XEL is a 3D sci-fi fantasy action-adventure developed by Tiny Roar and published by Assemble Entertainment. It released on Steam and Nintendo Switch this week and the game world is wonderous; begging to be explored. While there are some frustrating elements, I’m given vibes of playing Breath of the Wild as we trapse through linear pathways on this strange new world of XEL that was exciting to explore.
We play as Reid whose spaceship crashed down onto the surface of XEL, however she has suffered some amnesia as she doesn’t remember her name initially (we find it out later). Without any recollection of her former life, it is up to you to unravel her past and connection to XEL. Voice acting is all throughout the game with various characters and the performances were solid.
There is a robot companion called Chap that we talk to, and it accompanies us on our adventures. Chap doesn’t speak, only in beeps, yet Reid can understand it. Some have compared Chap to Navi from Ocarina of Time, and he gives us prompting hints to keep exploring forward. We start off with nothing and soon find a sword, then later a shield, as we explore the overworld of XEL.
I played with keyboard and the default keybinds are awkward at first. WSAD to move around and there is a mouse pointer but it’s only use is in the game’s menu. ‘K’ is the use button, ‘I’ is for attack and ‘L’ to use the shield. Having my hands in this position gave me flashbacks of learning how to touch-type in year 3 of primary school, which was a cool nostalgia hit, but it was an awkward start to the game. You can change the keybinds, though I couldn’t use CTRL which I wanted for attack. I quickly got used to this, though probably should plug the controller in (I’m stubborn).
Walking along grassy plains, jumping across bridges and trudging through water, we use puzzles to progress through the landscape. There are switches which activate doors, blocks to push/pull, and keycards/batteries to find that will activate other doors. Eventually come across monsters, bosses and explore dungeons.
The environments in each area are incredibly detailed. Coupled with an amazing soundtrack by Gidon Wolff, I loved exploring every corner and hidden area, with good variance when you get to the next zone. Loot in XEL ranges from fruit, claws, circuit boards that are used for currency, gears, cables, and the like. Through our adventures, we find new gadgets that can be upgraded with this loot and blueprints we collect.
There is no jumping in this game, which was initially frustrating as jumping is just one of those things you assume is default in games. The terrain begs for a jumping ability in parts too, however it doesn’t take long before you get used to it. I did fall into rivers or areas that I thought I couldn’t get out of, but there were ramps I didn’t notice at first.
There are strategically placed bridges and gaps to jump across to help with navigation. There is a minimap, though sometimes the large point of interest icons blocks the paths on the map. A larger main map helps in this instance, but I did get lost a few times, especially when I had to follow certain npcs. Later you come across areas where you switch between time periods, which is a great and clever mechanism to deal with the puzzles.
Throughout our journey, we come across monsters with varying attacks. Some simple melee attacks while others can shoot at range. A big frustration here is the framerate appears to drop when we’re swinging our sword. It’s jarring as the rest of the game runs super smooth, then jolts right when we need precision timing to dodge incoming projectiles and dodge around.
Then come boss encounters with some that have tracking lasers and phases that you need to learn through combat and dying. There are save points spread through the lands, so you don’t lose too much progress if you die. You start with three health hearts which can quickly deplete if you don’t dodge and use tactics.
The camera angle was the biggest thing I wrestled with throughout the game. I love isometric games and often the camera is in a fixed position, which is the case in XEL too. However, there are often trees, building pieces or other land pieces that block the camera. Thankfully it’s usually a straight pathway in and out of the blocked field of vision, but it’s an annoyance that happens regularly.
Overall, XEL has some great puzzles and exploring the well detailed zones was exciting. Combat was interesting, especially the various boss mechanics, however the stuttering when Reid swings the weapon was off-putting. The game’s first big patch was released earlier today addressing some immediate fixes and blockers in certain areas. The developers are active in the Steam forums so hopefully some of the issues I experienced could be looked at and improved. There is potential for XEL to be a fantastic game in due time.
If you like what you see and have read, Assemble has provided a Save The World Edition https://store.steampowered.com/bundle/25483/XEL__Save_the_World/ for AUD28.80. This edition includes a digital artbook, full soundtrack, and digital comic drawn by artist Marvin Clifford telling the story of Chap, the plucky companion of protagonist Reid. Each copy of Save The World Edition sold supports SeaWatch, a non-profit organisation dedicated to sea rescues in the Mediterranean.