Written by Tagaziel
Afterfall: InSanity is the first installment in the Afterfall series, which has had a rather troubled history. Beginning as Bourgeoisie: Pearl of the Wastelands, it was initially conceived as an ambitious isometric role-playing game in the vein of Fallout, set in the post-nuclear wastelands of Europe. Years and several major staff and design changes later (including the departure of Andrzej Koloska, the founder of the entire project), we are presented with InSanity, a third person perspective action game in the vein of Dead Space, set in post-nuclear Poland.
The player assumes the role of Albert Tokaj, a psychiatrist stationed in Glory, a massive underground shelter built by the Republic of Poland to protect its citizens in case of nuclear war (or other world-ending events). He is sent to investigate rumours of strange occurrences and odd behaviour in the lower levels of the shelter, accompanied by an armed escort. However, he soon finds himself alone fighting psychotic shelter inhabitants, mutants and his nemesis: a mysterious saboteur. Aiding him is an arsenal of melee weapons, ranging from the humble crowbar to a powered engineering tool, and a selection of firearms, including a military grade assault rifle, double barreled shotgun and various pistols.
However, no matter how interesting it sounds, Afterfall's story and gameplay suffer from several faults that range from nuisances to crippling flaws. By far the largest of these is its failure to properly introduce the player into the setting. Outside the short introduction in the intro and loading screen tips, the game quite simply doesn't bother to estabilish a strong, convincing alternate history setting, or even attempt to explain the more questionable story choices - such as the Third Reich surviving into the 21st century. People who have been following Bourgeoisie's and Afterfall's development closely may be familiar with the setting enough to understand what binds it together, but to anyone else it will seem disjointed, despite the amount of descriptions in the PDA or loading screen text clips.
A related problem is the storyline. The adventures of Albert Tokaj begin with a somewhat typical - if well executed - horror introduction. However, as the story develops, questionable narrative choices begin to accumulate, beginning with a rather arbitrary, forced explanation for Tokaj's separation from his well armed escort. The game doesn't bother explaining or elaborating upon many of its plot devices, for example, why people are mutating, who is the man we're chasing or why exactly are we supposed to do what we're expected to do. The storyline feels as if it was improvised for a school project, not carefully written by a competent writer for a commercial release. Of particular note is the ending, which rather than concluding the story and tying up loose ends, only makes the story confusing and illogical. This is quite a shame, as it wastes the quality of some of the plot twists, such as the brilliant conclusion to the City of Shadows stage, which puts in perspective all that the player experienced during his stay there.
The problems with the story and setting could've been made up for with gameplay, but this is not the case. Granted, it is quite fun and there is variety: fight sequences are mixed with puzzles (some of them quite well realized and very rewarding), relatively easy quick time events, vistas, boss fights, there's even a chase sequence in the game. However, the core of the game, fighting, is somewhat underwhelming. The player has access to a lot of different melee weapons and a free fighting combat system utilizing the mouse and direction keys, but in the end, the only really effective weapon is the axe and the only attack worth using is the overhead swing. Other weapons and attacks are too slow, don't offer enough reach or both. What rescues melee from total failure are enemies, which require timing, dodging and more than button mashing to defeat. Ranged combat is better: weapons in this category feel powerful, are easy to control, yet hard to master, and can be used to knock enemies back if they come too close. At the same time, ammunition is relatively scarce, forcing the player to conserve ammunition and make each shot count.
The entire combat system suffers from a major flaw in the game: there are only three basic types of enemies to fight: humanoids armed with melee weapons (quite challenging), mutants fighting with claws (easy) and ranged enemies (moderately easy). While their models may change somewhat, these three basic types pretty much exhaust the catalogue of enemies thrown against the player by the game. The situation changes in the last stage (City of Light), where the player is challenged not by melee enemies (well, not so much at any rate), but by the environment: aggressive phantoms spawn if the player steps out into the sun, while burned corpses may suddenly awake and make a suicide run at the PC. This level is extremely well realized and twists the typical horror cliche: instead of staying in the light to survive, staying out of it is essential to your health. But a single stage does not make up for a limited catalogue of enemies, especially when compared to another game from the same category, eg. The Suffering, with its great variety of enemies. At least boss enemies are somewhat varied and require different methods to defeat, giving the game a bit more variety.
Quality of the gameplay is lowered by the inclusion of regenerating health, greatly simplifying resource management (and seems to have been cut from the game late into development, as health packs are scattered across levels) and no method of developing the player character. Where Dead Space offers a robust suit and weapon upgrade system, not to mention extremely varied weapons themselves, Afterfall offers nothing, greatly limiting replayability.
Another problematic feature is the difficulty level. While InSanity includes four difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard and Insane, they should be named Very Easy, Easy, Normal and Hard, as the first two difficulty levels include insane boosts for the player character's health, accuracy and stamina. The game is relatively easy without them; with them it's just boring.
However, by far the biggest problem with Afterfall is how it wastes the work graphics artists and sound engineers put into the game. While the graphics suffer from a poorly implemented renderer (which, quite strangely, prevents anti-aliasing from working and makes depth of field absolutely hideous to look at), very stiff, unnatural animations, particularly the cutscenes, the overall art direction is good, brilliant even. Environment artists deserve all the praise, as the shelter and its facilities look appropriately sterile, technical sublevels feel, well, technical, while the ruined cities are superb and even the lack of variety in signs and billboards can't ruin the great art direction. Scenery items, as well as weapons and tools used by characters look great as well, particularly pre-War items, for example, the ARP (Army of the Republic of Poland) trucks, weapons etc. Characters themselves are a mixed bag: while heads can be quite ugly (immobile eyeballs, poorly made bump mapping resulting in flat, lifeless faces), the gear they wear is designed and implemented well, particularly the Republican Guard armors (featuring in both parade and field colours) and Hussar exoskeletons. Even with all the problems, Afterfall looks nice and has a distinct, Eastern European feel. Only one design choice is truly baffling: why was the impressive Polish coat of arms replaced with a very stylized, very ugly logo?
Last, sound design. This is an area in which Afterfall has no major flaws. Sound effects accompanying the environments are appropriate, but nothing more. Sounds of combat and interaction are of sufficent quality to feel rewarding. Good craftsmanship, but nothing notable. Ambient music accompanying play is particularly well made, building up the atmosphere. It is also nice to listen to outside of the game itself, which is always a positive feature.
However, voice acting is a separate issue. This review was made basing on the Polish language version, where actors range from average (protagonist) to passable. A big problem is the script, which, overall, feels amateurish and forced at times. There are some brilliant exchanges in the game, but more often than not, the player is left wondering if he's listening to fan fiction, rather than a professional work. A notable issue in the Polish release is that the script has been apparently translated from English, rather than the other way round. This wouldn't be an issue if the translation was faithful, rather than direct. However, the Polish script includes all the English idioms and expressions present in the English version, rather than their Polish equivalents. The end result is rather jarring.
To summarize, Afterfall: InSanity feels like a wasted opportunity. It is an average game with some brilliant elements, but ultimately, it's held down by its flaws. Very good art design, coupled with a varied gameplay and an interesting atmosphere are not enough to make up for a poorly written storyline, confusing, disjointed setting and the lack of balance and replayability. The distinct Eastern European feel of the game may be worth giving it a try, though definitely not for the current price.