I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game that’s taken me on the sort of rollercoaster of conflicting opinions as Alien: Isolation did.
It’s a collection of parts that rarely if ever align in quality, full of as many impressive moments as staggeringly poor design decisions that at times made me question if I should even bother continuing. Taken as a whole I couldn’t call it much more than a mess, but it’s a mess just redeeming enough to be worth struggling through for the parts that shine. When Isolation gets on a roll the experience developer Creative Assembly wanted to create shows through and the result is something incredible. The problem is whether it’s worth sticking around to see them.
The introduction to the space station “Sevestopol” acts as the placement of the carrot on the stick in front of you, starting with a literal bang as it introduces you to what will become the glue that holds the fragile experience together: the astounding atmosphere and world building. Sevestopol is such a consistently successful and fully realized environment that I could possibly make a case for playing the game based on it alone. The signs of a city gone to hell, systems in disarray, echoes of things you’d probably prefer not to see, eerily uplifting messages broadcasting over the loudspeakers; the sense of place is almost unequaled and is enough to propel you through the world before you’re even given a reason to want or need to. It’s as terrifyingly unknown as it is compelling for the very same reason, almost as if the station (which acts as essentially a small city) is whispering in your ear about what could be around the next corner, and the curiosity is too much to resist.
And that’s definitely a good thing, as when Isolation is trying to create an incentive to keep moving with its narrative things get a little…messy. Set 15 years after Alien (and though I would assume it’s a given, you should absolutely watch at least Alien and Aliens before you play Isolation) Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, is contacted with a message containing the possible whereabouts of her believed dead mother, which then leads to Sevestopol, which leads to everyone’s worlds falling apart around them as they realize what they’re up against.
Isolation’s biggest narrative disability is a disinterest or fear of ever branching out past what we already know about Alien to create its own identity.
Amanda exists as a blank slate to send out into situations that often make far less sense than anybody seems to want to admit. She’s a catalyst to delivering you to areas designed for the sole purpose of playing to nostalgia and fanservice but having very little substance tying them together. As cool as it is to see so many iconic moments from a franchise I love faithfully recreated in interactive form, there came a point rather early on where the novelty wore off and I was ready to see what Isolation could do on its own.
Whatever it might have been doesn’t show up, moving on like an excited child wanting to show you their favorite toys but having little more to say about them than “remember this? Yeah, I loved it too!”. Perhaps this would be alright in a shorter game, but Isolation drags on for so unbelievably long and retreads the same notes so many times that I became numb to its enthusiasm and just wanted to be out of a world that had begun to stress me out. There are at least three major scenes during the game where it could have ended and provided just as much (or little, in this case) closure as the actual ending, and part of me thinks it would have been better off for it even if it meant cutting some of the more interesting sections out.
It’s a little hard to say that and mean it fully though, as without a doubt the biggest cause for the extended playtime was how much of it I spent dying and repeating the same areas. For as much a horror game as it looks like from the outside, Isolation is far easier to relate to very traditional stealth games. You are (up until a point) completely helpless and forced to utilize tables and lockers to hide from enemies that can often kill you the second you’re spotted.
Isolation’s stealth mechanics are intentionally intended to be very simple and cause you to feel vulnerable, and in that they work exceptionally well. The game excels at creating tension and keeping it for as long as it can, causing me to hold my breath as often as my character as I prayed an enemy would walk past. As I said at the start, when Isolation works it’s absolutely brilliant and had me quickly forgetting about all the problems I have with it until they come back in screaming and firmly laying claim to something I was almost forcing myself to enjoy much of the time.
DEATH COMES QUICKLY AND FEELS UNAVOIDABLE
These problems are manifested as Isolation’s firm conviction to punish the player as often and with as much severity as it can possibly muster without completely crashing the game. Its design is often trial and error in nature, but complicated by the unpredictable enemy AI. The alien is your biggest threat, and the most persistent one, and by its very design it’s intended to be able to kill you very fast and be extremely hard to avoid. Vents and air ducts cover the entire ship and within them the alien has the ability to appear almost anywhere at anytime, save a handful of immersion breaking scripted sequences. One the one hand the almost random movements of the alien keep you on your toes and conscious of hiding spots, but on the other it makes death almost always feel cheap and unavoidable.
With how terrible Isolation is at explaining its mechanics, your objectives, how to get to them, or well, pretty much anything related to not being devoured by a Xenomorph, to make the act of learning these for yourself so precarious and full of repetition is a giant impairment on the experience. Compiling and then recompiling the issue again is possibly the most egregious save system of any game I’ve played in the last few years. No autosave, no checkpoints, just you and manual save stations placed sometimes 30-45 minutes apart to which you will be moved back to at every one of your many, many deaths. I doubt I could think of a game that so little respects the player’s time as it tests their patience, and was almost enough for me to quit the game and never look back.
It hurts more than you know to write that, largely because Isolation comes so close to getting it right and falls so far when it fails. The parts that function as intended are commendable and for me, made it worth putting myself through copious amount of duress to see them, but I’m not sure if I could make that call for anyone else. Isolation is an Alien game made by Alien fans for Alien fans, and looking back on it I guess that was enough for me. It has the makings of the game the franchise deserves and shows us why that would be so amazing, if only we can find a way to blow the troublesome bits out the airlock.