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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Guess what They’re Alive! ripped off? It’s not a trick question

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, it’s time for another trip to our very own City 17; a shooter from somewhere around Russia whose alien invasion seems… just a little familiar.

I think the main character is called “Jim Fail”. There aren’t any intro subtitles. I may just be mishearing. But I really hope not, because a world with an action hero called Jim Fail is one that I want to live in. Not his specific world, obviously. This one. Where we can just sit and giggle at the idea of a hero called Jim Fail. Better make it quick though, because the aliens on his trail have no sense of humour.

Or much in the way of sense, for that matter. But they do know how to rock Dolce Gabbana.

While this one doesn’t need the “NOT A FEVER DREAM” Post-It note of our last foreign offering, Venus Hostage, it’s not for a lack of trying. The intro alone sets the scene in more ways than one, earnestly describing the setting as “so dangerous, that even when citizens are taking out the garbage, they’re telling their relatives their last wish,” over footage of a town happily going about its business, backed by music that should really be plastered onto a promotional video called “Hicktown. City on the GROOOOW!”

Anyway, I don’t speak a word of Russian, but you can probably guess that when the video says he’s signed state secret non-disclosure agreements, what it means is, “Seagal.” Only not really. This is never brought up again, and as far as the actual game is concerned, you’re simply an engineer about to lose your job in the aftermath of your company being taken over by Evil Incorporated. 

If that’s not their official name, that’s what they become the second they start employing guards in balaclavas to beat the shit out of the former staff with batons. I’m not actually sure what else they’re intending to do here, since the entire building is now 100% full of angry goons, but I’m assuming they know their business. Certainly, it’s likely to be more profitable than the company’s previous speciality: creating GLaDOS-powered sex toys.

Jim Fail isn’t the kind of guy to just stand back and take unemployment lying down, and not just because that’s a complicated manoeuvre only the world’s greatest Twister players have ever managed. He barges past the guards and over the turnstile, fighting his way through the building with nothing but his fists. Sure, he could pick up a fallen guard’s baton at any time. But he doesn’t! Why? Because he’s Jim Fail! Probably! I’m going to keep calling him that! And with an army of righteousness, he lashes out with both his fists and his greatest weapon—leadership—to take down the corrupt system from within.

Or, as it turns out, not. Absolutely nobody ends up following him into the actual fray, leading to him quickly being apprehended and… uh… just put back on the street, completely unharmed, with even his friends not feeling the need to mention what just happened. Grumbling about Gordon Freeman having it way easier, he shuffles off into the night with a new purpose in life. A quest. An ambition. He now knows what he needs. He needs… (drum roll please)… to get a job in a lousy economy!

Hey, it’s still more exciting than the first hour of Doom 3.

I don’t know if there’s any way I can truly convey the sheer horror of what follows using mere words. Even allowing for the fact that this isn’t an English game, and all the dialogue is ropey or poorly delivered, the lady at the employment agency sets an impressive low. Not only is it delivered badly, her animation is… gosh. If Jigsaw’s puppet from the Saw movies ever needs an out-of-work game character to shoot a porn film where he won’t have to be the most wooden performer, this is the lady he will pick.

The game itself seemed to recognise the quality of her lines and did its best to cut them off at the knees; the only thing I was pressing was an imaginary gun to the side of my head in the hope that bullets would fire out of my fingertips. But no. Didn’t happen for Bloodrayne 3, didn’t happen now.

Our hero, Jim Fail (whose voice sounds worryingly like Mike Dawson trying to read his lines through a coffee strainer) shuffles off to contemplate starvation and poverty, or maybe trying his luck over in the Arstotzkan Labour Lottery. He’s saved at the last second though by a random stranger offering him a totally legitimate-sounding gig ‘offloading’ a car in the middle of the night at an abandoned train yard on a promise that the details of cash and things will be sorted later. Yes. Nothing bad can come of this.

Yes. Somewhat oddly, and with no explanation at all, Jim Fail is immediately jumped by… two baseball bat-wielding preppies? They have baseball bats. He counters by picking up a muffler from the ground and using it to smash in their faces. A… muffler. Muffler. He doesn’t punch one out and take a bat. He spends the rest of the game with a huge rusty muffler as his default melee weapon. Not a baton. A muffler. A muffler

He also acquires a pair of very funky glasses and slips them into his pocket. What were they doing just lying there? No idea. It’s probably not important to the plot. Certainly not as important as beating up college students with a goddamn muffler. THERE ARE BASEBALL BATS RIGHT THERE!

Stumbling past their friends, Jim “Jim Fail” Fail ends up underground, in the love nest of two vagrants—one of whom seems to think he’s Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. They don’t seem too bothered about having a stranger burst in, as I may have mentioned once or twice, carrying a muffler! 

