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  • Writer's pictureJames Stephanie Sterling

Aliens: Dark Descent - Hurry Up You Slugs! (Review)

Aliens: Dark Descent

Released: June 20, 2023

Developer: Tindalos Interactive

Publisher: Focus Entertainment

Systems: PC, PS4/5 (reviewed), Xbox One/XS

“Hurry up you slugs!”

“Move, move!”

“Move, move!”

"Hurry up you slugs!”

“Move, move!”

"Hurry up you slugs!”

"Hurry up you slugs!”

“Move, move!”

“Hurry up you slugs!”

Aliens: Dark Descent is another one of those games that just won’t shut the fuck up… at least it was before it was patched on PC, the incessantly repetitive voice clips having been so thoroughly maddening they required a fix even before the litany of game breaking bugs. Actually, calling any single glitch a “game breaker” is a little unfair to the glitches - can you really break that which is fundamentally broken?

Oh, and since I’ve been playing the PS5 version, which hasn’t yet patched out the dialog, my loathing of it remains quite relevant at the time of writing.

“Hurry up you slugs!”

Dark Descent is a fascinating game that has left me puzzled as a critic. It’s so riddled with flaws, janky to the point of costing me hours of progress due to one rather nasty (and well known) bug, yet it’s also a game brimming with brilliant ideas, offering XCOM style tactical play merged with survival horror and elements of Darkest Dungeon, all in service of doing something a little fresher with the Aliens franchise. This utter mess is unforgivably jacked up, and I’ve found myself nonetheless compelled to forgive it. I love it for what it gets right, and resent the myriad ways in which it can fall apart.

“Move, move!”

“Move, move!”

So yes, what we have here is a fundamentally excellent idea behind the dumpster fires. A small scale real-time strategy game in the same vein as X-COM, Dark Descent gives you a squad of (initially) four Colonial Marines and drops you into one of several big maps with a number of objectives to complete. You'll be directing the squad as it picks its way through an infested planet to activate terminals and retrieve items while rescuing some civilians along the way.

Horror elements permeate the experience, with Dark Descent being one of those lovely games that treat Xenomorphs as genuinely scary threats rather than mere bullet fodder. Even a humble Drone can cause grief for unprepared Marines, able to take a beating and deal real damage if one gets close. Even worse, being spotted just once will spur the hive to send Xenos toward your last known location, and if you get into enough encounters, you’ll trigger an Onslaught - a merciless bumrush of creatures capable of annihilating an entire squad in seconds if its not leveled up and packing gun turrets.

Stress is a perpetual consideration as well. With every fight, marines’ stress levels rise, turning them into less competent soldiers. Their accuracy will drop, the Command Points used for special abilities will reduce, and sustained amounts of high stress will cause long term trauma that can attach lasting debuffs. Stress rises quickly, and its management is crucial.

Not only did I learn this the hard way, I learned it in a way that mimicked the movie upon which this is based, and considering it’s among my favorite films, I feel amusedly foolish. I expected the game to be tough - it openly warns the player about its difficulty when it starts - but I still confidently sauntered into my first expedition feeling like I knew what was up. I had Marines, they had guns, and I had the silly notion that basic Xenos wouldn’t be all that.

Basically, I had the same gung-ho attitude as my marines’ cinematic colleagues, whose overconfident machismo oozes all over the first act of Aliens until they enter the hive for the first time and they're immediately decimated. Which is exactly what happened to me. In the first bloody level.

Dark Descent may carry the Aliens name, but it’s closer in some ways to the franchise’s first film, Alien. It’s tense. It’s slow. Its Xenomorphs are genuinely intimidating.

“Hurry up you slugs!”

The setup requires you to tread carefully and keep an eye on your motion tracker to avoid Xenomorphs’ movements. With a need to manage ammo and health, as well as relying on consumable tools to perform important tasks, Dark Descent’s pool of threats qualifies it for the survival horror genre just as much as the strategy one.

Stress can be managed by expending one medical supply per soldier to give them calming meds, or the whole squad can calm down by resting in designated rooms - provided the they have enough tools to spend on welding the doors shut. Since medical supplies are also used for healing and tools are needed for other tasks like repairing equipment or hacking door controls, every expenditure is part of a balancing act.

Controls are a little awkward but generally work… except when they don’t.

The squad moves as one unit and pleasantly requires no micromanagement - they automatically attack in unison when detected by Xenos, and one marine will take it upon themself to interact with environmental objects when the squad’s commanded to do so. The player can direct the squad to use a number of abilities by expending gradually replenishing Command Points, as well as choose the targets, while general fire is autonomously hurled at the nearest threats. That said, if there is an enemy you particularly want dead, you can highlight it and hit the appropriately named "Kill that bastard" action.

One early ability, suppressive fire, is especially important, allowing players to direct a cone of gunfire that’s inaccurate but slows any enemies in range. As character classes are unlocked and new weapons gained, you’ll get access to proximity mines, long range sniper rifles, flamethrowers, and more. You’ll also find and use automated turrets, obviously, because this is an Aliens game.

