A quality, by-the-book Metroidvania affair.
The older I get, the more I’m starting to realize that there are certain gaming subgenres that are just plain bulletproof. I’m not necessarily referring to basic, overarching design concepts. There will always be bad first-person shooters, or subpar real-time strategy titles. By the very nature of their size and scope, there are bound to be some truly terrible examples nestled among the gems (and we’ve already seen plenty of them in 2016). But if you dig even just a few feet into the soft dirt, you’ll hit the roots of gaming’s more narrowly-defined species—and that’s where you’ll run into Metroidvania.
I should probably point out that I’m not claiming all Metroidvania titles are amazing games—just that I’ve yet to experience a real stinker. And it seems like there’s been a real preponderance of good, quality releases just in the last few years. Games like Ori and the Blind Forest and Salt and Sanctuary showcase the effectiveness of platforming as an exercise in punishing difficulty. And perhaps the best example of Metroid’s spiritual succession arrived last year in Axiom Verge, a labor of love designed by a single Ubisoft developer in his spare time over a four-year period.
While the respective franchises that spawned the portmanteau are currently suffering a nadir (Metroid’s newest installment was the awful Federation Force, and Castlevania was recently stuffed into a pachinko machine), there’s no doubt that the fandom surrounding their themes and mechanics is anything but vibrant and healthy.
Exile’s End, which recently dropped on the Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita after releasing late last year on PC, proves that even when a Metroidvania game plays it safe, the experience can prove to be respectable. Developed by Magnetic Realms, Exile’s End boasts a surprisingly hefty cast of 8 and 16-bit-era industry players contributing to the game’s design. Of particular note is Keiji Yamagishi, a chiptune artist responsible for soundtrack arrangements in NES oldies like Tecmo Bowl and Ninja Gaiden. Yamagishi’s OST is the standout feature in Exile’s End. It’s driving, purposeful and just weird enough to make the player feel like they are stranded on a strange, alien world.
And stranded they are. During a brief introduction sequence on Heleus, an orbiting freighter, we learn of an upcoming mission to rescue a stranded mining operation on planet L-735. Our protagonist (an old soldier by the name of Jameson) is quickly rushed to an escape pod, as the freighter finds itself under siege from an unknown threat. The pods land, Jameson escapes, and it’s our job to find out what happened to the rest of the crew. An early encounter with a vicious four-legged beast sets the tone and sends a message: we are not welcome here.
Exile’s End doesn’t have a character as interesting as Samus, or an environment as arresting as Dracula’s castle, but it does wear the Metroidvania tag rather high on its sleeve. The map of L-735 is sectioned off into several areas, each of which becomes accessible only after locating a specific tool and removing a barrier. Mobs litter the harsh, unforgiving wastes, and while your arsenal is at first limited to chucking small rocks, soon enough you’re firing pistols and machine guns with the best of them. There’s even a smattering of alien weaponry thrown in for good measure.
Part and parcel to the Metroid experience is the use of backtracking as a core feature, and Exile’s End features it in spades. While I can’t say I appreciate treading over the same ground repeatedly, I don’t really have any suggestions for how these games might finally break the cycle. It’s necessary for the player to discover a barrier, realize they are unable to pass, and set about locating a device or weapon to help them pass through it. However, it’s worth pointing out that the relative same-ness of a lot of the environment’s cells makes Exile’s End feel like a particularly egregious abuser. What would be three to five hours of content leans into the six or seven-hour range due entirely to how often the player is asked to traverse a lengthy stretch of ground that they’ve already cleared.
The game’s plot is more of a background to its mechanics, and I have a feeling Magnetic Realms made this choice early in development. Cut-scenes are brief windows into both Jameson’s dark past, as well as his motivations for discovering the truth behind what happened to his fellow soldiers. But the broader reason for not inundating the player with non-interactive elements hearkens back (like so many other in-game influences) to platformers of the 80’s and 90’s. When these games were originally finding their footing, their developers had neither the technological means nor the narrative purpose to attach a broader story to the proceedings. In other words, Gears of War this is not.
Exile’s End may not push the envelope very far beyond what the Metroidvania crowd is used to, but in many ways, it isn’t asking them to expect that. It’s a bare bones exercise in almost every mechanic and feature that keeps fans coming back to those franchises, though it retains a few antiquated ones as well. For the asking price ($9.99), L-735’s world is worth checking out.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita, PC ; Publisher: Marvelous ; Developer: Magnetic Realms ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 25, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Exile’s End given to HeyPoorPlayer by the game’s publisher.