Review by Bloomer
"The old pull of stat-building holds a lot of unremarkable at bay in this remake."
My Arcade Action Extra magazine from 1988 features an Alien Syndrome spread packed with gameplay tips and outrageously exciting screenshots for what was the then new coin-op from Sega. Two decades later I find myself playing a makeover of this outer space answer to Gauntlet on a motion-sensing console made by Nintendo. How times change.
Gauntlet was born in the eight-bit era, ported everywhere during the sixteen-bit one and returned to us transformed into a sort of Diablo Lite in the thirty-two bit one. Curiously, or perhaps not curiously, Alien Syndrome leaps into Diablo territory in its remade form as well. It's a monotonously compulsive experience which kept me plugging away at it for a couple of weeks in spite of manifold weaknesses. These weaknesses aren't even down to sloppiness of design, just to a profound lack of any kind of adornment. The game is greatly lacking in variety, its menu system is fiddly, its character (singular) and classes are underdeveloped or not developed all and its graphics are pretty ordinary. Nevertheless, if you have that genetic weakness in you for RPG stat character-building, you might find yourself pulled into the new Alien Syndrome like I was, even persisting through the dullest opening levels of any game in recent memory to reach the better stuff.
In the old Alien Syndrome, the good guys were Trooper Rick and Trooper Mary. Now it's just the far less cutely named Aileen Harding, a sullen fighter who needs to blast approximately 9600 aliens over the course of forty-eight very long levels to save humankind. Bizarrely, even if you opt for multiplayer with up to three friends, everyone has to be an Aileen. You then proceed by choosing one character class from five: Demolitions expert, firebug, seal, tank or sharpshooter. The good and bad news is that the classes aren't of deep significance. They simply determine which weapon and stat weightings you begin with. When you level up you can invest the points you acquire in any stats and skills you want, thus completely changing tack if you don't like the direction you've been heading in, and ultimately becoming a jack of all trades.
My advice where the Wii version of Alien Syndrome is concerned is to forget about investing in melee weapons. Scarcity of ammo will force you to resort to spear-waving every now and then for the first third of the game, but the sweetest melee attacks can only be delivered by heavily swinging the Wii remote. If you do that very much for even one day, your arm will be a goner. Do it for the duration of 9600 aliens and you'll need a rheumatologist and surgery. As it turns out, the movement and firing controls are extremely nice. The nunchuk stick steers Aileen while the Wiimote is used to aim a cursor at any point on the screen, towards which she constantly faces. Hold down B and she fires towards the cursor. Circle strafing is a doddle and the whole thing is just very fluid, intuitive and precise. Twisting the nunchuck in mid air rotates your orientation in the automap, which I found to be a novel feature, even if its implementation is a bit over sensitive.
As you explore the various spaceships and planets, the aliens who make up the syndrome come in thick but not particularly fast. They materialise en masse at the screen edges in attention-getting flashes of light, then hustle in for the kill. They can all take mucho punishment relative to your firepower, even right at the game's commencement, which makes for some pretty stolid fighting. The combat isn't particularly dangerous for the most part, it just takes a long time to negotiate. Aliens who are vaporised tend to be immediately replaced at screen's edge, and these self-replacing swarms can go on for minutes until you've dried out an area. The swarms offer some hectic excitement, but the flashing materialisations are a bit cheap; no monster has to appear in any logical fashion, and it's apparent when the console's got enough to deal with at those times when no more monsters will enter until you kill a few. Similarly, the invisible delineation of spawn areas isn't all that invisible. If you trigger a swarm and kill the entire swarm from where you stand, you may find the next few rooms and corridors entirely empty. The game's maps are far too empty in general. Using explorer's logic, you might take the trouble to check every single room, or go down a long and pernickety dead-end in hopes of finding a locked chest with a cool item in it, only to find nothing at all. The trouble is that one in ten times you will find the cool item, so you've got little choice but to keep on with the checking. Concerning those chests, opening the locked ones requires the playing of one of several strange minigames involving nanoscopic bacteria, which must be variously shuffled and zapped about the screen, sometimes to remove alien crud, sometimes to inject your DNA with extra stats, sometimes to unlock hidden weapon properties. These minigames are baffling at first, and poorly explained by both the manual and the onscreen instructions, but eventually you'll crash through their obscure learning curves and find that they're quite fun.
Aileen(s) is/are always accompanied by a little floating droid called a SCARAB. It can be used as a shield if it gets between you and projectiles, and it fires roughly where you fire, but it's so weak and lacking in presence you'll forget about it pretty quickly. In the story, the SCARAB's also responsible for your ability to trade in unused equipment or resource points (the gold coins of outer space) for better equipment. This aspect of the game is navigated with a point and click menu system which is too thick for the amount of time you'll have to spend going through it, especially when it comes to turfing items to clear up your inventory, a constant necessity. You have to keep an eye on the 'Item Crafting' screen too, as the items for sale there seem to vary with little rhyme or reason except for the fact that you have continued to play the game. Ultimately I found I had hundreds of thousands of coins to spend and, quite frustratingly, nothing useful to spend them on. Maybe it's just because I invested most heavily in Energy Weapons, which effectively operate with unlimited ammunition if you get your energy regen rate high enough. The items are described with a Diablo-like nomenclature EG 'Mutilator VIIa - Irradiated, Concussive' - and I enjoyed constantly sorting and refining my kit to make my Aileen as dangerous as possible.
The aliens aren't as gross or impressive as the ones in the old Alien Spawn. Crawling caterpillars that split up, blobs, robot hulks, big green monsters and ghosty shooting things all get a look in. Often you only see two or three species in a whole level, where you will resolutely blast down 200 of them, and some species come back later in a different colour. (I don't like to say 'palette swap'. Palette-swapping doesn't seem all that bad to gamers in their thirties, probably because we associate it with software legitimately trying to get more enemy variety out of limited processing power back in the supposed halcyon days.)
I can't help but feel my pressing upon Alien Syndrome's numerous weaknesses might have put most readers off by this point. The logic I reach for to defend it, inasmuch as that I basically enjoyed it and felt the urge to advance a little more with it each night, is that it never comes across as bad or annoying, just relentlessly unspectacular. Somehow it makes good on its qualities of simple stat-building addictiveness, and throws in the ghost of the old Gauntlet/Alien Syndrome overhead views and enemy swarms. If you like the idea of playing a more actiony version of Diablo or Gauntlet Legends set in a futuristic environment, and you like the idea of doing it in the more relaxed context of console gaming, and with a graceful control system so long as you toss out the melee combat Alien Syndrome covers these bases. Probably the main thing to remember is that the first few levels manage to feature all of the dreariest visuals, music and enemies in the game, so consider them as something to be ridden out. Afterwards, the game's interest factor continues to improve in roughly a straight line fashion with your progress.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 07/23/08
Game Release: Alien Syndrome (AU, 09/13/07)
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