Aliens: Dark Descent Review – True Science Fiction

    Title: Aliens Dark Descent
    Developer: Tindalos Interactive
    Release Date: June 20, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Focus Entertainment
    Genre: Action Strategy

The Aliens franchise thrives on its horror and action roots. The universe has grown significantly over the years, with some okay releases through both film and video games. Developer Tindalos Interactive opts to take an ambitious approach with releasing Aliens: Dark Descent. Instead of a straightforward action game, they’re attempting to tell a new Aliens narrative through the real-time strategy genre. Whatever your feelings are about this move, I believe the team has succeeded in crafting a well-rounded experience for players to test their strategic capabilities across some rather unique gameplay systems, all while under the threat of being hunted across every moment of gameplay.

Aliens: Dark Descent opens in a way that sparks a series of questions to be answered throughout the game. Players assume the role of Administrator Hayes, who attempts to always do things by the book. After finding a discrepancy in a recent cargo shipment, she takes it upon herself to search the cargo bay, only to discover something…Alien has escaped. Her eagerness to follow protocol is never questioned after these events as she does a rather unspeakable act that leads to future moments of dramatic interactions.

While this opening scenario is an homage to classic Alien horror and tension, that all changes when the Colonial Marines save her and take her aboard the Otago. She assumes command of the ship with a first mission to broadcast an alert to the higher-ups and be saved. Well, it’s not entirely that straightforward, but every mission is connected to progressing the story, so you rarely feel like you’re just out there in the field doing busy work.

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The entire story carries some movie-like qualities where the actions of the Crew become more impulsive and desperate as they deal with the surrounding Alien threat. This is escalated by Hayes not being entirely honest with the Crew and having to deal with possibly not following orders to do what’s right. There’s a standout supporting cast that grows on you throughout the story, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how much time was put into making these characters’ relationships, struggles, and personalities shine in these moments.

However, this doesn’t entirely translate to the actual Colonial Marines that make up your 4 – 5 person squad. The game does its best to make them have unique traits, including negative ones, alongside levels of stress and individual skills. However, they don’t affect the core narrative, so you never get to see them interact or grow attached to them. Instead, my only real attachment was to their level, and that’s all I really cared about. This is only a point I bring up because there’s permadeath here, and I was more upset losing my level 8 marine than whatever their name was.

As you utilize Marines in the field, they’ll gain level, which opens up paths of classes. Depending on what kind of Crew you’re trying to put together, you can focus on support skills or ones that alter the character’s core traits. Given the randomness of skill upgrades provided upon each promotion, it’s a decent system.

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Before a mission, a lot of preparation goes into the load out, checking in on injured or exhausted Marines, and overall planning the day’s next deployment. However, on the Otago, you’ll have access to other sectors that require various materials found in the field. The base grows over time, given that it’s possible to add new workers to it, these individuals can be rescued while on a mission or randomly join following a unique event during the passing of a day.

As the Administrator of the ship, you’ll need to manage the Crew’s requests. If you progress to the next day, a unique event will occur where you must respond, sometimes with a negative outcome. It gives the campaign a sense of randomness that I wasn’t expecting but enjoyed the immersive situations to make me feel like I had to make the difficult choices to keep this Crew alive.

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Regardless of all of this, gameplay takes on a very unique blend of action and real-time strategy. After selecting a mission and drop-off point, you’re pretty much free to explore the various maps. The camera rests at an isometric view to provide a view of the battlefield and highlight any strategic opportunities. The Crew moves together, but instructions and tasks can be divided amongst the Crew. At the same time, this isn’t such a significant feature in the opening. Once you gain access to new weapons, actions, and abilities, it’s possible to get a lot out of this when building a stronghold against an incoming horde or to cover your tracks in case you’re being followed.

Still, I wouldn’t say this is on the level of perhaps an XCOM game, the soldiers will do their best to hide and listen to orders, but if spotted, they will simply fire at the income threat. This allows you to make more split-second decisions because the action is just so fast. Once spotted, the Aliens come rushing. As a result, the noise draws in other aliens, so it’s always best not to be spotted. This creates some tense moments as you have your Crew hiding behind some desks and can see the motion of a lurking alien moving around just feet in front of you.

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The tone shifts when human enemies come into play, as it seems their inclusion acts as a means to change up your strategic approach. These enemies are not smart and generally just annoying to fight against, especially when they just walk around in groups. Still, the variety of enemy types builds up to some genuine sci-fi moments of storytelling as the antagonist is revealed. However, when out on a mission, the best approach is to avoid all combat, but that’s not always easy.

More powerful enemies also dwell within these evacuated areas, such as the Queen. Like enemies, she rushes in quick, demanding players think of a plan ahead of time to stop her. I didn’t like this approach, given that it’s already too late if you attempt to build up your defenses after she’s revealed, and you’ll likely lose a few crew members.

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The difficulty of the game rises over the passing days as the Aliens become more acclimated to the areas increasing the difficulty of even the simplest of missions. Managing that difficulty was mirrored by the growing skills of my Crew, but you will lose someone eventually. While on a mission, crew members need to manage their stress and wounds. It’s possible for them to get struck they knock out, requiring you to carry the fallen soldier. If they die, well, that’s it. You can pick up some dropped experience and say goodbye to your friend.

Thankfully, there is a very generous save system that saves multiple states periodically, allowing you to go back and make different choices. This was extremely helpful during boss encounters where you can see their attack patterns, die, and then just load from outside the encounter. However, this does affect the weight of permadeath since if a soldier dies, you can just reload. The way these systems work comes down to the difficulty chosen when you start a game, which can’t be changed during a campaign. Still, a Story Mode difficulty allows players to experience a low-action version of the game just to get some of this great Alien lore.

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Graphically, I think Aliens: Dark Descent sets an excellent tone for the experience. The maps are sometimes massive, encouraging exploration at the cost of losing resources but gaining new research materials to aid future missions. I didn’t like that each time the Crew moved, they yelled out something, which I couldn’t just turn off, but there’s some quality voice acting and narrative beats throughout the core campaign.

I did encounter a few bugs and a game crash while playing. These graphical oddities were strange but didn’t affect my gameplay. However, I did encounter a bug that wouldn’t allow me to interact with the mission marker, and I had to load to the previous day, but I could touch the object upon returning.

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Aliens: Dark Descent doesn’t overly complicate itself with deep simulation strategy combat. Instead, it finds the perfect balance of action, horror, and strategy to be accessible to all fans of this series. The narrative is the biggest highlight, fueled by clashing personalities, double-crossing, and a high-stakes conclusion. The player is made to feel like they are commanding these tropes, and that is found throughout each mission and choice made during dialogue. If you’ve been eager to immerse yourself in the world of Aliens, look no further.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Azario Lopez

Hanging out max, relaxing all cool.