The Alien is quite possibly the scariest and most brilliantly designed creature in science fiction. It’s deadly, it’s smart, it’s unimaginably violent in its natural life cycle, and it’s all-around pretty freaky-looking. The first Ridley Scott film was a masterful blend of science fiction and pure horror, and it always stuck with me. Its subsequent sequels felt a little lackluster, watching multiple Aliens being killed off by machine gun fire at the hands of some over-the-top space marines. As a result, I was very excited for Alien: Isolation, since everybody told me it was a lot like the first film – one Alien, a dark and dingy space station, and the protagonist trying to stay alive while being hunted by the perfect organism. And oh boy, did it deliver.
Alien: Isolation puts us in the shoes of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, the star of the film franchise. Taking place between the first and second films, Amanda has discovered that a space station called Sevastapol has come across the flight recorder of the Nostromo, the ship on which her mother mysteriously disappeared some fifteen years ago. Determined to know exactly what happened, Ripley sets out for the station, but things quickly go bad. Shortly after boarding Sevastapol, she finds the station in complete disarray, the crew reduced to feral survivors who are struggling to keep themselves hidden from a horrible and deadly alien creature. The game follows Ripley’s attempts both to learn the truth of the Nostromo and get off the station, dodging survivors, hostile androids, and the titular Alien that stalks her everywhere she goes.
This game really worked for me on several levels. First, it understands the horror genre perfectly. The station, in its decrepit state, is the perfect location for the world of sci-fi creepiness that Dead Space always failed to deliver on, in my mind. It’s beautiful in its design, filled with elements of the old films. Science fiction is always relying on existing technology, and in the 1980’s, the analog-to-digital switch hadn’t happened yet. Instead of the holograms and touchscreens of the new Star Trek films or the Halo franchise, Isolation is clustered with knobs, dials, buttons, and wires. Sevastapol feels like a big, heavy, lumbering beast, and this is reflected in how you operate throughout it. All systems require you to pump levers, push large plastic maintenance buttons, and operate clunky, loud, clacking keyboards. Old CRT monitors allow you to see very command line-esque systems and manipulate elements of the environment. Locked doors are opened through fusion torches, a heavy wrench that opens maintenance locks, and very fun hacking mini-games that reminded me of the earliest computers I used as a child. Even the way you save the game is retro – you insert a plastic keycard into an emergency phone booth, complete with classic telephone receiver. All of this is melded perfectly with the decay of Sevastapol, making it beautiful, spooky, and dangerous on its own, as it is often being destroyed and showering you with sparks and explosions even as you pass through it.
The tension of the game is built perfectly. The Alien itself doesn’t even show up for the first hour of gameplay, and when it does, it’s an appropriately terrifying moment. It unfurls itself from the ceiling and lets out a hideous snarl, barely missing Ripley with its spiked tail. From there on in, it’s a constant threat. You’re given a motion tracker to try and keep an eye on it, but it has flaws. Its range is limited, and it’s a little loud – if the Alien is too far, you won’t see it, and if it’s too close, it’ll hear you. There’s no fighting it, either. You can scare it away with a flamethrower, but it’ll come right back, with a vengeance. Knowing it was almost always nearby was incredibly exciting from beginning to end. In fact, I found myself more scared when the Alien didn’t show up. I would hear it thudding through the vents above me, and whip out the tracker. The dot would speed toward me, hover directly above me – and then simply vanish. Of course, when it did decide to drop down and poke around, it was just as tense, watching it stalk around feet away from me as I held my breath inside a locker. The creature is beautifully rendered in the game. I’ve read old interviews that describe the Alien being designed to make people sexually uncomfortable, and it makes sense when you watch it looking for you. Its phallic head shape is contrasted by its decidedly feminine figure. The face-huggers make a brief appearance in the game, and there is something truly disturbing when they catch Ripley and the screen fades to black. Before the game over screen, we’re treated to the difficult-to-listen-to sounds of the face-hugger forcing its proboscis down Ripley’s throat and her struggling for breath as it wraps around her. In any shape or form, the Alien in this game is really, really scary.
Now, if it was just Ripley against the Alien, it would get old fast. The station has other dangers that keep you on your toes at all times. Aside from falling apart on its own, the people of Sevastapol are scared enough to shoot at shadows, and the androids have gone rogue. These robotic men seem to be some budget model of those present in the films. Ash from the first film and Bishop from the second were indistinguishable from people at first glance, but the “Working Joes” of Sevastapol couldn’t pass for human any day, since their mouths don’t move when they speak, their eyes glow, and they have weird flaps of extra skin everywhere. Nevertheless, they’re creepy as hell, especially once they see you. They don’t run, and they’re incredibly hard to kill, making them almost like zombies that slowly keep coming for you even after taking three revolver rounds to the head. As with the flamethrower, your ammunition is limited, and over time, the androids will even adapt to the swing of the maintenance wrench. More than once, I found myself simply turning and running because I had nothing left to fight with, and they just…kept…coming.
The game, of course, is not without its flaws. After a time, tasks began to feel a little samey. Nothing on Sevastapol works, so the formula ends up becoming: Fix thing A to open door B, which will allow you to fix thing C and open door D, which is where you wanted to go in the first place. A lot of this takes place without much else happening. Since Ripley makes so much damn noise doing every little task, I kept waiting for the Alien to hear me, and it never seemed to. Though this could have been due to playing on an easier difficulty, it still threw me off a little. In addition, it felt a little predictable, sometimes. If you know horror, you know when you’ve walked into a room that would involve an encounter with the Alien. There was one point that involved me needing to pass through an android showroom, filled with androids frozen in various poses. I said to myself, as I walked slowly to the door with glassy-eyed robots on either side, “Oh, they’re gonna wake up.” Was I right? Well, no spoilers.
My only other issue with the game was, unfortunately, Amanda Ripley herself. Sigourney Weaver brought us one of the strongest and most memorable women in science fiction history in the form of Ellen Ripley. Aside from Bill Paxton shouting “Game over, man!”, the line everyone remembers from the second film is Ripley telling the Alien Queen to “Stay away from her, you bitch!” We watched Ellen go from a screaming hysteric just like Lambert to a hardened survivalist, the sole person to escape the clutches of this deadly predator. However, Amanda has none of this personality or development. She spends the entire game just kind of reacting to things around her, passing through the story with the single goal of getting the information about her mother and then getting out. The closest she came to becoming a memorable character, for me, occurred somewhere in the middle of the story. After luring the Alien into an airlock, a Sevastapol marshal decides to send it into space – along with Amanda. After recovering, she spends a few minutes yelling at the marshal for nearly killing her, but quickly goes back to being a hollow shell pulled around by explosions and scared police officers. There’s no real arc for her character, and that was a little disappointing.
Overall, Alien: Isolation is good. It may even be great. It was scary, it was good-looking, and it was damn fun. It isn’t perfect, but no game is, and it’s still about a million times better than Colonial Marines. If you look at the Alien and get a little shudder the way I do, this game is for you, because what the first film described as the “perfect organism” has finally found its perfect video game depiction.
Kevin Kennedy is an amateur novelist from Kingston, Ontario and a hardcore science fiction fan, working in sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and more. Looking to transition his work into a video medium, he hopes to help revitalize the high-energy science fiction drama that’s fallen away from the world lately.