Aliens: Dark Descent by Tindalos Interactive is a real-time squad-based strategy game in the vein of XCOM with a dash of Darkest Dungeons and Starcraft. It is available now for PC, PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One and Series X/S. Over the course of the last two weeks, opinions have been growing slowly in my chest, wrapping their insidious tendrils around my internal organs, just waiting to burst forth and skitter across the floor into a vent. Was it worth being metaphorically disemboweled? Let’s find out.
A code for this game was provided by the developer for this review.
The most obvious place to start is the top-notch presentation, the sound design especially. All the classic Xenomorph sounds are well-represented. From the body horror squelches of chest bursters to the shrieks of their drones and warriors as they attack. It’s all perfect. The music, too, is excellent and sets the menacing tone well. The voice work is also impressive, particularly the two main characters, Hayes and Harper. I could really feel Harper’s progressive breakdown in exhaustion and self-delusion as the story progressed, and Julianna Kurokawa, who voices Hayes, brought an out-of-her-depth competence to her portrayal that really sold the character. In missions, however (at no fault of the actual voice actors), the voice work is less reliable and often did not fit well with what was happening (more on that in a bit).
Graphically the human characters look…fine. The graphics are serviceable but are certainly nothing worth writing home about. However, the cut scenes and the levels themselves look great. They frame gloomy urban spaces being converted by the disgusting biological creep of the Xenomorphs perfectly. The Xenomorphs also look great, and there are multiple versions of them. The new inclusions fit well into the lore and are justified in the setting. However, I often had difficulty telling some of the varieties apart. For the most part, that was not an issue. Though it did mean it was sometimes tough to gauge just how much of a challenge was coming my way.
Aliens: Dark Descent’s Similarities to XCOM
The gameplay is quite obviously inspired by XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You have a squad of soldiers and go on missions with a limited roster. They have classes and skills you can upgrade as they level up.
Your base has different stations: A med-bay to heal your troops’ bodies and minds. A workshop to unlock new weapons. A science lab to study the Xenomorphs. And lastly, an armory to level up and train. Each of these can be supplemented with new recruits.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but it is rather uninspired. Instead of researching specific alien types and learning more about them to unlock new techs, there is a generalized Alien DNA resource. Additional techs are unlocked by defeating Queens, and research happens immediately, so it feels much more shallow than other XCOM clones. The skill trees for the different classes are also limited, though this is made up for by a decent selection of generic skills you can sub in.
This might seem like a short list, but these mechanics are the bones of the game. They are the structure that holds it together, even as divergences work to tear it apart.
The first significant divergence from XCOM is that you can suspend missions at almost any time and complete them later. And you will need to break them up, as your people get increasingly stressed as the engagements progress. Adverse effects pile on as the tension rises, like negatives to aiming or reduced command points used to take decisive special actions. You can rest to manage the stress by welding all the doors of specific rooms shut.
But even if you reduce their stress, the more effects your marines have suffered, the more likely they will gain more permanent problems called trauma at the end of the mission. There are treatments for these mental injuries, but they take time, and your talent pool is shallow. The system helps heighten the feeling that you’re on the back foot at all times. But if anything, the ailments are a bit too easy to manage. Some barely affect you, and the others that would be major hindrances can be treated in, at most, a few turns.
The next, and probably most significant, divergence is that Aliens: Dark Descent is real-time instead of turn-based. This is where the command points come into play. Most of the game is played like one of the interior missions in Starcraft, though you do have a bit less control. You click about to send your troops combing through the map, and when they see something, they shoot it. They move as a cluster, only breaking off if you send them on a task like opening supplies or welding a door.
Command Points, Stealth and Hive Activity
You can also slow down time (or completely pause it if you select that option, as I did) and issue orders or use powers that expend command points. The abilities are powerful, but in keeping with the desperation the designers want you to feel, the command points are sparse. While they refill over time, you’ll only be able to hold onto a few at a time.
