Alone With You featured image

Alone With You PC Review

A striking and unusual sci-fi adventure game with a focus on detailed characterisation, Alone With You is sure to delight lovers of humane, people-focused science fiction – but some questionable design decisions and frustrating gameplay mechanics hold it back from greatness.

Even before I reached the game’s satisfying conclusion, I knew I’d face a quandary when it came to writing this review. Would I start with the story and characterisation – clearly the focus of the game’s sole developer, Benjamin Rivers?

By these standards, the game is a triumph: Rivers hasn’t just sketched out a sympathetic and diverse main cast, but also poured unusual effort into ensuring that even the bit players – sometimes, especially the bit players – are drawn with care and nuance, the fate of each really mattering to the plot.

But then there’s the other side: the adventure-gaming tropes and mechanics that frame the accomplished narrative. Wandering around locations. Picking up items. Solving puzzles – the usual point-and-click stuff. It’s here the game falters somewhat – which is a particular shame, as that’s what you actually spend most of your time doing.

So: the plot. The game begins with your character maintaining a lonely vigil in a barren, rain-drenched alien landscape, the terrain drawn in vivid pinks and purples immediately reminiscent of that other great sci-fi adventure game – LucasArts’ The Dig.

But where that game saw you taking on a character with a name, background and well-defined identity, here the protagonist is more of a cipher: you choose the name yourself and there’s no backstory to speak of – bar what you’re able to choose in a very limited fashion through dialogue choices much later in the game.

Alien landscape in Alone With You

The planet’s purple aesthetic owes a debt to LucasArts’ ‘The Dig’

Indeed, your character doesn’t even have a face: an ever-present fishbowl-style space helmet obscures your features, bar the vaguest silhouette and a pair of glowing eyes. Even on the occasions when this is removed – when going to bed, for example – the camera cuts away before anything is revealed.

This is clearly intended as a gesture towards inclusivity: without an obvious gender or ethnicity, the player is free to project any identity they like on to the largely silent protagonist. But for me, this was one of the game’s missteps – more on which later.

It quickly transpires that you’re the last survivor of a doomed off-world colonisation project, with only the colony’s AI assistant for company. Your ultimate objective is to find enough parts and resources for the AI to finish building an escape ship: a task that requires you to pick among ruined habitats and corpse-strewn industrial sites for meagre supplies.

Despite the colourful presentation, it’s almost unremittingly bleak – or would be, if it wasn’t for the company of the four holographic ‘ghosts’ who are your technical assistants and late-night companions. These are the digital imprints of four colonists with particular technical skills, from developing fuel systems to nutritional research, whom the AI has revived in a ‘holo sim chamber’ to provide both technical support and friendly company.

The game quickly settles into a familiar routine: by day, you follow the AI’s orders and visit a number of ruined locations on scavenging missions. By night, you visit with one of the holographic ghosts, to talk about the day’s events, the fate of the colony and their own backgrounds and personal histories.

Visiting Jean in the holo-sim

Getting to know the main cast is the game’s unquestionable highlight

These nightly conversations were, by far, the highlight of the game for me. Humane, nuanced and touching, discovering more about these characters – and hearing their insights into the wider cast of characters, many existing only as journal entries and desiccated corpses in the outside world – was a true pleasure.

Each of the four main characters is sympathetic and likeable, drawn with distinct personalities and without too much reliance on clichés and genre stereotypes. Sure, you’ll find tropes like “socially isolated botanist is more comfortable with plants than people” – but the real achievement is that it always feels like there’s more to these characters than the sum of their parts.

The game’s structure ensures you’ll get to know each of them – but it also gives you the opportunity to spend a little extra time with any particular favourites. It all adds up to a wealth of rich dialogue, of which you’ll only see a fraction in any given playthrough.

Visiting Leslie

Visiting Leslie in the holo-sim. Every player will have their favourite character – she was mine

Throughout the games more traditionally ‘adventure-y’ daytime sections, I found myself eagerly anticipating these nighttime conversations – but sadly, not just because they were so good.

