Aliens: Dark Descent Review

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Every good horror movie starts with someone investigating panicked screams on their own. Aliens: Dark Descent is no different. The prologue begins with us heading below deck to look at the commotion seen on the malfunctioning security cameras, bringing only a torch and some good cheer. We find face huggers that wrap their tails around people’s necks, hatched eggs that twist the environment around them, and finally, a lone xenomorph hunting prey. They are so terrifyingly powerful that all we can do is hide and sneak to the exit – the game teaches us how to use shadows and cover to our advantage. One xenomorph is that much of a threat. But five minutes later he asks us to shoot their horde.

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Dark Descent never quite manages to strike a balance between its tactical mechanics and off-kilter survival horror. It’s a strategy game unashamedly inspired by XCOM 2 – to the point where it feels like a side game – and like XCOM, the emphasis is on team action. Centered around a ship in orbit of an infected planet, our missions task us with going to alien hotspots and removing eggs and xenomorphs while rescuing any survivors. That means a lot of time is spent manning sentry turrets, launching grenades, and engaging in massive gunfights, none of which match the Alien: Isolation-like stealth we were taught at the start.

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The horror-driven mechanics feel half-baked and out of place. The detection lines can get clogged as you move in and out of cover, which relieves the tension as it becomes an awkward dance with an alien who’s as smart as a housefly; crouching behind cover while an enemy is looking your way is a comical display of four soldiers crouching at once, and the stress level feature that was plastered as a major selling point in the marketing amounts to little more than a difficulty modifier. If your marines get too scared and you fail to take care of them or avoid unnecessary encounters, they will be overwhelmed with negative effects like “-1 max command point for every 2 recalcitrant marines”. Stress levels can also be reduced with consumables, which cheapens the effect and turns it into a second health bar.

aliens dark descent

Dark Descent is at its strongest when you’re completing objectives and engaging in gunfights. Certain missions will require you to defend a key point, such as an information transfer, so you need to hold your fort in awkwardly arranged rooms while you wait. Normally, I’d weld as many doors as possible to shut down the xenomorphs down a corridor laden with guard towers and suppressive fire, blasting anyone who got too close with a shotgun. The mix of individual naval abilities and engineering tools is an interesting way to turn each encounter into a puzzle, finding the best way to change the environment to your advantage.

Aesthetically, the environments are perfect. The impersonal top-down camera strips away most of the horror, especially when face-huggers and eggs become red blips to shoot, but every area oozes NASA-punk with functional industrial settlements spread across dusty and inhospitable planets. It is for this reason that everything is laid out in grids, making it intuitive to find your way through each area, even if there are multiple levels. Even the map itself becomes part of your toolkit, as you can use motion sensors to capture aliens as they move, which can make for some tense moments as you prepare for an open-air gunfight. But after a while I realized how much easier it was to throw grenades and run since so many tools in your arsenal will easily defeat the xenomorphs.

It’s hard to find fun in Dark Descent when it’s riddled with performance issues. It crashed four times in the first 20 minutes and crashed throughout my entire playthrough, with my progress regressing each time as I relied on dodgy autosaves. Whenever there was even a few particles on the screen, the entire game stuttered, and that was when playing on low graphics with an RTX 3070 card. Cut-scenes are also riddled with problems, with poor synchronization and inaccurate subtitles, making it already such a generic and uninteresting narrative is an even bigger deal.

Aliens: Dark Descent Psychiatric Care Unit shows soldiers clutching their heads in fear

Outside of missions, you’ll spend most of your time in a hub that’s almost exactly the same as XCOM, but with a lot less to do. One key difference is the psychiatric unit. Your troops can develop ‘traumas’ during missions, so the solution is to throw them into a round room with pictures of a forest on the wall. Trauma becomes a debuff that can be ironed out with the right choices, and long-term side effects can be suppressed with rousing macho speeches.

Mental health should never be a minor footnote in a thinly veiled difficulty modifier, treated as a problem that can be tactically removed in a matter of days. Dark Descent barely explores the themes of sending soldiers on repeated suicide missions, so its treatment of mental health feels exploitative and out of touch. It is only there to serve a function, nothing more.

Dark Descent is a generic XCOM clone with brief moments of engaging puzzle-building strategy. The horror is underused and feels completely out of place as it pushes you further and further into the action. The music is adrenaline pumping and clearly designed to complement the firefights, the troops shout ‘GO TEAM’ every time you move and the xenomorphs are easier to mow down than dodge. Nothing about Dark Descent wants you to be afraid, but everything about Aliens wants you to. Mix in a cocktail of performance issues and thin mechanics and you have another disappointment in the Alien catalog of games.

Aliens: Dark Descent overview card.  It shows 1.5 stars, they are positive;  the jams between objectives are attractive and turn every encounter into a little puzzle;  zones are intuitive to explore.  The negatives are;  it never finds a place for its horror;  riddled with performance issues;  the stress level mechanic is disappointingly thin and borderline offensive.

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