It’s hard to believe that Alien: Isolation is five years old now. I remember booting the game, scared but optimistic, that it could go either way after the disappointing Colonial Marines. Thankfully, everything I enjoyed about the franchise was brought to life in Isolation with a degree of authenticity like no other. Now, five years on, the game has come to the Switch and remains just as impressive. It’s still bound to be polarising, with its unforgiving difficulty and focus on tense atmosphere rather than balls-to-the-wall action, but it’s easily one of the best Alien games ever made.
Alien Isolation takes place between the original film and its sequel. Ellen Ripley and her ship are missing, and her daughter Amanda desires closure in finding out where her mother went. Of course, conveniently, a Weyland-Yutani executive informs her that the Nostromo flight recorder has been discovered on board another space station called the Sevastopol. Joining a small crew, Amanda arrives at the Sevastopol to find the station run-down and majority of the crew dead. And to make matters worse, there’s a wide variety of dangers running amuck on the space station that Amanda must deal with in her search for closure.
Isolation fits in rather nicely to the overall Alien storyline – adding some touching moments to the already existing canon as well as telling a story that, while not completely necessary, still feels satisfying. Anyone who has seen all of the films could probably work out where things are going early on, but it feels satisfying. All in all, one thing is clear. Isolation is very respectful to the Alien canon and it does a great job at fitting into the overall storyline without needlessly contradicting previous events.
When Amanda isn’t attempting to hide from the Alien she’ll be walking between space station towers, crawling through vents, repairing all kinds of malfunctioning equipment and crafting makeshift tools to help her survive. Isolation is one of the best examples of a “survival” horror game – it outfits the player with tools and abilities that allow them to fight back with some degree, but you never truly feel on top. You’re always being searched for, you’re always on your feet and you’ll always worry about what’s around the corner. This feeling of dread and tension is unfavourable for some, but for any Horror aficionado, it’s bliss.
The Alien is the main attraction of Isolation, and for the most part, behaves well. Some call it unpredictable, but it really behaves like any other stealth enemy. Make noise? It’ll find you. Hide while you’re in his sight? It’ll find you. Run underneath a vent that Alien drool is dripping out of? It’ll find you. There were honestly never that many moments where I felt like the Alien’s advances were unfair – it’s just that he’s governed by a set of rules that must be adhered to. You certainly can’t outrun it no matter how hard you try, so obviously staying out of the line of sight is the ideal way to go since it can instantly kill the player in most circumstances.
The pacing and difficulty of the game are probably the most contentious aspects of Isolation. Save are entirely manual and as such it’s possible to lose great amounts of progress with a small but brief mistake. Growing up on titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, this limitation is nothing new to a player like me but more modern audiences might find it frustrating, although it does add to the tension of the game. On the upside, any progress made can easily be consolidated with a manual save rather than having to make it to the next checkpoint in a more traditional game, so there are pros and cons to this approach.
As mentioned previously, Amanda has access to a simple crafting system to create tools to assist her in surviving. Molotovs and Pipe Bombs will simply drive the Alien away in moments of crisis, whereas noisemakers and flares will provide distractions for threats on the Sevastopol. All in all, the crafting system works well to give players a crutch to lean on, but it never feels like the system breaks the game if you amass too much of a specific item. It feels balanced.
Such a balance carries through to the rest of the game’s design. You’re outfitted with a flashlight and a motion tracker, but both alert the Alien if abused too much. You can crouch and even peek around corners, but doing the latter too much will see the Alien wise up to your antics. You can choose your own path through the game’s very open level design, but there’s almost always a threat of some sort so you never feel like you’re “cheating” the game. You’ll have moments where the frightening Alien himself is absent, but other just as equally terrifying enemies like rogue android units are running amuck instead. Isolation really does a great job of balancing frustration, tension, dread, and playability.
The game itself is comprised of roughly eighteen or nineteen missions which will take most players around fifteen to twenty hours to complete, making Isolation a very meaty experience. The missions themselves are well designed and variable enough to keep the players interest from beginning to end, but honestly, one or two of these missions could probably be cut without much detriment to the game’s plot or pacing.
Playing through Isolation multiple times, the experience can be adjusted to suit your tolerance with multiple difficulty modes. Other modes outside of the story, like Survival Mode, throws players into objective-based levels for a more Arcade like experience complete with a scoring system. The previously released downloadable content, including some great what-if moments from the original film (with the original cast, too) are all included with the Switch release which is a welcome addition as well.
Isolation’s charm is in its presentation, which is so authentic that it feels like you’re just playing scenes from the first film. The starship, while being different from the Nostromo, feels and looks just like another one from the same era. Smoke billows into the station’s corridors, shadows of debris as they float across the sun are projected into the station, and mist can be seen gathering around equipment where light is gathering. The game is just packed to the brim with all kinds of small details that really help sell the environment as a real one that’s been suddenly abandoned. Similarly, the Alien itself is brilliantly modeled and more convincing than ever.
The score is similarly quite fantastic too. Incorporating original pieces of their own as well as pieces from the original film, everything feels just right here to give a great sense of isolation and tension. The sound design, all together, is really well done and well mixed to the point where Isolation almost demands to be played with a headset or a decent sound system. It’ll give you an advantage too, but also possibly heighten your fear as the footsteps of the Alien intensify as it gets closer to players.
THE NINTENDO SWITCH VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Alien: Isolation is close to a survival horror masterpiece that, while unforgiving, carries itself with an unbridled sense of style and class. It authentically recreates the look and feel of the original 1979 film while still feeling incredibly rewarding. Through some wizardry, the game plays just as well, if not better, on Switch, and is to be commended as one of the best ports the platform has ever seen.