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Attack of the Earthlings Review — X-COM: Inverted

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X-COM is an institution. The seminal turn-based tactics game has spawned many imitators and would-be successors, with most sticking closely to the original script. Few developers display the courage to be subversive enough in their narrative and gameplay choices to make their projects feel unique. With Attack of the Earthlings, indie outfit Team Junkfish proves itself to be different. Although much is familiar, the game inverts expectations, resulting in a curious experience that is equal parts comedic, challenging, and surprising.

The aliens have not arrived with the intention of either creating a utopia or subjecting the population to war and slavery: their goal is simply to stripmine the world. Interplanetary invaders are often grey-green, scaly, and menacing—the stuff of nightmares—but Team Junkfish’s are cut from a different cloth. Pink and fleshy, humans are the oppressors of Planet X, and players take the role of the natives. This simple inversion of the norm rewrites the playbook. On one hand, the developers re-envision the usual po-faced storyline into a breezier format, with the evil entity being, instead, a barely competent corporation, the leaders of which are all named for phallic colloquialisms. Some of the humour is undeniably juvenile, yet the irreverent tone is a breath of fresh air for an industry increasingly obsessed with straight-laced navel-gazing. That said, the story is straightforward and, for the most part, not particularly memorable, but these are minor criticisms in a genre not renowned for its scintillating plotlines. Player engagement must come from another source, and the audiovisual experience carries the game with aplomb.

Attack of the Earthlings

Beginning with a brief, animated establishing scene, Attack of the Earthlings’s atmosphere of lightheartedness is set almost immediately by its depictions of humans. The developers tend to portray characters in the most unflattering light possible, emphasising their infantilism, cowardice, lack of observation, and self-centredness via both dialogue and animation. No visual shortcut is considered too obvious, whether it be the knee-knocking terror of laboratory technicians catching their first glimpse of the alien threat or the pompous goose-stepping of an overzealous guard. Thankfully, this tendency towards excess is not reflected within the game’s environments, which generally offer clean lines and easy navigability. These traits are coupled with clever visual design that enables each locale, from the industrial grunge of the lower levels to the opulent offices of the uppermost, to feel distinct. Disappointingly, sound design does not quite adhere to the same high watermark of quality. While the voicework that is present is universally solid, the choice to only include it for certain conversations detracts from a sense of unity. Furthermore, although Mikolai Stroinski’s (The Witcher III: Wild Hunt ‘Blood and Wine’) score is an excellent accompaniment to the action, it fails to enrapture the ear and stick in the mind. However, the presentation is mere set dressing here and the true draw of Attack of the Earthlings is the way that traditional gameplay elements are subject to novel twists.

Bog standard skills such as group attacks and overwatch are present, accompanied by a suite of more intriguing of talents. The core alteration to established norms is the ability to consume corpses and convert their biomass into new units for the burgeoning Swarmer army. Players begin each mission with a single unit—the Matriarch—which is the only one capable of spawning additional aliens. She must always be at the heart of the user’s strategy, as her death will result in an immediate game over, regardless of any other aliens that may still be in play. As for those additional soldiers, each begins as a Grunt, but has the option to use additional biomass to transform into a more specialised form. The evolutions adhere to classical archetypes of warrior, rogue, and archer, which gives them specific strengths and suits them to different tasks. The ability to create and upgrade units on-the-fly results in an open-ended experience where player agency takes centre stage.

Attack of the Earthlings bolsters these traits with additional mechanics that promote replayability. At the conclusion of each mission, players meet with a scoreboard indicating their performance. Though this feature is simply implemented, the time-tested concept remains as effective as ever, taunting the user to take just one more attempt to do better, even as more challenging levels beckon. However, this feature is more than a cosmetic carrot, offering up a resource called Mutagen depending on how well objectives are fulfilled. Mutagen is spent between and before missions to imbue each of the unit types (excluding Grunts) with extra abilities and buffs to increase their combat effectiveness. The upgrade tree is limited and lacks branches, but the freedom to respec the loadout at will adds an extra layer of agency, yet not every design choice is made in service of this goal.

Attack-of-the-Earthlings-4

In recent years, the highest-profile titles in the turn-based strategy genre have begun to implement procedural generation as a means of constantly providing new challenges. Team Junkfish eschews the trend, opting for hand-crafted levels. Doing so enable the developers to create specific opportunities and story beats, but also slightly constrains the freeform play so strongly fostered in every other aspect of the game. This trade-off gives Attack of the Earthlings an invigorating sense of dynamism in the first playthrough, yet greatly limits the excitement of subsequent playthroughs. Nevertheless, the levels are designed well, frequently offering alternate paths and opportunities to make the most of the unique skills of each unit type. Furthermore, the narrative-led nature of the project means that being designed as a one-off experience is no shortcoming.

Indeed, in an age where titles are designed as sprawling live services, a more focused campaign can help a game to stand out. Fortunately, Attack of the Earthlings has much more in its favour than being a throwback to a simpler age thanks to its cheery tone and novelty. The game is far from revolutionary, but it bears a sense of individuality that many others lack. The greatest disappointment is that the title will likely never reach the audience it deserves.

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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