A Match Made In Gaming Heaven
Aliens: Infestation would've flown right under my radar if it weren't for the pedigree of its developer, WayForward Technologies. When the guys behind the excellent Contra 4 and Bloodrayne Betrayal put out a new 2D game, I tend to pay attention. When said game takes its inspiration from classic Metroidvania games, I'm practically stumbling over myself to fork over my cash. Indeed, Aliens: Infestation has a fantastic concept, and capitalizes on it as much as possible. A sidescrolling Aliens game in the vein of Super Metroid seems all too obvious in retrospect, and it's about as cool as it sounds. The game makes a few minor stumbles in terms of fairness and consistency, but recovers quickly thanks to a mixture of solid gunplay, nail-biting tension, and pure old-school charm.
The opening moments of Aliens: Infestation are quiet and suspenseful. As your platoon of Marines lands on the seemingly abandoned USS Sulaco, there's a palpable tension in the air. It isn't long, however, until this tension dissolves and the occupying Xenomorphs reveal themselves. From here on out, the game ditches tension in favor of straight up gunplay. Although the shooting is generally solid, it's a small failure on the game's part that it doesn't go for more atmospheric scares as opposed to the more traditional combat that permeates the game. After discovering the Xenomorph infestation, the creatures spawn in practically every room, and the motion sensor makes their appearances more predictable than they should be.
Although the game leans heavily on its shooting, a methodical pace is demanded due to a severely limited pool of lives. In Aliens: Infestation, each Marine constitutes one life. You may only have four Marines, and thus four lives, in your pool at any given time, although a total of nineteen unique Marines are scattered across the numerous environments for when you need some backup. When all of your lives are depleted, the game forces you to start from the beginning. If you don't want to play significant portions of the game over again, it's best to maintain a slow and steady crawl through the levels. This more tactical approach serves to differentiate Infestation from its peers, giving it an identity all its own. The feeling of horror that overcomes you as you dash desperately towards the nearest save room with only a sliver of health remaining is entirely unique to this game, and is a lot of fun to boot.
Unfortunately, that limited pool of lives can come back to bite you in the ass when the game cheaply kills you. I've had enemies spawn in on top of me, basically condemning me to a helpless death, and I've been killed by cheap bosses a few times. One time I was even gunned down in the middle of a cutscene. Reloading your old save can alleviate these issues to an extent, but that's never any fun. Besides, there's a certain feeling of flying by the seat of your pants to rolling with the game's punches, and when it cheaply kills you, that feeling is diminished significantly.
Other than a few issues with cheap, glitchy deaths, I had a ton of fun exploring Infestation's numerous environments. They're lovingly rendered in the style of classic SNES games, and demand a decent amount of exploration to fully exploit. Secrets and upgrades are hidden everywhere, but so are the Xenomorphs. This mixture of encouraging exploration while demanding careful planning works well enough to keep the action feeling punchy, even when you have to backtrack through a lot of the rooms. And like any good Metroidvania game, it's the exploration that feels the most satisfying. There's just something about looking at a grid-based map and feeling the need to fill in every corner of it that pleases me to no end.
When Xenomorphs inevitably pop out of every corner, the gunplay satisfies as well. Although you'll start with the standard Marine Assault Rifle (and yes, they managed to nail the sound even on the DS's tinny speakers) you'll quickly upgrade to a shotgun, and again to still more powerful weapons. This constant progression is a staple of the genre, and Infestation nails it. Guns feel powerful, especially against humanoid enemies as the Xenomorphs take a fair share of punishment before falling. If they aren't enough, you'll also have access to a supply of grenades. Although your Marines toss grenades like they were in a shot putting competition, you'll eventually get used to it, and they're an instant kill against most enemies making them a great last-ditch weapon.
Aliens: Infestation places its sights on some pretty lofty targets and mostly hits its mark. Like the classic Metroidvania games, it's gorgeous to look at and fun to explore. Its chunky sprites and tinny music inspire as much nostalgia as horror, even as the game quickly ditches its tension-filled beginning moments for a more action-oriented approach. Exploring the large maps is a satisfying way to kill ten or so hours, and the fact that you can actually lose all of your Marines and be forced to start from the beginning is a neat hook that gives the game its own unique feel. In an increasingly crowded genre, Aliens: Infestation still manages to stand out as a great purchase.