Upon playing Atari's new horror/puzzle game Alone in the Dark — the newest and most hyped in the increasingly limp franchise — you immediately realize there are far more terrifying experiences out there than this astonishing failure. Such as actually being alone in the dark.
Seriously: Take your videogame controller to your bedroom, sit on the floor, and turn off all the lights. Then randomly stab at the buttons, hoping something frightening will happen. You've got a greater chance of something eventually slinking out of your closet and scaring the bejeezus out of you — your cat, perhaps, or a teetering pile of dirty laundry — than you do mustering a single goosebump while playing this disaster of a game.
Axe Body Wash — that's scarier, too. For starters, it's called “Axe,” which conjures images of Jack Nicholson chopping through your bathroom door. Alone in the Dark, on the other hand, conjures laughably rendered Sega Dreamcast–era graphics, mostly of beasties that skitter along with all the shock of a mishandled bag of M&Ms. And the only thing chopping here is the miserable, unforgivable frame rate.
Cake Mania 2 also comes to mind. The girly-girl version of Root Beer Tapper is the addictive little handheld title where you play a waitress making heart-shaped cakes for demanding patrons. How is this scarier than a supposed “survival horror” game? For one, your pulse will actually race as you try to keep up with Cake Mania's anxiety-filled, customer-juggling action. And the pink cupcakes … my god, they're everywhere!
By contrast, the first half-hour of Alone in the Dark treats you to ungodly amounts of unskippable, sci-fi mumbo-jumbo exposition. The best part? Your character — beaten within an inch of his life — must endlessly push a button during the cut scenes in order to keep his eyes open. “PUSH BUTTON TO BLINK!” the screen reminds you. I'd rather hit the snooze button.
We could go on about the ghastly dialogue (“Don't patronize me, asswipe!” a woman screams with a straight face), the impossible-to-manage in-game camera, and the outdated control scheme. We could even harp on how annoying it is to sit through prior, lengthy cut-scenes every time you die (which is often). But it's probably best to just blame Atari (and companies like it), which has been accused of promising online reviewers early copies of this trainwreck in exchange for high review scores. When some of those sites panned the game, Atari pulled ad money, threatened lawsuits, and, one assumes, launched some sort of Missile Command pummeling. Now that's scary!
Payola is expected in an ad-driven industry in which getting early reviews means playing ball and, potentially, softening the blow. Waves of perfect scores for the unrevolutionary Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto 4 prove that. And, yes, sweet nothings from PR folk are regularly whispered in the ears of the Game On staff. Hey, if the game turns out to be good, we're happy to mention it. But I'd sooner trip and fall down an elevator shaft — as you do in Alone in the Dark, again and again and again — than give this game an ounce of love. It's that terrible. If you hear otherwise, consider checking your source.