Aliens: Dark Descent review: Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen

Developer Tindalos Interactive takes the Aliens franchise and puts its own spin on it with a real-time action strategy game.

Tindalos Interactive

As a single-player, squad-based, real-time strategy game based on a popular horror franchise, Aliens: Dark Descent attempts to be a game that is, well, a bit alien. It works similarly to X-COM 2 and Wasteland 3 in that you manage a small team of units from a top-down perspective. But since you don’t take turns in the game, speed and reaction time are important when you're trying to stealth out of sight from a roaming xenomorph or when you're blasting a horde of facehuggers. Developer Tindalos Interactive, who you may know for its Battlefleet Gothic: Armada series, has done an admirable job translating the Aliens franchise into what is an intriguing, atmospheric take on the strategy genre. But the controls can be imprecise, and the story isn’t terribly engaging.

"It was a bad call, Ripley."

Aliens Dark Descent Alien
"Game over, man. Game over."

Source: Shacknews

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact genre that Aliens: Dark Descent fits into. I could call it a survival-horror RTS, though it relies more on action than strategy, and it’s not particularly terrifying. Seeing a xenomorph suddenly come around the corner and cut through your squad of Colonial Marines like butter can be stressful. But I can’t say that the game is scary, at least not to the same degree as a game like Alien: Isolation. A part of this is due to the top-down camera angle, which can make xenomorphs and especially facehuggers rather small in size. Another part is the emphasis on the marines who have randomized names and are difficult to connect with, since the game treats them more as members of a squad unit and less as individuals.

In the prologue, Aliens: Dark Descent presents two protagonists who are meant to ground the story. Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes, an executive of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that Aliens fans will recognize, finds herself caught amidst an alien outbreak on her station. She is eventually saved by Marine Sergeant Jonas Harper from a cruiser called the USS Otago, but not before she initiates the Cerberus Protocol which heavily damages every ship around the station for the sake of alien containment. This sends the USS Otago down on the nearby planet Lethe, where in a case of just desserts, Hayes has to clean up her mess by repairing the ship as a de facto base of operations for the remainder of the game.

Soon afterward, both Hayes and Harper are quickly pushed to the sidelines as commanders giving orders to your squad, though they will appear in cutscenes and give instructions on primary objectives. Maybe that’s for the best, because the human character models aren’t great. Their faces have strangely severe lines above their eyes, and their mouths aren’t lip-synced to the dialogue all that well. Later, a new faction of humans on the planet is introduced to put a new spin on the story, but they aren’t particularly memorable or interesting. At any rate, it's hard to become invested in the characters, which lowers the emotional stakes whenever something is supposed to be threatening.

"We're in the pipe, five by five."

Aliens Dark Descent Squad
This poor squad is going to need all of your help.

Source: Shacknews 

Fortunately, Aliens: Dark Descent does put forth some new design concepts for the genre. Instead of commanding each member in the squad individually, you operate them as a single unit. This suits the real-time nature of the action, as the game will decide which unit is best suited to heal a squad member, lead the team, or weld a door. You don’t really want any marine to break away from the pack anyway, since one xenomorph is challenging enough to take down with four marines, let alone one.

Still, if you’re the type of strategy player who likes being able to control each unit separately, you might be frustrated with the setup. There can be an occasional lack of precision with the controls and movement, like a unit not following properly around corners or generally not being able to put squad members at different points of a room so that you can defend a point more easily.

The main reprieve for this is that bringing up the skill menu can pause the game (or just slow the game down if you prefer), so that you can ease the tension and be more precise with your orders. You can also use a command point to have a squad member perform a special action, like throwing a grenade, setting up a line of suppressive fire, and deploying a motion tracker that can self-detonate to distract the xenomorphs.

"They mostly come out at night. Mostly."

Aliens Dark Descent Autoloader
If only that P-5000 Powered Work Loader actually worked.

Source: Shacknews 

However, it’s better not to be in a gunfight at all if you can manage it. In a nod to Darkest Dungeon, your marines need to cope with stress as they move through areas infested by aliens. Units that accumulate too much stress gain debuffs that make survival that much harder. This can easily lead to a downward spiral where soldiers become so frightened and disobedient that they can't make it through the next fight. Even if they do survive, they can then suffer trauma after the mission, which can be removed by the psychiatrist back at base.

