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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Alone in the Dark

Alone in the Dark (Game release date: 1992)
If this picture floods you with memories you may enjoy revisiting this suspenseful classic, but most modern gamers will find navigating it a chore.

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Highlights: Old-school suspense, nostalgia, can avoid monsters in more than one way Lowlights: Poor movement controls, primitive gameplay, frequent reloads, dated look

Alone In The Dark is one of those computer games that was great for its day but has simply been left in the dust. Its chunky VGA graphics and awkward 3D locomotion were state of the art in 1992, but today they look and feel more like "Pitfall" than anything we'd expect from an action-adventure game. The monsters, which were genuinely scary at the time, look kind of silly now. The gameplay is primitive, menu-based, and relies way too heavily on watching something bad happen, reloading, and doing something to prevent it. Playing Alone in the Dark for a little while will definitely remind you how far computer games have come in the past 15 years.

That's not to say it's a bad game. Alone in the Dark does have some great features to it; it's just that those features were so popular and influential that they've become commonplace in the intervening years. Probably its greatest innovation was forcing players to pick their battles-- it was impossible to slay all the monsters in the mansion (there were limited bullets, some monsters were immune to physical attacks, others there were just too many of), so you had to find ways to neutralize, avoid, or flee from at least some of them. This created such a scary and suspenseful atmosphere that it spawned an entire sub-genre of "survival horror" action-adventure games, which are still being produced today. Alone in the Dark was also remarkable at the time for its unexpected real-time scares (a monster suddenly crashing through a window or lunging out of a bathtub to attack) and for offering more than one way to deal with a problem (you could either shoot a flying monster or block the window to prevent its entry, for example.) These, too, are elements commonly seen in modern games. Alone in the Dark was a landmark game, there's not really anything in it that can't be found elsewhere these days. They do make 'em like this anymore-- only with nicer graphics and a better interface.

So all in all, if you played Alone in the Dark in 1992, it might be worth playing it again just to give yourself a nostalgic thrill. (I must confess I enjoyed seeing it again.) But otherwise, if you want to experience an early survival-horror game, you'd probably be better off jumping ahead to the late-90's Resident Evil or, if you have a game console, Silent Hill. Because except for the pleasure of a good flashback, there aren't any really magic moments in Alone in the Dark to justify the inconvenience of playing it.

Style: Alone in the Dark is an old-school 3rd-person graphic adventure with rudimentary 3D movement and a menu-based interface. The plot is a horror story. There are some timed elements and combat is realtime, though the amount of manual dexterity required is modest in comparison with modern action games.

Series: There were two sequels to Alone in the Dark: Alone in the Dark 2 and Alone in the Dark 3. I haven't played them in 15 years, but I remember them being pretty much more of the same. A fourth game titled Alone in the Dark 4 was put out in 2001, but it doesn't actually have anything in common with the original trilogy other than the main character's name. In any case, none of these games relies on the others in any way, so there's no reason you need to play one of them before playing any of the others.

Finding Alone in the Dark: The original CD version can be found for sale online for either PC or Mac. Since the game has been out of print for so long, you can also download it as abandonware (though you won't be able to hear the music if you do that.)

Getting Alone in the Dark to Work: Theoretically, you can run this game on any version of Windows that can emulate Windows 95. In practice, though, I found that Alone in the Dark ran too slow on XP and needed a lot of memory allocation tinkering. A better choice is to use the DOS emulator DOSBox and set the cycles somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000. It ran like a charm that way, music and all.

Pitfalls In Alone in the Dark: I was not able to get the "run" function to work consistently, and I vaguely remember not being able to get the characters to run back in '92, either. You don't usually need to run, but near the end there are a couple of times when you may need to reload an encounter several times until the darn run key happens to work. There are also several completely unforeseeable deathtraps where the only real solution is to die, reload, and do something different; so save often.

Game Length: 10 hours or so.

Age-Appropriateness: This game predates the rating system. There's nothing objectionable in it-- combat is bloodless, death is non-gory. I think most younger kids would become very frustrated with the clumsy controls and the need to die and reload so often.

Lora's Recommendations: For the most part, I would really only recommend this game to people who played it in the early 90's and want to try it again. People who never played it before will probably not find it worth their while, unless they are devoted fans of old DOS games or have an interest in the history of adventure games in general or the survival horror genre in particular.

If You Loved Alone in the Dark: If you really love the old-school feel and suspenseful mood of Alone in the Dark, the obscure old DOS game Legacy: Realm of Terror was a horror title released in 1993 that ought to be right up your alley, though it's harder to get working on a modern system than the Alone in the Dark games are. Other classic survival-horror games you may enjoy include Resident Evil and Silent Hill. A more modern entry in the genre is the tense and terrifying Clive Barker's Undying-- it's a lot more action-oriented than Alone in the Dark, but if you're looking to recapture that "Oh @#*&! a monster just crashed through the window at me!" feeling Alone in the Dark gave you in '92, Undying would be your game. I would also recommend Sanitarium, one of my favorite scary games of all time; it's a psychological thriller in puzzle-adventure format, and like Alone in the Dark, it features occasional moments of real-time combat with creepy monsters (only with a better interface.) Black Mirror is a dark and fairly gory graphic adventure game you might also enjoy-- there's a lot of talking, but the suspenseful parts are heart-pounding.

For a more detailed critique of the game involving spoilers, plot holes, and impacts Alone In The Dark had on the adventure-game genre, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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