XEL Review: Lost in Space
XEL did not make a good first impression. In the first half hour of my time with it, I rolled through a rope, clipped through a building, and got stuck. I restarted the game only to find out that somehow my save file had been corrupted. The game would load to a black screen with some random sounds. I deleted the file and restarted.
An hour and a half later, I jumped from a platform to the ground below and got stuck in the environment. I couldn’t get out, so I reloaded it…and ended up at the same black screen as before. Despite those frustrations, I restarted the game again to give it another go. I made it further that time but not without additional problems. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The Legend of XEL-da
XEL is an isometric Zelda-like that takes after Breath of the Wild, despite the shift in point of view. The influences are obvious, but the setting and the gameplay have enough unique ideas to help it stand on its own. Reid, our heroine, crash lands on XEL and is immediately afflicted with a case of amnesia. Yeah, yeah. Amnesia. It’s played out, but Reid is lively and sarcastic enough that it works well. Reid’s journey is to discover who she is, including her real name, and to solve the mysteries surrounding XEL, a human settlement, and a violent tribe. As expected, nothing is quite what it seems.
XEL’s world is divided into different regions, which essentially function like dungeons. The world is an interesting mix of nature and machinery. Needle Eye, the human settlement, has the expected amenities: a store, weapon upgrades, and health upgrades. It’s also where you’ll find most of XEL’s inhabitants, but you’ll also encounter explorers and, strangely enough, kids who like to harass and mock Reid. I guess kids are jerks everywhere you go.
Time Is of the Essence
One of XEL’s unique features is the ability to shift back and forth in time in specific areas. Sometimes, a wrecked area in the present isn’t wrecked in the past. It’s not just a means of traveling from point A to point B, though. Some puzzles require manipulating objects in both the past and the present to solve, which is quite fun. The shattering effect that shifts you to the past is also neat to see.
Reid’s sword combat is pretty much what you’d expect. You’ve got a sword and shield, of course. You can lock on to a target and roll around them to strike, which tends to interrupt their attacks. You can also roll to dodge. I managed to pick up two items during my playtime: an electric mine, useful for activating machines and stunning enemies, and a sticky hookshot, handy for traversing gaps and cliffs, and drawing enemies to you. And because there’s Breath of the Wild DNA here, you can cook at campfires to create healing items and boosts. XEL even uses a Breath of the Wild-style stamina meter for rolling and blocking. All in all, I found it enjoyable if not a little expected.
Zoom and Enhance!
In terms of aesthetics, XEL has a bit of a fuzzy/cartoony look to it. It kind of reminded me of Gamecube-era games, and I’m cool with that. XEL’s various regions all feel different, too, and the focus on nature and machinery is an interesting mix that kept me guessing. I was never quite sure what was going to pop up because of it. It could be natural, like a wolf, or some sort of robotic monstrosity, or both. The soundtrack is ambient sounds and mostly soft piano, aside from boss fights. XEL prefers to let the sounds of monsters and nature steal the show, and it works. This is a lonely place full of mysteries and possibly genocide, and man, can those robots scream.
Don’t expect to see too much of it, though. The camera is zoomed out far. I mean, really far. I sometimes struggled to make sense of the objects around me. Health pickups are tiny little blobs. Even the enemies and Reid herself are small. There’s no camera control either. I never adjusted to it. It’s just unnecessarily difficult to see.
The Struggle Is Real
Unfortunately, XEL is plagued by technical problems, and the performance is the same in both TV and handheld modes. The game’s engine simply cannot keep up with the design. Large sections of the game struggle to load. It’s common to see huge chunks of terrain and objects appear out of nowhere. Until they do, you’ll just see large, white areas full of nothing. Enemies and NPCs drop from the sky. Sometimes, they appear, slide like they’re on the ice, and then vanish. The frame rate chugs, even when there aren’t enemies on the screen. Other times, the voiced dialogue cuts out, and lines end prematurely like the characters are trying to talk over each other.
All of that is frustrating, but I tried to work around it. However, it pales in comparison to the other problems. When I reached the first boss, I spawned outside the arena after the cutscene finished. I reloaded multiple times, but I was always outside. I got around that by skipping the cutscene. No idea why that worked, but it did.
Crash and Burn
Stability is XEL’s biggest problem. Aside from all those other technical problems, the game also frequently crashes. I haven’t been able to get past the second area, which is in a desert. Any time I use a save point in that area, the game tries to save, then immediately crashes. I’ve tried it a dozen times. I’ve tried everything I can think of to get around it: leaving the area, beating the boss, saving at a different save point, and coming back and saving again. It always crashes. I guess I could try to beat the area without saving, but at this point, I’m not going to bother. For all I know, saving at all might crash the game. In fact, one time, the game loaded, I used the same save point at which I spawned, and it still crashed.
There’s Potential Here
I think there’s a solid game here under all the technical issues, but it’s hard to say. XEL’s combat and time-based puzzles are satisfying, the setting and narrative are engaging, and its aesthetically charming. But until those issues are addressed, XEL is largely unplayable. I’ve spent way more time dealing with those issues than I have playing the game. I’d like to revisit it in the future, assuming it gets fixed.
Final Verdict: 1.5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), Steam; Publisher: Assemble Entertainment; Developer: Tiny Roar; Players: 1; Release Date: July 14, 2022; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $18.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.