GAME REVIEW: Aliens: Dark Descent

Title: Aliens: Dark Descent
Developer: Tindalos Interactive
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Release Date: June 19, 2023
Platforms: PlayStation 5|4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Microsoft Windows, Steam
Reviewed on: Xbox Series X

The following review mostly contains mild spoilers, except for clearly marked sections that contain major spoilers for the purpose of analysis. If you wish to avoid those major spoilers, skip ahead when prompted.

When the top-down strategy game Aliens: Dark Descent was announced, many compared it to the tactical game XCOM. While those who felt excitement over this comparison might feel disappointed, Aliens: Dark Descent delivers a lot for lifelong fans of the franchise to celebrate.

Tindalos Interactive describes the game as “real-time combat,” a mix between traditional real-time strategy games and high-stakes live combat; the genre fusion fits the gameplay well, with strategy and planning making the difference between life and death for your squad of Colonial Marines as they face the deadly Xenomorphs, which only slow but don’t stop as you issue battle commands.

The game’s combat system creates an ever-present sense of terror and dread as you fight to progress through the campaign and survive the outbreak on the planet Lethe.

Video: Focus Entertainment


Taking place in the year 2198, nineteen years after the original film trilogy, Aliens: Dark Descent begins aboard Pioneer Space Station, where an Xenomorph outbreak triggers a Weyland-Yutani quarantine that locks down both the station and the planet Lethe below.

Caught in the lethal security measures of the quarantine system, a number of ships including the Colonial Marines ship the USS Otago, crash on Lethe. Deputy Administrator Maeko Hayes (from Pioneer Station) joins up with the surviving marines to investigate the infestation planet-side and to formulate an escape plan.

While players will feel most connected to their squad of Colonial Marines, they are technically playing the game as Deputy Administrator Hayes, issuing preparation commands on the Otago before deployment and directing the squad of marines during missions.


Sgt. Jonas Harper teams up with Deputy Director Hayes.

While the game’s method of play may not be for everyone, it is abundantly clear that Aliens: Dark Descent was made by a team that cares greatly for the lore and history of the franchise. When I met with the game’s producer Hippolyte Simon at PAX East, he noted that most of the development team were lifelong Aliens fans, and that they felt most proud of the game’s atmosphere and biomes withing the game because of how closely they mirrored the second film; the team also took pride in the artificial intelligence of the Xenomorph hive because of how terrifying and realistic the interactions are with the player. Both of these qualities shine through in the finished version of the game.

Building Your Squad

Players select a fully customizable squad of marines to go on missions. These marines start as recruits, and as they gain XP, can choose between two (of five) specialization paths to follow. The two available choices are randomly generated, so players can’t determine everything, but do retain some level of control.

Each marine also begins with certain negative personality traits that can affect gameplay. For example, one of the most frustrating is the “stubborn” trait which randomly decides upgrades and class specialties for the player, quite literally seizing control of the onscreen HUD and selecting options. Others like “coward” and “clumsy” affect the marine’s performance in combat. Fortunately, these undesirable personality traits can be eliminated by selecting the “redemption” upgrade when enough XP is gained. But if you have a stubborn marine, you’ll just have to hope it randomly selects it for you.

Colonial Marine Classes

The following classes are available to choose from in Aliens: Dark Descent:

  • Gunner: This is your classic Colonial Marine that you remember from Aliens. The Gunner is capable of using heavy weapons and can even set the M56 Smart Gun to fire like a Sentry Turret while using their secondary weapon. Talk about firepower!
  • Recon: With stealth being so important in Aliens: Dark Decent, the Recon is a must. They allow the whole squad to move faster, detect enemies sooner, and avoid detection longer. They are also capable of using the silenced M42A3 Sniper Rifle, a deadly force in late-game combat.
  • Tekker: While it’s not the flashiest class, those who appreciate strategy and careful resource management will love the Tekker. This class grants players the ability to unlock encrypted doors (this saved me countless times late in missions); players can also use a robotic drone that acts as a kind of additional marine on the battle field, welding doors and even firing a submachine gun.
  • Medic: This class is a must-have on your squad. When permadeath lurks around every corner, the Medic grants your team additional First Aid Kits, decreases stress and increases health by one point for the whole squad, heals wounded marines 50% faster, and can even revive fallen marines who are in a coma (this ability saved some of my favorite marines 40 hours into a campaign).
  • Sargent: Doing everything right but still not finding success on missions? Try investing in the Sargent class. More than any other member of the unit, the Sargent handles the intangibles, increasing the squad’s bravery, lowering stress levels, and buffing recovery stats when resting. A maxed out Sargent is worth their weight in gold!

Not only can the appearance of these marines be modified in detail (I know I’m not the only one to recreate the unit from Aliens), they can be trained to have specific abilities that help the squad achieve the mission and to use unique weapons that give the team a tactical advantage in battle.

Colonial Marines Arsenal

Prepare for battle by arming and training your marines aboard the USS Otago.

