Alien: Isolation docks onto the Nintendo Switch five years after its debut. We review the latest port from Feral Interactive.
Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation was universally admired when it debuted on Xbox, PC and PlayStation in 2014. Slow-paced, measured, and faithful in tone and spirit to its movie roots, it earned acclaim from all quarters.
The game performed well enough commercially but it wasn’t the smash hit many predicted. Five years on, the Nintendo Switch gives Alien: Isolation another opportunity chance to shine courtesy of porting wizards, Feral Interactive.
The game looks the part, of course. Creative Assembly was granted access to a wealth production materials from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic and the studio’s devotion to the source material is evident in every pixel. From the phosphor green screens and chunky computer banks to the padded corridors and gloomy air vents, Alien: Isolation takes the design aesthetic of the original film and makes it tangible.
For the most part Alien: Isolation takes place on Sevastopol Station, a space habitat struck by disaster following the arrival of a deadly Xenomorph. The station is a finely crafted piece of design that stands alongside Bioshock‘s Rapture and Half-Life 2‘s City 17 as one of the most well-realised locations to feature in a video game.
Creative Assembly’s achievement is in making Sevastopol a varied but coherent location. Areas such as the medical ward and travel bays all have their own distinct identities, but they remain consistent with the station as a whole. For all the sci-fi trappings, it feels, most of all, like a place of work. There’s a sense of real-life happening here, of Sevastopol being a home, a tour of duty, a hum-drum and claustrophobic slog for a weary workforce.
There’s also a pleasing lack of friction between the world and the player. Maps are found in spots that make sense for the station’s inhabitants, and whoever worked on the signage deserves a medal. Dimly lit air vents – a franchise trademark – are entwined throughout, offering disorienting shortcuts to new locations at the cost of shredded nerves.
Alien: Isolation goes to great lengths to maintain this sense of unease. Doors take their own sweet time to open. Keypads respond a l-i-t-t-l-e too slowly, and saving the game is a deliberately agonising 20-second process. Even if an alien wasn’t on the loose, Sevastopol Station is a scary place to be. It’s not all stifling claustrophobia, however. Occasional, spectacular glimpses of the galaxy outside tease escape and freedom.
At the same time, Christian Henson’s evocative score continually grinds the nerves without tipping into hysteria. It’s a groan of mood and escalating fear that offers the calming reassurance of fingernails dragged down a blackboard. The undercurrent symphony of ambient beeps, ticks and whirrs only adds to the tension.
Character movement also plays its part. There’s a run button, but it’s rarely advisable to use, while the standard walking speed is just slow enough to make you feel venerable. It also took some time for me to adjust to the POV head bobbing, which, for the first few hours, actually made me feel slightly nauseous. On the flip side, there are some considerate touches to Alien: Isolation’s hunter and hunted design philosophy. When hiding – in lockers or cabinets – you can peer forward and to the side, eking out a better view of the situation without revealing yourself.
The Xenomorph is used sparingly, for the most part, and effectively so. The first time you catch sight of it unfurling from a ceiling vent is truly heart-pounding. It’s also wonderfully animated, lurching from a prowl to attack with lethal grace and constantly adapting its behaviour.
Avoiding the creature – and the multitude of murderous androids – is a cautious and drawn-out affair. A variety of tools and weapons, including the iconic Motion Detector, are on hand to assist, and there are hiding places aplenty.
It’s shame, then, that save points are sometimes few and far between. Too often, a cagey game of cat and mouse ends with the Xenomorph noshing my face off, and also wiping out ten minutes of progress.
It should be said that the atmosphere and tension, delightful as it is, papers over a simple set of fetch quests and exploratory missions. But it hardly matters, Alien: Isolation is a well-executed twist on the survival horror genre that is as fresh now as it was in 2015.
The story and script – from prolific comic book writer and author, Dan Abnett – are concocted from familiar ingredients but they tell a better yarn than all but two of the films.
Underpinning the story is Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley. She’s a one-note character in some respects – driven by little else than a desire to uncover her mother’s plight – but she’s nicely performed by Elizabeth Inglis. A flashback also puts players in the shoes of another character for an enjoyable and effective sojourn.
However, in its later stages, the game unfortunately loses some focus. A storyline involving the ship’s AI picks up the narrative slack, and although it’s well-handled, calm, psychotic computers feel old hat. As a result, the game begins to overstay its welcome.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far could refer to the game’s original 2014 release on Xbox and PlayStation. So what of the Switch version?
From a content perspective, the full base game is included, along with every piece of post-launch DLC. The highlights are two missions featuring the cast of the first film: Crew Expendable and Last Survivor.
From a technical perspective, the Switch port of Alien: Isolation is a marvel. Following on from the studio’s stellar work with Grid: Autosport, Feral Interactive has again worked a small miracle. The game looks glorious in both docked and portable modes, with a crisp image, smooth movement and rocksteady frame rate. It’s, without doubt, one of the best looking games I’ve played on the Switch. Other publishers with last-generation games gathering dust should be knocking on Feral’s door with haste.
If you are a fan of the film franchise or survival horror games, Alien: Isolation is easy to recommend. The game is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s true to its source material and it jangles the nerves in the best possible way.
Game: Alien: Isolation
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Feral Interactive / Creative Assembly
Release Date: December 5, 2019