Due to the stress mechanic, the game encourages you to avoid xenomorphs at all costs. Getting spotted by just one alien will initiate a hunt that causes enemies to search for your team and gradually raise their stress level even if you manage not to encounter a single enemy. Experiencing two of these hunts is enough to make every team member close to the verge of gaining a stress debuff, so if the motion sensor picks up a white dot on the map, it’s usually best to stay clear. Even if your marines start complaining that they are idly standing around, waiting for a threat to pass by is worth the wait.

On that note, I must mention that having the squad leader shout out lines like “Double time!” and “Get a move on, you slugs!” gets irritating fast. And contextually, it doesn’t make much sense when the squad is trying to stay quiet. This is disappointing, because apart from this, the environments have a dark, foreboding atmosphere that captures the tone and feel of the Aliens franchise well. 

Nonetheless, the need for stealth creates a tense, cat-and-mouse game as your squad is forced to move between floors and from one side of the map to the other, grabbing evidence of the alien outbreak, any survivors who haven’t been infested, and any supplies they can muster. The most important of these are tools, which can be used to hack terminals and weld doors to create a safe room that will restore your squad’s stress levels. Finding health packs will keep your squad healthy, while additional supplies and xenomorph samples can be brought back to home base for upgrades to weapons and armor. Any marines lucky enough to survive will become stronger with time by learning a new class and earning new perks.

"I say we take off, nuke the site from orbit."

Aliens Dark Descent Room
You can use one tool to unlock floor maps at this table.

Source: Shacknews

As long as you’re careful with your squad’s movements, exploration is rewarding, and you can complete the majority of the primary objectives before the alien threat level rises too high. At a certain point, it may be better to call off a mission and return another day, though the overall planetary threat will rise over the course of the roughly 30-hour campaign. Deciding when to risk further advancement and when to hold back is important in the long run.

There are, however, times when you are forced into tough fights that typically come with a prompt telling you that your squad will be in serious danger. It’s in these moments, which are sadly few and far between, that you can actually plan out a defense. You can move your team behind cover and place mines and sentry guns to cover various chokepoints. If everything goes smoothly, any oncoming wave of xenomorphs can be quickly dispatched. But in many cases, they’ll cut past your defenses and decimate your squad members. 

Death isn’t the frustrating part here; in fact, it’s expected given that these are the foolhardy Colonial Marines from the Aliens movie we’re talking about. But the auto-save system can throw you back further than you intend. And even if your squad survives a boss fight, you may still need to face a hunt or another oncoming swarm that rips away your would-be victory. One time after a boss fight, I couldn’t interact with an object required to move the story forward for several minutes due to oncoming swarms, and my squad subsequently perished.

"Not bad for a human."

Aliens Dark Descent Research
Back at home base, you can turn xenomorph samples into weapon and armor buffs.

Source: Shacknews

Aliens: Dark Descent does a decent job of creating an interesting mashup of tactical action and strategy that suitably translates the tension and aesthetics of the popular movie franchise. Needing to stealth around the xenomorphs is a nerve-wracking experience, and the firefights against the aliens can be intense when they work. However, the plot and dialogue are lackluster, the enemies aren't as terrifying as they could be, and the flow between stealth and boss fights is abrupt. There's just one too many ideas in Aliens: Dark Descent, but it's still nonetheless a worthwhile adventure.

This review is based on a pre-release PC review code provided by the publisher. Aliens: Dark Descent is available now on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC. The game is rated M.

Contributing Editor

Once upon a time, Nick's parents confiscated his Super Nintendo because he was "playing it too much." He has secretly sworn revenge ever since. Nick is now a freelance writer for various video game sites. Powered by iced green tea, he typically plays RPGs of all kinds like Shin Megami Tensei, Elder Scrolls, and Fallout. In his spare time, he follows the latest season of Critical Role.

Review for
Aliens Dark Descent
  • Interesting real-time action strategy
  • Stress mechanics
  • Stealthing around xenomorphs
  • Gets the Aliens tone and style right
  • Lacks horror
  • Lackluster story and dialogue
  • Annoying squad leader commands
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