It's easy to see the seams in WayForward's Aliens: Infestation. There's not all that much variety in the enemies or environments (mostly because it's an Aliens game). The "AI" is simple and pattern-based in the style of 16-bit games. The enemies even respawn in the same locations, dulling the element of surprise upon return trips.
But even though I was fully aware of the shortcomings, I was completely drawn in. Infestation feels like what would have happened had someone made a good Aliens game in the mid-1990s. It's a cleverly structured take on the Metroidvania style of game that forces careful, methodical play. Despite those aforementioned issues, WayForward completely nailed the dread of Aliens.
Infestation takes place primarily on the Sulaco, the xenomorph-infested spaceship from the film Aliens. Players control a squad of four Colonial Marines, each with unique dialogue and personality quirks, exploring the ship to find out what has happened (spoiler alert: it was aliens). In true Metroidvania fashion, you can only get to a certain portion of the ship at a time, until you pick up certain items -- like elevator keycards, a flamethrower, a wrench, and a key to the iconic Power Loader. The obstacles do feel artificial, in that there's usually an obvious thing that you need just the right item to get past, but they all make sense in the fiction, and tie in nicely to famous moments (like doors welded shut, requiring a welding torch).
You can swap the soldier you control in any save room, and when one dies he or she is gone for the rest of the game. You can replenish your supply of "lives" by finding a stranded Marine on the ship; if you have a free slot, they will join you. Occasionally, you can also save a lost Marine by finding him or her in a nearby xenomorph nest.
This "permadeath" aspect does a lot for the game. It provides a narrative justification for the concept of "extra lives." It enhances replayability by encouraging you to see all the dialogue scenes from different perspectives, and to pick up different Marines when you have the opportunity (i.e. when one of your squad dies). It also adds a significant layer of quirk, as WayForward clearly had fun coming up with characters. I can't decide which is my favorite, the sarcastic goth girl (who is also a super tough Colonial Marine, let me remind you) or the young woman obsessed with texting. Though the Marines aren't super-deep characters, I found myself sending less interesting Marines into boss fights first, in order to protect the ones I liked so I could see more of their dialogue.
You will lose some of those Marines, by the way. It's inevitable. If the few bullet-sponge bosses don't do you in, the normal enemies will. Xenomorphs can easily surprise you with a swipe and drain your health at any moment. Furthermore, a stamina bar prevents you from running at top speed or somersaulting away. Instead, you'll inch through the environments, keeping an eye out for danger at all times. The tension in pretty much any room in this game is effective; you'll find yourself taking a minute in a clear room to load shotgun shells individually, and slowly; you'll hide behind crates to fire at robots from cover. While you do find more weapons, unlike other games in the genre, you never become an overpowered super-soldier capable of blasting through earlier areas with abandon. There's no Screw Attack equivalent. From beginning to end, you risk death from almost any random enemy, unless you move carefully and conserve ammo.
Because of that basic triumph of feel, I'm able to overlook the simple enemy patterns and predictable respawning. Or, rather, I'm able to see that they don't matter that much. Infestation is a deliciously tense experience, an accurate Aliens representation and a genuinely unique Metroidvania, exactly as it is.
This review is based on a retail copy of Aliens: Infestation, provided by Sega.
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