Alien: Isolation (Switch) Review
The Alien franchise has had a bumpy ride when it comes to video game adaptations (you could say the same for the movies too). One of the last forays was the universally panned Aliens: Colonial Marines. In 2014 Creative Assembly, a developer who you’d associate with the Total War series, released Alien: Isolation. If you played it back then this is still the same game, you’re likely just wanting to know how it runs on the Switch. If you haven’t had a chance to check out this survival horror take on the Alien series then read on.
Alien: Isolation takes a step back from the action-filled Aliens, and the mess that was Prometheus. Following the events of the original Alien, you’re Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the series main character Ellen. Her mother went missing when she escaped the titular Alien and blew up the Nostromo. Since then she’s been working in a similar job, even on a similar ship, never giving up on wanting to know what happened to her mother. The Weyland-Yutani corporation approach Amanda with the news that they’ve found the flight recorder from the Nostromo, and offer her a chance to come along and hopefully get some closure.
The flight recorder is being kept in the Sevastopol, a giant space station that is in the process of being decommissioned. After a rough entrance, the Sevastopol turns out to be in an even tougher state. Amanda finds herself separated from her team, in a space station with ominous scrawlings all over the walls. What people are left on the station are doing whatever it takes to survive and for good reason. It wouldn’t be an Alien game without the drooly imposing Xenomorph, or a shady corporation…or dangerous androids. They really didn’t leave anything out from the Alien playbook.
Learning from other survival horror games of the last decade, Alien: Isolation is played entirely in the first-person perspective. With the Alien stalking you and your view is limited, adding a whole extra layer of fear and really works to the game’s strengths. As Amanda isn’t a soldier she isn’t about to go all Colonial Marines on everyone. There are weapons but they’re limited, in both ammunition and in effectiveness. The Alien is unkillable, the best you can do is distract or scare it with fire. Humans and Working Joes are less indestructible and can be dealt with, although it’s still best to do it as quietly as possible.
Amanda can craft items to help distract and hurt anyone or anything that gets in the way (or get them out of the way). That all said, Alien isn’t about being on the offensive, it’s a lot of sneaking and hiding just to survive a moist toothy death. The Alien has AI made for hunting you down, though the game usually give you a safe spot to hide that the enemy can’t access. The Alien can and will pull you from your hidey-hole if you aren’t careful, resulting in a lot of tense waiting games and constant prayer there is a save terminal nearby. There isn’t a checkpoint system in Alien, it has to be done manually at a save terminal. But even when you find one you’re not safe. Operating the save terminal takes a few seconds, and in these seconds the Alien can get you, undoing all the hard work to get there.
Alien: Isolation is the first game in memory where I was on edge the whole time. From the minute you set foot on the Sevastopol it puts you in the moment. Worse is that the Alien doesn’t actually appear right away, yet you still feel the dread. While it’s a horrible feeling to have most of the time, the dread and tension that this game fills you with is exactly the feeling it wants, that it needs to be.
Survival Horror games from this genre are rarely too long, a few hours at most. What a surprise it was to find out Alien: Isolation is around the 20-hour mark. On paper it doesn’t sound like a bad thing, means more value for money. But more doesn’t always mean it’s all good. Way too long can be spent in the game stuck waiting while the Alien won’t play fair and leave you alone long enough. Sometimes it can go away just long enough to make you come out of hiding, only to show up again straight away sending you back to your locker. Sometimes it may not show up until you’re just about at the next save point. It can be exhilarating at first, then it turns into frustration and then boredom. The game is still tense and scary, only those emotions can only be stretched out for so long. There are several points where the game reached a sequence that would’ve been a decent time to wrap it up. It’s not even that the story is bad, in fact it’s ‘Alien’ to a tee. While a movie has a limited time to get to the climax, Isolation spends too long meandering. The Alien is a real and scary threat until it becomes an annoying hindrance. Shaving ten or so hours off this game could’ve made a world of difference.
For a while though this is the best Alien game after many years of middling and outright bad games. On top of the main story, there is also all of the DLC included. This is in the form of smaller challenges called Survivor Mode. Most of these extra challenges involve other characters within the main story (although other characters can be chosen to play the content) which flesh out more of the background to what’s going on the Sevastopol. There are also two expansions that involve scenes from the original movie, bringing back the original crew of the Nostromo in their attempts to get rid of the Xenomorph and stay alive in the process. These are good additions, especially now they’re included with the game automatically. They are tighter experiences and get you right into the action if you just want to mess around with the clever Alien AI. If one Ripley isn’t enough, you’re also able to play as Ellen Ripley throughout the survivor mode challenges as well as escaping the Nostromo.
Developer Creative Assembly have really gone all out on capturing the world of Alien, from the intro where the ship Amanda is a crew member on is purposefully designed to be almost identical to the Nostromo. The attention to detail to the original is also extended to the DLC, with recreating the original cast and in that case the actual Nostromo. Everything else about the presentation is top-notch too, the industrial feel to the ship, even capturing the weird wet mechanical aesthetic present in the movie Nostromo. Right down to the interfaces of the ‘futuristic’ computers and VCR quality footage. Everything just screams ‘This is an Alien game and we really care about Alien!’ and it’s indisputable, they have made the closest we’re going to get to being in an Alien movie for a while.
For everything I’ve said about the visuals, the same can be said for the sound. From capturing the familiar sounds from the movie, to even getting the original cast to voice their characters in the DLC. The Creative Assembly through and through did their best to place you in this world, and then scare the crap out of you with it. The tension was never just that the Alien is hunting you, it’s the metallic groans and sounds of machinery, the sounds of the space station in its final throes. Then there’s the Alien and Working Joes, you’ll hear them more than you’ll see them. When they aren’t present there’s tension, when they are there’s fear, and the regular sudden noises never help either.
Alien: Isolation came at a point where there were still PS3 and Xbox 360 versions made alongside the nice new-gen versions. I actually forgot that this came out on the previous gen. Then it became less of a surprise that this game could run on the Switch, hell, current-gen games can run well enough on the Switch. The good news is that Feral has done a great job porting this game, whether you’re playing it in handheld or docked. While the textures aren’t up to a current-gen standard, you have to really be looking for it to notice. Ultimately this port stands up, even better is that you can play it on the go (yes, this will always be a positive) and while it’s understandably in a lower resolution on the small screen, the frame rate holds up well.
Alien: Isolation is a good Alien game. While it overstays its welcome, Creative Assembly really did their best to ground a tense survival game in the Alien universe. Honestly, for all the games flaws, it manages to capture the essence of the movies better than the sequels and prequels have managed past Aliens. Feral has done an outstanding job bringing Isolation onto the Switch and have it run without issues while still looking great. For fans of the Alien franchise, you’re not going to get any better than this It’s not perfect, but neither are the movies. If you want the crap scared out of you over an extended period of time, check out Alien: Isolation.
+ A great port docked and in handheld
+ A tense and scary love letter to the Alien franchise
+ All DLC is included and is a neat distraction from the main game
- The game outstays its welcome by a few hours
- The Alien AI can be a bit too dogged in its lust for eviscerating you
- It’s unlikely there is going to be a proper follow-up