24 May 2019
If you’re not afraid of the dark, you will be
Remember the motion tracker in Aliens that Ellen Ripley used to locate approaching xenomorphs, your heart pounding in time with the relentless bup-bup-bup-bup as the dots blipped ever closer? That feeling is the feeling of playing as Alone’s isolated hero, fleeing the nightmarish terrors that lurk in the dark: your friends.
Alone is a sci-fi dungeon-crawler with a refreshing premise. The solo hero is trapped in a labyrinthine network of corridors and rooms, only able to see a very limited portion of the environment at any point. In the parts of the map they can’t see, on an overlay of the entire environment hidden behind a screen, the ‘evil’ players summon alien monstrosities and lay traps for the unsuspecting explorer to encounter as they try to survive a series of missions.
Having a player serve as a DM-like overlord isn’t exactly new to dungeon-crawling games, but it’s well executed here. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the three (3!) rulebooks in Alone’s box, the game’s reaction-based gameplay quickly becomes second nature, as the hero moves around, scavenges for kit and tries to avoid being turned into extraterrestrial tagine by the evil player(s) as they lay down cards after each action to spawn creatures, move them around and make portions of the map more dangerous. Both sides of the fight can combo actions and cards together – at a cost – so the choices never feel stilted or limited, and there’s never too much downtime.
Alone’s real masterstroke is the claustrophobic atmosphere achieved by its line-of-sight mechanics, which remove sections of the board that the hero player can no longer see, allowing monsters to sneak up in the dark and spring out at them if they fail to explore ahead – or are forced to run and take their chances. Just as engaging is its clever use of light; the hero can repair light units to illuminate sections of the environment, letting them gain the upper hand over monsters that thrive in the darkness. Combat, when it occurs, is fast: a few dice chucked to dish out wounds, with a variety of different aliens, from facehugger stand-ins that move fast but go down in a couple of shots to slow-moving worms that are formidable in the dark but useless in the light, offering plenty of chances for variation.
There are some other smart additions, including a basic system of unlockable hero abilities and a sizeable inventory board that lets them keep track of where unseen noises are coming from – something that the evil players can use as distractions to their advantage. The constant pressure of time on the hero keeps things moving at a fair clip, gently prodding them out of a safe ‘check every corner’ approach, while the opportunity to complete optional objectives for extra benefits stops things being too predictable on either side of the screen.
Alone’s gripping atmosphere suffers only in its adherence to sci-fi cliché – none of the monsters or heroes are overly memorable, and the map tiles are near-identical grey corridors. The repetitive visuals add to the sense of being lost in a maze, but do little to bring the world alive, even during the campaign mode.
The game’s other stumble is that it works best as a head-to-head experience for two players. While adding a second or third evil player adds an interesting element of restricted communication and co-operation, it doesn’t go far enough to make up for the diluted tension of a one-on-one chase.
Alone doesn’t quite stand completely apart from the dungeon-crawler crowd, but its tense use of unseen danger and reversal of the one-versus-many format gives it plenty to recommend. Bring it into the light and it might just surprise you.
PLAY IT? – PROBABLY
Alone’s inventive use of line-of-sight really makes the horror lurking in the dark feel truly frightening – even if its monsters aren’t all that memorable once you see them. It’s decent fun with three or four, but a two-player hunt is where it shines brightest.
Designer: Andrea Crespi, Lorenzo Silva
Artist: Steven Hamilton, Paolo Lamanna
Time: 1-2 hours
This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.