The Alien franchise is no stranger to the industry. Over the years we have seen a fine number of hits and duds release, with Alien: Isolation setting a bar years ago that has yet to be topped. Aliens: Dark Descent is ready to give things a go with a new take, offering a story-driven strategy romp with a focus on horror. An RTS in the Alien Universe is new, but does this title have enough in its cargo bay to live up to the predecessors of that past? Let’s find out.
I think going into Dark Descent I had lower expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Alien movies and usually try to be optimistic with licensed fare, but the past has proven that this universe has more misses that hits when it comes to putting together an original tale. Thankfully, those expectations were knocked out of the park as the narrative is fantastic in this title, with a ton of twists and turns to keep you engaged until the end.
Players initially take the role of Maeko Hayes, a strong female protagonist who runs the USS Otago. After an outbreak of creatures spills loose on the ship, she must assemble a team and attempt to control the horde before it spills out to the world. On paper it may sound a bit simplistic, but there is a lot of arching narratives here involving crew betrayal, life and death decisions, and so on that really give a lot of satisfaction to anyone looking for a great piece of lore in this setting. On top of that, the game is actually very intense, offering that demanded element of horror as the player assembles and progresses through the game.
While the story is great within Aliens: Dark Descent, its the gameplay that truly makes it shine. Overall, this title plays a lot like XCOM and similar strategy titles we have seen in the past. Controlling your character in a top-down world feels very point and click, where you can interact with your environment. Luckily the controls are very easy to learn and accessible enough to easily get the hang of. As you progress, you gain a squad and must go to each area, avoid and conquer alien life, and achieve specific objectives without dying in the process.
Your squad consists of several different classes to control and upgrade as the game moves forward, featuring specific abilities and techniques to keep the chaos at bay and the group alive. Injuries and anguish can cause the team to under-perform, so you must try to strategize to keep everything as calm as possible, despite the threats constantly being high on the ship. To be honest, this isn’t anything new in terms of most RTS titles out there. The menus, class system, and everything else feels familiar and plays fine, with nothing really unique brought to the table. When you add in the narrative and tension however, the game breaks through its design limitations and really starts to feel special.
Exploration is also a large part of the experience here, as the decisions you make may come back to hurt or assist you later. For instance, you can block off aliens by welding doors, but that also causes a newly sealed door that may effect your squad later on. Players also have to utilize the environment to stealthily avoid overpowered foes, which is tricky due to the stress and tension you have to manage for not just yourself, but your whole squad. Sometimes it feels that the stress is an exciting addition to the mechanics here, but I also had a lot of annoyance with the squad getting jolted by just being in a tight space that could not really be helped otherwise. I think there are some great ideas here, but maybe the stress elements would have been better if they were limited to specific missions or areas, rather than always running even when the game takes more of an action slant.
The cutscenes here are awesome. I really cannot state that enough. Dark Descent can be very cinematic and the story benefits from the work this team put into that experience. The actual game looks fine when in action as well, even if the top-down view may not always feel fitting for specific moments of combat or play. Animations however always seemed consistent and there is a great level of atmosphere added by the dim lighting and creepy environment in front of the player at all times.
The voice acting here is where the audio shines. The cast all have great performances that bring your crew to life, with a lot of personality to incentivize the player to keep their team healthy and well. Again, the audio also provides a great atmosphere to make that tension mechanic feel real and that adds to the execution for the overall experience. Sometimes the silence also pays in numbers to the benefit of that as well, with the eerie sound effects coming into play as you pray not to make another encounter as you trek through.
Aliens: Dark Descent is another win for fans everywhere as it is indeed to great title that will surely satisfy newcomers and veterans to the franchise alike. While it may not be perfect in all areas due to its over-ambitious tension mechanics, it is a thrill to play and for a strategy title, and that is certainly saying something. Its refreshing to see licensed titles take risks, and Dark Descent is proof that straying out of the norm can lead to success, with another Alien game that is sure to be a fan favorite for years to come.
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