Platform: Nintendo DS/DSi
Developer: Engine Software
# of Players: 1
When it comes to licensed movie games scaled down to handheld systems (particularly a licensed game based on a summer movie barely screened for critics) my initial pre-review thoughts about Aliens in the Attic were of a too short, too cute and too easy game geared toward younger players and no one else. Fortunately, I was mostly wrong. Engine Software, a workhorse developer with a long history of portable game expertise was chosen for the task at hand. Engine handled the stellar DS conversion of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords , one of the more addictive games in the DS library. Still, it's a long road from supremely addictive and original puzzle/RPG hybrid to a licensed movie game, but guess what happened? They nailed it and nailed it good.
I'm probably going to break a record here for using the word "surprising" (and variations thereof) in a single review, but that's how surprised I was after completing the game. For a licensed title, it is indeed surprising that the game manages to actually be much better than the film its based on. Instead of focusing on the quartet of alien characters like the PS2, PC and Wii versions, the DS game focuses on the three kids, Tom, Jake and Hannah, as they go up against the invaders. Yes, there's plenty of running, jumping, rescuing and picking up of collectibles to do. However, all those fancy alien robots and big bosses blocking your progress can only be taken down with customized firepower, so you're getting an arcade-style run 'n gun that plays something like Contra...lite.
Sure, it doesn't "innovate" or try to impress you with a shoehorned 3D engine or overly expensive production values. But, surprisingly enough... that's actually a really good (and yes, surprising) thing. The shooting is simple at the outset, yet grows pretty challenging as you clear each part of a level map. The house and exterior are made up of five big stages divided into 25 levels total, so while it's a short cakewalk for experts, this isn't a mere weekender for most kids (or some non-gaming adults for that matter). Jake and Tom can use weapons, Hannah's skill is double jumping (hey, she's only seven years old - cut her some slack!). Jake is the heavy weapons guy and can push blocks, Tom's got lighter guns and as the techie kid, can upgrade all the weapons as the game progresses. You select your character on the fly with the shoulder buttons and can do so even while firing, which is really cool. For example, you can blast a rocket firing robot with Tom, switch out to Hannah to quickly double jump to an out of reach pickup and have Jake push a block onto a switch to unlock a door to a hidden item.
You'll also get to rescue adults scattered around each level who give you some cool weapon upgrades as gifts once you locate them. It's quite amusing to see a kid with what amounts to a tricked out Super Soaker save the bacon of a policeman or parent and get an explosives upgrade or rapid fire attachment. The again kids these days have to take rewards wherever they can get them. Upgrading your guns requires you to have collected a set number of bolts, so even if you have the proper parts, if you're just taking the quickest way through the game, you'll be coming up short when it comes to having more powerful weapons. Interestingly enough, sometimes, the game takes a kid out of the lineup, so you'll be stuck with a less powerful character on purpose. For example, if you're used to using Jake's heavy guns to blast through enemies early on, in one level you'll have to make do with weaker Tom and Hannah until Jake gets back.
To get your stylus action on, there are certain door locks that require some quick spins of a circular dial as you try to match the color in the dial's center with colored balls that appear in random around the dial. These sections are brief and fun, but that's not all, folks. You can actually aim and shoot using the stylus while running and jumping with the D-pad. This would have been a gimmick if it were the sole means to controlling the game, but it's used amazingly (er, surprisingly) well where flying enemies are present and in the game's boss battles that start out super easy but can be (wait for it...) surprisingly tricky in spots. Granted, hardcore arcade fans have seen all of these sorts of "pattern-based" bosses before, but it's a nice addition that just might get a few kids into this sort of "old-school" gaming.
Enemy AI pretty (and surprisingly) persistent in its wish to send you back to the last checkpoint, so it's great that each level has quite a few of them, as well a a nice share of health pick-ups. Boss battles on the other hand, will send you back to the start of the fight, which may frustrate younger players who want to get it over with in one go. Some of the battles are against giant robots the aliens have constructed and some are against the four main aliens, presented here as over-sized, arm slamming, rock dropping brutes that often grimace when hit and sometimes burst into tears when defeated. If you haven't seen the film or its trailer, I won't spoil things and explain why the aliens are so darn huge in the game. On the other hand, if you have seen the film, the game can be seen as sort of loosely following the plot while appealing to kids that like to see angry robots reduced to scrap metal (and a few big aliens reduced to tears).
To deal with the bosses, you'll get a few special powers such as a shield that can bounce projectiles away from you, a stun ray that blinds enemies, stopping them in their tracks or a gravity ray that lets you lift and smash enemies or objects with the D-Pad. There's even some microphone action here with a sonic emitter that has you blowing into the DS (or jamming on the X button if you don't want to look too silly). These devices keep the boss battles entertaining despite the game spelling out what you need to do to take down that big alien trying to bean you. You can also use those special weapons during the main game, although the charge time for the powers slows down considerably. The really fun thing is that all these elements never bog the core gameplay down and actually enhance the experience as the game gets tougher. If you're stuck, it's because you're using the wrong weapon or not using the right power or character for the job.
Visually, still shots don't do the game's animation and level art any justice. While the three leads are tiny sprites, they're animated excellently down to their unique idles. Backgrounds use a mix of flat art, nice lighting and effective coloring along with nicely integrated 3D elements throughout. The 3D scrolling is so convincing that you'll think you can actually go down hallways or into certain other areas thanks to the depth effect. The game camera is scaled in at the beginning of a stage, but as you head into some areas, it pulls back to let you see items or enemies above you before zooming back in for tight spaces or areas with low ceilings. In many of the bigger boss battles, your character is a even tinier (and still well-animated) sprite that's not too hard to keep track of, although you may take a hit or three when things get really hectic. Enemy variety is limited to a few types and color variants, but they tend to get tougher as the games go on - those color changes mean you're facing off against a beefed-up version of a former foe.
Sound production is decent, with the music being the star, particularly the boss theme that (surprisingly) sounds like it comes from an arcade shooter or run 'n gun classic. The sound effects are average game stuff, mostly explosions and things being shot, pushed, opened and the like. There's no voice acting in the game, just plain text boxes to read with none of these sections lasting longer than a few sections. as you get each stage's basic objectives. Still, I can see some folks looking at the game and saying it's not as "flashy"or stylized as other platformers out there, but the team at Engine has cooked up an impressive effort that doesn't need bells and whistles to look and play just fine.
As noted earlier, this isn't a really lengthy game for a simple movie license, but to me, not too long means not too boring for what's basically an arcade run 'n gun. It took me about 7 hours (6:54) to play through the game the first time, as I'm one of those collection hounds that needs to search every nook and cranny while loading up on bolts by replaying stages a few times. My second play through was a respectable 3:49. However, your own play time (and especially the kid you're buying this for, right?) will vary based on your platforming and shooting skills. Other than the brevity, the game has no major flaws other then a bland title screen and dull-looking credits. everything else is (of course) surprisingly good. Of course, now I'll need to play the console versions to see if they live up to what's here, but even if those alien-focused versions of the story fall flat, I can still tell people up and down the pike that the DS version of Aliens in the Attic was one of the more surprising movie based games I've played this year.