They’re actually pretty chill, talking about picking up girls, watching TV, and even complementing you on your newly found glasses—glasses that they suggest you try on just in time for some security guards to randomly burst in and murder them. Looking at them through the glasses though, Jim Fail sees what most can’t: the Facehugger-style aliens locked to their faces. And they’re not the only ones who’ve fallen. Those college kids? Aliens. The police? Aliens. Aliens? Other, different aliens!

Waaaait a minute. An alien invasion. A hero who can only see their true forms through his glasses…

This is John Carpenter’s 1998 movie They Live, isn’t it! I see through your camouflage, not-actually-all-that-camouflaged title! There’s no Vice President Keith David or Roddy Piper, but it’s totally the same! Well, mostly the same. 

There are a few differences. For instance, to my knowledge these are the first alien invaders who sat down to figure out the perfect place from which to hatch plans of global domination and decided “Diaper warehouse.”

To give, ahem, ‘They’re Alive’ some credit, the glasses thing is actually quite funky. You can take them off whenever you like, with the enemies switching from their human forms to whole new alien ones—office ladies become androids, guards get the facehugger treatment, advanced guards get a Davy Jones from Pirates Of The Caribbean-style Cthulhu beard. 

It’s largely pointless though, because at no point do you ever have to tell friend from foe, and even if you did, the fact that every single foe just barrels around with big weapons kinda gives the game away. And if they don’t, then the regular moments late in the game when the office computing equipment decides it wants to have a piece of you certainly will.

There’s enough attention to detail to swap a few things around though, with the aliens turning out to be cosmic pranksters when it comes to posters—a group of partiers being given pig heads when stared at in Dolce-vision for instance, or swapped for a couple in a dumpster. I can’t read the captions, but I’m sure they’re not particularly polite. Most of the aliens even have reasonable designs to swap to, even with their cloned human bodies.

Gun-toting invader from another world or not though, this guy is about as scary as felt.

For the most part the world itself remains unchanged, but there are a few surprisingly neat little moments. At one point for instance you take a lift ride past some NPCs, and can slip on the glasses to see who’s who there as well. Later on—though not much later, because this game is only about an hour long—you find yourself looking for the source of the alien power. But where? High up, you know that.

Oh, wait. Glasses!

The aliens also provide most of what I think we have to call the official ‘balls out crazy’ moments in They’re Alive, the first one being the shift from incredibly grim Eastern European architecture to a spaceship where it’s constantly party-time. 

Everything is brightly lit, organic, stuffed with detail and full of weird one-shot things that can’t possibly have warranted as much time being spent on them as this. Who needs context? It’s hardly Prey or Doom 3, but it’s surprisingly detailed, especially when you notice weird little things like the hands that grip onto railings, detach to do a thing, and animate properly while they do it.

But all that is nothing. Nothing. Compared that is… to this…

Where. To. Begin? This is the kind of wall decoration that you’d normally find in a fantasy or a horror game, especially something with a Lovecraftian bent. The details are similar. On the left, an alien world. On the right, the Earth, crippled and mutating like the bad ending of an X-COM game. But the alien in the middle… what the shit is going on there? A pot-bellied conqueror in shorts and a vest, with a hat that looks like Harley Quinn’s hand-me-downs had it off with an octopus, before they were handed to the Slob King of the Velociraptors to wear into battle so that all might cower before his staff and mighty knob.

But you know the worst part?

The really, really terrible thing?

He ends up looking even stupider.



Ferengi, Hynerians, everyone in Lexx: you are no longer the laughing stocks of the galaxy. Even flying around on a gun platform in a collapsing boss arena with the planet almost under his control, this guy takes the cake, then falls into the cake, then has the cake humiliatingly licked off his face by a goat. A goat with halitosis. But of course, looks aren’t everything. What’s the big plan? Why invade Earth? Our resources? Our cats?

No. Earth used to be the galaxy’s picnic place, and he wants to turn it into ‘a blossomy garden’.

Really. He says this. He also says “You won’t live to see it! Now die!”, but that’s minor in comparison.

You’ve got to love games like this. Good? Hell, no. But you won’t get that level of alien overlord incompetence anywhere else, with the obvious exception of Strife, home of the worst superweapon of all time and a final boss who lives right down to it. (Luckily, Strife has other charms.) This one doesn’t have anything like as much going for it, but at least it is very short. Want to take a look at the whole thing? Here’s your handy YouTube-based longplay. An hour and a half. Good length for a bad game.

Oh, the ending? There’s not a lot to it, oddly. You defeat the floating Velociraptor King of All Crapness and just black out, waking up back in the Job Center queue. This time though, Jigsaw’s pal is on Jim Fail’s side, giving him his pick of jobs and sending him on his way. 

At least, that’s what it wants you to think. Personally, I think this, not Mass Effect, is the game to search for an indoctrination ending. Not for long, though. In fact, not at all would be best. Whether it’s real or not, if it’s these aliens standing between us and the freedom of our planet, I’m pretty sure we can take them. And still have time for breakfast.

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