It is refreshing to play a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania that does not just rest on its laurels of being old school and instead becomes something that rightfully stands on its own. Aliens: Infestation immediately captures gamers using its well-crafted dark pixel art and the unrelentingly eerie atmosphere that quickly reminds one of what made exploring Super Metroid's world mysterious and dreadful at the same time. The small screen space on the DS actually works in the game's benefit as the player never knows what may come lunging at them from the distance, forcing gamers to be ready for any horror to pop out from the darkness at all times. Whenever the xenomorphs come for human blood the game kicks into full gear with punchy action that deftly delivers for the Alien name. The aliens themselves act befittingly crafty using camouflage, obstacles, tight rooms, as well as their own speed, maneuverability, and numbers to panic players into blowing through their ammo reserves trying to take the bastards down. It truly does feel like the player is taking part of an Alien movie on their Nintendo DS!
Thankfully while the marines' arsenal is limited, each gun is effective in its own way. The classic Pulse rifle is weak in stopping power but has a beefy clip and a deadly grenade launcher; the trusty shotgun is slow and limited in range, but terrifically powerful; the flamethrower can burn multiple targets and recharges ammunition, but takes time downing larger aliens; the Smart gun gives players a balance of great firepower and range, but drains stamina quickly when running, takes some time to spin up, and has a nasty side-effect of spraying acidic Xenomorph blood (that appropriately damages the player); the pistol is the standard pea shooter with unlimited ammunition; and finally grenades and C4 are mainly used to clear obstacles, but can be weaponized as well. No one weapon is perfect for all situations and players can carry only one main weapon with them until they reach another save station, encouraging the player to try learn different techniques for different situations. They will need all the firepower they can get too, as the fight for survival is further intensified when the life of their marine is really on the line. If they die that is it for that soldier, cutting your squad down a man till they find another survivor to fill his spot. In a neat twist, sometimes marines may get a second chance by being captured by the xenomorphs and held in a (usually heavily guarded) nest, giving the players a limited time to rescue their comrades before they die, but this is still risky as the marines may or may not have been "facehugged" leaving a gruesome surprise to inattentive players.
Sadly though, all the suspense and action comes at a cost in the exploration department. This is not all too bad in itself as it circumvents excessive backtracking, but the game lands in the grey area of requiring too much exploration to be a completely linear experience, yet too little to be sustainably enjoyable. Moreover, Infestation has a nasty habit of running full steam only to suddenly jerk the chain back from the player and abruptly demands they find a keycard to progress any further. The uneven pacing coupled with Infestation's troubled development history alludes to there being many elements of the game that were either unfinished or outright cut from of the game. For example, the game prides itself on its multitude of characters to play as, each with their own superb art and unique dialogue in the story, proclaiming that each play through will be different with per character. This is true to an extent and some characters, such as "Beta", an airheaded 4Channer, and "Bonesaw", a gun-kissing deranged weapons instructor, are particularly fun with their banter and neat little idle animations, but that is really all there is to it! On screen they look just the same outside of having different colored armor, skin tones, and slightly different grunts and screams. While this is understandable considering how much sprite work would had to be done to give them all unique animations, it is undeniably jarring for the female characters or characters that are supposed to be larger or smaller than others (notably for two with those features being an element of their personality). This effectively makes the players' other three squad mates nothing more than extra lives unless they plan to change between them often. Adding skills or unique gameplay traits across characters would have made choosing their squad much more fun and interactive. On top of this, the story does not quite give the characters enough room to shine outside of key moments; this is mainly due to the story that plays its cards rather safe throughout. It is perfectly fine for anyone who is not terribly invested in the Alien franchise, but it does not give fans of the series much to chew on outside of some interesting bits from Gibson's Alien 3 script.
