Alien: Isolation is a trauma machine masquerading as a video game. Only in the realm of horror could this be seen as a compliment, and only with horror games in particular is this worthy of nervous applause. Say this about any other kind of game and you'd mistake praise for insults: it's unpleasant, stressful and rarely merciful. Yay!
The game's success hinges on its meticulous interpretation of 1979's Alien, which it effectively recreates in both look and premise. Instead of the intimate confines of a lousy spaceship, however, Alien: Isolation strands you on Sevastopol, a neglected station deep in its decommission throes. You arrive there as Amanda Ripley, pursuing information about your mother and her last known ship, the Nostromo. Aside from being a biological connection to the original Alien film, Amanda is also heir to the universe's most horrible stalker.
Sevastopol's sad disrepair and in-fighting can be traced back to the Xenomorph, a destabilizing creature that intimidates to this day with its skeletal figure, eyeless gaze and unmistakable hiss. The alien is a black cloud hanging over the entire game, with its arrival signaling the end of your hunky-dory skipping-down-the-corridor ways. Actually, just never do that. Ever. Many of the objectives in Alien: Isolation draw from Ripley's engineering skills, pushing you here and there to restore power to darkened sections of the station, reboot security systems and whatever else stands in for pulling a lever. This doesn't really matter, because the intimidating presence of the alien strips your mission down to pure geography. You need to go from here to there, and between here and there is an extra-fatal unbeatable nightmare creature that you must hide from. You die a lot in Alien: Isolation, and usually because you dared to walk somewhere.
Your greatest hope is to keep a low profile and keep your eyes transfixed to a handheld motion tracker, which shows movement on a small slice of radar and emits an agonizing sequence of beeps when something is getting close. It goes crazy while the alien is crawling through vents above (or below?) and is audible to the creature itself, which is just great.
The initial hours of Alien: Isolation trigger a sort of self-defense mechanism, wherein you seek comfort by deconstructing the situation into exploitable elements of a game. I started to think of the alien as a walking cluster of code, an algorithm, to undress the threat. What guides him? Will he be triggered if I use the last important item in the room? Can he go into vents beneath the floor, or are those off-limits to give the player some advantage? What can I do to influence when he shows up? Is he programmed to appear in my face when I turn on the flashlight in a pitch-black vent?
Attempting to control the alien only shows how unpredictable he can be, sadly. Even if I restarted a section and did exactly the same thing, he wouldn't be in the same place. I could never tell how long he would linger in a room, or when he might turn around while I snuck behind him. The developers are nice at first, letting you know clearly when the alien is in play, but later on the conditions for his arrival are far more ambiguous. Eventually you only think of him as that tall alien bastard, and thoughts of video game rules dissipate.
As a result, Alien: Isolation also becomes an incredible game about inhabiting a body in first-person view. Your constant closeness to the floor and your timid peeks around corners give you an intimate sense of Sevastopol, which is otherwise composed with a fanatical adherence to the original film, right down to the lo-fi CRT screens. You even control Amanda's eyes to some degree, choosing to focus either on the motion tracker while it's out and blurring the background, or looking forward and losing fidelity on your beeping lifesaver.
Alien: Isolation is also fond of making you concentrate on minor tasks, even while you're convinced the alien is breathing down your neck. Some electronic doors need to be hacked with a handheld device, which displays a contiguous pattern that you must disassemble into distinct pieces from a selection of icons below. Knowing that you're exposed under a light fiddling with a glorified Game Boy makes even the simplest of patterns a source of stress – especially with the alien's stomping ringing down the corridor. Alien: Isolation's fantastic score is also adept at clueing you in on what the alien saw, so be on the listen for shivering violins (it's close) and a walrus falling on a piano (you're dead).
You can improve your chances of survival by collecting blueprints, expendable supplies and bits of scrap around Sevastopol to build a couple of handheld tools. A noisemaker will temporarily distract the alien, for example, while a smoke bomb might block his line of sight. There are weapons on Sevastopol too, but firing a gun will have the alien on you almost immediately. A fuel-guzzling flamethrower is what you really want, and even that just scares him off between your bouts of staying small and silent.
The ferocity of the alien guarantees you many shocking deaths, and this can be frustrating given that your progress is tied to manual save points (in the form of emergency telephones). Since the game encourages slow, methodical movements and long periods of hiding, you do run the risk of losing an agonizing amount of progress. It has to be part of your strategy, and the despair over seeing how much ground there is to be covered between some save points is, well, part of the game's appeal. If you're going to sign up to be tortured by a video game creature, I think frustration is the appropriate emotion to experience when it pokes a hole in your head.
I feel more frustrated by the game's biggest flaws, which are forgivable but garish next to the brilliant presentation of the alien and Sevastopol. The AI governing humans, some of which are outwardly hostile, is maddeningly inconsistent. Sometimes they're easily confused, other times they can spot you from clear across the room. Those who don't shoot first will demand that you back away, but often shoot regardless of what you do.