A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX is a platformer that harkens back to the days of a little blue dude with a blaster on his hand, hopping up and down to dodge bullets while defeating themed bosses to gain extra abilities. As closely as ARES pays homage to the Mega Man franchise though, it’s not the sort of title that can stand completely on its own – without a burgeoning sense of nostalgia, the game becomes frustratingly difficult very quickly.
Founded on the basic principle that making powerups inaccessible in early stages (where being forced to return for them later after acquiring the means to obtain them) will somehow make the short, seven stage story a more acceptable length is just unpalatable. Eventually you’ll reach a point where the game becomes too difficult and you’ll be likely to put it down, not realizing it’s helpful to go back and start from the beginning whenever you hit a wall.
But that’s all theory – let’s talk about it in practical terms. When you come to a chasm you have to jump over (which you will often, this being a platforming game) you’ll find out early on that your little metal hero can barely make it. The margin of success you have is so narrow that often times you’ll find yourself walking just past the point of no return, where you swear the jump button must be broken.
Making your character so weak initially forces you to push that boundary, where too often you transgress, only to be punished by plummeting to your death. Thankfully the game gives you infinite lives and frequent checkpoints (at least early on) so there’s no real penalty, other than the damage done to your heart by the increase in your blood pressure.
Eventually, if you shoot enough bad guys, collect enough scrap, and go backwards and replay old stages over and over again, you’ll find collectibles that you can upgrade your character with, to help you overcome the horrors of falling garbage by invincibly just dashing through it, rather than waiting an hour till the stars and moving platforms align, only to smack you with trash when you tentatively inched forward. (Sometimes you can almost hear the game developers yelling, “Not in my house!” as you’re mercilessly swatted out of the air and away from your goal.)
ARES does a good job of telling a story about some mysterious gas that has infected robots and turned them hostile, in the sense that the “story” is so uncompelling that you’ll have no problem skipping right over it, because you know that you’ll need to save that time for more dying and retrying. The boss fights are cool in how they’re reminiscent of NES era games, but they’re not cool in how they can be practically impossible unless again you’ve gone back and played through old stages to pick up powerups you previously couldn’t retrieve.
Overall, the ARES experience suffers from imprecision. By slightly extending the length your character can jump, needlessly frustrating deaths would be prevented. By making bad guys drop more scrap, actually explaining to players how to upgrade abilities and putting a sensible rhythm to the locked powerups (i.e. the end boss in a stage has the ability you need to unlock everything in that stage, rather than one thing in every stage that came before) would reduce the feeling that the game’s length was being artificially padded. By including an imperceptible auto-aim feature, where pointing the right thumbstick in the general direction of bad guys on a wall or ceiling would result in you hitting your intended target, rather than forcing you to fine tune your aim by moving your character left or right, the whole experience would feel just that much more tighter. (At no point should someone playing your game be driven to say, “I’m so glad this gun I just got does area damage, because aiming is a chore.”)
Critics are often accused of just needlessly bashing a bad game, rather than attempting to be constructive, so I do hope that the developers will take the above suggestions to heart. The ideas here in ARES are not intrinsically horrible – I like the graphics, I like the concept of powering up my guy to overcome future challenges, and I like the idea that there are two protagonists I can play through the game with (that’s the sort of replayability games ought to have).
It’s the execution of those ideas that is really holding this title back. Hopefully those things will all be addressed (and it seems like they could change relatively easily), because ARES is reportedly the “first chapter” in an episodic series. If the game improves in the ways mentioned above, I’d be willing to come back and at least try the next installment, based on the slight glimmer of the positives in this title. But if serious changes aren’t made – here and in the future – then this pilot episode may be where ARES deserves to meet its extinction.
SCORE: 6.0 out of 10
A code for A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX was provided to Pixel Related for review.