Alone in the Dark: Illumination
Reviewed on PC (Steam)
Developed by Pure FPS and Section Studios – Published by Atari Inc.
I’m a big fan of the Alone in the Dark series, which is not really something to brag about considering how many of the series entries are less than stellar. But there’s something about it that speaks to me, maybe it’s nostalgia or how earnest it feels, but when there’s a new Alone in the Dark, I’m there. As such, when Atari and Pure FPS released the sixth title in the series legacy this year, I was duty bound to finally sit down and play it. I have now finished all of Alone in the Dark: Illumination and can say without the shadow of a doubt that it’s one of the worst experiences I’ve had while playing a game.
Billing itself as a sequel taking direct inspiration from the first Alone in the Dark from 1992 and the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Illumination spares no time in setting itself up with a tough role to fit. The story takes place in modern day, like the last two games, and follows four people making their way through the haunted town of Lorwich, Virginia in hopes of stopping a cult from awakening Cthulhu. The story is as barebones as it gets and is told entirely through silent walls of text, riddled with typos, that appear at the start of each level. The text will often talk about scenes and characters never seen in the game, seemingly hoping that we’ll accept the game just telling us how interesting it is rather than have it presented to us.
Even so, if you wish to get a full grasp of all the story threads you need to play through all twelve stages in the game’s three campaigns as the four different characters, as each stage has a different wall of text at the start depending on who you play as. The characters in question are Theodore “Ted” Carnby, a detective carrying the same surname as the previous series protagonist Edward Carnby. Sara Hartwood, the granddaughter of Emily Hartwood from the first and third Alone in the Dark games. Gabriella Saunders, an engineer who might be a descendant of Grace Saunders from Alone in the Dark 2 and finally, Father Henri Giger, a priest who dual wields pistols.
While the objective of all four characters are the same in theory, they all have different reasons for coming to Lorwich. Gabriella is here to find out why her father lost his mind while working in the mines and Sara is from a witches’ coven who deals with sudden outbreaks of evil. Not that any of these plot threads matter as the story is so poorly told you’ll likely miss it even if you play through the entire game start to finish. I had to actively go back and play as different characters to piece together the plot, and even then it felt like it was just a brief outline for a pitch demo rather than a finished product.
There’s also the suggestion that the game ties into the first Alone in the Dark, which basically just comes down to the game sometimes namedropping characters or places from the 1992 classic in hopes of reminding you of a far more interesting story. The connections to Lovecraft is just as disappointing, with his classic faceless winged Night Gaunt having been turned into weird spiky demons that spit poison and don’t look or behave anything like the original creature. Even Cthulhu looks more like a man dressed in a cheap Halloween costume than the cosmic horror we’ve come to know and love.
But inaccuracy in adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean low quality, but it’s saddening to see after how proudly the developers boasted of Illumination‘s series connections and inspirations. The original creatures have okay designs, for the most part, with the Hell Hound probably being the most interesting looking enemy you’ll encounter. Even so, there’s nothing in the story or the world that Illumination presents that will captivate you and while I can appreciate a game wanting to focus on gameplay over writing, it’s really not much of an excuse when we actually look at said gameplay.
The game can be played in single player or 4-player online co-op, a first for the series. Illumination is heavily inspired by Left 4 Dead, with characters running from saferoom to saferoom while solving small puzzles to make progress through infinite waves of enemies. Though fine on paper, the game’s poor design becomes apparant the moment you gain control of a character.
Almost every level uses the same formula, the power is out somewhere and you need to restore power to move through. The way to do this comes down to a series of fetch quests, most often having the player run after three or four batteries to return them to wherever the generator that needs them may be. Regardless of what item you need for the current fetch quest, a character can only carry a total of one of them, which is why co-op is a big part of the game. Yet still there are times where you won’t have access to all the items at once and you still need to run back and forth to grab them because the game has designed it as four separate quests rather than one quest with four times, or whatever number you might be encountering at the moment.
