Ailment should have gone on a bug hunt.
With some really nice pixel art and its plethora of interesting weapons, Ailment seems like a pretty good game at first glance. Fighting your way through a spaceship filled with deadly enemies in — what appears to be — a twin-stick shooter is something that appeals to me, so I was quite happy to give this a go. Sadly, an overly simplistic gameplay style and an excess of bugs made this Ailment one I couldn’t wait to cure.
Starting out in a med-bay on your spaceship, the Frontier-16, you quickly realise things are a bit wrong. You’ve been unconscious for three days having been on an expedition team sent to another ship, the Endurance. It seems that there was something on the Endurance that led to something going horribly wrong, as the crew aboard the Frontier-16 are now all trying to kill you. The only thing to do is fight for your survival and try to find out what the hell happened.
As a plot, it’s fairly standard sci-fi fare, with no big shocks along the way. This is fine though, as Ailment presents itself as an all-action game in which you decimate hordes of enemy threats! The core gameplay revolves around you moving through a part of the ship, activating computers to open doors that will allow you through to the next area. Most of these rooms will contain a large number of melee and ranged enemies who need to be killed before you can move on.
This is where my “…appears to be a twin-stick shooter…” comment becomes more relevant, as this isn’t actually a twin-stick in spite of what the trailer may suggest. Combat boils down to you holding the X button — on the Xbox One — and your character will automatically aim at the nearest enemy. There’s no aiming required, and all you need to do is circle strafe to avoid the enemy fire until the baddies are all dead. It’s insanely simplistic and removes any real sense of challenge from Ailment. More frustrating is the fact that you can’t select a target, and there’s no guarantee you will even hit the enemies you are aiming at. I suppose I could liken this to a bullet hell game, in which you firing is less of a concern than you avoiding damage, but even taking damage is of little concern so long as you keep moving.
Thankfully, the large variety of weapons keeps the combat at least somewhat fresh. As you travel through the Frontier-16, you come across boxes that contain med-packs, shields, and weapons. From lasers and rocket launchers, to flamers and more…exotic weapons, there’s plenty to find of interest. This is certainly one of the stronger points of the game, as each tool of destruction feels quite different to use, and power-ups can make them even more interesting to bring into combat.
As you explore the ship, you can find allies to bring along with you who can contribute to the fight, and even die permanently. There’s little you can do to assist their survival, as they appear to be utterly suicidal, but it’s nice that there are other characters for you to converse with during the quieter moments. There are also plenty of easter eggs hidden throughout the ship too, that hint at all sorts of extra sub-plots, although none of these are ever explored beyond being something to find which is a real shame. Giving the Frontier-16 more of a sense of world could have done something to add to the plot.
All these things are a touch disappointing, but nothing that utterly spoils the game. But then there are bugs. A lot of bugs. First of all, I managed to get through the first three-quarters of the game without taking damage. Whilst I could claim this is because I’m an ‘elite pro-gamer’, it’s actually because a bug resulted in hits against me registering zero damage. This randomly decided to resolve itself as I came towards the final portion of Ailment. A strange bug that removed even the limited level of initial challenge. Then, when I returned to the game after having a break, I found that all my XP — used for healing — had been erased, meaning that now I was taking damage, I couldn’t heal it. Then all my allies would disappear and then reappear at the start of the next level. Most egregious of all though, was when I returned to the main menu, my controller would no longer register any inputs at all, meaning I had to shut down the console to quit the game. I realise that Ailment is a mobile port — in case the UI didn’t make it clear enough — and as such may have some odd responses to controller input, but this isn’t really acceptable.
On the positive side, this can be enjoyable enough when there are a ton of things going on on-screen at once. Lots of bullets flying around, enemies sprinting about the area, and you destroying them all can be exciting, even with the low challenge level. The visuals really add to this, with plenty of colourful weapon effects going off all about without any slowdown. The music makes the encounters feel intense, but there only seems to be one combat track that becomes samey very quickly, which can also be said for a lot of the sound effects.
I don’t want to be too down on Ailment, as it feels as though a lot of love has gone into it. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t come together as a solid package in spite of the efforts of the developers. It looks pretty and plays smoothly enough, but it needed a lot more polish and some rethinking of core ideas before it could be sent out. There is a prequel called Endurance — set on the ship of the same name — due out soon, and I hope they’ve managed to rectify some of these problems before then.