Saturday, January 20

Aliens Dark Descent Review

I played on: PlayStation 5

I paid: £39.99

Available on: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S & X

Notes: n/a

When Xcom: Enemy Unknown released in 2012 I remember wishing for a similar style game but instead set within the Alien Universe. 11 Years later I find that wish being granted by Focus Entertainment. While this game is fun to play, I still find myself unable to shake the feeling that this game I wished for was granted by a cursed monkey’s paw.


Let’s begin by talking about what this game does best: gameplay. You command a squad of 4 colonial marines, later this number can be increased to 5. I say command instead of control because you don’t directly control anyone. You view the game from a 3D isometric perspective. You can order your soldiers to move up to a location or interact with something. This is a painless experience, because your soldiers will inform you of any hostiles they spot while only opening fire if they themselves have been spotted. It makes exploring the densely designed maps a real pleasure. This isn’t a turn-based game like Xcom. Instead, it opts for a real-time combat system that can be slowed down when you go to give commands. On easier difficulties this will completely pause the action instead of slowing it down. These commands include, firing a shotgun blast, using a grenade, taking a sniper shot, setting up a remote turret, and so on.


Stress is something you will need to keep an eye on both during and after missions. Scared and stressed marines make mistakes and mistakes get your men killed. Each soldier will have three levels of stress that you must monitor. You can find defensible rooms, if you order the doors welded shut then your marines will be able to take a brief rest. This will drop each soldier’s stress level by one. If a marine is stressed for too long, then they may end up traumatized. This will give that soldier a permanent debuff that can only be removed by allowing them to spend time with a psychiatrist back at your base. This will take time, time that the marine is unable to participate in missions. This also goes for marines that get physically wounded in combat. They will need to spend time in the med bay. This means that you’re constantly juggling your best soldiers against their physical and mental injuries. Sure, you can take your best marine out for every mission, but they will end up getting traumatized and injured which will mean they will put your other men in danger. I love this. It’s a risk/reward system that puts a good amount of focus on not just the physical wellbeing of your men but also their mental health.

The environments will bring a smile to any fan of the series. As the title would suggest this is more Aliens than Alien. The first real area you’re free to explore is a colony very similar in its design and aesthetic to Hadley’s Hope from Aliens. Later you explore a refinery like the one found on Fiorina “fury” 161 from Alien 3. Other notable locations include that of the Pioneer Station similar in its design to that of Sevastopol station from Alien Isolation. We also visit a Bison M-Class star freighter like that of the USCSS Nostromo from Alien.  All these locations look fantastic with lots of small, tiny details that can only come from the passion of an obsessive fan. This makes it obvious that a lot of love went into this game. It’s far from a lazy cash grab like Aliens Colonial Marines was. This is despite it technically looking not-so-great at certain points. Sure, it has its fair share of visual bugs, stiff animations, and ugly character models but all the tiny details in the environment, enemies, vehicles, weapons, uniforms, and so on make up for them. This mostly goes for the sound design as well. The only complaint I have about the sound is how often your marines repeat the same lines over and over. Hearing your marine shout ‘You shall not pass; fuckers’ while welding a door is a cute reference to Lord of the Rings the first time you hear it. It’s just annoying the twentieth.


So far Dark Descent is the game I was dreaming about for all those years, so what spoils it? What went and made this dream game into more of a nightmare? The short answer: the story. It’s a mess of interesting ideas pulled off so badly that it drags the Alien lore and canon into a confusing fog of bullshit. You start the game playing as deputy administer Hayes onboard the Pioneer space station orbiting the planet Lethe. A strange container is delivered to the station and so you go and investigate. This section acts as a basic movement tutorial. You find that the container was filled with Xenomorph XX121 eggs. As is the case in any Alien game the station is quickly overrun, and Hayes finds herself saved by the marines from the USS Otago frigate. Pioneer station detects the outbreak and enacts the Cerberus Protocol which grounds the Otago on Lethe. From this point on the Otago will act as your base of operations between missions. Hayes needs to work together with the marines and their CO, Sergeant Harper, to find out what caused the outbreak. You also need to find a way off Lethe before it’s completely overrun by Xenomorphs or destroyed by the Cerberus Protocol.

