Alien: Isolation; Almost A Metroidvania

One of the weirder elements of Alien: Isolation's design is that there's a Metroid-esque acquisition of new tools that expand your ability to explore Sevastopol, including that older areas are littered with interactables you won't be able to do anything with until you've upgraded your blowtorch or whatever.

The potential here is pretty strong. A Metroid-esque game in which you're being hunted continuously by an unstoppable killing machine, where exploration is tempered by the constant tension of knowing you may be interrupted by the need to hide from something, desperately searching for resources to aid you in your struggle... that actually sounds amazing. That sounds like Metroid: Fusion, but much better, and Metroid: Fusion is a pretty damn good game. (Even if many people disliked its 'linearity')

The actual execution just... isn't there, though.

Initially, you of course can't backtrack because it's too early for that to be a concept. But once you do start picking up tools that should open up new areas, the game... largely locks you in to a rigid path, no ability to backtrack or even to particularly go off to the side. You're stuck in a Shooter With Plot railroading experience, and whatever tools you pick up to go new places feel less like a new ability that expands your reach and more like the latest pointless activity. There's not really any experiential difference between picking up a keycard for a single door vs finding a blowtorch that lets you get to the immediate next area.

Eventually the game does briefly open up, but this period occurs fairly specifically in the period where the game isn't willing to drop Aliens on you. You can backtrack and explore and whatnot, but the potential of 'explore while an Alien is breathing down your neck' goes completely unrealized. And unlike an actual Metroid game, there is no aspect of exploration letting you empower yourself to prepare for later, difficult encounters. It's just busywork that's necessary to do if you want to be able to honestly say you 100%ed the game.

Once the mechanics of being hunted by an Alien do return, the game pretty much completely cuts off the exploration potential. The last third of the game is increasingly modeled more like a ye olde video game with discrete levels you teleport between with no potential to go back, Sonic the Hedgehog or something of that sort. Indeed, the game increasingly forgets to even include blowtorchable panels and whatnot, even aside how they'd be experientially a bit pointless since you couldn't possibly encounter them without the blowtorch.

This whole thing is one of the strongest factors in why I suspect Alien: Isolation had the initial third done as a reasonably complete game, and the Alien hive got tacked on after the fact. The first third of the game really feels like it was meant to be either a standalone experience where you were then free to explore the station for the sake of exploration, or meant to be training wheels before the game world opened up into a proper Metroidvania experience where you can go many places in many orders, using your new tools to cover new ground in familiar areas... and instead the game abandoned that general direction entirely, shifting to a generic Shooter With Plot linear experience.

As a huge fan of Metroid-type experiences, this would be disappointing to me personally regardless, but honestly the entirety of Alien: Isolation's design makes so much more sense as a grounding for a Metroid-type experience than as a grounding for a Shooter-With-Plot railroading experience. Even if I weren't a much bigger fan of Metroid-style games than of shooter-with-plot designs, I'd feel like something had gone horribly awry here.

I'm genuinely curious as to what happened in the development process in this regard, because the trajectory here is so weird, and I never heard anything about Metroid-esque gameplay prior to playing the game myself, even though I read multiple interviews and a couple of reviews. Did someone outside the team with authority sweep in and force them to take the rest of the game in a different direction, or something?

It's so weird I really just don't know what to make of it.

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Next time, we wrap up Alien: Isolation by covering the DLC.

See you then.

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