Attack of the Earthlings Review: This Tactics Title Is Its Own Worst Enemy
The premise underlying Attack of the Earthlings, a turn-based strategy and stealth hybrid newly ported from PC to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, is intriguing: instead of playing as humans defending themselves against an alien invasion, you play as aliens defending themselves against a human invasion. The invading force is the Galactoil Corporation, a company that's eager to suck a profit out of the alien planet. This setup informs the game's most compelling feature, which is its sharp and often funny commentary on corporate greed and tyranny. "Sector 2, I've received several questions from you about a sudden and unexplained security lockdown," an antagonist says to his employees over the intercom at one point. "This came as quite a shock to me...as you aren't permitted to ask questions." It's a shame, then, that Attack of the Earthlings' actual gameplay is so underwhelming. The rather short game is a rote slog that proves powerless against a foe stronger than both aliens and humans: itself.
In Attack of the Earthlings, players and the AI take turns moving their units across an isometric grid. Players begin levels with only the Matriarch, the leader of the aliens, in their roster, but they can use "biomass" - a currency collected by devouring the remains of enemies and allies - to spawn and upgrade additional units. The game's primary twist on the tactics genre is its emphasis on stealth. Players must exercise caution as they advance through the various levels of Galactoil's drill-base, because the aliens are fragile; most of them die from a single enemy attack.
Some of the game's stealth mechanics are quite satisfying. At the ends of turns, players can set up ambushes by telling aliens to automatically attack anything that moves onto certain tiles on the grid. They can also queue up attacks to have aliens team up on a target or simultaneously take out different ones. But when an action makes a noise - the scream of a dying human, the opening and closing of a door - too close to an enemy, players have to wait while that enemy slowly turns to face the source of the sound. And in the unfortunate case that multiple enemies are within hearing range, they all turn - sluggishly and one at a time. Indeed, turning is an omnipresent generator of frustration in the game, and it's not just the earthlings who are to blame: aliens turn as frequently and leisurely as their human counterparts do. They turn to attack, turn to consume corpses, turn to use abilities...there's lots of unhurried turning, and it significantly weighs down the combat's pacing and spoils the tension that builds as you prowl around Galactoil's facilities.
The level design is also lacking. Many of the game's seven levels are visually monotonous, confusingly laid out, and/or way too long. On that last point, more than a few levels suffer from a seeming need to prolong themselves, be it by having players traverse huge areas or by changing up objectives partway through missions. In the process of this review, for instance, the game finally clicked during the third level - the aliens were skittering around corners, methodically progressing toward their goal, the Matriarch really feeling like a tactical mastermind. But then the level transitioned into something resembling a horde mode: earthlings kept spawning and marching toward the alien troops pinned down in a central room. It eventually became clear that the change served a narrative purpose, but as a piece of gameplay, it was exceptionally tedious. Attack of the Earthlings hamstrung itself just as it had started to hit its stride.
Unit variety is another letdown. The alien species is made up of the Matriarch, the scouts she produces when possessing office drones, the baseline grunts she spawns, and the three specialized units those grunts can turn into. The upgrade choices get old fairly quickly, and the inter-level progression system that gives bonuses and new abilities to units is very linear, limiting customization options and replay value. Against the backdrop of the game's bigger annoyances, even minor ones - like the UI (it's strangely difficult to tell what selection is highlighted in menus) and the delay between the start of the opponent's turn and their actual moves - feel major.
Ultimately, Attack of the Earthlings is disappointing precisely because it contains so many hints of what could have been a great game. There's a strong tactics title buried beneath the muck, here - buried beneath inconveniences and irritations numerous enough to cross the threshold separating molehill from mountain. The game's sense of humor and delightful portrayal of corporate madness almost make it worth playing through despite all of its flaws. Almost.
Attack of the Earthlings is out now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and was previously released for PC. Screen Rant was provided with a download code of the PlayStation 4 version for the purposes of this review.