Despite being able to put bold checkmarks next to enjoying videogames and movies in the “geekyness” column of my personality, I never got into comic books. Not sure why, but I do know that for a long time I fell prey to the old stereotype that comics, even today, consisted entirely of hackneyed plots and spandex written for young boys in the 1950s. It also surely doesn’t help that the few comics I have read were almost always licensed comics. I’m all for exploring new angles or expanding a rich universe beyond the two or so hours seen in the cinema, but most comics (the Terminator comics especially) gleefully contradict the source material to do so.
Aliens comics just happen to be a great example. Forget the mystery of the films – Aliens in the comic universe are about as common as soap scum in your shower. Entire Marine battalions exist with the purpose of shooting apart bugs the moment the next backwater colony’s transmitter drops. Every character seems to have their own horrific Alien encounter backstory. It’s a far cry from Ripley trying to convince authorities simply that the Aliens exist. In the comic universe, if you were to tell someone that aliens stowed away on your ship and killed your crew, their response would be “Oh? How many did you frag?”
So don’t go into this game expecting horror and suspense in line with the films. Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure is actually an acting sequel to Dark Horse’s Aliens: Labyrinth. Somewhat similar to Jurassic Park for the Sega CD, you’re coming in after the events of that story; seeing the aftermath and somewhat extending the plot. This isn’t without some sacrifices. The events of Labyrinth have now been moved from a space station to the surface of a planet, the base’s layout changes, portions of the story are rewritten, but the essential backstory and characters (Crespi, Church) are left untouched. Of course, the best action has already happened, and Labyrinth readers will already know the super-secret reveal. It’s a little pointless when you think about it, and you’d probably be better off coming into this game cold.
You’re the commander of the USS Sheridan; a small, four-man frigate whose standard mission is never really explained. You’re re-routed from cryosleep to answer a distress beacon at a distant mining colony. You play as a troubled ex-Colonial Marine named Hericksen (that’s “HAIR-EK-SEN,” not Heinreksen). Your past isn’t particularly clear, except for a story you mention about watching Aliens rip apart your squad, and a pathetic need to ask everyone how they feel you’re doing as a commander. You can also vary your responses between the two extremes of compassionate and meathead, though you’re ultimately still restricted to a very narrow character in the few areas where characterization even applies.
Under your command are a prickly female medic with upfront men issues, a combo pilot/engineer who’s called upon to fix or construct things, and an aloof science officer who fills the “he’s going to betray us for a shot at studying the Aliens, isn’t he?” role adeptly. You can speak with them while you’re on your ship, though this is primarily prologue as their comments and topics don’t expand as the game goes on. Once you’re out in the base, they act as characters in a typical RPG party system, and you have the ability to trade among them or select them to perform specialized tasks.
Exploration and eventual escape is pretty much the goal here, and it follows adventure conventions without much deviation. Controls are broken or doors are locked. You search for items or keys to use on them. Dialogue interactions will be limited, and puzzles pretty basic. Most get no harder than requiring you to spot small objects just out of clear view, though you will have to synthesize some chemicals (and figure out their formulas) and crack computer challenges based on Othello/Reversi.
Graphically, it’s fairly gorgeous, and Cryo’s team manage to get the atmosphere and lighting right. You’ll see it in Nostromo-esque hallways of pipes and shadows, or in labs that match the lived-in tech of the second film. Rooms are still images of 3D computer renders. You get transition cutscenes early on, but these start to drop off and leave you with a slideshow as the game progresses. Characters are hand-drawn 2D art inside the world, and while they don’t really match, they don’t look jarringly out of place either. The exception is your team, who walk around the base inside 3D mech suits for reasons unexplained.
Sound deserves some praise, with quality MIDI tunes coming out of the SoundBlaster. Instruments sound as they should, the design goes in a different direction than the movies did, but still sounds appropriate. There’s an astounding number of songs too, across at least three in-game soundtracks (8-10 tracks each) you can collect and play at in-game CD players. The only issue is that these music CDs take up character inventory. I haven’t been able to figure out how to drop them (if you even can), and they became three slots I would have liked to had back toward the end of the game. One sour note: as you might expect, dialogue is fully voiced. And as you might expect, the acting is not even worth discussing.
You can see from the score that it’s all downhill from here. A “comic book adventure” is a fine idea, but this story, expanding poorly on an old four-issue stand-alone comic, feels forced and pointless. Following close behind is no shortage of bugs and questionable design. First is the issue of time limits. You will always be timed, with a new crisis appearing as you progress. Taking too long to explore (which, in my opinion, is pretty crucial to an adventure game) results in death by cutscene. If you take just a minute or two longer than you should to land the ship, it will be caked by asteroids. Take too long exploring a new section of the base and the planet will literally explode. You will inevitably die along the way and have to use the knowledge you’ve gained to do it all again, but faster.
