Le boo! Le scream!
Any zombie worth his dripping ooze is fiendishly proud of the Resident Evil games, the reigning king of survival horror. But even that famous series was inspired by its lesser known ancestor, Alone in the Dark. And with the release of the new French export Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, the teacher has become the pupil.
In fact, The New Nightmare draws so heavily from Resident Evil 2, it might as well be infected with the T-virus. This first-class gaming inspiration has made the newest AitD a worthy game, but one you've played before, only with new characters.
And actually, one of the new characters is an old one. Edward Carnby, the star of all four AitD games, has returned. In the very first game, he unraveled the secrets of an evil mansion in the 1800's. With mythology inspired by the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, this PC game was brilliant, revolutionary and very creepy. In the second installment, the detective of the supernatural returned again, this time to rescue a kidnapped girl from One Eyed Jack. Despite the fact that Jack was a zombie pirate (yes!) the game failed to capture the magic of the original. AitD 3 brought our hero forward in time, where he investigated a movie set plagued by cowboy ghosts. The plots just weren't getting any better.
The New Nightmare brings us a whole new game from a whole new company (Infogrames) and from a whole new country (France). This time, Edward Carnby is in the present and is investigating the death of a friend. But wait! You can also play the game as Aline Cedrac, a PhD in ancient thingies. They meet up in the confusing opening movie as they both fly to "Shadow Island," he to follow the traces of his friend and she to translate some ancient writings for the mad professor living on the island.
I have to digress for a moment here: Shadow Island? Shadow Island? I mean, come on. Who on earth would accept an invitation to Shadow Island, except possibly a resident of Monster Island? I can hear it now: "Let's all go to Shadow Island. I hear there's some people disappearing and a mad professor. Wait! On second thought, let's go to Sunshine Island. I hear they have frosty rum drinks!"
Back to the review! Our two intrepid heroes exchange some awkward dialogue in wooden tones when their plane is attacked by something mysterious. They both parachute out and land on different parts of the island. Choose your character and let the fun begin!
From here on out, the gameplay is exactly like Resident Evil 2. The camera angles are fixed and you move your chosen 3D character around the island and the mansion where their stories occasionally intersect; exploring, finding keys and fighting creepy monsters.
Carnby has a much better arsenal than his scholastic counterpart, and his adventure has more action while hers has more puzzles. However, I found the weapons to be mildly irritating. Some French marketing guy must have decided that the weapons had to be "over the top" if they were going to appeal to the kiddies. So Carnby starts off with an extremely unlikely "double barreled revolver," which is almost as stupid as the "triple barreled shotgun" he finds later. As far as I can tell, all this means is that I have to divide my available ammo supply by 3. Toss in some laser guns and it just makes the game feel sillier rather than scarier.
Fortunately, the rest of the game isn't short of scary moments. Some of the Lovecraft influence has returned and the game is the better for it. Fiendish beings lurk all around, and the interplay of light and dark is very important, since everything can change when the lights go out. Some of the best moments in the game are the suspenseful ones where you can practically feel the evil around you, to have it suddenly revealed by a flash of lightning, or when a stream of bubbles passes underneath you in the water... you just know something is down there, somewhere.
To help you decipher the puzzle of shadow and light are some of the best graphics to grace the aging Playstation. Your trusty and essential flashlight has one of the coolest graphical effects I've ever seen. The backgrounds are just terrific and look even more amazing as you pass your flashlight across them, revealing (or concealing) the lurking horror. Still, as good as the graphics are, they made me long for a next-gen version.
The sound is a mixed bag. I mentioned the wooden voices once already. I had some high hopes for AitD after years of complaining about the bad voice acting and bad Japanese translations of the Resident Evil series. Too bad all I get to exchange it for is some poorly translated French. At least the music and the sound effects shine. The excellent score is by veteran movie composer and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and it really shows.
One last gripe. Sure, it was awkward in Resident Evil that you needed the "falcon crest" to open the door with the "falcon crest slot," but at least you knew which door you were going to. In AitD, all the keys look pretty much the same, which is more realistic, but it means you have to try it on every single dammed door in the game to figure out where it fits. And why can't I just blast the things open? After all, I have a triple barreled shotgun. Make that two gripes.
When the lights come back on, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare is a satisfying horror game with many of the sinister elements that made the original so good. But its failure to do anything new that Resident Evil hasn't already done (other than a cool flashlight) leaves this zombie hungering for something more. Brains, anyone?