. Bumpers and Triggers are assigned to your left and right hand respectively. The former cycles through equipment, while the latter is pressed to use them. Pressing down on the D-pad opens up Edward's jacket, AITD's glorified inventory menu, where you can combine items and link favourite set-ups to a shortcut menu.
It's neither instinctive nor intuitive - even seven hours into the game, you aren't quite sure what button you need to press to achieve the desired results. It's a real issue in combat situations, although thankfully only a small amount of these require you to have supremely fast reactions.
Attack and fire
Frustratingly, though, your enemies can soak up bullets without breaking their stride. Melee attacks are the best way to knock them out cold, before dragging them to the nearest fire to incinerate them (it's the only way to be sure). These attacks, or more precisely, Edward's arm movements, are mapped to the Right analogue stick. Pick up an iron bar, pull the stick quickly from left to right, and Edward will swing the bar in that direction. Again, it works, but it's fiddly.
It could be that the design is intentional, the panicked and clumsy swings capturing Edward's everyman status rather than some horde-massacring super-warrior. He's more in the vein of Dead Rising's Frank West than a Gears of War COG. Either way, the problem with the controls aren't insurmountable, but are an obstacle that shouldn't exist - we shouldn't have to come up with strategies to accommodate them.