Developer: Tiny Roar
Publisher: Assemble Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox Series X , Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, PC (Reviewed)
Release Date: 12 July 2022
Price: $14.99 USD- Available Here
While I was playing XEL these days, it got me thinking about something. Just how frequent is that trope of waking up with amnesia in a strange new world and slowly picking up the pieces. Fallout games had that, Star Wars KOTOR as well and it is a clever trope to get players immersed into the game at the start. So, is there something wrong when games play it safe like that? I’ll be the first to say no. As long as the gameplay is good and the atmosphere is engaging, the story and all the usual tropes go to the backseat. So where does that leave XEL? Front seat, back seat, with tropes or without……..let’s find out.
But yes, right from the get-go, XEL is playing it safe with the story. Shipwrecked in an unfamiliar world, you play Reid, a sassy heroine in the world she’s stranded on. Devoid of her past memories, Reid must traverse the strange planet, battling enemies and solving puzzles in dungeons along the way. Partnered with her companion Chap, Reid must unearth the secrets hiding in this forgotten world and reveal the connection she has to it. Pretty soon we discover that Reid is not alone in this world, since it becomes evident is brimming with wildlife, as well as friends and foes. Eventually, things become slightly more convoluted story-wise, with time traveling and saving the world thrown into the mix.
After a short tutorial section, we arm ourselves with a cool-looking sword (I don’t want to call it a lightsaber but it’s pretty close), a shield and we’re off to pummel some enemies. What’s interesting about XEL is that weapons are also tools for solving puzzles. Pretty early in the game, my shield became necessary in passing around a turret to get to a key. Thought to be fair, most of these level puzzles boil down to navigating the landscape and memorizing routes in order to not get lost. As for combat, it’s far from impressive. Enemies are slow to react and have basically nonexistent AI. Your only danger is to not get overwhelmed and put yourself in a corner. The usual strategy of hit, hit, and evade will get you far. Things do get a bit engaging with some bosses here and there although the engagement is short-lived once you figure out their pattern and their telegraphed attacks.
After most of the gameplay in XEL didn’t do much for me, I didn’t have high hopes when it came to visuals. However, I must say that the level of design and exploration here is surprisingly well made. Almost every area of the game will go through different biome changes and as soon as you get used to something in the area (“oh, seems like this is a forest level or something, I suppose”), a few steps later the level might morph into something else. Even enemy design is diverse enough to not have plenty of enemy repeats as you clear your way through levels, with some boss designs being surprisingly sophisticated.
Have you ever watched a movie or a tv show and there is a certain point where it feels like they ran out of money, enthusiasm, or something that made you go “what exactly happened there?” In any case, those were all the questions I had when it came to voice acting. It is annoyingly childish, aggressively trying to be humorous (and failing spectacularly) and some dialogue is just so bizarrely corny that it made me instantly skip some cutscenes. Speaking of it, a lot of cutscenes look badly compressed and lip sync is way way off. It’s so bad that I genuinely think the game would seem better with the story told through static images like in your everyday visual novel.
XEL is a peculiar product since it is evident that there was some care and love that went into it, at least on the drawing board. But when it was all made and done, the game ended up with a lot of annoying bugs that devs either didn’t anticipate or left them. Your character gets often obscured by the environment, occasionally NPCs will walk away from you and you have to spend what feels like an eternity combing through the level in order to find them. The camera is too far away and eventually, you realize that enemies never really go up in the difficulty. The level of combat challenges you get at the start of the game is the same one that will be with you till the end.
I’d probably have far more understanding and not as harsh if this was an Early Access game so I could tell you to wait a few months and see if anything has changed. As of right now, I can only say “hey, at least it’s not expensive” which shouldn’t exactly be a good selling point for any game. But yeah, if you still feel this might be your cup of tea, go for it but be reasonable in your expectations.
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