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.
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.
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.