Publisher: Sega / Developer: Gearbox Software, WayForward / Platform: Nintendo DS

It’s no secret to Metroid fans that the series was inspired in part by the Alien movies. A Metroid-style Alien game not only seems like such a perfect combination, it’s so obvious that it makes me wonder why it’s taken this long for it to happen.

Unfortunately, Aliens: Infestation doesn’t quite measure up to the same level of quality as Shadow Complex or the Metroid series. In fact, it initially fell so far below my expectations that I initially hated the game. But after letting some time pass and giving it another try, I was able to look past the game’s many flaws just enough to notice some of its charm.

For example, the art direction is quite nice. The pixel art is fun to look at, and I enjoyed the character designs by fan-favorite comic artist Chris Bachalo (Wolverine & The X-Men). From a level design perspective, the maps were competently laid out for the most part, and there were a few fairly clever variations on keeping certain areas temporarily inaccessible. In particular, requiring key cards to access particular elevators worked much better than, say, having your commander simply lock off areas he doesn’t want you to go to yet, as in Metroid: Other M.

But perhaps my favorite thing about the game is the area in which the developers actually innovated, coming up with an idea that, as far as I’m aware, has never appeared in a game before: instead of having multiple lives, you have unique, individual marines. You start off with four marines, selecting the one you want to play as. But if that one dies, they’re gone, and you have to select another. As you explore the game, you come across additional marines to replace the ones you’ve lost.

The best part? Each marine has a unique personality, reflected in their responses during dialogue exchanges. The developers could have easily gone the lazy route and just given each marine the same lines, making the characters essentially interchangeable. But someone decided to go above and beyond, and wrote a separate set of dialogue for all nineteen playable characters.

The result is that when you finally settle a favorite character, you encounter a dilemma: do you continue to play as that character, and accept the chance that they’ll die if you unexpectedly encounter a boss? Or do you set them aside to keep them safe, but then miss out on their unique and amusing reactions? Making you actually care about whether your marine dies is Aliens: Infestation‘s greatest achievement.

Unfortunately, that’s roughly where the good ends.

One of the more questionable game design choices was the decision to limit the amount of ammo your primary weapon can hold, and then include infinitely regenerating enemies. Mind you, there are ammo boxes scattered throughout the map, and you do have a side arm with infinite ammo that does minimal damage for those times when you do completely run out. But seriously, regenerating enemies with limited ammo? And enemies aren’t even consistent in when they regenerate. Some only regenerate after you’ve gone in a safe room or vent, some regenerate the moment you leave and re-enter a room, and some will even regenerate the moment their spawn point is scrolled off and then back on screen.

Even worse, the regenerating nature of the enemies only puts that much more focus on how few enemy types there are, by making the combat that much more repetitive. You will encounter robots, which don’t appear to have a set amount of health, but rather require you to shoot it continuously until it short circuits and explodes. You will encounter humans who like to hide behind boxes, and require a specific set of timing to get over the boxes and take them out without getting hit. You will also encounter weaponless, ineffectual humans who pose little threat, but don’t appear until near the end of the game when your opens are pretty much leveled up. And you will of course encounter aliens (and facehuggers), who for whatever reason completely ignore all the human enemies, even when they walk right by them (unless they’re background elements). And…that’s pretty much all of the enemy types right there.

The boss fights aren’t that much more fun. The enemy’s lack of a life bar means that you have no idea how you’re doing. And fights can be pretty nerve-wracking on the first playthrough when you don’t know where they are, because you can’t go back once the fight is activated, and odds are fairly high that you will lose at least one character.

But it’s the very final boss fight that’s the worst. It’s not a difficult fight (as long as you use the flame thrower, which has infinite ammo), it’s just extremely tedious. The boss has so much health, with no health bar or any indication of how close she is to being defeated, that the fight seems to go on endlessly. All you can do is continue firing, hoping that the battle ends. I breathed a sigh of relief upon defeating the boss not because I’d been worried I was going to run out of lives, but because it was so boring. It’s a boring, tedious, seemingly never-ending boss battle that serves as the ultimate anti-climax to the game. The awful outer space platforming level that leads up to it certainly doesn’t help, either.

But the game’s biggest crime is that it’s a Metroid-style game that is anti-exploration. For explorer types like myself, we have a tendency to try and figure out which way the level designer wants us to go, so we can go the opposite direction first in case there’s something there. In a Metroid game, you are frequently rewarded for exploring with additional missile expansions, energy tanks, etc. But in Aliens: Infestation, exploring the main map usually only leads to having to fight the same regenerating enemies a few times more before encountering a path that you won’t be able to get through until later. You eventually learn that you shouldn’t try too hard to explore at all and should just follow the destinations given to you, because if there’s an upgrade you can’t yet reach, there will be a destination later that brings you back to it.

And then there are the vents. Occasionally the vents are part of a required path, and it’s usually obvious when they are because there’s no other way to go. But if you decide to explore a vent went there are other doors you can still open? You will either discover a lengthy vent that leads to nothing, a vent that contains health or ammo when you were just at a safe room anyways, or in some cases a vent that is just filled with enemies and no reward for clearing them. But my favorite is when objects related to a particular objective appear only after an event has been triggered, causing me took look everywhere for it except for the vent it’s now in, because when I checked that vent earlier it had been empty. Aliens: Infestation could have simply removed exploration entirely, but instead they decided to systematically train players to avoid exploration.

The only reward for exploration is being able to find all twenty characters. And once you’ve got that 100% complete save file, and want to play through again to see what some other characters say? It turns out there’s only a single save file, and you have to erase it if you want to play again. There’s even wording that seems to indicate the game might once have had more than one save file for you to use, but there’s only just the one to select.

There’s still more that I could complain about. Like how the beginning of the game has a major case of “Megaman! Megaman!”, yet at the same time the existence of a roll button means that you might not realize there’s a run button hidden as one of the shoulder buttons. And why do all the dialogue sections sound like your commander is constantly biting into an apple? Why is there no actual reload button, the game instead requiring that you switch from map to inventory on the touch screen and tap the gun. And who thought that putting a tedious driving level in between a save point and a boss—so you’d have to do it all again if you died at the boss—was a good idea? But I think you’ve heard enough.

Aliens: Infestation was a game that showed a lot of promise, but instead comes across as rushed and slightly unfinished. In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite line from Lt. Col. “Stainless” Steele:

“Listen up, Marines. The Secret Squirrels beat the tree you brought back and knocked loose a couple of acorns.”