We’re a bit late to the Alien: Isolation party on Nintendo Switch and that’s my fault, it took me a while to cautiously creep through the numerous corridors and air ducts present within. Anyways, title notwithstanding I’m sure it’s possible to get through this whole review without using any more quotes from the movies so let’s get into it. Usually not much phases me, movies, games or walking through a spooky woodland alone at night, meh, no problem. Games such as Resident Evil 7 or Outlast II didn’t bother me and the likes of Dead Space had no chance of getting a jump scare out of me. But despite having owned the PC version since its original launch back in 2014 and later the PlayStation 4 version, I never got around to beating Alien: Isolation. Now, this might owe to me being a Sci-fi fan having grown up with the modern myth that is H.R Giger’s Xenomorph firmly in my psyche, but Creative Assembly succeeded where others have failed in that Alien: Isolation genuinely creeps me out from start to finish. It induces a constant feeling of dread keeping me constantly on edge and somewhat stressed out. I’ve always ended up getting partway into the game only to save it somewhere, play something else for a while to unwind and never return. So when the chance came up to play the Switch version I thought it’d be a perfect chance to dust off my motion tracker, climb into an air vent and get this game done once and for all.
There’s a reasonable chance you’ve already played Alien: Isolation on another system, what with this being a five year old game, but in case you’re new here’s a quick introduction; set fifteen years after the 1979 movie Alien had introduced us to the Xenomorph menace, you play the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley. Working as an engineer for Weyland-Yutani, Amanda has given up hope of finding out what happened to her mother when she is approached by an official from the corporation who informs her that they believe the Nostromo’s flight recorder (the ship from the first movie) has been recovered and that it’s being held aboard a space station, Sevastopol. Amanda and a few others book passage aboard the Torrens and head out to retrieve the recorder. To be honest my unease begins right here despite being fully aware that I’m in no danger at this point. Upon arriving at Sevastopol they find it to be in bad shape with visible external damage and suffering communication problems; unable to make contact or dock with the station, Ripley and two other crew members embark on what turns out to be a very dicey space walk in order to gain access to the station. That’s pretty much it, cue constant terror from here on in. The setup for the story is pretty simple but perfectly serviceable and gets on with things in a timely fashion, written by some well known names such as Dan Abnett who is known for his work with Marvel and Games Workshop’s Black Library.
Once aboard Sevastopol it’s pretty clear something has gone very wrong and while Amanda doesn’t know what that something might be, we as the player are very clear on what’s happened: someone let a homicidal apex predator on board and now we’re stuck in here with it. The station itself is a horror show in its own right, creaking and groaning from the events that have crippled it; every corridor is dimly lit with steam venting from ducts and damaged electrical systems sparking, hastily scrawled graffiti adorns the walls and signs of struggle are evident all around. Every shape and shadow looks like it could be the Xenomorph lurking there just waiting to bite your face off, every sound a cause for alarm which makes you feel rather daft when it turns out only to have been a worker’s desk ornament or something equally as benign. The whole feel of the station is in perfect keeping with the Alien style vision of the future, all industrial with flickering green CRT screens and a sense of space being a tough place to inhabit, fans of the franchise should be pleased with the faithful depiction achieved and let’s be honest, it’s just a really cool imagining of a spacefaring future.
It isn’t just the Alien itself you’ll need to worry about on Sevastopol, there are still some survivors aboard; a few of them are friendly, but for the most part they are looking out for themselves, scavenging and looting what they can including anything you might be carrying. It’s safer to assume any humans you encounter are going to be hostile. Human NPCs always looked a somewhat wooden and uncanny valley even in the first launch of Alien: Isolation and they certainly don’t look any better now with dodgy lip sync animation and that typical glassy eyed stare. The other non-Alien hostiles you will run into are the android “Working Joes” that made up part of the workforce on Sevastopol Station, who suffer many of the graphical issues present in the human enemies but pull it off better due to their synthetic nature. Both human and android are pretty run of the mill where their behaviour is concerned; humans will chase you to the last place they saw you, investigate a little bit, then go back to whatever route they had been on, and as long as you consider your movements and actions they can get fairly trivial to deal with. Much the same can be said of the Working Joes who act in a fair mechanical way. And then we get to our non terrestrial friend who is a totally different animal both visually and intellectually.
The Xenomorph doesn’t follow any set path, doesn’t trigger at specific places (scripted moments aside), doesn’t come from the same places every time and doesn’t act how you might expect an artificial intelligence in a game to act. Certainly there’s a few tricks going on to make sure that the monster is always in the same section as you. Things would get boring quickly if the alien could be on one side of the station while you were on the other, but outside of that you’re aware that the thing is constantly there on your trail, picking up your scent and tracking down any noise you make. The alien might run right at you one time, then on your second attempt in the same area it might look safe, only for the Xenomorph to impale you with its tail while your back is turned, or it might appear on the opposite side of the room from last time or perhaps not at all, only to be just around the next corner when you thought you were momentarily safe. Whatever the case, it’s going to kill you, repeatedly, and most of the time you won’t see it coming until it’s too late. Sometimes you can avoid it by hiding in a locker, all the while watching this thing through the vent as it thuds around looking for you. Or maybe this time it knows you’re in there and rips the door off before it kills you. Again. The result is a Xenomorph that feels alive and like it has its own agenda and free will which is where that creepy feeling comes from, you always feel like it’s there just behind you or in that air duct. This alien feels like the 1979 Xeno too, a hunter/survivor more so than the warrior types seen in Aliens where the Xeno in Alien 3 was supposed to be a blend of the two. In any event this Xenomorph is terrifying and still sets the bar for any game trying to pull off a genuinely menacing, scary antagonist to instil a sense of dread and loathing in the player.
Technically speaking, I was initially a bit worried that the Switch version of Alien: Isolation would have been… well you know… “Switch-ified”, taking a hit in the graphics department. Luckily this version, handled by Feral Interactive Limited for the Switch version, gets the DOOM treatment as opposed to the Ark treatment. That is to say that it looks absolutely brilliant and runs very well either docked or handheld. Digital Foundry detailed in this article how the Switch version actually looks better than the PS4 one despite running on a lower spec device and often a lower resolution. It’s a good read so check it out if you’re interested in the particulars of how and why it looks good on Switch, but I’ll just say that I can see exactly what those guys are talking about. Alien: Isolation on Nintendo’s platform looks brilliant both on the go and up on the big screen. You’re also getting gyro control for aiming and looking around which works really well and is handy given the short sometimes sensitive travel of the joy-con thumb sticks. HD rumble is also present along with all of the game’s DLC including “Last Survivor” which recreates Ellen Ripley’s last mission on board the Nostromo. To wrap this up I’ll just say that whether you’ve played Alien: Isolation elsewhere or are a total newcomer, Alien: Isolation is in my opinion one of the best survival horror games ever released and the Switch port has been polished to an extremely high standard and having it on Nintendo’s portable platform is a godsend because now I can take it into a space where no one can hear me scream. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
Superb port of an already amazing game, perfectly at home on Nintendo Switch looking great and as chilling as ever.