This next section will contain spoilers for the game so if you want to avoid these then just skip this paragraph. Hayes and the marines chase these containers down to a dig site that serves as the home to a cult called the Darwin Era. These cultists follow a man named Marlow and worship both the Xenomorphs and a newly introduced race known only as the Ancient Citizens. This is the major flaw with this plot; the Ancient Citizens. They are only found during the final mission of the game, with about 20 minutes left, which gives the story no time to explain anything about them. They are found within an area called the Xeno City. This city seems to share a lot of architectural design and visual style to that of the Engineer cities that we’ve seen within the series. Which would suggest a connection between the two races. The Ancient Citizens stand around twice the height of the Engineers which means they’re not the same race. These Ancient Citizens also appear to be fused into the architecture of the city. From what we see they lack any legs or means of locomotion at all. If they’re built into, or grown out of, the walls, as appears to be the case, then how could they have built the city? Does this mean that the city they’re found in is in fact not one of their own design? I would guess that the city was constructed by the Engineers with the Ancient Citizens either entombed within the walls alive or grown directly out of them. The Ancient Citizens have some sort of tube that enters their mouths. Were these devices used to force feed the Ancient Citizens? Does this mean that the Engineers enslaved the Ancient Citizens within the very walls of their city for some reason? We get no explanation at all. 


Ultimately, the problem with this game's story is that it just doesn’t even want to try and explain any of the interesting things it brings up. I mean it introduces one of the most significant new pieces of lore to the series since Prometheus. It does this with only about 20 minutes of run time left. Then it doesn’t even bother to try and answer any of the questions that this brings up. The cult is never explained. The thing that the cult worships isn’t explained. Harpers connection to the Xenomorphs is never explained. This just goes on and on. The writing wants to ask lots of questions but doesn’t even care a little about the answers to them. Everything introduced is never explained. We never get to understand how it fits into the wider Alien universe.  This is the worst story from this series, possibly ever. I say this after having read almost every novel, played every game, and having seen every film. I’ve read the lore from the tabletop RPG, I’ve studied the Colonial Marine’s Technical Manual, reviewed David’s drawings, ect. The Alien universe is one of my favourite fictional worlds and because of this I know it inside and out. This is why I want to stress the weight of what I mean when I say that this is very likely the worst story in the entire series. It makes Alien Resurrection, Aliens Colonial Marines, and Aliens vs Predator look like literary masterpieces in comparison.

What makes this horrid story even worse is that I think with only the smallest of changes it could have brought the Earth Hive novel into the modern cannon of the series. Imagine this, you play as Wilhemina Hayes, or Billie to her friends. While working within the cargo bays of Pioneer station she finds the mysterious container. The Xeno eggs break out and overrun the station. Billie is then saved by Corporal Wilks and extracted to their frigate, the USS Otago, before it’s attacked by the automated containment system in orbit around Lethe. Wilks and Billie find themselves stranded on Lethe as it’s slowly being overrun by Xenomorphs. You discover that the Cult of the Xenomorph are worshipping these aliens. They’re spreading the Xenos across Lethe to appease they’re new god, the Xenomorph Queen mother. Now you find yourself stranded on the planet with no way off. You need to try and save as many survivors of this outbreak as possible while also trying to escape the doomed world yourself. Along the way you learn of the Queen mother and can make the choice to destroy her or not. If you take her on it’s a near suicide mission that ends in one of two good endings. One if you survive, one if you all die alongside the Queen mother. If you choose to escape without destroying her then you get the bad ending. This isn’t a perfect adaption of Earth Hive, but it’s got all the major points and doesn’t leave any loose ends. It also reintroduces, Wilks, Billie, and the Xenomorph Queen Mother, into the canon. Instead, we get an utter mess of a story that ruins an otherwise perfectly enjoyable game.


When I’m playing Dark Descent, I do enjoy it. During the missions when the only thing that matters is the safety of my squad and a wonderfully designed map to explore this game is great. It’s the Alien X-com game I always dreamed of. But then I finish the mission, or I reach a cutscene that brings me back to the narrative and I remember how much I truly dislike it. This love/hate relationship I have with this game makes it hard to give a number score to. I’m going to have to give it a middling score to reflect my mixed feelings on it. So yeah, Dark Descent gets a limp 4 out of 10.

 Recommendation Rating: 4 out of 10.

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