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Alien: Isolation

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Feral Interactive
Developer: Feral Interactive
Release Date: Dec. 5, 2019

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Switch Review - 'Alien: Isolation'

by Andreas Salmen on Feb. 13, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Alien: Isolation is a first-person survival horror experience that will focus on capturing the horror and tension evoked by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic film.

Between easy cash grabs and mediocre experiences, few licensed games manage to walk the fine line between being enjoyable and faithful to the source material. In my opinion, the best movie-to-game adaption is Alien: Isolation. It was a standout when it was released in 2014 for last- and current-gen consoles because it crafted its own experience and identity while successfully capturing the feeling of dread that's expected from an Alien title. The recent Nintendo Switch port could be a chance to revisit or experience the game anew, since it translates the experience so well to the hybrid console.

It's a challenge to port any game to a system for which it wasn't inherently designed, especially when weak hardware may restrict the visual fidelity of the title. We've seen ports like The Witcher 3 that work on the Switch with drastically downgraded visuals but still play well, since perfect visuals aren't necessarily integral to the experience. A horror game like Alien: Isolation, on the other hand, relies on atmosphere that is mainly conveyed through graphical effects and the clever use of sound. Thankfully, Feral Interactive has done an amazing job, so much so that I'm inclined to say that Isolation is best played on the Switch.

Isolation aims to replicate the isolation and dread a person would feel while being chased down by an almighty alien creature. The game takes place 15 years after the movies, with us taking control of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, who's trying to learn more about how her mother's ship vanished. Things kick off as a salvage vessel, the Anesidora, discovers the flight recorder of Ellen's ship. Amanda is part of the team who's sent to recover the recorder, but after a few incidents, she's alone on what seems to be an abandoned spacecraft. Things go further downhill from there as we slowly piece together what happened onboard. The alien is roaming free on the ship, and it's taking down every life form it meets. Androids have taken control of the ship, and the former crew is fending for themselves in a hostile environment. We need to locate the flight recording and find a way off the ship without being ripped to shreds.

If I had to explain the game in simple terms, it's basically a horror-stealth experience. Similar to other horror experiences like Amnesia or Outlast, we are facing invincible or hard-to-kill foes, so moving quietly and hiding is one of the core pillars of gameplay. There are three groups of enemies: humans who can be taken down with relative ease, androids that can be taken down with special equipment or a lot of patience, and the alien that can be scared off but not killed. Don't expect to face off against the alien straightaway; Isolation's first hours are a slow burn. It takes some time until we meet the humans onboard and then are introduced to the alien, and even then, the alien doesn't take center stage for a while. Its presence is often foreshadowed in the environment through sounds and visual cues until it shows up.

Once it does, gameplay gets especially tense. Isolation essentially has us navigating different parts of the ship, which may technically count as a semi-open world, but there are always boundaries due to closed doors. Within these walls, every encounter is different because the alien hunts you based on the present circumstances. Any noise lures the alien in your direction, so every step has to be thought through. We have a motion detector at our disposal to check for lifeforms in our immediate surroundings, but even that device makes noise and could get the alien's attention. We have to play it safe by crawling under tables, hiding in lockers or crouching behind objects until it's safe to move. Most of the stress comes from the knowledge that an almighty opponent can strike if we aren't paying attention. Hacking closed doors, removing other roadblocks, or even saving your progress takes time and exposes you for a short while, making every action a matter of life and death. Alien: Isolation excels in these tense moments.

As we progress through the ship, we get new objectives and tools. Part of the experience is inspired by other games and genres, such as crafting additional tools like flares, med packs, noisemakers and pipe bombs to lure enemies away from you. Blueprints for these devices are littered around the environment, and once they're found, they can be crafted at any time with resources found in the environment. We'll also find weapons, such as guns that are useful for anything but the alien. The flame thrower will shoo away the creature for a moment so we can hide or get away. The presence of the alien may restrict your ability to freely explore and find resources, so managing your supply of crafted tools is vital to having a fighting chance.

