In Ridley Scott’s Alien, about half of the movie is spent going through the mundane lives of the Nostromo crew. You don’t see the titular alien, but you know it’s coming — the movie is called Alien, after all. The tension builds and builds, giving you glimpses and teases of what is to come, but always holding back for the big reveal later on. In James Cameron’s Aliens, the same rules apply. But this time the xenomorphs are on full alert and barrage the marines every chance they get. Alien: Isolation, from Creative Assembly, captures that same sense of dread and tension building from Alien and the relentless assault of Aliens. It is a terrific horror game that starts off too slowly before becoming one of the most terrifying video games I have ever played.
Xenomorphs are horrifying creatures. They have no real muscular tissue or fat, you can see their bones jutting through their thin, obsidian-colored skin. They bleed acid and have no eye sockets. They have a mouth within a mouth — a mouth that juts out towards you. The long tail mimics a snake in movement, but looks like an extended spinal column. They screech loudly and move quickly. Everything about xenomorphs are intended to terrify — and they’re damn effective too. Throughout Alien: Isolation, you are stalked by this beast and will constantly be outmatched in every way.
You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, 15 years after the destruction of the Nostromo. Amanda has decided to join a Weyland-Yutani crew on a mission to receive the Nostromo’s flight recorder from the Sevastopol space station. The whole setup tries so hard to directly relate to the movies that it fails to be unique. Throughout the wafer-thin and poorly-acted plot, they manage to hit all of the beats of a proper Alien story: something goes wrong because of a xenomorph, androids go haywire and attempt to kill everyone, and Ripley manages to do the impossible or the improbable while everyone breaks down around her.
But the plot doesn’t matter so much in Alien: Isolation: those specific beats are just there to keep you moving forward. However, the world-building done through terminals and audio logs presents a very clever take on the larger Alien backstory. The Sevastopol station you board at the beginning is run by the Seegson Corporation, a direct competitor to Weyland-Yutani that is decidedly behind the times. Most notably, their androids — called Working Joes — do not resemble humans like the ones designed by Weyland-Yutani.
These Working Joes are the other main threat in Alien: Isolation. They look like crash-test dummies with glowing eyes and casual — yet tellingly robotic — walks. They speak in a polite monotone that is vaguely threatening. When they catch fire, they don’t react — they just keep casually walking towards you. It is frightening every time. You can fire off multiple rounds or try to hit them with your wrench tool, but it’s dreadfully ineffective and you’re better off hiding from their view.
A few times you will run into humans, and taking them out is always a bad idea. Generally, you can sneak around them. If that’s not an option, attracting the alien to them will assuredly remove them from the area. Only then you’ll have a xenomorph stalking your every move.
Alien: Isolation’s breed of stealth is all about manipulating you into not wanting to move; you’re safe in this closet, why leave when there could be a murderous alien right around the corner? It plays off your fear and becomes one of the more effective tension-builders. You constantly wonder if the alien will come back your way or keep walking down the hall. You’ve only got a second to think and you second-guess yourself, waiting until you hear him clamoring up a ventilation shaft.
The tilt-lean mechanic is particularly stellar, allowing you to peer ever-so-slightly around corners to check if the cost is clear. Most horror games with a lean are more binary or only allow for horizontal movement, yet Alien: Isolation allows for a much broader range of movement which leads to even more granular scares.
You are also incredibly limited in equipment throughout Alien: Isolation. A light crafting system allows you to create objects like pipe bombs and noisemakers to use as an offensive weapon or distraction against androids, humans, or the alien itself. Overtime you grow an arsenal of offensive and defensive weapons, most notably the flamethrower — the one weapon that can deter the alien from killing you outright in one hit.
You will die and you will die a lot. The game employs a particularly brutal save system that made the early hours a real drag for me. You can only save at sporadically placed save stations throughout the ship. There are incredibly rare checkpoints and sections where save stations are few and far between. In addition to manual saves, you also have to wait for a few seconds before the game finally asks you if you want to overwrite your save. This leaves you vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, and you can’t back out until the overwrite popup appears.
While incredibly tense at times, the save system is also far more frustrating than it needs to be. I spent the first few hours constantly afraid to move from my position and continue on in fear that I would lose a good amount of progress if I died. And this did happen a few times. But at a certain point save stations became more frequent and I felt a little more confident in my ability to maneuver out of a life-or-death situation.
Alien: Isolation also has a few obtuse systems. Early in the game, before you get the motion tracker, you are not given any indication which direction you are supposed to be headed. A particularly ill-explained junction box mechanic allows you to switch the power of certain systems in the area on or off. I could never understand what kind of effects these boxes had, unless they unlocked doors or turned off cameras.
The early sections of Alien: Isolation are not very good. They play out like a haunted house on a space station; only one where the scares kill you most of the time. The tension builds, but you’re never given a release and tend to stay still for far too long. But after Ripley receives the motion tracker and the flamethrower, the game becomes entirely more manageable and allows for continuous forward momentum. After that point, it becomes a master-class in horror. Each mission takes you to a new area of the Sevastopol station and constantly builds a spectacular level of tension that had me gripping my controller tighter and tighter.
The Sevastopol station itself is an incredible achievement in atmospheric design. While cribbing a little too hard on the trope of warnings scrawled on the walls in blood, Alien: Isolation manages to accurately recreate the look and feel of the movies. The ceilings are low and the hallways tend to be tight. All of the computer systems are incredibly low-fi and bootup with whirs and clicks. You wonder how a civilization could reach faster-than-light travel on reel-to-reel tape decks and incredibly large computers, but it works. The lighting effects are particularly adept at setting the mood, as shafts of light peek through metal shutters and cut through thick smoke.
Alien: Isolation has absolutely terrifying sound design as well. You can hear the alien banging through the vents above your head and the creaking of a giant metal ship floating through space. The alien’s footsteps are heavy and hard. Alarms will blare wildly and drown out most of the other sound, causing even more tension as you wonder where the alien might be. Most important of all is the tense bleep of the motion tracker, getting faster and higher-pitched as whatever is around that corner gets closer.
At just about 16 hours, Alien: Isolation does tend to overstay its welcome. Ripley is constantly just about to make her escape before something bad happens and you have to climb through more vents or move through a new part of the Sevastopol station. I couldn’t play the game for more than a few hours at a time because I kept getting tired of that sense of victory for completing a mission then immediately deflating, knowing there were still more scares coming my way.
Alien: Isolation is a great horror game. It plays upon a particular note of dread and builds tension on the idea of never wanting to be seen. That note plays constantly and throughout, hardly ever allowing you a moment of reprieve. In the beginning, this dread is because you’re afraid you will lose progress; later on, it is because you’re afraid you will be spotted. When that shift happens is when Alien: Isolation becomes something great. I can recount the times when I held my breath in abject fear or screamed out in sheer terror, but it is best to experience it yourself. Twice I had to set down the controller and walk away for a while, slightly shaking. I’ve jumped, screamed, gasped, and hyperventilated. It firmly placed me within the world of Alien and never let me go.
It is entirely too long for a game of this type, and if it were cut down to about 6-8 hours, it would probably be an incredible package. Alien: Isolation will scare you ferociously and constantly. There is no doubt about that. Creative Assembly shows their devotion to the Alien license with a terrific exercise in horror.