A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX – Xbox 360
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Extend Studio, Origo Games
Release Date: Oct 2, 2013
Genre: Action, Platformer
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 3 of 5

Have you been craving a bit of 16-bit nostalgia gaming lately; something along the lines of Metroid meets Mega Man meets Contra. Once you get past the cel-shaded opening cutscene complete with purple-haired commander sporting 44DD’s stuffed into a skintight neoprene jumpsuit, and find yourself in the actual game, prepare for immediate transport to the early 90’s with A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX, the console version of the 2011 PC shooter that features plenty of robot on robot violence.

To go along with the traditional sidescrolling shooting action of the era you also get stylized graphics that are probably better than the SEGA Genesis or Turbo Grafx 16 could ever deliver, but are so inferior by today’s standards that they just feel retro. And then you have that thumping soundtrack; the kind of digital music that wowed us when SEGA and Turbo Grafx introduced CD gaming to the world and evolved game music beyond the limits of MIDI. The soundtrack in A.R.E.S. is right on track with anything you would have found in a game like Gates of Thunder on TG16 or the first time you heard the new opening music in Sonic CD or Tommy Tallarico’s soundtrack from Terminator on SEGA CD.

The first thing you must do before the game even begins is to pick your character. There are two robots (or are they body armor); one that looks a lot like Samus from Metroid and the other that doesn’t. Aside from the slight visual difference in armor each character gets their own unique weapons and upgrades throughout the game, but again, these are primarily visual variances versus functionality. Neither character has an advantage over the other.

A.R.E.S. plays by standard platforming rules with lots of running and jumping and even more shooting that can be triggered with a button press or the right analog stick for a more accurate twin-shooting mechanic. There are endless swarms of enemies and I do mean “endless” since enemies respawn almost immediately if you leave a screen then return. You have spidery floor robots and flying drones and ceiling and wall mounted turrets and some of the most impressive boss fights of any recent platformer shooter.

To combat these mechanical meanies you have a variety of weapons that can be unlocked and then switched out using the D-pad. While I am sure that certain weapons work better on certain enemies there are no clear instructions on what or when to use them, so you’ll either be doing a lot of trial and error or end up just using whatever looks the coolest. Rapid fire blasters seem to fire across the screen while the lasers seems to do more damage but with limited range. Along with new weapons there are also a few secret data chips scattered about the levels, but it looks like many of them require you to return later with upgraded abilities like an air-dash to reach them.

A.R.E.S. is a short game when it comes to content, relying a lot on your willingness to replay levels for those secret chips, or perhaps to compete for leaderboard notoriety or to earn the more challenging achievements. With two robots already built into the game it would have been nice to have a co-op mode. Much like the 90’s games A.R.E.S. tries to emulate, gameplay can be brutally hard, even on the Normal skill setting. Some parts you’ll breeze through and then you’ll come to a certain room or boss fight and the game grinds to a halt forcing you to rethink your weapons and tactics.

But a lot of the difficulty comes from the platform jumping, which can be terribly laggy and imprecise, especially when you are jumping on boxes or conveyor belts or both. There is one part very early in the game where you need to make a double-jump to reach this high ledge to continue and you can try for 30-40 times and won’t make it and then all of the sudden you will. I thought it may have been me but when someone else in the office played the same level they got stuck at the same exact place. A.R.E.S. is a very vertical game so don’t be surprised when you start dropping down two, three, or even four tiers below, but just when you expect a new lower level you’ll drop into a bottomless pit and die. Sometimes these alternate paths are dead ends that lead to secrets and other times these are the intended way through the level. There are often multiple paths, but if you want to loot all the “machine parts” that spill from the fallen enemies you’ll need to explore all of them.

A.R.E.S. has a generous checkpoint system, which means if and when you die you won’t have to replay too much. While there are no actual lives you do have a health bar than can be recharged on the fly by converting machine parts into health. This takes a bit of the edge off the boss fights since you can heal multiple times in mid-battle. The trick is to remember to use it, as there is nothing more embarrassing than dying when you could have healed and just forgot.

The $15 price tag seems a bit steep, especially when the PC version is currently selling for $3, but if you are looking for a fairly solid platform shooter with all the charm and challenge of a 90’s console game then A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX might be the game for you. I had a reasonable amount of fun playing through it once, but it’s nothing I anticipate playing regularly or again anytime soon.