Being a part of the staff here at The Game Crater has some fantastic perks. Firstly, I get to pick the brains of passionate and vocal gaming enthusiasts from across the globe. Often, these various backgrounds and perspectives of such talented individuals help me to appreciate different aspects of gaming. This opportunity to discover hidden gems outside my comfort zone has introduced me to some fantastic experiences. Sadly, XEL, from developer Assemble Entertainment, isn’t one of those games.
“XEL has what you would expect from a game listed as an action-adventure.”
In XEL, you play as an amnesiac who crashlands and finds herself in an alien world. You soon learn that this place is XEL, a space colony no longer operating as intended. First, you are tasked with surviving the wilderness, looking for survivors, and locating a settlement. In the settlement, you can fulfill your basic needs, such as purchasing equipment, speaking with NPCs, or receiving missions. Out in the wilderness, you’ll run into enemies and puzzles, which bar access to new areas and abilities. XEL has what you would expect from a game listed as an action-adventure.
Your ability to warp reality makes XEL stand out for the better. As Reid, the player character, you have the power to change the flow of time in certain areas of the map. This allows for some interesting time-shifting puzzles and different enemy types based on the state of the world around you. While this could be a cool mechanic, the story does a poor job of making you care all that much about it or anything else going on.
“Conversations are an absolute slog of unnecessary dialogue that try hard to be cheeky.”
Reid can use this power due to a stone lodged in her head, which she regularly comments on. What makes this frustrating is the lack of other characters’ interest or questioning of the stone. Reid’s lack of memories but adamant stance on this stone being weird doesn’t make much sense either. This seems to be the go-to formula for moving the story along, and it just doesn’t work. So much of the exposition is just Reid blabbing to her beeping, not-R2D2 drone.
It doesn’t help that Reid fails at being a compelling character. Her snarky teen angst is less than charming, with no one to bounce off of. Even when Reid interacts with others, most characters are exceptionally bland. The shopkeeper Shirl is a welcome exception, but even this manages to be unenjoyable. Conversations are an absolute slog of unnecessary dialogue that try hard to be cheeky.
“While XEL’s controls are not too bad, the rest of the game is an absolute jank-fest.”
It is possible I did not give the story enough of a chance. However, if this is the case, the fault lies completely with how frustrating XEL is to play. Combat revolves around sword swipes and managing stamina to dodge or defend against attacks. Blocking only seems advantageous against certain attacks from bosses, so dodging is your best bet, especially against groups. You can also access two tools at a time, which aid with traversal and combat. The first tool is electric mines that stun enemies and can be used as temporary generators. The second tool you receive is a grappling hook that I gave up trying to figure out due to lack of direction. These tools add something to combat but not enough to elevate it beyond a repetitive three-button press loop.
While the controls are not too bad, the rest of the game is an absolute jank-fest. Most enemies move with the gracefulness of a rabid mop. Melee combatants will run at you before winding up a swing or charge a lunging attack to close the distance. Ranged enemies will attempt to put space between you and them but can hurt other mobs in the crossfire. There are a few interesting enemy types, but nothing that you have not seen before. Thankfully, the boss fights I reached are a fantastic improvement.
“While some might be able to look past XEL’s shortcomings, I am not amongst their ranks.”
In short, exploration in XEL is difficult. Buildings, trees, and other structures often obscure portions of the map. This completely blocks your ability to see Reid, enemies, or collectibles. After breaking boxes, I would repeatedly need to move to another section of the screen to see if any items dropped. The mini-map displays points of interest, such as ladders and chests, but it often resets the markers for an opened chest so that you can expect a lot of unnecessary backtracking.
Additionally, Reid easily gets stuck in the environment. Falling between a rock and a plant or jumping onto the railing of a bridge had me running in place to no avail. Of course, there is no jump button and no autosave, so if you enjoy losing your progress, these are phenomenal features. My favorite so far was when I randomly fell through the level when I tried to use the time shift ability.
XEL seems intent on being an isometric Zelda-like sci-fi game with a strong female lead. On paper, this is right up my alley, but the execution was fumbled. Shows like Kipo and The Age of Wonderbeasts, or even the controversial Masters of the Universe: Revelations, display vastly better-written executions of the same kind of idea due to the supporting cast. These are characters are flawed but likable.
Maybe Reid and her friends reach this point, but the struggle to enjoy the lackluster gameplay gave me little reason to get there. XEL has mixed reviews on Steam, and I think this is a fair assessment. While some might be able to look past XEL‘s shortcomings, I am not amongst their ranks.
XEL is out now on PC, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4|5, and Xbox Series X|S. The game is priced at $14.99.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC. The Publisher provided code.