Marines can be trained (via XP unlock) to handle the following weapons:

  • Primary / Main Weapons: M41 Pulse Rifle (default), M56 Smart Gun, Heavy Pulse Rifle, XM99A1 Phased Plasma Rifle
  • Secondary/ Backup Weapons: M4A3 Service Pistol, SA. 357 Revolver, M39-U Submachine Gun
  • Specialist Weapons: M37A2 Pump Shotgun (default), M240 Incinerator Unit, GEM-80 Mine, M42A3 Sniper Rifle, M5 RPG Launcher

I found it immensely satisfying to customize my marines and use specific weapons combinations to maximize strategic advantage in battle. There’s no bad weapon in the bunch and adapting my play style each playthrough kept the game feeling fresh and engaging. It’s also worth noting that with the under-barrel grenade launcher, the M41 Pulse Rifle remains a powerful force in battle, despite being the default weapon; many players will choose to equip their marines with it even after upgrades are unlocked.

By the end of my final run, my personal favorites were the M42A3 Sniper Rifle and the GEM-80 Mines. Being able to pick off a Xenomorph without disturbing the Hive becomes critical in the late-game fields of battle, when your resources are low and the Hive is at maximum aggression levels. Similarly, being able to cover my retreat with mines or ensure that no enemies are going to sneak up on my squad from behind is invaluable. There are some fantastic customizations that become available as well if players choose to use the laboratory aboard the Otago to develop Xenotech.

Lethe: A Persistent Environment

The campaign missions are difficult and test your resolve and mettle in battle. The surface of Lethe (and all other surprise locations) are persistent within the game, meaning that any door your marines weld, stays welded even if you return to the Otago and come back a month later. If you leave some sentry guns at the entrance to a mine, they will be waiting there for you when you return, a feature that can be incredibly helpful for strategic players. You can carry a maximum of five Sentry Turrets during missions and thus can only return as many when you come back to the Otago after battle. Since Sentry Turrets can be found scattered across the combat zones, players can store resources for future missions.

The idea of persistent environments hold true for your marines as well. Any death in combat is permanent. All the training, weapon proficiencies, and personality development undertaken by that soldier via the fires of war are lost forever. But don’t worry, you can visit a virtual memorial for the fallen back on the Otago.

This ever-present threat of permadeath heightens the tension on the battlefield. Players will be tempted to return to the Otago when the Hive becomes too aggressive or their marines are exhausted and out of resources; however, there is a mid-game mechanic that punishes the player for each passing day. This creates desperate urgency for the player and a real conflict between completing the mission and protecting the lives of marines. And there’s nothing quite like the beeping of the motion tracker during another hunt from the Hive to make you question every decision you’ve made.

Perhaps one of the must surprising and realistic features of the game is that marines can die back at the hospital aboard the Otago. You may have escaped the onslaught of the Hive, raced to the transport in the nick of time, and still ended up losing your favorite marine. They can also lose limbs and gain other permanent scars from missions.

Managing Your Marines’ Health

Dr. Kabiri is available in the Psychiatric Care Unit to treat traumatized marines.

One of the unique gameplay aspects of Aliens: Dark Descent is that you are responsible for the health and wellness of your marines. No, not in the traditional health bar aspect found in shooter games, though your marines do have a life meter during missions. In Dark Descent, you are responsible for assigning injured marines to the medical quarters between missions.

Marines, unsurprisingly, take physical damage during combat, sustaining all types of injuries. The length of time required to heal these wounds depends on their severity and players can assign any number of doctors to marines (based upon resources accrued) in order to speed up the recovery. But far more interesting is the psychological damage taken by marines during the deadly encounters on Lethe.

As marines face Xenomorphs, Weyland-Yutani Mercenaries, and Darwin Era Cultists, they take on increasing stress, causing their heart-rate to rise. When it passes 100 beats per minute, they take on a stress point. Players either need to assign marines to take Naproleve (a stress-reducing drug that costs one medical resource) or take a rest by welding all entrances to a small room and commanding the squad to stand down; failing to do either of these will allow the stress to rise unchecked. This randomly assigns marines a stress response which can have a wide range of negative effects such as decreased accuracy, slower regeneration of command points, increased damage, or even loss of ammo. For each of 100 bpm heart-rate threshold, marines gain a stress response, with a possibility of up to three stress responses before maxing out.

When Marines return to the ship, three stress points become a trauma point, a semi-permanent condition that can only be removed by treating your marines in the Psychiatric Care Unit. Doing so can help your marines recover but it comes at the cost of removing them from combat duties for significant amounts of time. I found it better to manage stress during missions by using Naproleve and taking frequent rests.

I found the task of managing my marines’ health and wellness to be one of the more compelling aspects of the game. I’ve played just about every Aliens video game ever made (I’m an obsessed fan), and to my knowledge, Tindalos Interactive is the first to take this approach. It beautifully preserves the horror of the Perfect Organism from Alien while simulating the very real price of fighting these creatures as portrayed in Aliens. I found myself weighing the cost of fighting my way out of missions versus using stealth to escape, and more often than not, I chose to avoid combat that would over-stress my exhausted marines. Excellent game design.