Other parts of the game are similar to a Metroidvania, as it'll make certain areas inaccessible until we acquire the correct tool to progress. In the beginning, it's a maintenance jack to open sealed doors or an access tuner to hack door controls. These tools are also why the situations in Alien: Isolation are so daunting. Hacking a door requires finding the correct sequence first and then matching a series of three symbols to open a door. If you make a mistake, it's back to square one, and after the third try, you have to start over. Other tasks have us starting power generators, which are loud and take several tries to complete. Even the simple act of saving game progress can take precious seconds. There's constant exposure to threats, and the game is often taking away control from the player to create uncomfortable situations. We are prey for the alien, so we are rarely proactive but must react to the situation and circumstances. That's a key source of genuine horror.

Alien: Isolation isn't a short game. Depending on the difficulty level and your skill, it may take 15-20 hours to complete, and it's over that length of time that the game shows its imperfections, especially in terms of pacing. The title can become repetitive toward the end, throwing us into new alien encounters when the game could've ended and left it at that. Unfortunately, the game doesn't offer much more than a good atmosphere, visual presentation and antagonist. While the scenarios are tense, they become repetitive and drawn-out. The alien may learn new maneuvers over time to keep things interesting, but that's not enough to hide the fact that we rarely accomplish meaningful tasks. It's often a chase from door control to door control, from button to button, and power generator to power generator. Regardless of how well-made the spacecraft environments are, after 10 hours, it can be difficult to tell one dark corridor from another. This doesn't negate the fact that the general atmosphere and gameplay are incredibly good, but they don't carry the game through its full runtime.

It excels almost everywhere else, though. Everything is incredibly faithful to the movies' visual style. The empty and dark corridors with old terminals and door controls, along with the grayish living quarters with sleeping pods, are reminiscent of '70s/'80s tech. From the internal train system to the medical bay, it feels like a real spacecraft that could've been featured in the movies, and that does a lot for atmosphere. Fog effects and lighting sell every scene, and a look outside any of the windows gives us a view of the planet we're orbiting. No detail has been overlooked, and it elevates the experience tenfold.

The good news is that the Switch port keeps all these effects alive and well. While not running at a high resolution like the PS4 or Xbox One versions, the Switch manages to come really close and improves some effects to make the final product look somewhat cleaner in presentation. It's a solid experience that always looked as good as we remembered, and during our testing, it ran smooth enough to give the impression that it's mostly locked at 30 fps. It's an impressive feat, given this performance translates across handheld and docked play, making it arguably the better version of the game due to additional portability with minor to no concessions.

The Switch version of Isolation comes with the usual special features that any Switch port has to have nowadays: HD rumble and motion controls. While the latter is certainly a matter of preference, the first is actually a very good implementation of the HD rumble feature that elevates the game in certain areas. For example, movement on the motion scanner beeps and gives haptic feedback when there's movement around you, adding extra immersion and tension in the moments when you least expect someone to sneak up on you.

In addition to the core experience, all DLC is also included. Two story DLCs enable us to replay the events of the movies from the view of Ellen, which are great for fans, but they are more restrictive in gameplay and don't lend themselves to additional replays. Otherwise, they are excellent additions to the experience. The third DLC is the challenge pack, where we can jump into special stages with the alien to complete a set of objectives. These levels are timed with a leader board and are a very good way to add value after finishing the game. It's even proven to be a good hotseat couch multiplayer experience when you're trying to get the best time against friends.

If it's not immediately apparent, I am a huge fan of Alien: Isolation, and I'm glad it received such an excellent port for the Switch. It's by no means a perfect game, but it excels at almost everything it sets out to do. It has an incredibly detailed and faithful presentation and is a unique attempt to capture the essence of the franchise in an interactive experience. If you're a fan of horror and haven't played Isolation yet, this is still one of the more interesting and tense horror games out there. Even if you have already played it, this is the best way to jump back into a game that has aged incredibly well, both visually and in terms of gameplay mechanics.

Score: 8.4/10

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