Abilities only really suffer from one major problem - the controls when selecting them are fucked. On consoles, you cycle through your ability bar using the shoulder buttons, and for whatever weird reason the menu constantly gets stuck. You’ll be cycling through it and suddenly find yourself unable to continue scrolling, left to impotently hammer the buttons until it deigns to start responding again. It’s so prevalent I had to go into the menu and turn on the option that pauses the game when selecting abilities instead of slows down the action. Without this option, enemies were essentially given boatloads of free time while I struggled to tell someone to fire their shotgun.

Each expedition contains a series of objectives, and you don’t have to complete them all in one run. In fact, the game encourages you to pull out if your resources are low and Marines grow too tired or stressed. Any progress on the map persists - cleared objectives, unlocked doors, and even items left on the floor will carry over to your next expedition.

Between missions you’ll be aboard the crashed Otago vessel with the designated protagonist, Weyland-Yutani administrator Maeko Hayes. Here, you’ll heal marines that become wounded and exhausted during runs (which will always be all of ‘em), spend Xenosamples (cultivated from occasional corpses) to create special gear, use materials found on expeditions to craft new weapons, and enter the barracks to manage marines, including promoting (leveling) them, giving them juvenile nicknames like Cock Yogurt or Foot Pics, and checking their stats.

Marines are randomly generated, offer some limited customization, and gain new skills when leveling up, eventually able to branch into one of a handful of character classes. Oh, and they can permanently die, obviously. Each one comes with its own flaw, such as “Bad Luck” (their gun jams half the time) or “Poor Eyesight" (lowered accuracy). If Dark Descent wanted to suggest that the USCM is full of incompetent and unfit liabilities, it succeeded.

Should marines become stressed enough, they’ll get a randomly generated trauma that has a significant negative impact, such as “Obsessive” (reloading is 50% longer) or “Xenomorphobia” (constant stress damage if anywhere near an Alien). Trauma can be healed later in the campaign once the Otago’s medical center unlocks a therapist.

Classes give the squad access to more abilities and weapons thanks to specialized upgrades. The Gunner can use Smart Guns and utilize bonuses like improved suppressive fire. Recon is a stealthy class, able to snipe enemies beyond aggro range, equip a silencer for said sniping, and highlight enemies when the squad’s flashlight is pointed at them. The Tecker hacks doors and has an upgradeable drone, the Medic is exactly what it sounds like, and the Sergeant can increase Command Points as well as reduce incoming stress damage.

These classes are all useful and it pays to have a diverse squad. As with any game of mortal squaddies, it’s easy to get attached to some of them and fear for their lives, especially when they’re highly leveled and actually capable. Attachment is mitigated somewhat by very limited customization and the fact character models are both samey and ugly as sin, giving every marine the appearance of inbred wax dummies.

At one point, a marine of mine lost her arm. She has a robot prosthetic now. That was cool. Well, it was cool for me as a player, not so much for her.

With traumas, flaws, medical treatment between runs, persistent map completion, as well as the need to end days between deployments and face various dilemmas with multiple choice responses the next day, Dark Descent wears its Darkest Dungeon inspiration on its sleeve. While nowhere near as stressful and high pressure as that beloved RPG, this game still gives you plenty to worry about.

Worrying about how utterly fucked this thing is on a technical level is one particular concern I wish I didn’t have when managing my squad’s mental health. There’s the kind of charming jank that Focus Entertainment is known to publish, and there’s this shitshow. Enemies regularly freeze in attack poses when they die, bodies marked as having Xenosamples often can’t be interacted with, the Otago screens sometimes completely forget how the confirmation button works and will necessitate a reload, and an obligatory litany of graphical and physics glitches are present. These issues and more riddle the experience.

The worst is a particular error that can softlock the entire game and render it unwinnable after several hours of playtime. Following the first bitter battle with an Alien Queen, you’ve got to carry an NPC back to your extraction vehicle. I carried her to an elevator, which took ages because carrying slows marines down, and when we rode to the next floor, she had disappeared. Completely despawned. Nothing brought her back and the game wouldn’t progress, softlocking me and forcing me to start the entire game from the start since the auto saves had painted me into a corner by the time I realized I was buggered.

I have been utterly addicted to this thing, and truly loved sinking hours upon hours into it. Were it not such an atrocious mess, I’d have little more than minor complaints outside of glowing praise - barring the parroted dialog, anyway. Unfortunately, I can’t just look past how badly it’s been screwed up. It’s certainly a testament to how engrossing the game is that I didn’t quit the moment it softlocked, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay that it happened.

If you’re going to make a challenging game of long and methodical progress without manual saves, the least you can do is ensure things aren’t so borked that your hard won gains are horribly fragile.

What does one do with a game like this? It’s so good, but it’s so bad - not bad in a funny way either. I suppose it comes down to how worth the hassle this thing is, and in that regard I can at least say it was on a personal level. Enough for me to not completely dump on it in the scoring department, even if I can’t in good faith give it as high a mark as I think it might have deserved had it not undermined itself so much.

“Hurry up you slugs!”

Aliens: Dark Descent is well designed and badly built. At once a brilliant collection of wonderfully presented ideas and a defective debacle, it could have genuinely been a Game of the Year contender were it not such a shambles. I love this game to the point of being enthralled. I’m angry at this game for costing me hours of progress. I adore what it so often is. I despise what it so often does.

Eh, I guess these days that’s enough to qualify for a seven, right?



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