Alone in the Dark Review – Perfect Pulp, Imperfect Play, Unpleasant Price

8.5/10

Alone in the Dark has such a fantastic pulp horror aesthetic that it makes up for very lackluster gameplay. Stand out performances, a clear reverence for horror, and some great writing make it work. Though it might not quite be worth the price...

Let’s start with a history lesson.

The original Alone in the Dark from 1992 is a landmark achievement in gaming, whose release was a true watershed for the industry as a whole. It was an early pioneer in 3-D technology, looking and playing smoother than essentially any other game of its style. Its narrative focus and voice acting was, for the time, top-notch. And, oh yeah, it invented the Survival Horror genre, a genre which persists today with some of the biggest titles around. Resident Evil? Silent Hill? Amnesia? Any of the hundreds of games spun off from those?

They all owe their identities and many of their ideas to Alone in the Dark.

alone in the dark review 1 original alone in the dark
Believe it or not, this was cutting edge in 1992. Hard to believe Alone in the Dark hasn’t progressed much since, until now.

But, the franchise has not persisted, at least not healthily. Sequels were released, but never captured the magic (or horror) of the original. Later, reboots came. First in 2001, with Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare. Then in 2008 with Alone in the Dark. Then in 2015, with an online-only concept called Alone in the Dark: Illumination. All of these games suck, and none of these games understand what made the original game work.

And, as more than 30 years have passed from that high-water mark, even the original classic — with its ridiculous character models, antiquated gameplay, and 90s voice acting — is now almost comical in its presentation of “survival horror”. To be expected, for such an early take on the concept, but it means that, in 2024, there isn’t a lot to grab on to for the franchise. One lightning rod of innovation and creativity was not enough to power the machine any longer; Alone in the Dark, ironically, felt in danger of being snuffed out.

At least, it did. But the team at Pieces Interactive, the developers of the newest Alone in the Dark, won’t let that happen. Not if they can help it.

The newest game, a reboot of the original (not set in Central Park this time), is everything that previous reboots are not. It understands the original game, going beyond simple homage and straight into fourth-wall breaking awareness and appreciation for it, and it does so while breathing fresh life into the characters and world of Alone in the Dark. The game is far from perfect — certain sections later will prove that — but it is equal parts authentic, original, bizarre, and wonderful.

Alone in the Dark (2024) might have flaws, but it continues the legacy of the venerable franchise, and might just be able to save it. Let’s get into why.


Initially, my impressions of Alone in the Dark were poor. The introductory cutscene featured character models that looked dated, the writing was a bit hammy, and even Jodie Comer and David Harbour’s vocal performances (as Emily Hartwood and Edward Carnby) seemed a bit flat. When I finally gained control of Emily, the controls were sluggish, and the menus were uninspired and somewhat cumbersome. And, perhaps most damningly after so much marketing of the horror, the game was not scary. At all.

I didn’t yet know that some of those issues would end up being the highlight of my experience at that point. I didn’t understand just where the game was coming from. Wasn’t speaking its language yet, couldn’t hear the voices.

Part of that is due to the marketing, which tries to sell Alone in the Dark as a true horror game. It tries to convince players of a serious experience, one where they will be terrified of the dark. But, no matter how many influencers they shove in a “haunted” house, that isn’t what Alone in the Dark is.

alone in the dark review 2 derceto
Derceto is a masterclass in haunted house design, even if it isn’t scary

No, Alone in the Dark might be a love letter to horror across all mediums, but it is not horror itself. Instead, it is a fun, pulpy, psychological thriller with thick tones of Lovecraft spliced in. It is a knowing satire of horror writing and styles. And it is an earnest homage to countless things which came before. More than anything, it is, well… Alone in the Dark… From 1992. It captures that original game not by emulating the ancient feel of it, but by understanding what that game tried to do, and then doing it again for a modern understanding of horror, as an aesthetic more than a genre.

Like the original, the new Alone in the Dark speaks the language of horror, especially that of Lovecraft. Dark Gods from his mythos are name-dropped, locations feel ripped from a southern-gothic retelling of Innsmouth or Color Out of Space, and even the traversal through alternate worlds is oddly reminiscent of Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The more I played, the more I realized these Lovecraftian connections — and the connections to other classic books, movies, and games in the genre.

Once I realized that, saw what the game was focusing on, it clicked.

alone in the dark review 3 nyarlathotep. i mean the dark man

It’s pulp horror, at least stylistically. You don’t see that a lot nowadays, so I wasn’t looking out for it, but that’s what it is. And that’s how it needs to be approached (and it will rope you into approaching it that way, whether you like it or now). It embraces the tropes of the genre. Goo monsters and evil pharaohs and haunted houses and “horrors beyond our comprehension” and cults and…

Well, you get the picture. And, despite what you might be thinking, there is a lot of artistry that goes into this. “Pulp” is often a term that gets derided as meaning something cheap and low-effort. Something that is just raw entertainment with no substance. Originally, before around the 1930s (coincidentally when the game takes place), this was largely true. Pulp fiction, of all genres, was mindless, intentionally marketed to children, and those who didn’t want to think too hard in their leisure time.

