It’s the future, as usual. Everyone is living in bunkers after a terrible world war has devastated the planet, and the survivors await the day when they can reclaim a radioactive wasteland as their inheritance. Until then, they’re forced to live in the close confines of large survival shelters, making the best of the resources allowed to them. Military discipline is required to keep the peace, although the services of medical experts like Dr Albert Tokaj are also available to all. An expert in Confinement Syndrome, a mental condition common in such conditions, Dr Tokaj is struggling under the burdens of harsh military rule, unreasonable demands on his time as he tries to keep a damaged populace healthy, and his own personal state of mind.
And then something goes horribly wrong with the environmental controls in a lower level, and he’s sent to help a military team restore order. But a virus has been unleashed that combines with the already unstable mindset of the civilians to create a hoard of uncontained psychopaths. Can Dr Tokaj get to the bottom of how this happens? And more importantly, can he survive?
Afterfall: Insanity comes on the heels of successful games like Fallout, as they happily admit on their website (http://www.afterfall-universe.com/en/index). Drawing on that familiar vein of survivors of a cataclysm stuck in a hole together, the game is a survival horror in the mould of titles like Dead Space or Condemned rather than an rpg. If the setting is a little weary in concept, I can’t find fault with their realisation of it, which neatly combines a nicely claustrophobic retro sci-fi feel in the ‘not gone wrong yet’ areas with the twitchy, ruined darkness of the ‘very clearly gone wrong right now’ sections.
The Unreal engine, something of a lego set for many indie games developers these days, is used to good effect in creating the tight, sinister feel of this collapsing colony. The graphics are decent, if unexceptional, and if some of the flashier effects are a bit overdone (too much glow on most surfaces, for example), it’s not a big problem. The animation isn’t great, giving all the enemies the same crouching stance as though they’ve pooed their jumpsuits, but given the low-budget here it’s no big deal.
Gameplay is pretty impressive. I’m coming into this review fresh (or rather sleepless and hypnotised) from Skyrim and Rage in the last few weeks, so that’s no mean feat. It’s not amazing – the close combat, for example, of which there’s plenty, is very lumpen at present. But I’m playing a pre-release alpha version, so I’ll put down the lack of interface down to that. You can swing or block, and the timing is a bit of a smear, so it currently plays as a messy, button mashing affair. The enemies don’t show a notable amount of intelligence, but you know, they are crazed lunatics on the whole, so I’d buy that. You can gun them down pretty easily with a nice array of tranq darts, shotguns, rifles, or so on, or beat them up with an excellent selection of hammers, pipes, cattle-prods and axes, but they all feel like the same weapon to me.
The atmosphere the game evokes, though, is the main thing in a horror survival. And here, it succeeds – nicely written and adequately performed dialogue helps the credibility a lot. I think we’re a bit heavy on the cut-scenes, with the game playing almost like an interactive movie at times. Quick time events make a few appearances, which is okay by me – they’re not my favourite gaming device, though, and these ones ambush you with little introduction or explanation, so it took me a few repeats on the first one to realise what was going on. Again, these are things likely to be fixed by release, though. What the puzzles fail to manage with their innovation, they pick up on implementation. So if I’m replacing missing fuses to restore power, or turning off pesky steam vents to make my way forward, or even having to turn off a valve before the room I’m in fills with acid, okay, I’m not being wowed with originality. But at the same time, the events work very well with the setting and the feeling of panic. And some of them require some genuine thought under time pressure. I was particularly impressed with a ‘balance the reactor coolants before it all goes boom’ sequence, although I could have done with a better explanation of what to do. I figured it out, though, and was getting nicely sweaty and anxious as the minutes ticked down.
I like the protagonist. Weary Dr Tokaj, the only shrink in the madhouse, is nicely written and well realised. I like that his pdf turns into a compass to help you find the next objective, but it’s that or a weapon in your hand. I like that he’s doubting his own sanity as his nightmares come to life, he seems a very believable doctor in a horrible situation. I buy into his predicament (heck, we’ve all been there), and I want to know how it pans out for him. I stop believing this immediately the first time he beheads a madman with a fireaxe, or performs a finishing move that bizarrely restores his health, though, it cancels my suspension of disbelief as neatly as though it cut the harness ropes keeping it aloft. I’d make the combat harder, to be honest, or make it easier to run away and use the environment against the loonies. That would add to the survival horror element a lot – right now, there’s a lot of it, and the good doctor seems a bit too unphased as he glibly starts slaughtering madmen. But I’m sure I could ramp up the difficulty, and it’s perfectly possible that Albert is just as nuts as the others, given the hints of paranoia and madness in the stories, so again, I don’t think it’s a reason not to buy this.
Most impressively, you can buy this game for virtually nothing. And it’s very decent fare, too. It might not be anything ground-breaking, and the combat isn’t quite there yet in terms of being polished and fun enough. I had a few problems on the front end, too, the installer is a bit buggy (The game had actually installed fine, but the interface kept this well hidden from me, and pretended that it hadn’t finished for a while). The HUD needs a bit of work, as it’s not very clear how your health is doing at a given time. There’s supposed to be a rather cool sounding fear element, so that the more scared you are, the less accurate you can shoot but the more damage you do in hand-to-hand. But I’ve no idea when it’s in operation so far, there’s no visible difference to gameplay. These aren’t big problems, but I would like to see them improved.
For the price, and with the caveat that this is still undergoing work, I think this is a very decent game. Good atmosphere, some good creepy tension, and no bugs or glitches that I could see, unlike what I hear of several recent higher-budget games (Sword of the Stars II, Stronghold 3, I’m looking at you). It certainly lives up to the dev team’s stated aims, and I think they should be very pleased with what they’re achieving on their budget. You can pre-order for a mere $1 at the moment, and I’d recommend doing so – if enough of us do, there’s money going to charity, apart from anything else. Don’t expect a miracle from it, it is rough round the edges and a little lumbering. Do expect a very credible horror experience in a very plausible setting.