I’m not a music critic and won’t pretend to have a deep understanding of musical theory. But I know good music when I hear it; and I recognize how central it has been to creating the environments across the Aliens franchise. I can confidently say that composer Doyle Donehoo nailed it when putting together the soundtrack for Aliens: Dark Descent. The music fits right in with the vibe of the 1986 film, an all-time personal favorite.

As a side note, it’s worth appreciating how lucky fans have been to get incredible soundtracks in the last two major Aliens games. Austin Wintory of course composed the music for Aliens: Fireteam Elite.

Story Themes

The following section contains major plot and story spoilers. If you wish to avoid these, skip ahead to the section marked “Final Score” to read our final thoughts on the game.

So here’s the deal. Aliens: Dark Descent is an incredible game for 98% of the campaign. The story is honestly one of the best, falling just short of Alien: Isolation, in my opinion. It’s that last 2%, the way the developers wrapped up the story, that significantly takes away from the experience. But first, let me start with what works well.

The narrative tension is sharp. Players feel a sense of connection to Deputy Administrator Hayes, almost immediately. Her decisions matter, and they have a massive impact on the story and the other characters players are drawn to. The narrative has a kind of vertical quality to it that is both satisfying and unique, starting in space aboard Pioneer Station, crashing to the surface of Lethe, delving into the mines, and finally the true depths in Olduvai.

The tension between Hayes and Sargent Harper creates fantastic overlapping tenion with the constant threat of Xenomorphs and Darwin Era Cultists. And it is precisely this clash that makes the story compelling. Harper wants to save his daughter, and Hayes suffers with remorse over her activation of the Cerberus Protocol and sees helping him as a path to redemption; Weyland-Yutani is corrupt, brutal, and callous to the loss of human life, while Darwin Era cult leader Marlow wants to fight back and use the Xenomorph to advance human evolution in a dark vision of brotherhood. These storylines are a fantastic backdrop to the intensely fun gameplay cycle of Aliens: Dark Descent.

The final mission takes players deep beneth Lethe for an EPIC battle against endless waves of Xenomorphs; if players have maxed their marines XP, it’s an immensely satisfying fight. For me, getting to see my squad of five marines, one from each main class, completely maxed in XP, abilities, and weapons fighting for survival was a top-10 video game moment. Aliens has always been one of my favorite franchises and Dark Descent recreated that magic.

And then… I won the battle. And Hayes went deeper beneath Lethe with two other characters for the final portion of the game, a relatively small mission to save Harper’s daughter. And that’s the last I ever saw of my squad of marines. Seriously.

I played 45 hours of a brutally challenging game to max out my team, fought like hell to survive the battle of the ages, and then… poof. For a game that focuses so much on the connection between players and the Colonial Marines, an ending that completely erases them is just bizarre. And perhaps even bad game design. I mean… I didn’t even get to see the final mission stats like every other mission in the game. After that final fight, I desperately wanted to know how my marines performed. Talk about disappointment.

I do understand the story was ultimately about Hayes. She is the first character players meet and she is technically the player’s means of perception. But in this case it’s a conflict between the story’s priorities and the gameplay design that bonds players with their marines, not Hayes. These conflicting forces coexist for most of the game, and it is unfortunate they clash so violently at the game’s conclusion.

Final Score

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Aliens: Dark Descent is a game made for Aliens fans by Aliens fans. This love and care for one of science-fiction’s greatest franchises clearly shines through in the finished game. The development team nailed the atmosphere and mythos of the James Cameron’s 1986 film.

However, like most modern games, the release was plagued with glitches; and with a game so merciless and unforgiving as this one (as any Aliens game should be!), the glitches pushed it over the line of challenging and into the realm of frustrating. I truly wish these final bugs could have been eliminated in the development process, but such is the nature of the business today.

Pairing those critical glitches with an ending that seemed to kick against the heart of the game leaves Aliens: Dark Descent frustratingly close to what could have been: a perfect score. Despite its flaws, the game remains one of the best in a long line of Aliens video games and earns Tindalos Interactive an honored place in the Aliens universe.

Boss Rush Network scores Aliens: Dark Descent four out of five stars.

David Lasby is the Editor In Chief for Boss Rush Network. His favorite video games are The Legend of ZeldaMetroid, and the Aliens franchise. You can find him on Twitter to talk all things Nintendo, sci-fi / fantasy, and creative writing.

2 thoughts on “GAME REVIEW: Aliens: Dark Descent

  1. Many of the mechanics you’re particularly keen on, like stress and health management and , are inspired by Free League’s tabletop ALIEN RPG. I can’t wait to play, but it seems like about as close to a 1:1 adaptation of the tabletop as you can get if you shifted the genre from a RPG to a RTS.

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