Midway through Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 franchise-launching sci-fi horror film, the crew of the Nostromo hatches a plan to try to kill the deadly creature loose on their ship. After the loss of Brett, an engineer, the survivors realize the creature is moving around in the ship’s air ducts. Captain Dallas heads inside the ducts with a flamethrower, planning to flush the creature out into an airlock so the others can blow it out into space. Back outside, the rest of the crew use motion trackers to identify the creature’s location and guide Dallas through the complicated, pitch-black duct system.
Alien is a famously suspenseful movie, and possibly no other scene is as tense as Dallas’ trip into the ducts. He’s stuck in those tight tunnels, alone, exposed, and unsure of where the danger lies. Meanwhile, his crew outside can only try to warn Dallas as they helplessly watch the two dots on their motion trackers converge–one for Dallas, the other for the creature.
Alien: Blackout captures what makes the duct scene so fraught and frightening, distilling it into a game you play on your phone. A direct sequel to 2014’s Alien: Isolation, Blackout makes for a strong companion to what remains the best Alien game ever made. Again playing as Isolation protagonist Amanda Ripley, you take on a new role in Blackout: Instead of moving through a space station, hiding from and avoiding the alien and receiving information from other survivors as you did in Isolation, Blackout puts you on the other side of the screen. You’re watching cameras and motion trackers, trying to guide four other survivors to escape the alien. It’s somewhat akin to the popular jump-scare horror series Five Nights At Freddy’s, but the addition of more characters broadens the experience.
Information is your only weapon in Blackout. Armed with access to limited security cameras, a few room-spanning motion trackers, and a map of the facility, your job is to watch for the alien and provide warnings to the survivors as they try to repair their ship and get you all out alive. Using touchscreen controls to swap between the map and various camera views, you can give the survivors instructions, like telling them to hide or run or directing them through the facility. You can also remotely close doors between the creature and the survivors if they’re lucky enough to be near one, which is often enough to save some lives in an emergency. But there are significant gaps in your awareness and the alien is fast and deadly–creating those same feelings of horror, helplessness, and dread drummed up by the movie.
Smart design that plays to the strengths of smartphones and tablets helps Blackout convey plenty of tension. That’s also largely thanks to the game’s excellent production value. Blackout’s cast of voice actors, including Andrea Decker reprising the role of Amanda from Isolation, sell the anxiety of the situation as they talk and argue while sneaking through Mendel Station’s halls. Appropriately low-fi visuals capture Alien’s slightly dingy future-via-CRT television aesthetic, and Blackout uses Isolation’s excellent art design and creature animations, which were extremely faithful to what was created for Scott’s film.
It’s the sound design where Blackout really excels, though. Fans will recognize many of Isolation’s sound effects, which were as good as its visuals, heightening the anxiety and fear the game already creates. Growls and roars of the creature echoing through the ducts aren’t just unnerving–they signal when the alien has found Amanda’s safe haven, forcing you to tear your attention away from the security cameras for a heart-pounding scramble to quickly locate which vent the alien is in and close the right door before it reaches you. The telltale beeping of motion sensors often notes that your crew has only seconds to find hiding places before the creature finds them. And the tinny screams over the radio as the alien discovers the survivors are frightful reminders of your failure. All those elements get visual designators too, so you don’t need sound to play, but Blackout is at its best when you can use all your senses to keep you and your crew alive.
Levels are only eight minutes long–Amanda’s racing the clock before her equipment runs out of power, leading to the titular Blackout–which is great for small doses of mobile horror. It also means that failure has you replaying an entire stage at a time, which wouldn’t be such a big deal except you’re stuck listening to Amanda and the survivors have the same conversations over and over again to set up each level’s goals. Sitting through the same two minutes of discussion every time you lose gets old in a hurry.
The alien is also not quite as smart as one might hope. Though it definitely responds to your actions and those of your crewmates, the alien often has set paths and actions at certain points you’ll learn through repetition. In a few stages, not knowing to close a specific door at a specific time will get people killed, but that’s information you’d only really have if you already played and failed. That some of the alien’s actions aren’t dynamic can undercut those great moments in Blackout when you’re frantically trying to intervene to save your people after the alien does something you didn’t predict or shows up somewhere you didn’t expect.
For a $5 mobile game with no microtransactions, though, Alien: Blackout is impressive. It’s surprisingly fresh in its presentation and use of the platform, and it captures a specific, frightening Alien experience that, frankly, deserved to be turned into a game a long time ago. It’s not the full-scale sequel to Alien: Isolation fans were hoping for, but Blackout is still a smart, spooky return to its world in a bite-sized package.