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The GoodI've always had a certain (maybe unjustified) disdain to Resident Evil, stemming from its undeserved worldwide pioneer status. Any amateur game historian knows that survival horror genre didn't start with that peculiar cheesy Japanese variant. The French, at the height of their game industry - just shortly after they helped defining cinematic platformers with Another World - created a fantastic game that invented a new style of gameplay. Frédérick Raynal and his team were obviously highly endowed with creativity and programming skills, since the final product was not only revolutionary in concept, but also remarkably polished and technologically cutting-edge.
Visually, the game is a true marvel, especially considering the year it was released in. The 2D backgrounds are rich and opulent in color, and extremely detailed as well. The combination with 3D characters works better than in many later games that copied the same visual techniques many times over. But the game is no slouch in the sound department either - an assortment of creepy, well-placed effects and excellent music (be sure to get the CD release for the audio tracks) contribute to an intense atmosphere never before experienced in a video game. I vividly remember how just watching the into with the ominously leaping frog gave me the creeps back in the days. Alone in the Dark would have been worth checking out even if it had crappy gameplay - but its value is magnified tenfold when we realize that the opposite is true.
Alone in the Dark has all the stuff that make survival horror games different in a good way. It combines action battles and adventure-like puzzles, complete with characteristic touches such as fixed camera angles, slow pace, relative ineptitude of the protagonists in combat, etc. In fact, not much has been added to the defining formula of the genre since. Survival horror games haven't deviated from what this game had invented, and alone for this it deserves respect and recognition.
The game actually does some stuff better than its descendants. It doesn't have any stupid "save points", allowing you to save whenever you feel like it. And believe me, you'll need this, since there are quite some challenging puzzles and tasks in there. It is also by far less linear than most survival horror games out there. You are pretty much free to explore almost the entire mansion from the onset. It may be confusing and certainly adds to the already high difficulty level; but at least you are not forced to figure out inane statue-pushing puzzles without having anything else to do.
Not only you can go to different places and try different stuff out - you can also solve some of the puzzles in different ways. There is quite some interaction to be done - you can push furniture and other objects, for example. There are clues and story-enhancing material in shape of books scattered around the mansion. The plot (in fact, the whole setting) is decidedly unoriginal, but it meant little more than translating Lovecraftian horror into video game language, and it succeeded brilliantly in that.
The BadSome of the puzzles can get pretty obscure, and the relative open-ended nature of the gameplay has the negative effect of being forces to backtrack and check for possible missing clues or items required to finish the game. I'm not hundred percent sure (since I used a walkthrough more often than not), but I think there may be a few dead-end situations in the game if you forget to pick up an item or make a crucial action at the right time.
I found enemy models quite impressive, but both main characters look a bit silly, even considering the technical limitations of the time. The graphics are also a tad too bright - never to the ridiculous extent of Ecstatica, but still a bit too much so for a horror story. Raynal and the others designed the game masterfully, but it seems that they felt more comfortable with cheerful, imaginatively colorful stuff (like Little Big Adventure) than with old-school horror.
I can't say I cared much for combat in this game. I realize that the protagonists were supposed to be slow and awkward in battles, but annihilating undead people in exhausting exchanges of kicks and thrusts (ammo is way too scarce to use firearms liberally) without any real reward isn't exactly my idea of fun. For that reason I've always stayed away from survival horror games and limited myself only to a handful of those I thought were the most interesting ones.