Who cares if it takes a lot from the Metroidvania playbook? Aliens Infestation is a fun action game with some Aliens wallpaper.
It should come as no surprise to most of you that WayForward has, yet again, made a really good 2D side scroller. Aliens: Infestation is some of the best the studio has to offer wrapped in a shiny Aliens-themed package with a Metroidvania bow. However, it’s not without some fairly odd design flaws that don’t really detract from the experience, but still leave the player scratching their head either way.
The plot is literally just Aliens the movie, as is to be expected from an Aliens product nowadays. You know the drill; there’s another slimy company man (literally referred to in the game as ‘Company Man’), trying yet again to make weapons of the Xenomorphs, marines with unique character traits who are sent in to kill the titular creatures, and, of course, androids. The levels are mostly comprised of locations from the film, such as the Sulaco and LV-426.
It’s just enough fanservice to make series devotees feel at home, but it’s also not inaccessible. So many games these days take inspiration from Aliens that, even if you’ve avoided the franchise up to this point, you should still be able to figure out what’s going on.
All the marines in Aliens: Infestation deserve special mention, considering how much work WayForward put into making each one feel unique. For example, when your squad is taking a break in a safe room, each marine has different passive animations that match their various personalities. There are also unique yet fairly similar lines of dialogue for the cutscenes depending on which marine you’re playing, although I did run into at least one instance where a completely unique exchange had been written when I was playing as a specific character. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also quite a bit of flavor text for the marines in the main menu that usually gives them a fleshed-out backstory.
The reason there are so many marines to be found within Infestation is because the game has what is essentially a modern version of a ‘lives’ system. You have a party of 4 marines, each with their own health bars, but once a marine dies, they’re gone for good (much like in Mario Bros, where death means the permanent loss of a 1up), and you’ll have to find another marine to replace them. There are some instances where, if your marine was taken down by a melee attack from a full-grown alien, they’ll be taken back to one of the many off the map alien hives. You can mount a rescue mission to get them back, but if you don’t get there fast enough, they’re dead.
Running out of marines was never a real issue for me, even with my usual habit of throwing caution to the wind. I ended the game with 18 used marines and at least 4 that never made it into my party.
Since Infestation was released incredibly late in the DS’ lifecycle (to the point where the 3DS was not only released, but could be purchased for $160), the touch screen does exactly what it needs to without being intrusive. You can select different weapons or explosives by tapping them, activate certain gadgets that will help you move through areas, or check your map to see if you’re about to stumble into a hive of aliens. It’s all very useful, and there isn’t an inch of wasted space on the touch screen.
Combat ranges from ‘strategic’ to ‘difficult’; depending on which enemies you’re going up against. When the game starts out, you’re fighting combat androids on the Sulaco, but the challenge ramps up when you start encountering human enemies, and gets even more difficult once Xenomorph ambushes start becoming a regular occurrence. Thankfully, the difficulty isn’t anything artificial.
You’re never spammed with too many enemies, and the controls work just fine. Infestation’s challenge comes from the fact that Xenomorphs are just tough little buggers. They can take a lot of bullets, and if you get too close, that iconic acid blood will start giving you problems. Even the chestbursters and facehuggers can totally wreck a squad if you’re not careful. However, the crowning moments of that game’s difficulty have to be the boss battles. If you bring a full squad of 4 into a boss fight, you’ll probably leave with a single marine clinging to a sliver of health if you’re lucky.
The game does get easier once you discover new weapons (like a shotgun or flamethrower) and start recognizing enemy patterns. You can also hunt around for upgrades that make your weapons even more powerful; once I fully upgraded the shotgun towards the end of the game, for example, it took only two shots to kill even the hardiest foe.
As is befitting a Metroidvania game, there’s backtracking in Infestation. For example, early on you find your path blocked by a welded door, so you go find a welder and un-weld the door. You’re not constantly running into areas you can’t access, but when you do, there’s just enough behind that trash pile to entice you into straying off the path to get that upgrade or that marine. It’s the right balance that most Metroidvania-inspired games don’t usually strike. Usually it’s either too much backtracking, or the backtracking is too shallow to be worth it.
The only noticeable flaw I could find with Infestation is that it’s a little too short and it ends in a fairly disappointing way. Without being explicit, the game just fades to white and leaves the fate of all the characters entirely ambiguous. And the game probably lasted as long as it did for me because occasionally I re-loaded saves to make sure certain marines made it out alive. But that’s probably one of the many points in Aliens: Infestation’s favor. The marines, despite how little you learn about them over the course of the actual gameplay, become very endearing very quickly.
Aliens: Infestation is an easy game to recommend to series fans; after all, you fight an Alien Queen with a power loader and you can knife fingers in a post-game minigame. But even if you don’t care about the Aliens franchise, the Contra-esque shooting and well-written cast of Marines should be enough to please everybody else. It’s still a bit short though, and if you’re strapped for cash, you can find probably find an longer, equally good DS game for a song; especially this late in the system’s life cycle.