A return to form of an '80's classic or a new low for Wii?
In 1994 Totally Games released Star Wars: TIE Fighter, a watershed combination of flight simulator complexity with arcade-style shooting that is still commonly referred to as one of the best games ever made. After more than a decade of continuing work with the Star Wars license (not to mention the frequently overlooked Secret Weapons Over Normandy), Totally Games is back with Alien Syndrome, an IP refresh of one of Sega’s more arcane franchises from the late ‘80’s. Conceptually, the game sounds like a scintillating mix of old school twitch shooting with all the RPG elements and customization of a traditional dungeon crawler. The added promise of a control overhaul for Wii, to take specific advantage of the Wii Remote’s IR aiming and motion-based melee moves, should have, theoretically, been the secret ingredient to make Alien Syndrome a solid title.
Making games, however, is not an exact science, and for all the promise of its individual elements and the excellent pedigree of its developer, Alien Syndrome is easily one of the worst Wii games to have found major release. At its core, Alien Syndrome is a lifeless and terrifyingly repetitive shooter that puts the "crawl" back in dungeon crawl. Levels are cut up into 20-30 minute snippets spent wandering through the winding corridors of a space station or planet surface, mashing the fire button at hundreds of indistinguishable alien drones. Every level plays out nearly identically to the one before it: kill all the drones, grab some space loot (in the form of weapon and armor upgrades), fight a mini-boss, and call it a day. To be fair, there are a couple of levels that try to mix the tired level-grinding formula up a bit. In one sequence you’re given 20 minutes to get out of the level or be blown up in a self-destruct sequence. Another level is an aggrandized arena battle that requires you to kill 75 enemies before being able to head for the exit. These are relatively modest exceptions to the game’s monotonous rule.
In any good dungeon crawl, there are two essential elements: distinguishably different sets of weapons and an unpredictable variety of enemies. Alien Syndrome claims to have 100 different enemy types, but that’s just some creative accounting. You will have seen almost every alien model in the first third of the game; the remaining levels are made of the same enemy in a different color and with added HP. That kind of trickery might have been allowable in 1987 when arcade cabinets had less memory capacity than the GBA, but it’s a dirty trick to pull on a gamer in 2007 for a full-priced $50.
If the lack of variety in enemy types weren’t bad enough, the combat is even more redundant. Almost everything in the game can be beaten just by backing away while shooting. The only real strategy involves not getting yourself into a corner where you get swarmed by bad guys. Players have a basic laser gun with an infinitely regenerating supply of ammo, and, depending on their character class, they can use a variety of more powerful weapons to spill the proverbial alien blood and guts. While every weapon has a different range limit, the impact they have on enemies is negligible. Were it not for the little white numbers of evaporating HP floating heavenward after each shot, it would be impossible to tell that a missile launcher is more powerful than your average Gauss Rifle.
The choice to leave the game as a top-down shooter is also a big miscalculation. While it remains true to the original game, it feels cheap and insubstantial 20 years later. The game’s dark and grisly color palate makes it hard to pick out much environmental detail, like walls or doorways. It can be a brutal chore to just find your character on screen during some firefights, as the camera zooms even further out to capture all the action, reducing the size of your character to an inch or so of muddy green. It’s also terrifically irritating to not be able to see the environments from the ground level, making both navigation and combat more difficult than necessary. I found myself repeatedly cursing the game for not letting me see some alien up ahead that I knew was there and that would have been in clear line of sight, just because they were standing off the edge of the screen. It’s similarly maddening to try to get your bearings in the game’s maze-like corridors when all you can see at any given time is the top of your character’s head and the dingy gray floor that she’s standing on.
Another huge shortcoming is the lack of any in-game explanations of the upgrade system and all the various quirks to the tool crafting system. If you’re not accustomed to spending a good deal of time reading the instruction manual before you start playing, expect to find yourself totally lost during the first several hours of gameplay. Even after reading the instruction manual, it can be a confounding experience trying to figure out why you can’t pick up certain types of ammo, power-ups and weapons. I accidentally threw away my chest armor early on in the game and was, for a reason still unbeknownst to me, unable to pick up or craft a new chest armor ever again. I had plenty of inventory space, had the appropriate armor proficiency, had the right amount of XP, all for naught.
Managing your SCARAB, a hovering robotic turret that give your character various power-ups and crafts weapons and armor on the fly, is equally confusing. The whole menu system is a stultifying mess that belays just how little effort has gone into amending the game's presentation for the Wii. Text in most of the menus is tiny and almost illegible on a standard definition TV. Menu icons use the Wii Remote’s pointer functionality, but the icons are likewise tiny and cramped, making it much more difficult than it should be to scroll or add an ability point. These menus may have worked fine on the PSP’s tiny screen, but it’s asking too much to translate those fuzzy monotone icons and menu bars onto the living room TV.
While the game’s graphics are low-end even for a PSP game, it’s the redundant character modeling and bland color pallet that really leave an unfavorable impression. In contrast to the original’s bright neon colors and over-the-top enemy design, this modern Alien Syndrome is filled with muted tones and generic hulking masses that are all too often indistinguishable from one another. The music is similarly backgrounded with subtle ambient loops and lots of annoying gunfire sound effects. There is an attempt here to recreate the dread and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien, but the mood is killed by the boring top-down camera and bland art work.
The game goes on for a surprisingly long time; it will probably take most gamers a good 15 to 20 hours to finish on the default difficulty setting. However, there isn’t much incentive to get that far, since you’ll have seen almost all the game has to offer in the first hour. If you just can’t get enough level-grinding though, there are 2 unlockable difficulty settings and a 4-player co-op mode.
Alien Syndrome is a thoroughly disappointing and discouraging game. Totally Games has made some spectacular titles in its time, and the conceptual elements of a sci-fi Diablo with lots of space aliens and crazy guns sounds terrific. The reality, however, is a horribly executed game that plays more like a barebones prototype than something Wii owners should spend $50 on.