It’s not often that an indie game comes around that wows me with its graphical style. That artsy-fartsy post-modern minimalist style can still be visually striking, but after going through umpteen of those, it’s not so impressive any more. After a while you just want to see a game that looks sleek, detailed, and just plain cool.
A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda is the answer to that, a game that could stand up with full console releases based on graphics alone. And hey, the game itself is pretty damned fun too.
Developed by Extend Interactive, A.R.E.S. is a sci-fi themed action shooter platformer. Think Metal Slug mixed with Contra, with a dash of Mega Man Zero for good measure. The story’s your typical post-apocalyptic Metroid-influenced affair: Earth has been inundated with garbage, so humans build space stations to inhabit. A meteor strikes the space station and supposedly leaves only cosmetic damage, only for humans to realize that it emits a gas called Zytron that takes control of robots. As the robots turn on the humans and massacre them, the brainiacs at home develop a new experimental bot completely impervious to Zytron exposure to take down the space station and help the human survivors left on that ship. That bot is, you guessed it, A.R.E.S.
Even though this game is the first chapter in an episodic series, the story isn’t too captivating, partly due to it being standard gaming fare, but largely due to the hilarious amounts of Engrish littered about in the cutscenes. It’s odd; the dialogue that happens within the game is perfect, yet the still-image cutscenes between gameplay sections just seem obviously, hilariously bad. Granted, there’s no “all your base are belong to us” levels of embarrassment, but it still does take you out of the plot. Of course though, since it’s a pretty straightforward action game, understanding the plot isn’t too necessary.
The graphics, as previously mentioned, are stunning; it’s somewhat mind-boggling that an independent studio could design a game that looks this good. Everything is stylized in clean, sleek lines, and liberal use of vivid colors and stark contrast make A.R.E.S. an ocular pleasure. The amount of detail put into the animated backgrounds is impressive as well; it’s a sure sign that Extend really had a passion for this game, and put their hard work and love into it.
As good as it looks though, the gameplay is the main focus. Inspired by Metal Slug and Contra, it’s all shooting in this game, in all directions. You gain different selectable guns as you progress further, and you also obtain two different kinds of grenades and other abilities. Sounds like nothing to write home about, but the grenades are quite special, in that while they do aid against enemies, they’re more useful for blowing up specially marked barricades and opening up other paths to secret collectibles. Additionally, for every enemy you smash up, they leave “scrap” and “junk”, which is used as a form of currency to upgrade all of your weapons, buy grenades, and buy healing kits at any time. It’s a pretty refreshing take on action platforming, and I hope it takes off in other, bigger games as well.
I also have to mention that while mouse and keyboard can be used for the game, I preferred going through with an XBox 360 controller. The controls work fine on both configurations, but A.R.E.S. felt like it was made to be a dual stick shooter, and felt more comfortable in that regard. Just about the only control niggle I had was the dodge mechanic, which is more unintuitive than it should be, especially in the later levels when you wish dodging were more fluid.
The levels themselves, designed in a Metroid “room to room” style, aren’t too hard, and the ability to open up more rooms with your grenades provides a welcome sense of exploration. The level design in itself can get a bit too stale, as you’re mostly going from space corridor to space corridor, but on the other hand, it makes you appreciate the truly creative portions in game when they come up. In a send-up to games of generations past, enemies do respawn when you return to the same room, which I actually found comforting and provided that kind of challenge that’s welcome in today’s age of games that coddle the player.
With two difficulty levels and a rank system, replayability is definitely there, which is great because A.R.E.S. is only three or so hours long. At $15, that’s cutting a bit too close when it comes to value vs. worth, but considering the level of effort and polish put into the graphics, I think it’s a great price.
Ultimately, A.R.E.S. is a solid game that doesn’t really do anything too offensive, and its crazy good looks and familiar gameplay will appeal to most gamers of all ages. Additionally, the knowledge that this is only the first chapter in a series is encouraging, as they’ll have time to fix the various minor problems present in this one. With a price that may seem a bit too steep, your mileage may vary, but personally, I’d recommend this to everyone whose a fan of pretty looking shooters with flashing lights, and anyone who wants to support a developer that quite obviously put all their passion and love into their precious baby.
Plus, with this game coming to Steam in just a few days on January 19th, you can look forward to it being featured in many a Steam sale.