Review – XEL
XEL initially caught my eye with its bright and vibrant art style, not to mention taking inspiration from one of my favorite franchises, The Legend of Zelda. Not only is the inspiration prevalent, XEL‘s sci-fi theme helped set it apart from the others. Indies lately have been setting a bar for taking classic games and expanding upon them in very unique ways, and I had a feeling XEL would be another one to surprise.
Shipwrecked on the strange world of XEL, with a powerful stoned lodged in your forehead from the crash, you will encounter strange new powers and strange connections to the inhabitants of this world. Without any recollection of your former life or name, it is up to you to unravel the past and your connection to XEL. Naming yourself Reid for the time being, you will make new friends and foes, find new gadgets as well as being able to jump through time and space. As Reid delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding XEL, she discovers an endless cycle of peril.
The world of XEL is setup in a fairly traditional sense of progression, nothing here will shock or surprise you, but it’s ultimately well done, even if a bit simple. As you explore the various regions, there will be small paths that branch off that will lead to a chest or collectable, but most of the time it will require you to come back with an acquired story item. Other than these paths, the level design is pretty straightforward. You’ll have a map that will show locations of the chests, collectables, and save spots, so that eliminates even more of the exploration aspects. One annoying thing about the map however, is that if you die or restart the chest icons on the map they will go back to looking closed. Perhaps this is a bug, but it was frustrating.
You’ll start out with a sword, shield, and a basic roll move to dodge. You will unlock additional items like a shock trap, a web shooter, flamethrower, and a hammer. Shock traps will stun enemies as well as open up certain doors that need power. The web shooter allows you to pull yourself to enemies or them to you, as well as pull yourself across specified environments. Flamethrower is self explanatory; light ’em up or melt some ice. The hammer has the ability to break environments, as well as defeat specific enemies.
For the most part you’ll be doing regular hack ‘n slash with your sword repeatedly. There are no combos or power moves, other than a charge attack that is completely worthless and a parry block that you’ll never need. Unless you specifically need the other items for an enemy, the most useful one is the shock trap, but majority of the fighting you’ll just be mashing that attack button with the occasional dodge.
There are puzzles in XEL, but they will not hold you up in any way. They are straightforward and mostly just require you to obtain the next item. However, there is a time travel aspect that happens in certain parts of the levels that at least feels unique. You’ll need to swap back and forth between the past and present to get past certain paths and interact with objects from one time to effect the other. It still doesn’t offer a challenge here, but it at least feels more unique then your standard “Use new item here to access area”.
Crafting elements do come in play since you’ll be picking up a ton of random objects from destroyed boxes and slain enemies. You can find or purchase recipes that will allow you to craft upgrade items or food items to use during combat. You don’t level up like a traditional RPG, but you can upgrade your gear and weapons once you collect enough materials. There are also flowers that can be found around the world that will increase your total hearts and stamina. The food recipes are used to boost or increase health, stamina, defense, speed etc., but only for a temporary time.
While XEL does most of what it puts forth decently, there is a certain lack of polish that really pulls the game down. While the levels are designed to be uncomplicated, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten stuck in the environments. Whether it’s Reid randomly jumping off a ledge and landing in an area I can’t walk out of, or even falling through the world, I’ve had to restart checkpoints too often. Switching between past and present can get you stuck in the environments easily as well. NPC animations will glitch out to where they’ll just be sliding around instead of walking. Sometimes guarding will take all your stamina, other times attacks won’t even land. Environments will get in the way of the camera quite a lot and there is no character outline to help keep track of where you are.
Visually, I enjoy XEL‘s art style and designs for its enemies, levels, and bosses. It is a simple art style that doesn’t use textures, but instead uses a bold and bright color pallet to really set things apart. For the most part this works great for the environments, but sometimes things can look a bit smashed together. Enemies have some cool designs, but they are limited and reskinned for other biome areas. Bosses are definitely the highlight here offering cool designs that aren’t just larger versions of the regular enemies. These fights also offer different combat elements that will use your items unlike the general enemies. Also, for some reason the cutscenes look really bad. Artifacts and low quality make it look worse than in-game.
Sound design and the soundtrack are definitely a highlight in XEL. The general sound design I was surprised with offering a wide variety of sound effects for items and the world. The voice over work is also actually pretty good, with only a couple times making me wince at the delivery, but overall its solid. However, the soundtrack is what really stood out to me. The music for each area and boss fight is great and you can tell its a quality production. There is unfortunately some bugs in the audio, as well with sound effects getting stuck on repeat.
At the end of the day, XEL is a game that is competent, has some good ideas, and enough gameplay elements to keep you playing. The sound design is well done and I do enjoy the simplistic art direction and its bright, popping color pallet. Unfortunately, it’s a game that just needed more time in the oven to hammer out the bugs and glitches that really hold this back. There are some good ideas here, but the annoyances almost outweighed what it does do well.
Nice enemy, level, and boss designs with a simplistic art style. However, up close it’s lacking detail, and cutscenes are blurry and look bad.
General combat works well with a decent variety of items to use even if fights end up being a simple button smash. Puzzles don’t require much planning other than acquiring the correct item to progress.
Sound design is well done with a nice variety of clean sound effects. Voice acting is decently well done, and the soundtrack is definitely a highlight.
XEL has some good ideas and is crafted well from its inspirations. Unfortunately, the bugs and glitches really drag down the experience.
Final Verdict: 5.5
XEL is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070, and 16gb RAM.
A copy of XEL was provided by the publisher.