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Alien Syndrome
Platform: PSP
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Totally Games
Genre: Action RPG
Format: UMD
Released: US 07/24/07
EU 09/07/07
Official Site: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 75%
Sound: 80%
Gameplay: 85%
Control: 90%
Story: 80%
Overall: 83%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Two words: laser shotgun.
 
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Totally not three-legged headcrabs.
 
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That fireball is definitely not helping the spice harvest.
 
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Goodness, gracious, great geysers of fire!
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John Tucker
Alien Syndrome
07/12/08
John Tucker

Although there are still many people who think of video games as a silly hobby, it has grown to be an enormously lucrative business over the years, and like any industry, ours has seen a lot of companies come and go. Sega's been around a very long time, and although they've left the hardware market, they've still got a huge library of games to draw on when they ponder what new games to make. Alien Syndrome on the PSP and Wii is a sequel to an old arcade game of the same name, set one hundred years after the conclusion of the original. The original game was very action-oriented, and this sequel slides over into the hack 'n' slash RPG genre to keep that spirit alive.

Story

Alien Syndrome's completely linear story puts you in the shoes of Aileen Harding, a very talented soldier who is sent to investigate the loss of contact with ship that was sent to investigate the loss of contact with a terraforming station. As you might expect from a sci-fi hack 'n' slash RPG, she finds that the ship has been taken over by aliens, and most of the crew members are dead. As I neared the confrontation with the final boss on the ship, I honestly believed that I was almost finished with the game, but it turned out that I was only at the end of the first act of a 40-mission story that eventually took me somewhere around 50 hours to complete. The remainder of the game moves you to the terraforming station the original ship was after, and from there to the alien homeworld. I didn't feel that it was ever made clear why the aliens attacked (perhaps the humans were trying to terraform a world they already lived on), and a few plot twists are cliché or nonsensical, but it's not a bad story, especially considering the game's genre. After all, hack 'n' slash games are not generally noted for the strength of their stories.

Gameplay

Alien Syndrome offers players five different classes, four of which have an initial focus on a different class of ranged weapon. The Firebug, for example, begins the game with a simple (but effective) flamethrower, and can move on to weapons like a gun that shoots fireballs that explode on impact with a wall or an enemy. The Demolitions Expert begins with a grenade lobber, and then moves on to things like proximity mines and homing missiles. As you level up, you can put points into any class of weapons, allowing a character to progress beyond the one-dimensional fighter they start as. I played as a Firebug who could also use energy weapons (lasers), and really appreciated being able to switch between the two depending on which was more appropriate at the time. Although they all focus on ranged weapons, the big difference in how those weapons function makes playing again as a different class a noticably different experience.

The fifth class (named the "Tank") is a melee fighter, and takes the unenviable spot of "class you'd never want to play as." There's one in many games, but the inclusion of this character is somewhat confusing, as the game is so clearly focused on shooting. In fact, melee combat is the one element of the game that I would be tempted to label as "broken." Speaking technically, it works, but it is not fun in the slightest. Fortunately, it can be safely ignored without removing even one bit of gameplay from the experience.

As with most games in the genre, Alien Syndrome features both enemies and breakable containers that drop loot. You spend the entire game out in the field, accompanied only by a "Scarab"–a flying robot that serves as both vendor and as minor combat assistance. Any weapons, armor, or usable items that you pick up and don't want can be sold to the Scarab for cash, which you can use to purchase other weapons, armor, and usable items from it. The Scarab has a fairly small inventory that changes every several minutes, and after an initial period of building up cash, you'll probably find that you always have enough to buy whatever you want. I was a little disappointed in the selection–for example, weapons I couldn't use came up more often than I would have liked–but I did enjoy the fact that I didn't have to make town runs to get rid of junk.

As you would hope, there are several things worth noting about the enemies themselves. Over the course of the game, the enemies you face vary greatly, although there are a few who get recycled within individual sections with different elements attached to their attacks each time. I wouldn't make too much of this recycling, though -I was impressed with how many different enemies there were, and some of them were both unusual and interesting, such as one who creates holographic clone decoys of itself (they can't hurt you, but if you fire at the wrong one, you'll give them time to fire at you again). It's also noteworthy that there are environmental hazards, which hurt both you and your enemies. The same is true of some enemy attacks–one enemy explodes shortly after being killed, and anyone standing too close will be damaged, even the bad guys.

Those are a few examples of the attention to detail that I liked in Alien Syndrome, and there are many more, but I will limit myself to two more I can't neglect to mention. First, you will occasionally run across allies–fellow soldiers who will not truly follow alongside you, but who will make a big impact on the fight while you're near them. Yes–these allies are actually helpful! They have good aim, and their weapons will easily kill enemies you don't get to quickly enough.

