‘Alien: Isolation’ Is Still A Terrifying Beauty On Nintendo Switch
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Featured Image Credit: SEGA
The biggest compliment I can pay the Nintendo Switch port of Alien: Isolation is that, even on a small screen, it's still completely terrifying. Or rather: especially on a small screen.
Played in handheld mode, lights down, headphones on, Alien: Isolation is a senses-consuming nightmare ride, from its eerie clanks and scrapes and grinding sounds through to its flickering lights, wandering souls desperate for salvation, and, naturally, its headlining monster.
Playing the game this way takes me back to when I first experienced Creative Assembly's survival-horror title, before its release, at the studio itself. I was sat in the dark, headphones on, every distraction pushed beyond the periphery of my attention.
When I first caught the eye, or ear, of the alien roaming the creaking, fractured space station of Sevastopol, and failed to escape from it, I had a strong physical reaction. Out of the chair, practically. The only other game to have come close to that is P.T., when Lisa first lays you out.
Much like P.T., the raw scares of Alien: Isolation fade over time. You come to realise that, sometimes, it's better to let the creature get you in order to proceed, instead of crawling from locker to desk, ventilation shaft to piles of crates, in a futile attempt to avoid it. Die, respawn, and go again with ol' acid-for-blood in a new location.
But what never dissipates is the atmosphere, the dread, the creeping unease that this game manifests from the first moments that protagonist Amanda Ripley steps foot, violently, onto Sevastopol.
And on the Switch, in handheld mode, that feels more amplified than ever. With its action, the slow-steps of cautious exploration and the deep inhalations of near-miss excitement, so close to your face, the game evokes a kind of claustrophobia within the player that's perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic tone, the throat-clenching terror, of Ridley Scott's original Alien movie.
When I saw Digital Foundry's assessment of this Feral Interactive-produced port, and its proclamation that it "looks better than PlayStation 4", of course I was sceptical. But knock me down with a Brett-assembled cattle prod if they're not onto something.
Granted, Alien: Isolation is a game that's largely shrouded in darkness, only subtly but very deliberately illuminated, and its stark retro-futuristic surfaces don't typically possess rich textures. Everything is grey metal and off-white plastic, functional furnishings and chunky tech. As a sci-fi universe, Alien is well suited to gaming hardware that isn't reliant on macro-focus fidelity. The blockier, basically, the better.
Of course, the closer you look, the more compromises you find - and, should you dock your Switch, you'll find this Isolation loses some of its appeal. While it was a cross-gen game on release in 2014, looking fine on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (which the Switch version easily exceeds), there's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that this port doesn't quite hold a big-screen candle to its XBO and PS4 predecessors. And look, you know Alien franchise fans love a good candle or two. (Nods, knowingly, at the Alien 3 Assembly Cut fans in the audience.)
But that's to be expected - and not really what you're buying this for. It's the rush of blood that is playing Alien: Isolation at the end of your nose, wherever you find a quiet corner for yourself, that represents the real appeal of revisiting this stylistically perfect love-letter to its inspirational film series, before it went off the rails with human hybrids and crossover concoctions.
It's the way you can feel your heart punching through your chest as you open a new area, as heavy doors begrudgingly give way, screaming your location to all in earshot. It's how, even though you know it's coming, that first spear-tipped tail, those death throes of a companion, catch you out and steal your breath. Same as it ever was, sure, but petrifying in perpetuity.
Alien: Isolation on Switch comes with all of its DLC, meaning you can also take control of Ellen Ripley in Crew Expendable, an alternative telling of the first movie's events on the Nostromo in the wake of Brett's death (albeit still without a happy ending). There's also Last Survivor, also based on 1979's Alien, in which (Ellen) Ripley has to arm the Nostromo's self-destruct systems while being hunted by the xenomorph.
It also comes with the same flaws that prevented it becoming an essential, above and beyond its Alien appeal, five years ago. It's inarguably too long and the story feels more padded than a Marine Corps pressure suit. Amanda's supporting cast rarely feels fully realised, with the sole exception of lawyer Nina Taylor (but to say anything more there means venturing into spoilers). And when the game's twist comes, it strips the game of what seemed to be some very disciplined logic, at least when it comes to what was communicated, burning an acid-scorched plot hole through proceedings.
And yet: it's still completely terrifying. And, really, that's the only metric that matters here.
Alien: Isolation is out now on Nintendo Switch, and was tested using code supplied by its publisher, SEGA.