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Slave Zero X Review: A Bloody Beat ‘Em Up

You might not have heard of Slave Zero—a mecha corridor third-person shooter from 1999 created by the folks behind Bubsy, boasting impressive terrain destruction and slick retro-futuristic visuals—and neither had I. Yet, thanks to the dedication of a few passionate individuals and some unique circumstances surrounding the rights to the property, the unlikely prequel of Slave Zero X was born.

I love stories like this, so I couldn’t resist the chance to check out what looked like an insane reimagining of the original’s giant biomecha. As it turns out, it’s not quite that straightforward. The original Slave Zero was always intended to resemble Slave Zero X, with creepier, more intense designs. That vision couldn’t be realised back then due to development constraints, but when a team eager to create something new came across the concept art at Ziggurat (the current owners of the IP looking to expand their catalogue), an idea was born.

Talk about finding inspiration in the most unlikely places. Slave Zero X’s greatest and most striking feature is undoubtedly the awe-inspiring style that began with Ken Capelli’s (Lead Artist on Slave Zero) drawings. It’s simply raw. The sheer madness and horror of a half-human, half-machine hybrid rampaging with exaggerated movements in a 2.5D spectacle fighter, juggling soldiers and monsters before blowing them to pieces with powerful sword strikes, is perfectly brought to life by the team at Poppy Works.

But its inspirations go even further. A good portion of the development team are fans of Quake (they even created a free Quake total conversion called Episode Enyo, featuring one of Slave Zero X’s antagonists as the playable character), and this influence is evident. The rapid, captivating shifts in environments (mostly industrial) and the complete visual 180s at certain points feel like a homage to the unrestrained visual freedom of similar generation-defining shooters, but with a hint of anime. A violent love letter, if you will.

Slave Zero X doesn’t stop there; its story art is absolutely out of this world. To perfectly accentuate a plot that starts with a fierce revenge mission and evolves into something incredibly sincere and surprisingly emotional, the art never loses its dark edge. Instead, it morphs into something genuinely touching. As the game progresses, the ‘seeing red’ approach becomes less viable, requiring a more methodical strategy. Everything comes together seamlessly to create one of the best-looking and best-feeling titles of 2024.

This brings me to the core of the game: tearing evil beings to shreds. The animations are as amazing as the still artwork, showcasing the rowdy yet overwhelmingly powerful movements of Shou, the revenge-seeking protagonist, and X, his biomecha with a conscience. From upward-launching strikes to grounding slashes, every action feels crunchy and stylish, whether you’re performing a simple attack or dashing across the screen in all directions to maintain a combo.

It’s great to see such a strong focus on animations in Slave Zero X, as the game revolves around spacing and timing. Getting a feel for the attack timings, which are available to the player from the start, is generally straightforward. However, a few enemies can be frustrating, sometimes reaching out for a grab too quickly or without a clear warning. This is particularly annoying with mini-bosses, which can’t be staggered until their stance is broken with a few hits. They deal massive damage with their attacks and can hit the player from off-screen. A stronger audio or visual indicator would be a welcome addition, as several frustrating deaths occurred in later levels with scarce checkpoints.

Most of Slave Zero X can be beaten with a simple juggling combo, which, while powerful, never felt too easy. New hitbox types provided opportunities to learn new juggling and parry timings, and I eventually found ways to incorporate other moves, gadgets, and power-up abilities. Skill expression is always encouraged, thanks to three different kinds of leaderboards: time, points, and combo. If you just want to push through to see more of the spectacle, that’s a perfectly viable strategy. Mostly.

The difficulty spikes in certain parts, and that’s when the smaller issues start to really take their toll. I only felt truly hopeless once, spending about four of my ten hours with Slave Zero X on a single stage. Enemies would juggle me around like a pinball while my breakout ability slowly regenerated. If you get caught without it, there’s little you can do as enemies juggle you perfectly. Say goodbye to half your health!

This experience soured me a bit, especially with the upgrade and ammo shop system, which feels somewhat tacked on. Money, which I’d prefer to spend on cosmetics, is earned in specific encounters, forcing me to grind earlier stages just to go into later ones fully stocked if I quit during an attempt after using up my ammo. That particular level required me to fully clear another stage twice. The final boss, whom I beat on my first attempt, is a pushover compared to what comes before him. Thankfully, his design and the final bits of art drew me back in.

What definitely helped was the phenomenal voice acting by the entire cast. No matter the situation, they consistently deliver the most charming version of their characters, with unique inflections, unbridled intensity, and an occasional touch of tactful, charming over-exaggeration fitting for such a violent, anime-inspired game. They all give memorable performances in a short amount of time—absolutely stellar stuff.

However, there are areas for improvement, some of which I’ve already mentioned. Another would be the rather clunky wall-jumping and exploration. There are hidden collectibles in the form of golden soldiers, but reaching them often feels a bit counterintuitive to the rest of the game. At best, they are cleverly hidden using perspective tricks; at worst, they spawn behind you in places you’ve already checked. Turning back doesn’t feel great when Slave Zero X’s motto is pushing forward. The level design still needs work, both because of this and the sparse checkpoints.

Even without any future improvements, Poppy Works has created an absolute beast of a game. As mentioned before, its greatest strength is the eye-catching style, but once you pick it up, even the simplest combo feels fantastic from start to finish. With solid fundamentals, a variety of playstyles, and a perfectly voiced, captivating, and beautifully presented storyline, Slave Zero X is an indie powerhouse.

This review utilised a Nintendo Switch key with thanks to Five Star Games. Slave Zero X is out now on Playstation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and PC.

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