Second, the game features what may be a unique feature in how it saves your progress. Saving can only be performed at checkpoints (which sometimes don't show up as frequently as you'll want them), where you can respawn at a cost of some XP if you die (and you probably will). When you save, you only use one file, but the game stores the character and the environment separately on that file. That is, if you find some equipment that would be perfect for one character while you're playing as another, you can drop the equipment on the ground next to a save point, save, and load that character into the game instead of the character who was originally playing to allow them to pick up the loot. The other benefit of this is that if you die and choose to load a saved game rather than respawning at the last checkpoint, your character gets to start from the earlier point with the same XP and equipment that they had when they died, rather than what they had when you originally saved the game. This allows you to do some quick grinding when you run into an area that gives you a lot of trouble, and I appreciated it a lot on several occasions. Speaking of loading, the load times are excellent–the delay as you begin each new level is not bad at all, and reloading within the same level if you die takes almost no time at all.

If you've seen other reviews for this game (and I would encourage you to do so in this case), you'll know that the game is not perfect. To be honest, this is probably the most positive review of Alien Syndrome by a significant amount. I feel that my gripes with the game are relatively minor, though–things like the fact that although there are three difficulty levels, you have to begin at Normal and complete it to get the next harder version, the fact that you can (and will) fall to your death in some environments, and the design of one level that requires you to fight the clock to reach an exit before time runs out.

In contrast, the reviews that had kept me from buying Alien Syndrome over the past year find much fault with things like the fact that it's a fairly mindless romp. To me, this is like criticizing cherry pie for not having enough nutritional value. If I'm eating pie, it's not because I am looking for a healthy meal, and if I'm playing a hack 'n' slash game, I'm not looking to being continually challenged. I'm looking for something that will allow me to blast away at hordes of enemies, generally mowing them down with little trouble. Alien Syndrome does feature challenging areas, which tend to be of the "seemingly endless waves of baddies" variety, but I feel that they show up with just about the perfect level of frequency. They're often enough that survival will cause you to breathe a sigh of relief many times over the course of the game, but rare enough that you'll still think "it's go time," rather than "not this again" when you recognize your situation.

Graphics

Alien Syndrome's graphics aren't the greatest you'll see on the PSP, but they're not bad, either. There are a lot of nice touches in the background–computer screens display information, alien trees have semi-transparent foliage, and on the few occasions when you walk through water, you get appropriate splashes and ripples. As with the gameplay, I felt like there was a high level of attention to detail, and that is very important to me in graphics. This is also evident in the character design, where different armor makes a big difference in the character's appearance. Most weapons feature a sort of "laser sight" that helps a lot in making sure that you're actually going to shoot the enemy you want, rather than just give him the refreshing breeze of a near miss, and I really liked that.

There are glitches here and there, like one class of armor where the torso sits way too far forward, making the character look like a chiropracter's nightmare, and two sets of boots that appear to have been mapped to the wrong graphic (one is blue when it should be orange, and vice versa). There are also occasional framerate issues when a large number of enemies are present in an area with nifty background effects or a lot of shots flying around, but they are not serious enough to be more than a minor frustration.

Sound

When it comes to Alien Syndrome's sound, I came for the voice acting, and stayed for the music and sound effects. The cutscenes are presented in the currently popular "animatic" style–fully drawn and colored storyboard panels with a small amount of animation–and feature spoken dialogue from all characters involved, and most of the actors do a very respectable job. In-mission dialogue shows up from time to time as well, but the is a bit glitchy–the last line always gets cut off about halfway through.

I usually turned on the sound to hear what was happening during the cutscenes, but after the levels finished loading, I often left it on to hear everything else. The music is generally quite good, and fits in well with the action. Each type of weapon has its own, logical sound effect, and if they fire projectiles that explode, those have their own sounds as well. Enemies are much the same, as each type has its own sound, which tends to match the enemy design well.

Control

One of the perceived flaws in the PSP is that it has a few less buttons than its home console brothers. Especially considering this issue, Alien Syndrome does a very admirable job of giving players all of the controls they need without reusing buttons. There are two control schemes, which vary in a few important ways, and you're sure to prefer one over the other. The most crucial difference is that in one, you strafe whenever you're firing, and in the other, you hold the right trigger to strafe. The latter is the option I chose, and it reminded me in many ways of playing the old arcade game Smash TV (one of my favorites).

By default, the camera will rotate slowly to match your movements, but you can hold the triangle button and use the analog stick to rotate it at any time. It does a good job, and I very rarely rotated the camera manually. If you're in melee mode, the X and O buttons are weak and strong attacks, but if you're in ranged mode, they represent two different weapons. This works extremely well, as it gives you instant access to two different types of damage, but this quick access is balanced out (intentionally) by a slight delay whenever you switch between the two.

Overall

As I mentioned earlier, Alien Syndrome has gotten a lot of bad reviews, and if you're considering buying it, you'd probably be wise to check them out. However, I truly feel that other reviews tend to be criticizing it for being exactly what it should be. If you think this is the kind of game you'd like, don't let them put you off–buy it. The developers clearly put a lot of love into this game, and in my opinion, it paid off. I spent 40 to 50 very enjoyable hours with Alien Syndrome, and am several hours in with a second character. My only regret is that I allowed other reviews to stop me from buying it despite my feeling that it'd be fun.



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