A trend I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been playing games and writing reviews for them (nearly 5 full years now at time of writing!) is that I’ve very much become more enamored with games that get to the point quickly. The fact that I’m currently 112 hours into an Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey playthough should tell you I’m not averse to the odd extremely lengthy game, but there’s a lot to be said for the marvel that is a well-constructed, concisely-built game that’s up and done in a few, satisfying hours. Xeodrifter is the latest in a line of shorter games I’ve dove into as a palate cleanser between massive multi-hour experiences, but I confess to being particularly interested in how a developer could crunch a genre as twisting and explorative as a Metroidvania down to a bare few hours and still retain all the feeling of discovery.
Xeodrifter (3DS, PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, Switch, Wii U)
Released Dec 2014 | Developed: Renegade Kid | Published: Gambitious
Genre: Metroidvania | HLTB: 3 hours
Xeodrifter is very clearly a throwback to the NES and SNES era. It’s certainly interested far more in the Metroid bit of the Metroidvania genre, with plenty owed to its parent game. The story, as befits a NES-like, is sparse. Our protagonist is an unnamed, masked spaceship pilot who finds themselves stranded in an unfamiliar, alien solar system after their ship is damaged by an asteroid and their warp core is destroyed. They’re left with little choice but to beam down to each of the four nearby planets and try and recover a new warp core in order to fix their ship and fly off on their merry way. That’s basically your lot as far as any kind of plot goes; along the journey you face off against a giant alien squid-like creature which functions as a recurring boss monster, but we can only guess as to its sentience or indeed even to how malicious it is. For all we know it’s simply acting on instinct as a weird invader clomps through its home and shoots stuff up.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d suggest that the scarce narrative is part of that deliberate nostalgic return to NES gaming. There were, after all, plenty of games of that era where the plot was entirely contained within the manual, with little but a handful of clues left in the world art or level design to let players brew their own theories about what was going on. At its best, this method of disseminating a story gave players threads of mystery and discovery to hold onto, guiding them along, motivating exploration and perseverance in an age of deliberately hard games. Xeodrifter’s progenitor, Metroid, is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this in the NES library, as players who didn’t check the manual first were dropped unceremoniously into the harsh and decidedly weird terrain of Zebes and left to investigate its secrets for themselves. While Xeodrifter proudly places itself in that tradition, unlike Metroid there really isn’t anything extra to find out, even for the most inquisitive player. It’s a brief and uncomplicated experience, and I suppose it’s a bit of a shame that there’s no further expansion of the plot, nor is the identity of our protagonist revealed. That said, the lack of an expanded narrative isn’t too much of a problem really; it means we experience the gameplay unadulterated and untouched by any baggage, instead placing the focus squarely on the adventure.
In grand metroidvania tradition, Xeodrifter is a sidescroller. We trundle along, avoiding hazards, shooting monsters, and exploring the landscape until some sort of obstacle blocks our way and we have to backtrack and root through somewhere else to find whatever upgrade lets us clear the previous obstacle. Beating each boss room nets us another upgrade, all of which affect our mobility and let us traverse more of the solar system. Even the upgrades which seem a bit standard all have something unique about them; our hero gets the ability to explore underwater by summoning a dinky submarine or running fast lets us zip across pools of bubbling lava, for example. One of the coolest ones plays with our visual design expectations; throughout each planet we can see bits of the stage in the background, and you’d be forgiven for not paying that much attention to it at first. After all, that kind of detailing seems like it’s emulating the parallax scrolling technique that so many SNES-era games liked to use, but then Xeodrifter throws a curveball and gives you a power that lets you jump into the background! Suddenly new routes and alternative hiding spots for secrets open up for you, and keeping your eyes peeled for spots where you can phase into the background of the stages becomes a constant need.
Xeodrifter also doesn’t go overboard with the secrets and collectibles – it’s only a small game after all. Mainly the stuff that’s hidden is all useful upgrades to your health and gun power. The gun upgrades are one of the game’s more creative mechanical choices. In an inventory screen you can see that the gun can equip several different shot types. Some are standard, like a rapid-fire machine gun mode, or a slower, more powerful blast, while others remind me of Contra, like the undulating wave shot or the three-way trishot. Your gun upgrades come in the form of equippable points: once you put a point into a shot’s track, you automatically equip that shot type and it augments how your gun works. The more points you put into a shot type, the more pronounced that effect becomes; the slow blast becomes bigger and stronger, for example, or the wave shot gets a greater arc. However, if you put points into multiple different tracks, all of them combine at once. There’s not enough points in the game to fully upgrade every track, but you can choose to spread your upgrades as thinly or widely as you like, giving your gun a surprising and wonderful level of customization. Finally, you’re also not locked into your choices; each point is freely removable and reassignable as often as you want, so you can manipulate your loadout with ease.
I’m a huge fan of Xeodrifter’s aesthetic. The pixel art is fantastic; each planet has a distinct design and atmosphere, with some feeling almost constructed as the hard lines carve the landscape, while others feel like utterly unexplored alien terrain. There’s been a lot of work put into capturing the biosphere of each world; even though each planet is only small, each one still feels unique. There’s not a huge enemy variety, but the ones you do come across fit well into this little system of planets; nothing feels like it ought not to belong, and ranging deeper into each world throws up nastier foes that test both your ability to control your shots and movement, but also check how diligent you’ve been in seeking out upgrades and crafting a gun style that lets you take on anything you come across. The choice to have only one recurring boss was perhaps made for the sake of ease more than anything – and if not it must have at least saved the developers some time by not having to make multiple major boss enemies – although our one boss does learn some new tricks between rounds so it’s not always the exact same fight each time.
I’ve definitely become more of a fan of shorter games, and I think Xeodrifter is one of the more capable examples I’ve seen for a while. If it’s lacking in an area, it’s in that it’s presented without frills or embellishments. There’s no narrative satisfaction in it because the story is entirely pared back based on the notion that there doesn’t need to be anything more than an outline. While exploration is encouraged, there’s only a small amount of secrets to find, and all of them are functional upgrades to your weapon as opposed to more esoteric changes to your gear. The game’s enemies require strategy and platforming to beat, but there’s only a small array to fight. It’s tempting to find that disappointing, but I’m inclined to be more charitable. Instead, I see it as a mark of a developer that understood precisely what kind and size of game they wanted to make and refused to be tempted into getting sidetracked by expansion or extraneous additions. It would make for a wonderful foundation for a game with more flair to be built on, should the developers ever want to revisit and expand Xeodrifter, but even should they never choose to do that, we’re left with a very fine metroidvania.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.