Single player makes this even worse, because unlike Left 4 Dead there are no AI partners to help you with items or shoot out enemies, so you have to do everying on your own and the game doesn’t make the puzzles any easier because you’re 1/4th of the intended party. This basically means that the game is close to unplayable on anything but the easiest setting when you’re new at the game and have yet to gained any experience points to spend on making your character able to tolerate the things you’ll be going up against.
Speaking of which, every enemy uses a system where they’re invulnerable unless exposed to direct light. While all characters carry a flashlight, this is not enough to deal full damage, so you’ll spend most of your time hitting light switches and setting fire to barrels in hope of taking enemies out. Think Alan Wake but without the ability to remain in the light yourself for safety, because despite the game encouraging building safe zones through putting up lights, enemies will walk up to you regardless of how much light is currently in the area. It doesn’t help that the Night Gaunt enemies can spit their poison projectiles through walls even when they’re out of sight.
They can also teleport or spawn wherever you’re not currently looking, which is made apparant when you learn that you can close gates to keep out enemies, only to turn around and have them standing right in front of you. Sometimes they’ll even spawn beneath you as you’re currently falling or in the same corner you’re currently standing hoping to keep your back safe. The enemy spawns function so badly that the enemies will often spawn inside the geometrical brushes of the level, causing them to just stand in place and stare at you until you either kill them or move on.
There’s also an issue of animations overriding collision, which means that if an enemy, or yourself, fall over into a downed animation, you might phase through a wall onto the other side. This isn’t neccesarily the worst thing that can happen, until you realize that every door and gate in each level has a random chance of being locked, meaning you can lock yourself in by falling through a locked door. On the bright side, you can also use this to your advantage to fall through locked doors that you wanted to get through for a shortcut.
Despite bragging about how the randomized doors would make every playthrough feel different, the objectives and enemies remain the same each time and are never fun to deal with. Weather it’s a timing puzzles running through doors before they close or connecting cables to a lamppost it all becomes the same thing over and over. Run to the locked area, find out what item to get, turn on some lights and shoot enemies in the way, grab item, go back and return as many times as the game wants you to until you can pass and do it all over again.
There’s no sense of pacing to the game, with some levels being as short as five minutes while others can reach up to twenty. The game recycles the same boss fight three times over, which even then is a reuse of the fetch quest mechanic, but with the added bonus of the item having to be retrieved from an enemy you must lure into light and kill first. Nothing in this game ever changes things up or gets any better, in fact, as you make your way through the three campaigns you’ll lose count of how many times you’ll think “At least it can’t get any worse” and have it shattered to pieces. At one point I ended up in an unwinnable state as the game thought I had access to the item needed to damage the boss, but it had dropped outside of the map and I had to kill myself and start over to continue.
The level designs are annoying at best and intensely frustrating at worst, with sewer mazes and dark caves making sure that you’ll always be in tight places that look the same regardless of where you’re heading while fighting the same enemies. To call the visuals bland would be an understatement, they’re draining. The more you look at the game’s presentation of Lorwich and the supposed cosmic horrors the less you’ll find yourself caring about it all. There’s just no sense of excitement, tension or enjoyment found in what Illumination has to offer.
Combat is, as mentioned earlier, not fun. Apart from the light mechanic, each character has a set of weapons and skills. Ted Carnby can use a flamethrower to set enemies on fire, which thankfully counts as direct light, and Sara Hartwood can use her magic spells to zap enemies with lightning bolts. Most of these skills are either overpowered to a ludicrous level or so weak and pointless that you’ll never end up using them. I found myself wielding Carnby’s flamethrower as a melee weapon to quickly push my way through enemies, since the fire doesn’t harm the player and it ended up being the fastest way to not have to deal with the combat.
