Welcome to EXPlay, (Explain & Play) the review series where we care not for scores but tell it how it is when it comes to every game we get our hands on, whilst also taking the time to include some lengthy gameplay, to give you the reader, the chance to shape your own impressions and views whilst watching and reading. In this installment, we’re covering XEL by developer Tiny Roar.
XEL: (The Explanation)
XEL is a game that takes inspiration from the Legend of Zelda in a top-down isometric view of the world. The game includes puzzles and action adventure-style gameplay that includes items and upgrades as the story unfolds. The world of XEL is more sci-fi fantasy than the Legend of Zelda games are and almost dystopian in the setting.
The game starts you off crash landing on a planet and recovering some items that will help you progress to a city where you begin to meet a few characters and learn about the world of XEL and the ongoing threats ready to destroy the existence of its citizens.
My early impressions of the game leave a bit to desire when it comes to the gameplay loop. You will fight a lot of alien enemies and robots. Seldom are you rewarded with health drops or items that help you progress without dying and having to backtrack from a save point. I found myself dying a lot in the early areas and finding health upgrades seemed to be hit or miss. There are boxes you can break as well in hopes of recovering some health points and campfires you can cook at. But because of the system of item drops and poor map layout, you may find yourself searching or getting lost when trying to move on.
When the combat isn’t frustrating you are navigating a map that has a lot of samey areas to it and is easy to get turned around in. The isometric view does lead to some discovery of areas otherwise hidden by the fixed camera, though they weren’t as prevalent as a game like Tunic. Puzzle mechanics in the game are mostly the find a few switches and turn them on variety and rarely was I challenged by them. They mostly felt like unnecessary padding as Reid moves slowly through the world and enemies respawn after a short time. There were a few times when searching for the items I needed to progress felt more like a tedious walk through the land instead of an exciting part of the game’s narrative.
From time to time, you will be forced into boss battles many of the times incorporating the items you have acquired. The battles felt more like a stamina challenge of button presses and dodge rolls and less timing or puzzle-based like many of the Zelda bosses. This isn’t to say they are bad, it’s just that with the item drops being infrequent and save points being sparse, some battles can get repetitive if you die in the midst of them and need to backtrack from your last save.
I did encounter some various bugs and soft reboots in my early playthrough of XEL, but after a few patches, the game seems to be more stable. I didn’t experience a soft reboot or odd animation clipping after the patch. I still feel like the game’s responsiveness to my button presses lacks some contextualizing and would oftentimes experience my block or roll not registering in the game. Hitboxes for enemies also seem to be a shot in the dark sometimes, especially when there are multiple enemies on the screen. You can lock on to enemies but that process is not nearly as fluid as something like Z-targeting or auto-lock to closest enemies that I have experienced in other top-down games.
Narratively, XEL does a lot to world-build and includes an array of tertiary characters into the mix. You will meet a few friends that will help you in your battles, as well as give you tasks to help the story move forward. I found for the most part the characters to at least be likable, though not really stand out or be off-putting. If you are looking for a game that has an interesting story and lore to it, XEL will scratch that itch, even if it itches a bit more for the longing for a better story.
Visually and audibly XEL is a decent-looking and sounding game with bright color areas and tech and debris scattered along the paths. The world is filled with a lot of nature meets science and technology bits and the water and ambient movement you come across look good. The team did a good job too of capturing some of the charms of Zelda games in its soundtrack and helps to keep XEL sounding fresh as you embark into different biomes.
If you are looking for an action-adventure style game with puzzles and items to fill that Legend of Zelda vibe, XEL is an ok replacement. If anything, the game is varied enough to be fun but may fall short in some of the things that make Zelda games great and stand out. There are worse top-down action-adventure games out there, if you see XEL on sale I would recommend picking it up.
XEL: (The Gameplay)
Developer: Tiny Roar
Publisher: Assemble Entertainment
Platform: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Category: Action, Adventure, Role-Playing
No. of Players: 1 player
Release Date: July 14, 2022 (EU & NA)
File Size: 3.1 GB