As mentioned above, I found the daytime exploration, puzzling and item-gathering portions to be, by comparison, slow, clunky, and sometimes even boring.

The various locations of the ruined colony are all drawn well, and are quite visually interesting – although it’s fair to say that, outside of the excellent main characters, the game’s pixel-art style is utilitarian rather than particularly stunning. But it’s what you do in them that caused me so much frustration.

In each location, you’re tasked with doing essentially the same thing: it’s “gather five X so we can do Y”. In one location, it might be parts for an air filtration system. In another, it might be schematics for a fuel system. But at every stage, you’re guided with a stiflingly narrow focus by the colony’s AI, which also serves as the game’s narrator, describing the objects you see and interact with.

These ‘levels’ follow a routine that quickly becomes a grind: find key X to unlock door Y, where you’ll find key Z… and so on. The puzzles are easy enough, generally speaking, to put a brake on your progress without requiring any real thought or challenge. There’s a lot of backtracking, and generally only one order to do things in. Certain locations are restricted arbitrarily – a door might not be locked, but the AI will still say “we’ve got more important things to do now!”

Exploring Alone With You

The daytime exploration sections can be a bit of a grind

This even extends to the home base you return to each night: is there really any reason why I can’t see the under-construction escape ship until the game’s very last day? Isn’t it the whole reason we’re here?

As such, the game often feels as if it’s shuttling you down a particularly narrow and prescribed path. Each day settles into some very familiar and often lengthy routines of movement and behaviour that rapidly come to feel like a daily grind. You know how late-period point-and-click adventures would let you double-click an exit so you could avoid a tedious walking animation? You’ll be crying out for something like that here.

This feeling isn’t helped by your protagonist’s lack of a distinct personality. Rather than the LucasArts-style wisecracking protagonist, commenting on the world around them, your faceless space-person remains silent throughout – it’s the AI who dishes out the descriptions. But this is, of course, the same hectoring voice that arbitrarily restricts your movements, and at times it’s hard to warm to.

Recent adventures like Kentucky Route Zero and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have shown that you can have a mysterious protagonist who’s still an interesting, well-rounded character in their own right – and it’s a shame Rivers didn’t give us a little more to work with here.

It all adds to a curious feeling of sterility – and on many occasions I found myself forced onward by the promise of the evening’s holo-sim section, rather than any particular fun I was having at the time.

Now, it must be said that the daytime sections do manage some superb feats on environmental storytelling. From scattered corpses, journal entries and tableaux of personal effects, the departed ghosts of the colony really do come back to life – and the petty dramas, triumphs and disasters are expanded on in the nightly conversations. I don’t want to talk it down: there’s some brilliant storytelling in this game. It’s just a shame that so much of it was framed by some often uninspired gameplay.

A hallway in Alone With You

The daytime environments paint a bleak picture of decay and despair

The big question, then: is it worth the slog?

It’s an emphatic yes. As you I made my way through the game’s three-week narrative, I found myself increasingly hooked into the storyline and the fates of the characters. I even found myself enjoying the daytime sections more – the environmental storytelling really picks up in the game’s final third, and I was grateful for every narrative tidbit I uncovered. Even the game’s relatively under-developed AI comes to play a decisive and fascinating part in the game’s conclusion. Oh, and throughout, there’s the music – the bouncy, purple-hued electronica was consistently excellent, and it saved the very best track for the final credits.  

What’s also clear – and I do feel I have to say this – is that Alone With You has been built with love and passion. It’s impossible to escape the feeling that Rivers cares about the characters he’s created, and wants you to care about them too. Perhaps that’s why it’s so successful.

So while I did often find myself frustrated by it, ultimately I enjoyed my time with Alone With You. But as to whether I see myself playing again, unearthing the secrets and getting to know its cast of characters from another angle – there, I’m not so sure.

But for fans of the adventure genre – and particularly visual novels – it’s well worth at least one playthrough.

What’s more, I’d be fascinated to see what Rivers could come up with in a more purely narrative-focused format. Indeed, I have no doubt he’d write an excellent visual novel. But whatever he does next, I’ll be paying attention.

 

7 out of 10
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