Some of my most cherished games growing up were Vectorman and Vectorman 2 on the Sega Genesis. The plucky amalgam of spheres not only looked great with its pseudo-3D visuals, but also played fantastically with fast, fluid gameplay and, rare at the time, the ability to shoot in any direction. And even as I discovered other 2D shooters and enjoyed their individual charms, I still pined for a return of Sega's green recycling robot. So why am I gushing about a long-lost franchise to begin this review? Because A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda is the first 2D action-platformer to bring back those distinct feelings of my youth while expanding on the classic gameplay with modern tools.
A.R.E.S. puts players in the metal chassis of a robot sharing the same name as it investigates a military satellite. The rescue mission goes sour, however, when the satellite's worker robots are found to be hostile, as if controlled by some outside source. It's not Shakespeare, but the story acts as an adequate excuse to blast your way through a military facility full of killer robots, so I'll let it pass.
The gameplay is the real star, and works fantastically. The controls are fully customizable, but most will likely stick with the default layout using WASD for movement and the mouse to aim and shoot. Though as much as I love the pinpoint accuracy of the mouse, I must say that for A.R.E.S. I preferred using a wired 360 controller to play. It's not that surprising really, seeing as A.R.E.S. was originally built as an XBLA title, and some menus even still display the Xbox controller buttons even when no controller is plugged in. The controller also works fantastically, with the right analog stick used for aiming in place of a mouse or to option to go with classic Vectorman-style controls using the left stick for both movement and aiming. Personally, I had some difficulty with the game's heavy platforming using a mouse and keyboard, but PC gaming veterans should take to it more naturally.
A.R.E.S. starts the game with only a simple pistol-like weapon, but as the game progresses you'll find new weapons like a rapid-fire assault rifle and a wave beam that can shoot through walls. These weapons can be upgraded with machine parts that are dropped by every enemy, giving you extra motivation to explore every nook and cranny of a level to fully upgrade your equipment. The machine parts don't just upgrade your weapons, as they can also be used to build explosive or EMP grenades as well as health packs. Collectables have always been a part of side-scrolling action games, but it's great to play a game like A.R.E.S. where they are actually turned into a useful gameplay mechanic.
Each level is topped off with a huge screen-filling boss battle much like the classic shooters of the 16-bit era. And just like those retro game bosses, the key to beating them is finding and exploiting their attack patterns. Though the first boss is a bit of a pushover (and should feel very familiar to those who picked up on my initial Vectorman comparisons) the remaining bosses offer a great challenge to master.
A.R.E.S. has a unique visual style, with 2D sprites laid on 3D side-scrolling environments. The sprites look fantastic and animate well, with some impressive effects in place as enemies and bosses move from the background to foreground. However there were also times where it gave off an almost Paper Mario vibe, which I don't think was the developer's intention. The music, on the other hand, is consistently top notch, fitting the mechanical sci-fi setting perfectly.
As much as I enjoyed A.R.E.S., it was a disappointingly shorter experience than I had hoped. With only five levels, my first playthough was just shy of two hours. There is some added replay value from going back to past levels and finding new paths with equipment from late in the game, but by then your equipment is also likely upgraded enough to cut the level completion time in half. The game also promises achievements to extend your playtime, though the in-game achievements haven't yet been synced with the Steam version, a feature the developers say will be included in an upcoming patch.
A.R.E.S. is a short and sweet shooter for the PC. It has a lot of heart and solid controls, though these are counteracted by the game's unfortunately short length. I'd still say A.R.E.S. is worth a look for anyone who can't get enough 2D action, but most genre fans will likely want to wait for the game to show up in one of Steam's frequent sales.
A.R.E.S. is available on PC for $9.99 through Gamersgate, Direct2Drive, Desura, and Steam. I bought my own copy of A.R.E.S. through Steam and played for a little over 2 hours. In that time I played the game to completion on the hard difficulty setting and then replayed three previous levels.