Of the four main Alien films, it's James Cameron’s action packed 1986 movie Aliens that provides the most explosive source material for a video game conversion. Konami knew this when it picked up the licence and released a fun arcade game, enabling players to blast pink xenomorphs in 1990. SEGA fans have already dabbled in the Alien franchise, not just with 1993 light gun arcade game Alien³: The Gun but with Probe’s Alien³ Mega Drive game a year earlier. In many respects Alien³ is the film that has been replicated with the greatest care in video game form; both the action-focused Mega Drive incarnation and the more strategic exploration flavour of the SNES game were fantastic run-and-gun adaptions of the movie license. This brings us to WayForward’s DS Aliens: Infestation, a game which is openly respectful to Alien’s side-scrolling run-and-gun past. A retro embryo has been planted in this game and it wastes no time bursting out of its chest: direct links to Cameron’s movie provide a gem of a licence for WayForward and the studio enthusiastically embraces the opportunity.
There is just a month period between the ending of Aliens, set in July 2179, and Alien³'s start in August of the same year. Aliens ends on the Colonial Marines warship Sulaco, and Alien³ opens with an explanation of what happened to the ship, but it's Aliens: Infestation that adds detail to events during an iconic month of sci-fi movie lore. The level of fan service in this game is huge, as you control a Fox-Six team grunt Marine led by Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Steele and investigate a distress beacon from Sulaco. What starts as a search for a missing life form turns into a xenomorphic nightmare, as you strive to prevent a disaster far worse than Hadley’s Hope. You also encounter the sinister manipulation of Weyland-Yutani, in this case represented by a sneak called Sean Davis. While the variety of environments is not the game’s strong point, this is countered by an authentic atmosphere created in exploring four locations (Sulaco, LV-426, a sharply brilliant revisit to the derelict spaceship from the first film and a research facility on Phobos). In terms of its Metroidvania gameplay and sci-fi setting, the way in which Sulaco is the focus of this game compares to the BSL Research Station in Metroid Fusion; it doesn't have the visual diversity of that game’s six habitats, but it feels similarly atmospheric to explore.
Story-wise, the game succeeds on two fronts: the aforementioned fan-pleasing story setting, plus the back story and personalities of the 19 controllable Marines. You can manage a roster of four Marines at a time; each one essentially acts as a reserve of credits for when you die and you become attached to each character’s quirks, superbly portrayed in portraits by Marvel artist Chris Bachalo. For gamers that are disappointed that the Marines control the same and have the exact same abilities, it's understandable that WayForward kept the core gameplay tight, with a focus on developing skills and finding items to gradually unblock paths for progression. These are drip-fed throughout the five hour story, from key cards allowing elevator access to new items accessible from the touch screen, including a TNA lamp for dark areas and a welder for locked doors. Note that this game is not an arcade run-and-gun like Contra 4 — it echoes the movies by building tension slowly on each level and each one starts quietly, later becoming manic to amplify the scares. The increased scope of the terror is portrayed superbly through blips and audio effects on the M314 Motion Tracker, an experience which conjures memories of the screech sounds from Electric Dreams' retro C64 Aliens game. You gain confidence with new weaponry, especially as a massive M56A2 smart gun can be upgraded three times, an exoskeleton power loader crushes crates and a M240 incinerator flamethrower can double-up to burn through sticky resin doors.
There's no tutorial, but the controls are accessible and intuitive from the start, and it's more a priority to determine the most effective approach to suppress the variety of enemies. There's a surprising diversity to each adversary, from Weyland-Yutani androids to the variety of Xenomorphs, although when WayForward experiments in designing its own hybrid specimen aliens they appear out of sync with HR Giger's designs. It feels rewarding to utilise a tumble roll manoeuvre technique to counter-attack a charging alien, or develop strategies against Mercenaries hiding behind crates as if they were in an ESWAT or Shinobi game. You start the game holding R to run, charging around environments, but learn to tip-toe when you are low on health. Similarly, you begin to adjust to moments of vulnerability as aliens crawl along the ceiling, or as you cannot shoot while climbing a ladder. There is also a vehicle set-piece involving an armoured personnel carrier, where you aim and control its twin 20 turret using the touch screen, but unfortunately it's very brief.
WayForward has been well praised for its pixel art mastery, yet what stands out about Aliens: Infestation is that the graphics are not just painstakingly well detailed, but they are designed to heighten the atmosphere and expand upon the gameplay. For example, the wonderful animation adds to the tension induced panic as your character slowly loads precious ammo into a M37A2 shotgun while under attack. The parallax scrolling for foreground objects or windows looking into space is consistently delightful, but it's moments like the lights going out and leaving monstrous shadows to intimidate the player that impress most. Humour is injected into the visuals to lift the tension; a random encounter with a man taking a shower and a large Total Recall inspired full body X-ray machine both add to the game’s personality. The audio work also deserves special mention, both music and sound effects are superb, adding layers to the atmosphere, twinkling alongside the stars at one moment and terrifying with creepy menacing tunes when it fits the scene.
The gameplay is surprisingly linear, despite a brief Zero-G platforming section, considering its Metroidvania based design. Depending upon how much you explore, it will take a short five to six hours to complete. Halfway through the game you're rewarded with an unlockable minigame that uses the stylus to act out the android Bishop’s knife stunt. Unfortunately, you are not treated with any extras upon completing the game — the main story is so enjoyable that it would have been rewarding to return to environments in a New Game Plus, but re-runs of previous levels are not possible. There is no choice of difficulty, but the challenge is well balanced, although weapons like the unlimited ammo flamethrower make general progression easier. You will only really lose Marines during the boss battles, although these encounters are not especially memorable due to uninteresting attack patterns. The final boss is particularly disappointing, despite brilliant art design. Ultimately, regardless of whether the exploration is less sophisticated than a rival DS game like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, or if the skills and abilities are not as imaginative as Metroid Fusion, Aliens: Infestation still brims with charm drawn from respect of its source material.
If you are a fan of the Alien movies, relish Metroidvania exploratory gameplay and appreciate side-scrolling retro pixel art design, Aliens: Infestation delivers on all three counts. It is clear that the WayForward staff are huge fans of the franchise and 2D gaming: the mixture of dedication to fan service in the story, plus the personality of the characters complements the brilliantly detailed visuals and atmospheric audio. The confines of the source material necessitates an element of repetition for the locations and skill-based progress is not the most sophisticated of the genre, but the tension, mood and feel of this game is spot on. Just three months after WayForward surprised us with the impressive DS version of Thor: God of Thunder, it provides a second movie licensed DS swan song in Aliens: Infestation.