The interface is a little off as well. In terms of control, it’s fairly simple as you navigate entirely with the mouse. No keyboard key has any use here. You roll a cursor over the screen, and text will appear if you can interact with an area (such as “look” or “turn right”). The right mouse will bring up a dialogue to quit the game. In your status screen, left clicking selects items and right clicking drags them onto other characters. Each member of the party has only eight item slots, so you will need to do some inventory management throughout the game.
However, you’re given precious little information on what’s going on. The manual is a pathetic little thing (I bought it off Ebay just to be sure). Text takes up only 1/3 of each page (the rest is blank space), and instructions do little more than teach you how to install the game and click the mouse. Crucial portions of the interface remain unexplained. “Morale” is vague. Saying what you think a character wants to hear doesn’t reliably bring morale up, and low morale doesn’t appear to have an impact in the field. “Armor Level” and “Fighting Power” sound important, but I have no idea how to raise them. “Life Level” seems pretty clear, and you have a medic on staff, but I couldn’t figure out how to get her to heal anyone.
The biggest offender is “Hunger.” When the bar is full, nothing happens. When it starts running low, characters interrupt the game to tell you how hungry they are. That’s it – that’s all the bar does. You remedy this by going to the ship’s kitchen, selecting food from a vending machine and then dragging it onto the portrait of the character holding the food. Trick is, you have to feed them four or five meals before they’re full. And each meal has to be “ordered” individually, complete with rendered cutscene as the machine dispenses it. When it reaches zero, nothing happens – just constant fucking “HUNGRY!” voice samples, which alone are enough to make it worth taking the time to cram four turkey dinners into everyone’s whine hole. Why couldn’t they have just wiped out hunger with one meal? Why have this at all? Is it supposed to be another time limit?
And then there’s the “Hmmm…”s. As you travel around the base, your arrow will briefly disappear and you will hear a sound clip of “Hmmm…” Sometimes there will be a few in rapid succession. They’re rarely more than 5-10 seconds apart. It doesn’t seem to matter what screen you’re on. It doesn’t seem to matter what you do. I took it as some crew member trying to tell me something – like an indication that they have an opinion on an object in the room, or can be used there. If this is the case, what should happen next isn’t remotely obvious. Or, it could just be a bug on a already long list of them.
There is combat, but it’s pretty sparse until the very end. At a few key points (and after a cutscene introduction), the game will switch to an isometric view of you and your opponent. Left-clicking moves you along a grid. Right-clicking swings a punch or activates a ranged weapon (if you have it, and have it selected). It’s not particularly thrilling, though you can get outnumbered and are forced to move around strategically. Also, as said before, I can’t figure out how to get the medic to heal any damage you take here. Its implementation seems like an afterthought.
The grand prize winner is the game’s shoddy implementation of disk swapping. Whenever the game starts, it will always ask for the first CD. If you have a save on CD2, you’ve got to start with CD1 and swap immediately after loading the save. If you’re on CD2 and want to quit the game, you actually have to put CD1 in just to get to the main menu with the “quit” button to get back to DOS. Otherwise, you’ve got to do a hard restart.
Saves are equally annoying. You can save anywhere to a set number of slots, but you will always start back in the ship when you reload. Your progress and items will be retained, but you’ve got to go through loading up the mech suits and schlep back to where you left off. If you’re on CD2, thankfully, you start in the first room of that disc. But what happens if you’ve made a mistake and need to reload a CD2 save? Well, you have to take out CD2 and put in CD1 to get to the main menu, load the game, take CD1 back out and put CD2 back in. This includes any time you die or run out of time.
It’s things like this that make the game feel rushed, and even after patching to 1.03 (which apparently squashes some game-killing bugs) you still have everything above to deal with. Add to this the occasional visual bug or translation issue, and you get the sense this game probably saw a troubled, underfunded development. A captivating Aliens adventure game is likely possible, but this isn’t it.
Even without the technical issues, the game is disappointing all around. The story doesn’t need to be told, the discoveries you make probably aren’t canon and aren’t real revelations anyway. The four main characters here feature only in this game, so this isn’t backstory for a comic series – you can skip it without missing anything. Action and puzzles are both limited. The CG art looks great, but as far as letting you explore the world of Aliens, clicking through the Myst-style still images is no more immersive than reading a comic book. Definite pass.
Excellent visuals and music.
Weak story, weak gameplay, more bugs in the game code than even a fully-armed Colonial Marine could handle.