Special skills aside, the regular gunplay is levels below weak. Aiming is loose and mostly pointless as enemies have no apparant weakspots and each character have an endless supply of ammo for their low priority firearm, which will do you well against most encounters that aren’t unfair enough to kill you anyway. It doesn’t help that the camera is far too zoomed in for regular movement. You can level up damage and other things as you gain experience points, but I honestly only felt that stamina and health was worth upgrading in the end, as it lets you run away from enemies and not deal with the combat mechanics at all.
If you’re expecting the game to have any semblance of horror to it you’ll be dead wrong. Illumination can’t even muster up a bad jump scare unless it happens by pure accident from the unfair spawning of enemies, with all sites in the town of Lorwich feeling more boring than they do creepy and enemies acting like poorly animated bullet sponges as they make their way toward you. There’s not even good effort put into sound design, with the soundtrack or background noise often cutting out as if someone jsut stopped the recording of audio midway through the session. Some sequence don’t even have sound, making for rather hilarious results when you blow up a cave wall with four budles of TNT to absolutely no sound whatsoever.
Speaking of no sound, let’s talk about the enemies some more. While all the creatures in the game have their own distinct noise they’ll make now and then to try and spook you, they have no foot steps, making it very hard to know if an enemy is currently around the corner or not, especially when you take into account how they teleport wildly around the map. They also lack a lot of animations, such as reaction when hit by bullets or even attacking the player at times. For example, there’s a big demon that will knock your character into a stunned state on the ground, by simply walking into you at a leisurely pace. It’s a pathetic sight.
I would love to talk about voice acting, but there is none. Despite having its own volume setting in the game, no lines of dialogue are spoken in the game. Instead, they appear as small notes of text in either the lower left or the center of the screen. There are grunts when you jump or take damage, but that’s about it. Other sound effects are abysmal, from the atmospheric sound that sometimes feel like buzzing in or the guns that sound like a kid’s toy. The production quality on the audio is so low that I think the background noise on my microphone actually helped make the game feel a little scarier when I recorded my playthrough of the game.
The lack of production value bridges over into graphics as well. The game is outright ugly most of the time, both in terms of art direction and detail. There’s no semblance of cohesive design, with the monsters looking like they’re from a game the player character’s aren’t from and the level themselves sporting visuals ranging from subpar to outright upsetting. Even the HUD is awful and weirdly placed, looking like it was just slapped on last minute so they’d have anything at all on there. The game runs alright for the most part, but will ever so often struggle keeping a decent framerate when you play larger levels. It also takes two and a half minutes to just boot the game up, all while you’re stuck on a black screen.
My playthrough of Illumination took me about seven hours in single player, which is a lot of content given the lower price of the game. But make no mistake, the content is all rotten. The repeating fetch quests and lengthy empty corridors that make up the three campaigns will sooner make you wish the game had less things for you to do than it does, if just so you could be done with it and move on with your life. There’s also a wide array of unlockable skins if you for some reason want to show off that you’ve played this game more than anybody should, though there’s one skin that’s no longer available as it was exclusive to pre-orders. What a loss.
There’s also an absurd amount of bugs relating to the UI. With skills only costing one point despite claiming they should cost more and the Achievements tab on the main menu literally not working and bringing you nowhere. Achievements don’t always unlock either, which can be annoying when you’re not sure if you’re just doing something wrong or if it’s the game’s fault, especially since the game refuses to keep the percentage of an achievement unsynced with Steam’s own list until it’s fully unlocked. Other weird things include a ton of buttons carrying a lightswitch message even if they’re not used to turn on lights. You have main quest related generators that are activated with lightswitches and yet they remembered to add in different messages depending on if an entrance was a gateway or a door.
The only connection Alone in the Dark: Illumination has to its cosmic horror roots is that its entire existance is an unintelligible abomination. The only praises I can give the game is that it’s at least free from microtransactions and made the other lesser entries in the series look like masterpieces in comparison. The game proudly boasts that the Alone in the Dark saga will continue in its final splash screen, which I find impossible considering Atari and pals have made a damn good job at killing it and burying its corpse six feet under with this entry. This is one of the worst games I’ve ever seen released by a big name publisher.
I hate this game.