Developer: Tiny Roar, Assemble Entertainment
Publisher: Assemble Entertainment
Platforms: PS4, PS5 Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed On)
Release Date: July 12, 2022
Welcome to XEL
The influence of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild continues to permeate throughout gaming, transcending genres, and forever changing the way that we view games as a whole. Companies have attempted to replicate the incredibly successful formula by creating their own Breath of the Wild-like games with varying degrees of success. XEL, which was recently released on PC and just recently on Nintendo Switch, continues that trend, but in its own charming way.
Some games like to immediately throw you into the action, giving you a gun, a sword, something to begin fighting your way through enemies. I like those games, where not a single second of my time is wasted. XEL takes a different approach, dropping you into a confusing situation, and refusing to hold your hand along the way. I can’t recall a single tutorial that I ran into within this game other than the game telling me which button to press. This is both a good and bad thing.
This is good because you can tell that the developers aren’t asking you to speed through the game, rather, they want you to take your time, gather yourself, and begin to learn the mechanics of the game in an organic way. While not holding your hand for nary a second, XEL still remains accessible and isn’t as confusing as it may appear at first.
This is bad for the exact same reason. Some players don’t have the time to sit around and attempt to figure out why the heck Desmond ended up in a completely different zone because you decided to talk to the locals. Desmond isn’t going to show up on your map, either, and neither is your destination, that’s for you to figure out. And it can be both rewarding and frustrating.
Thus was my relationship with XEL while playing it. Both amazed at how well the game presents itself, and somewhat disappointed at how we reached our destination.
A beautiful game world
At first glance, XEL is beautiful, with its Zelda-like textures, and zonal gameplay. I was immediately sucked in and was excited to see more of what the world had to offer.
If there is one thing XEL came up big with, it’s that the main protagonist is immediately presented as a compelling character whose background you truly want to learn more of. The voice acting in the game was done surprisingly well for an indie title, and while the “I’ve lost my memory and have no idea who I am” is a trope used with so many other titles, I don’t find it beaten to a pulp here.
XEL begins with your spaceship crashing into an unknown planet. You have no idea where you are, what your name is, or even why you’re there, to begin with. A robot that goes by the name of Chap, explains to you what happened to your ship, and tells you that you need to find XEL. Your character, who doesn’t have a name at first but later will go by Reid, has no idea who or what XEL even is. Count me in on that one.
While meandering your way through the first zone of the game, you’ll complete puzzles, and slowly begin to orient yourself with how XEL works. Throughout this, you will come into possession of a junk sword and junk shield, your main form of combat.
After you’ve made your way through the zone, you run into a man named Desmond, who brings you to his home settlement. As you begin to learn more, you find out XEL isn’t a person, but rather a terraformed spacecraft that is lost in space, and you’re on it (if this sounds a lot like that one Star Trek episode to you, I thought the same thing). The ship is running out of life support and is about to internally combust, and it’s up to you and your new friend Desmond to save the day.
Tutorial? I barely know her.
I’ve been gaming for more than twenty years now, and I’ve seen plenty of games that refuse to hold your hand. XEL isn’t going to tell you how to use that new tool you just found, and it isn’t going to give you a ton of tips and tricks on how to best survive combat. You’re on your own here. That isn’t a bad thing in XEL’s case, where the game remains easy to learn even without a little text box explaining the next steps.
The biggest tutorial you’ll get from the game is that it doesn’t autosave, rather you find chronal pillars scattered throughout the map to save your progress.
But you’re not just on your own in terms of how you play the game, you’re also on your own in terms of where you’re going. Early on in my time with the game, I went the completely opposite direction, only to wonder where the heck I was. It wasn’t until I noticed the little arrows on the edges of the map that would hint at a new area being beyond that point.
I’d also recommend not exploring until you’re done following Desmond. The minute we stepped foot in his settlement I wandered off, talking to locals, and for the most part got lost. Keep in mind, that your destination isn’t going to show up on your map, it’s up to you to figure out where it is.
There’s a lot of trial and error here, and if you’re a gamer that doesn’t have a whole lot of time for that, you may find XEL less accessible than you desire. But for players who like a bit of a learning curve, XEL will certainly provide it, but it’s not as steep as it first appears.
A strong mix of combat, puzzles, and platforming
Of all three of the above-mentioned things, XEL does them all extremely well, especially the puzzles. I never found myself absolutely stumped on a challenge, but they weren’t straightforward puzzles either. Often, I found myself having to travel to a remote area of the zone just to grab a battery that would help me open a door on the other side of the map. Slashing my way through enemies, and using Reid’s skills that allow her to bend both time and space.
Once you’ve finished one puzzle, you’re eager to move on to the next. And don’t think you’re going to simply slash your way through that pack of enemies, you’ll have to utilize whatever skills are available to you at the time. And XEL does an excellent job of balancing this out. I never experienced a steep increase in the difficulty of enemies, only nudges that my strategy for the previous area wasn’t going to work in this one.
That kind of dynamic combat makes for a rewarding experience and keeps the player guessing. While there are puzzles that appear repetitive, each area has its own unique set of challenges and platforms for you to work your way through. Perhaps it would have felt less like a chore if Reid could just move a little faster.
A solid game, riddled with bugs
Without bugs, XEL would easily be one of the best indie titles available on the Nintendo Switch, and at $15 would be a certified “steal”. But even when you’re buying a cheap car, you want to make sure that everything is running well under the hood before you buy. Or you can get by with the “you get what you pay for mentality”.
But XEL’s overall presentation and design are undermined by mechanics that at times feel broken, a screen that went black while my character was mauled by dogs, and more than 15 times having to continuously press the button I was told to press in order to interact with an item. And that’s not to mention the little things that aren’t as serious, such as sudden light changes, my character suddenly moving slowly while crossing a mundane bridge for no reason other than it stopped responding to my controller input. (NOTE: I used both the joy cons and Switch Pro Controller for this review and suffered the same fate on both of them)
These aren’t just little bugs that one can tolerate while playing a game, they’re immersion-breaking. While in the Wilds searching for an item, I just kept hearing Reid say “are those plants whipping me” while there were no plants to be found.
On occasion I would even jump from point A to point B, only to suddenly begin floating before falling and having to restart the jumping process all over.
These issues make for a frustrating experience on an otherwise phenomenal indie title.
XEL Nintendo Switch Score: 6/10
If 3D platforming, action-adventure, and puzzle games are your thing, XEL is going to fulfill your needs and then some. It comes with a compelling story, solid gameplay mechanics, and a beautiful world that is yours to explore freely. But until the bugs are solved, this incredible title is going to continue to be held back not by its design flaws, but by its mechanical ones.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.