Space: a frontier.
Have you ever gone back to an old favorite game, and wished that it was your first time playing it again? Or perhaps more accurately, have you ever wished for a whole new experience that feels like that one you love, but isn’t the same? If so, you’ve probably at least occasionally dipped into the flood of nostalgia-fueled indie projects that have graced the last few years of gaming. Look at the sheer, nigh-immeasurable number of “Metroidvania” games out today. Metroidian vanias just like Xeodrifter.
Xeodrifter tells the story of a spaceman left adrift. While zooming and swooshing through the pixelated depths of space, the nomadic pilot faces distress as the warp core in his ship busts, leaving him in need of a replacement. Luckily, this mishap has occurred right in the middle of a collection of four planets, each of which give off signals suggesting that the wandering spaceman might find what he needs on one of them. What follows is a series of adventures on alien worlds, fighting strange creatures and gaining new powers.
Basically, it’s a Metroid game.
Yeah, let’s just go ahead and address what was both my most immediate impression upon starting up Xeodrifter for the first time, and my most lasting one after having finished my time with it: it feels a LOT like Metroid. A lot of the time, what one sees in this style of game is something distinct visually and aesthetically, to set it apart from the iconic games on which it is based. A good example might be something like The Binding of Issac, which takes heavy inspiration and design cues from the original Legend of Zelda. Mechanically speaking, the game is similar, but its mood, atmosphere, story, and various attributes are quite different. Then you have Xeodrifter, a game about a space warrior fighting and backtracking through a series of alien landscapes, gaining powers along the way. The problem is that this is word-for-word the description of the series upon which Xeodrifter is clearly based, enough so that it feels more derivative than it easily could.
That said, comparing a game to the well-loved Metroid series is a tricky thing to do, as those games are praised so universally for their quality. Luckily, in this case the praise is deserved; Xeodrifter‘s level design is well-crafted in a way that stands up right alongside those classic titles. From the basic running, jumping and shooting to the added gifts of powers like plane-shifting and turning into a submarine (as all spacesuits do), the four planets of Xeodrifter are filled with secrets that can’t be uncovered without the help of every tool in the player’s arsenal.
The cost at which this quality of design comes is that of the difficulty curve. There are lots of ways to make a game hard, and some of the most rewarding challenges in gaming are the most difficult. But there’s a difference between “challenge” and “utter difficulty by numbers.” Unfortunately, Xeodrifter makes it clear in which of those camps it falls from early on.
Part of the difficulty comes from the game’s way of identifying things usually found in this type of game and taking them away from the player. Enemies never drop health, or anything else for that matter. There are a couple, extremely sparse heal stations in the world, but all are well-hidden and require a fair amount of bashing into walls to uncover. The game also has no save areas anywhere on any planet, meaning that if you make it most of the way to the boss area and then die by accident, you get to do the whole thing over and over.
Even if things stopped here, the game could still be less aggravating than it is. But going back to that “difficulty by the numbers” idea, the game’s enemies see a level of overpowering late into the game that feels excessive given the pacing up to that point. I’m talking about very large, very fast enemies, often trapped with you in small, enclosed spaces. Getting hit in these situations is unavoidable, and feels unfair. Some difficulty in enemy design is better designed, though, such as the bosses, each of which takes the ability spread of the one before it and adds something new to the mix. If only all of the creatures of Xeodrifter were designed in this way.
This isn’t to say that the developers do not giveth as they taketh away. There are two types of items players will find as they traverse the space-o-sphere, and both can be collected through use of the various new tools obtained throughout the game. One type is health containers, which are pretty straightforward; they give you health. The second type give gun upgrade, assignable to taste. Types of upgrades include shot speed and maximum distance, and can even add effects like wave-shaped shots. The game also gives three separate spreads of upgrades, so players can save different kinds of guns for different situations. A couple of the effects don’t seem to be very practically useful except for in a couple situations, but that situational usefulness is why having multiple weapon spreads can be useful.
The other part of Xeodrifter‘s originality paradox is its visuals. The game is built in a very SNES-esque art style, and ends up looking a LOT like other stuff like it. It’s visually appealing and well-presented, accompanied with a decent soundtrack that sets some ambiance, but it overall lacks something unique that many other games like it have managed to find.
It’s not that any one derivative element in Xeodrifter is damning. It’s that there are so many of them.
Xeodrifter is not a game like no other. In fact, it is a game like many others. And while it does some things well, its method of supplying difficulty hurts it more than it helps; there are significant points where the game just doesn’t feel fun. That said, area design and a useful weapon system do a lot on top of what is, admittedly, a strong backbone. It’s a bit of a shame that the developers weren’t willing to promote difficulty via challenge rather than throwing giant purple space-flies at everyone, but alas.
Available on: 3DS (Reviewed) , Playstation 4, Playstation Vita; Publisher: Renegade Kid; Developer: Renegade Kid ; Players: 1; Released: December 11th, 2014 (3DS); September 1st, 2015 (PS4, Vita); ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $9.99