It is, funnily enough, with writers like Lovecraft that the shift happened: that it was shown that someone could make out-of-this-world stories, having fun with the tropes and insane heights that fiction can reach, and still make that mean something. That were still full of talent and skill and thought, but were undeniably pulpy. Is it any wonder that Alone in the Dark would take from this?

alone in the dark review 4 pulpy horror monster
The writers know to have fun with monster designs, if nothing else

Alone in the Dark is pulpy. That — that earnest embracing of tropes and desire to do something fun with them — that is what makes it work.

On a less bright side: let’s talk about why it has to be made to work. Because, if we are being honest, the gameplay holding this game together is… Lackluster. I can praise the story all day — I have more to say about that later, even. But I can’t pretend the gameplay that links it is deserving of the same.

I’ll start with the lowest point: the combat in this game is not good. There are very few weapons and they all feel awful to control. Even on the easiest difficulty, they don’t feel powerful, and their unwieldiness goes beyond the horror-game trope of “make it hard to fight, easy to run” and straight into “this just isn’t fun” territory. The enemies are uninspired, dodging is a mess, melee is even worse, and, after I realized all this, I groaned almost every time I saw an enemy.

alone in the dark review 5 enemy design
Even great visual design won’t make the 15th time you fight this enemy interesting

Combat is mostly avoidable — a lot of enemies can be run past (which feels at least a bit better) — and it is always mercifully brief. You’ll rarely be in an encounter for more than a minute at a time, and there aren’t really that many combat encounters in this short game, but that’s just an excuse. As much as I love other parts of this game, in 2024, I shouldn’t be wishing I was back in 2005 playing Resident Evil 4 whenever I engage in combat.

Puzzling fairs better, though it is still imperfect. Unlike combat, which is just fundamentally unfun, the puzzles are just a bit simple. Too many of them boil down to just shifting items around on a grid until it clicks, and then reading a number in order to figure out the combination to a safe. There are variations, and some unique interactions here and there, but the fundamental loop is the same. For what it’s worth, the original 1992 game had harder puzzles (and not just due to the wonky controls).

Combine both of those with extremely linear level design (outside of Derceto, which is an absolute gem of a haunted house), a very stripped-down resource management system, some slightly irritating collectibles, and a half-dozen ideas that were clearly left on the cutting room floor, and you might be left wondering what I actually see in this game.

alone in the dark review 6 level design
While the levels are often linear, they are also extremely atmospheric and dripping with horror flair

As a game, in spite of the score I’m giving it, it just isn’t great. And, while there is some nostalgic bliss in some of the jank here (which might be intentional), not all of the weak design choices can be explained away by saying that the game is doing some of it on purpose. The gameplay elements here needed more time to bake.

So, if the game part of this game doesn’t work, then why am I still giving it such a high rating? Why did I spend a dozen paragraphs praising it at the beginning of this review? Why am I being so kind?

Well, sometimes a mystery can be answered quite simply: I just really, really like the story.

I’ve already described some of what I like about the story. It’s pulpiness, its willingness to commit to the tropey horror aesthetic, its desire to have fun with it. But what I neglected to mention thus far is the actual story structure itself: and I really love it. The game will take you on a wild ride through some extravagant horror locales, but it will do so with a surprisingly straight face.

The mystery works. The humor works. The psychological stuff works.

alone in the dark review 7 brain bug
You will find yourself questioning what is and isn’t real

And this is all on the back of stellar performances, especially those by the two leads, played by Jodie Comer and David Harbour. While the writers are having fun with it, these characters play it all straight, delivering slightly-hammy but surprisingly deep performances that are way better than their exaggerated accents should allow. The direction they were given must’ve been phenomenal: every voice actor delivers their lines with just enough tongue-in-cheek, scenery-chewing energy that it reminds me of the best pulp horror movies like The Thing and Re-Animator (and yes, I did just compare The Thing and Re-Animator).

Despite the over-the-top performances, which are truly a joy to watch, I still earnestly was invested in the story. In Jeremy’s struggle with the Dark Man, in the exaggerated traumatic backstories that both the leads carried, in the full-up loony-bin of maybe-cultist that comprise the patients and staff of Derceto.

