Afterfall: InSanity Hands-On Preview

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Posted on November 2, 2011, Phil Hornshaw Afterfall: InSanity Hands-On Preview

I’ve been getting pretty hyped for Afterfall: InSanity, an indie survival horror title from Polish developer Intoxicate Studios. The trailers suggest an interesting mix of Dead Space’s aesthetic and third-person gameplay and Condemned: Criminal Origins’ melee fighting. There’s also some psychological thrills thrown in that reminds me of Alan Wake — in all, a big combination of great ideas.

In practice, InSanity seems to have a lot of promise, but it’s impossible to say whether it actually reaches its true potential. The preview build I got hold of put me through about three hours of the game from its start, and it got a healthy mix of all the cool things I was expecting to see: hallucinations, psychopaths and fire ax-versus-head entanglements. But in those three hours, the most interesting aspects — main character Albert Tokaj (pronounced “Toe-Kai”) questionable sanity — seemed to get the least amount of screen time.

InSanity takes place in a larger Afterfall universe in which nuclear war has relegated humans into living underground in giant complexes known as Shelters. Not unlike Fallout’s Vaults, the Shelter in which you find yourself at the outset of the game is a closed society, in which your character, Tokaj, is the local psychologist and pharmacologist. Unfortunately, the Shelter’s head-shrinker is having psychological troubles of his own, including vivid, paranoid dreams. When we first meet him, he’s nodding off during a therapy session with one of the Shelter’s residents, a woman who has never seen the Earth’s surface because she was born after the nuclear strikes.

Much of the early portion of InSanity involves you wandering around the Shelter, speaking with people and getting the lay of the land. Before long, the Colonel, your Shelter’s leader, comes on a nearby TV set and claims you’re a wanted criminal, for some unknown reason. When that happens, the guards mobilize to come after you, and so you begin fighting them — first with your fists, then with blunt objects. You spend much of the next hour on the run, being helped by a friend as enemies try to bust down doors to get you.

Along the way, InSanity dishes out a lot of practice with its melee combat, which is a bit stiff and tough to really get into, I found. I can appreciate the fact that, as a horror game, InSanity throws a few roadblocks in your way on purpose — your movements are slow and deliberate and you’re easily knocked back or staggered. Tokaj is a regular guy, after all, and not even a trained soldier. Even so, fighting with the game’s signature fire ax is tough to do well; you swing with the left mouse button combined with a movement key to choose the direction of your stroke (either vertical or horizontal), and you block (somewhat effectively) with the right mouse button. But enemies routinely take quite a beating and almost always get in their licks without much trouble. Every fight is a pretty close call.

Tokaj’s ability to fight off enemies is affected by two mechanics. First is a stamina bar that depletes with repeated swings, sprinting or diving moves. It quickly refills, but it limits what moves you can make in rapid succession, or how long you can run flat-out for. The second is the “Fearlink” system, which is more a test of Tokaj’s sanity. After seeing horrific scenes, being stuck in the dark or being in the proximity of enemies, Tokaj’s arm-strapped PDA changes color to indicate his fear level. The more afraid he is, the worse his shooting abilities, but the adrenaline boost makes him a little more reactive and his melee swings are stronger. The system also seems to take a toll on his perceptions and might even introduce hallucinations (although I didn’t get any during the preview).

From a story perspective, in order not to spoil anything, I’ll just say that Tokaj’s dreams become a factor, and it’s not long before you’re fighting not guards, but more horrific enemies such as crazed scientists (in line with Condemned) and monsters more in line with Dead Space’s necromorphs or Resistance’s chimera. Mostly they fight with improvised melee weapons, and you can go toe-to-toe with them using something similar or go the firearm route. There’s not a glut of guns or ammo to make use of, but they are there.

Much of InSanity follows the Dead Space line of level design: enter a room, fight something (or not), fix a computer and move on to the next room. The story evolves slowly from there, but you’ll spend a lot of time fixing one console or another in order to get through a door. Interspersed are some light hacking puzzles and other similar computer interactions, none of which is particularly trying but which are a nice breakup in the gameplay.

So far, InSanity excels most in atmosphere. It’s not quite as polished as a typical AAA title, given its indie status, but with the Unreal Engine 3 under employ and some really great-looking environments, it’s easy to feel a bit edgy — especially when you hear enemies trying to break down doors or screaming in the next room.

I’m excited to continue with InSanity, although I’m hoping the game starts to lean on its more exciting horror tropes as it progresses. I always felt that Dead Space 2 missed a big opportunity by not playing with protagonist Isaac Clark’s mental state more, and I can’t help but remember Eternal Darkness or Amnesia: The Dark Descent and wish that more of those mechanics would make their way into more horror games. InSanity hits a few of those notes early, but it’s not clear if it will really deliver on them as time goes on.

My experience with the preview build I played found the game a little bit on the clunky side, though certainly some of that might be the fault of the system on which I played it. I have a lot of forgiveness for horror games deliberately being a little bit hard to play — I’m still a huge fan of Resident Evil and I love Dead Space — so I can get over it. InSanity suggests that its horror story and atmosphere will make putting up with its sometimes frustrating melee combat.

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