This is serviceable and by no means game-breaking in the scheme of things, but it leaves just enough for the player to wish more was invested into the game to make it all that much better and this theme carries over on other aspects as well. For example, the lack of custom control mapping is a missed opportunity. To be fair the controls are placed fine for the most part, but the lack of a reload button, instead constricting players to reload via the touch screen, which also holds the map on another screen, is terribly infuriating in the heat of battle. This is especially apparent in the boss battles, which in all actuality are not terribly challenging compared to the rest of the game, relying on tons of health, high damage output, and weak spots that are annoyingly difficult to hit to serve as any sort of challenge. In fact, save for one that can only be defeated in a particularly Alien fashion, they all basically share the same pattern with hardly any variation. Most of the difficulty from this game stems from the swarms of enemies that slowly chip away from your health bar as you try to make it to the next save room to heal up and these are usually far apart from one another. This is actually quite invigorating, one slip-up could spell your doom making for some investing gameplay, but then Infestation taunts players by haphazardly putting tons of supplies uselessly near save rooms for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Exploring maintenance shafts tends to be your only hope for health packs or ammo when stuck between save rooms, but this is risky because the shafts may house alien nests, yet at the same time they could also have valuable weapon upgrades (or giant mazes leading to nothing when the level designers feel particularly wicked). Again, this is great for the most part, but these shafts are so unevenly spread out in the world, players will travel long stretches of hallways without relief followed later by areas with useless caches of ammunition when none is needed. The music on the other hand is fittingly atmospheric (if a tad bland), but it becomes horribly tiresome when entering a new area resets the song to the beginning instead of smoothly transitioning. The APC shmup section especially deserves to be mentioned; by all means this should have been the badass scene in the game players would fondly recall upon, much like the hover-cycle chase in Contra III: The Alien Wars (no horrid pun intended), but there is one key difference between the two. Whereas the hover-cycle in Contra III is small and the hitbox remains on the player, the APC is huge (nearly two screens long to be precise!!) and its hitbox is all over the place! To solve this, the developers made this section technically impossible to fail, but this still could have been so, so much more enjoyable.
Finally, a complaint commonly lobbied against Infestation is that it is too short, but this is actually something that the game handles perfectly fine! The game always has the player doing something, inspecting new areas, and even when coming back to old areas it has a tendency to surprise players by making previously safe rooms hold nasty surprises just randomly enough that they can never quite predict it. There is never a moment in the game that feels padded out for artificial length, an agonizingly common theme in many of today's "AAA" games. The actual problem concerning the game's length is that there is not terribly much replayability outside of seeing different lines of dialogue with different marines. There is no new game+, no official implementation for speed running, and nothing to collect besides finding all the marines and a charming (if random) Knife Trick mini-game. Yet all said and done, these are all imperfections; they are great for the most part but lacking in a few areas making it fall just short of perfection. It is a shame these elements are not as refined as they could have been, but that does not make the game unplayable! Quite to the contrary really, this game is so recommendable because it tries to be so much more than just your typical licensed game and through its genuine efforts it becomes a game that does not need to lean on its license at all. Aliens: Infestation could have been a new IP and it would have been just as great, and in a day and age where licensed games are anything but original, it is something that cannot be recommended enough to both Alien fans and fans of 2D action/adventures in general. The biggest shame with Infestation is that it was delayed so much, had no marketing from SEGA whatsoever, and came out so late in the DS' lifespan that gamers likely have not heard of it, let alone looked into it (this seems to be a trend for Wayforward...). This is truly a tragedy as gamers are really missing out on a 2D Aliens game that finally gets it right. Even considering the issues, the fun of surviving the Xenomorph onslaught is too great to miss out. And while there is a sequel coming out by Gearbox on major consoles in 2013, which will hopefully continue Infestation's open ending, it is a shame it will be a typical modern FPS (complete with Call of Duty stylized points upon killing enemies). Maybe if we are really lucky there will be another game like Aliens: Infestation someday, sequel or not, because there is just something so poetically awesome about an Aliens game inspired by Metroid, which was in turn inspired by Aliens in the first place!