This shouldn’t all mesh together. It should feel incoherent. But, instead, it really works. The closest parellel I can think of is, perhaps, Sam Raimi’s horror-comedy masterpiece Evil Dead. You even get a shotgun.

Just because Alone in the Dark knows what it is, doesn’t mean it can’t take itself seriously and still deliver an excellent story with great writing and some of the best pulpy performances I’ve seen since Tim Curry yelled “SPACCCEEE!” at a camera for Command and Conquer 3. Erm… Well, probably better than that performance, thinking about it.

alone in the dark review 8 ruth and edwards performance
Alongside David Harbour’s Edward, Kelly Ohanian’s Ruth and Bruce Nozick’s Dr. Gray are also stand-out performances.

I also can’t help but mention just how the meta elements of this story play out. Because, you see, at least one character is aware of the events of the original game. And, rather than just playing this for laughs or doing some weird multiverse story with it (and thank god this game doesn’t do the multiverse thing), it uses its original story elements — and the many changes made to them — to elevate the game for those who played the original.

These references aren’t hidden — if you read the credits of the original game after playing this one, you’ll spot a few immediately — but are still played to increase the mystery and intrigue of the setting. Because, even once you’ve completed the game and wrapped its secret ending into a bow, you still won’t know everything, and the lingering mysteries and weirdness of the meta elements will stick with you as you try to piece together just how exactly that worked?

I’ve played the game almost a dozen times through in order to make this review and write guides for the game, and even I’m still puzzling things through. What the game lacks in mechanical puzzles, it makes up for in narrative ones.

I could go on about the positives: I could dive into the music, or the art design, or keep rambling about just how damn fun those performances are, but I hope I’ve made my point. There is enough to absolutely adore about this game’s commitment to fun and narrative that it makes up for its disappointing gameplay, at least for me.

But, there is still a Dark Man in the room, watching. Threatening. Perhaps dooming.

alone in the dark review 9 jeremy in the theatre
Me shaking THQ Nordic to try to get them to reasonably price their games.

The biggest pitfall of Alone in the Dark is not its lackluster gameplay, which can be excused as connective tissue for the great story. The biggest pitfall of Alone in the Dark is its length, when compared to its price.

And I hate to do this. I hate to bring all that love for this game, and all that critique, back to the old-as-video-games argument that a certain amount of content should be expected for a certain price, but I can’t help it. It won’t affect the review score — that is just about the quality of the game — but it does have to be said:

Buyer beware: this is a full price, $60 title that you will complete in 5 hours, and that you can 100% in 8 or 9, if you’re fast enough. And, while I don’t think that can factor into a review — after all, price points change and quality is quality — it can absolutely factor into a decision to buy it.

alone in the dark review 10 dr. gray

I love this game for what it is, I’m giving it a very high score in spite of my criticisms. But, despite that, I don’t think it is worth its current price-tag, simply on the factor of length alone, especially considering a decent chunk of the game are the bits I’m not very keen on.

And, truth be told, I think it will hurt this game, this game that I want to do well despite the odds. If anything kills Alone in the Dark, it will be that. And, for a game with so much love poured into it, that’s a shame. Because I want people to play this game, I want people to find the arcane lore and great performances and mysterious story as intriguing as I did. I want to tell people “go out and buy this diamond in the rough. For all it’s faults, this deserves to at least be a cult classic!”

But I know the truth: if I didn’t get this game for free, and paid $60 for it, I’d be very dissappointed with what I got. Probably enough to taint even the stuff I loved, to make me dismiss it. It is too short and, while short games can be worth full price, the gameplay would need to be a lot better to make up for that.

alone in the dark review 11 not long enough
Reminder: Amnesia: The Bunker cost $24.99 at launch for a game of similar length in an adjacent genre

So, for now, while the game is at full price, I am going to say this: this is the highest rating that you can expect to see from us while still having the caveat that you shouldn’t buy it unless you are just all in on the kind of narrative it has.

Otherwise, catch it on sale or when it goes down in price. Keep it in your wishlist. If you made it this far, I have to assume you’re a fan of pulp horror like I am, and if you are, you will want to play this game eventually. I loved it, and I’m sure other pulp horror fans will as well (even if I highly suspect that other outlets might not be so favorable), and so I hope it becomes reasonable for people to buy it, to support the most interesting thing to come out of this franchise since 1992.

I want this kind of Alone in the Dark to succeed. For the passion that went into the pulp, for the love that the developers clearly have for the genre, I want all of that to take this game far. Playing Alone in the Dark has been a great experience. Writing about it, though, has left me with a madness that cannot be cured. Only this madness isn’t due to the Dark Man or any occult disciples: it’s due to THQ Nordic’s pricing scheme.

alone in the dark review 12 a sinking feeling
I have a sinking feeling…
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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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