A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX
Timing can be everything, and with Mighty No. 9 getting funded far beyond Keiji Inafune’s wildest dreams, it shows that there’s still a strong market for Mega Man-style gameplay. ARES gave PC fans a taste of that style a couple of years ago, but gave it a twin stick shooter mechanic that allowed for more accurate aiming. Sadly, the game was so graphically-intensive that none of my setups have ever been able to really run it well. Now, thanks to this XBLA release, I’m able to play the game with a solid framerate and see just what I’ve been missing out on for so long.
Extend Studio’s Mega Man-style game with a bit of a Metroid-esque setting has received rave reviews for two years and definitely deserves them. Set on the Midos space station, it’s up to either Ares or Tarus to save the galaxy from evil or something. There’s definitely a thin excuse for a plot, but it’s not quite as in-depth or convoluted as the Mega Man X series plot – it’s kind of in-between the original series “beat evil guy” and X’s bigger campaign for good, but without any shades of grey.
Anyone who grew up playing Mega Man and Metroid on the NES will love how this game combines the former’s gameplay style with the latter’s connected world setting. This isn’t quite a Metroidvania, as you can’t explore the whole space station, but the chapters you complete in the story are all smaller parts of a much larger area. Like Mega Man, Ares can slide around and blast foes, but unlike that classic series, both characters can shoot their arm cannons in a variety of directions.
The 360 controller works wonderfully, with the right stick allowing you to aim your shots in eight different directions while running – or you can stand still and just aim with the left stick. Sadly, that prospect isn’t as appealing since it’s too easy to move accidentally while trying to shoot with that method. If you want to go with a more traditional setup, you can just shoot forward with X. A jumps and RT allows you to slide around a bit. Additions that help this game stand out include an LB special move that does a ton of damage as a last resort, and an RB ability that regenerates health. Like Metroid, you can explore the world and find power-ups that will give you health boosts or enhance your existing powers. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of sequence breaking, although you are able to return to prior areas with new powers to get even more upgrades and abilities, so it does bear a resemblance to Symphony of the Night in that regard – only you can’t turn into a bat.
Ares’ powers are impressive, and his play style is perfect for those used to Mega Man X. His cohort Tarus plays more like a super-powered version of either of those characters. He’s slower when running, but rolls faster than Ares and is able to slide. Instead of a single blast, he can turn into a giant super nova-style energy ball that does continuous damage until your enemy of choice is dead. Both characters are able to heal whenever they want to as long as they’ve collected 100 pieces of scrap from enemies. Tarus is the ideal character for people who want to go through with brute strength, or simply find that Ares’s defenses aren’t enough in boss battles. Tarus is a bit more tank-like with his offensive and defensive skills, and has a shorter range for damage.
Each character can swap between four kinds of primary firepower at any time (once you’ve obtained them) using the d-pad. This means that the left stick is the only way to control the characters themselves. This feels a bit odd for a 2D side-scrolling game, but you get used to it fairly quickly. What takes a long time to adjust to is the d-pad not working at all for menus. They don’t require diagonal movement and aren’t radial menus, so there’s no good reason why you can’t just move up and down with ease using the d-pad. Other than that, and the left stick/X shooting combo being a bit iffy, the controls work really well and will be easy to pick up for Mega Man veterans.
Visually, ARES looks like a rock-solid 2.5D-looking Mega Man game. The character models are a bit generic, but visually appealing. Some may be a bit disturbed by the overly orange-ish/brown look for the playable characters, but I like them even though they could stand to have some alternate skins to liven them up a bit. The environments are thankfully more colorful than the characters, and feature an impressive array of lighting effects that shine off of the robots nicely. Animation is mostly good outside of trying to spin the cannons around completely with the right stick, which results in a jarring animation where you just switch sides abruptly. It definitely makes the game look a bit sloppy, and reminds you that you aren’t playing something with the polish of a Mega Man game even if the gameplay itself evokes it.
The soundtrack is awesome and manages to strike a few retro chords without going with a total chiptunes vibe. Instead, you’ve got music that sounds about as complex as you’d expect in a 32-bit Mega Man X game. There’s a lot going on it, but it’s kind of hard to put a genre to it. The sound effects for each weapon are solid and fit their actions well enough, but aren’t likely to stick with you after a play session. There’s no voice acting, which may disappoint some, but after playing Mega Man 8 recently, I can safely say that sometimes the lack of it is a case of addition by subtraction, and ARES never feels like it’s missing anything without it being there.
ARES has some rough edges with its controls, but does otherwise deliver an excellent Mega Man-style game. Fans of that iconic franchise who recently backed Mighty No. 9 should definitely check out the expanded version on the 360 for $15 or get the PC version. The latter tends to be on sale constantly, but for folks who bought it on sale and found that it didn’t quite run well given their specs, give the 360 version a shot – it runs smoothly all the time and gives you a satisfying Mega Man-style gameplay experience with a bit of a Metroidvania twist. If you’re on the fence about it, try the free trial – you’ll get to play through the first stage, including a boss battle, and get a perfect idea for how the game feels.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Aksys Games
This review is based on a digital copy of A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX for Xbox Live Arcade provided by Aksys Games.