Xenomorph activity, in the game in general and in any particular deployment, starts low. So long as you avoid the occasional alien drone wandering around or lurking in a vent, you can go about your business. Your motion tracker allows you to let them pass or even get into cover and hide so your marines will hold their fire. But of course, you can’t avoid them forever. When you are forced into combat, the hive will increase its activity to hunt you for a short time. If you can avoid fighting during the hunt, they will eventually calm down, but as the hive is stirred up again and again, they respond more quickly and numerously with stronger Xenomorphs. Eventually, this will lead to a massive onslaught where the squad has to weather a huge wave of enemies.
The general strength of the hive also increases both the longer the game and the mission go on, so there is an incentive to try and push to do as much as possible in each deployment. All of that works great, but I have to note how often the stealth aspect clashes with the voice work in missions. I don’t know how often I would be hiding in a room, waiting for a drone to pass, to have my commander shout, “Let’s do what we came for and get the hell out of here!” But I can assure you, it’s a lot. It might seem a small thing, but similar voice lines play awkwardly all the time. In a game that is clearly trying to set a mood, it’s a problem.
Speaking of the mood, the story of Aliens: Dark Descent is as dour and tense as the gameplay. This is precisely what I wanted from a game built on this franchise, and it kept me fascinated to see what twists and turns it would take next. The game hits all its marks: No spoilers, but the corporation was greedy, the scientists were untrustworthy, and the marines were cocky but heroic. The stakes are big but believable; anyone can die.
This feel is also served by the saving system. The game will save automatically, and you can make it more frequent or limit yourself to two save slots. But there is only one way to manually save: create a safe area and rest. It really makes you feel the pressure. Of course, you can always reload. But your last save may not be in much better condition, and the previous autosave may be from long before. So it incentivizes you to deal with results you might otherwise wipe away with save scumming.
Despite how well it serves the feel of the game, however. The restrictive system did end up having a pretty major downside for my playthrough in particular.
Final Impressions: Or How I Didn’t Finish Aliens: Dark Descent
I want to be clear that I really liked this game. Although I came into this not expecting it to be real-time, I did end up liking the idea, at least in concept. At the end of the day, though, I think it’s a big swing that just fails to connect. Even with the full pause, it felt like I didn’t have enough control of the marines. There is no way to set formations or to directly control any specific marine, so my troops always bunched up in a little cluster or, when I sent them to do tasks and then move them, they fell apart into a ragged line. This is especially an issue because the abilities emanate from the marine that has that ability. So if you want to shotgun an alien but your shotgunner shuffled themselves to the back, you’re just out of luck.
But the save system killed this for me, specifically in conjunction with bugs. Multiple times, I ran into an issue where I could not set up a shelter to rest and save. After welding and un-welding a door, I could weld it again to get a chance to rest, but each weld costs a resource often in short supply. But the worst came last when the game stopped autosaving completely. I kept running up against total wipes, so I had to reload again and again until, finally, I made it far enough to weld my marines in to rest.
But It Didn’t Save
I didn’t know that until I tried to reload due to an admittedly minor inconvenience, but that meant I had to return to my initial autosave. Thinking maybe I had forgotten to rest and save, I repeated this process twice. When I found myself back at that original autosave again, I will admit, gentle reader, to saying some words I hope my child did not hear. This save bug is ultimately what ended my playtime with Aliens: Dark Descent. I may pick it back up again after it is patched, but as of the time of this writing, this bug is still in place. With no reliable way to save, it is a no-win situation for me.
Ultimately the shift to real-time combat was a difficult transition that the game was unable to effectively make. For me, the simplistic systems do too little to provide longevity or replayability. However, if you have wanted to get into XCOM but couldn’t because you hate turn-based combat, this may be the game for you. The story, too, is worth your time, but as for me, my time with Aliens: Dark Descent is over.
Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this write-up, please check out my review of Miasma Chronicles, another squad-based strategy game. Or if for some inexplicable reason, you want to check out something I didn’t write, you can check out this piece featuring an interview with the creative director of XCOM and Midnight Suns!