Every now and then a game comes along that redefines our understanding of what makes a great game. Watching Sonic loop-the-loop, the first hop, skip and jump on Super Mario 64, that time you looked up to the sky on Halo. These moments do not come along often but the geniuses at Bitmap Bureau might have just given us another dream moment with Xeno Crisis.
Before we get going with this review, stop reading and go play Xeno Crisis. But if you are still reading then be prepared to uncover what could be the indie game of the year. Developed over the last two years, Xeno Crisis takes everything good from 90’s shooters and adds dollops of modern twists.
The top-down arena shooter blasted to release this week and it is a belter! Bitmap Bureau have gone the extra mile by providing ports to Mega Drive, Dreamcast and Neo Geo AES after they smashed their Kickstarter target. They even commissioned a custom Mega Drive for two lucky backers!
The title is available for download on PS4, Xbox One and PC. Retro Faith has the Switch download version to test, and boy have we had fun playing this!
The backdrop to Xeno Crisis has been ripped straight from the second Alien film. A distress signal from a colony has been received and our marine heroes must go to investigate. On arrival they find the base overrun with alien nasties and realise the colony folk are in deep trouble.
Your mission is to move room to room taking out all the critters. After each stage you learn a little more about the alien horde and the effect they are having on the colonies inhabitants. To be honest, the best thing about the story is the wonderful artwork between stages.
In a game like this the story could be about rainbows and unicorns and it wouldn’t matter. What Xeno Crisis is trying to achieve it does very well. Provide a nostalgia fuelled, retro action movie setting with big guns and explosions. The inspiration from shooter favourites like Smash TV and Loaded is clear and this is no bad thing.
You choose between a male or female marine and the colour green or blue. There are subtle differences between each character as they start with different stats. A few playthroughs will allow you to experiment but we found the male better as he starts with more ammo.
The game uses a multidirectional system that allows you to move and shoot in eight directions. Holding the second analogue stick in a direction determines where you fire while the first stick moves our marine. This means you can move in one direction and shoot in another. The simplicity of this system works well in both docked mode with a controller and using the Joy-Cons in handheld mode.
The shoulder buttons command a useful roll maneuver, grenades and a melee attack. There is not much else to the controls but their basic nature is what makes this such an easy game to pick up and play. Seasoned veterans will enjoy using the roll to get out of tricky spots and beginners will not feel overwhelmed as there is not much to learn.
The old adage easy to learn, hard to master is the perfect way to describe Xeno Crisis’ action. It is wonderful for a quick blast but it also has the one more time factor that will encourage you to improve on your last score. This game is tough as well, really tough, but in a good way. You will not bemoan the difficulty, only your own lack of skill. But this will only fuel the desire to get better by playing over and over.
Each hit from an enemy or projectile will decrease your lifebar until it reaches zero. This triggers a continue screen and you can restart up to three times. Health pickups increase the lifebar to stave off death but do not rely on these as they are random. There is limited ammo to your main weapon so look out for ammo crates that appear as you start to run low. The constant need to replenish your main gun raises the tension and forces you to keep moving.
As you move from room to room, guns and grenades fall from defeated enemies and add to your fire power. The gun upgrades only last for a set time and range from simple machine guns to flamethrowers. The time limit feature is brilliant as it adds a small strategy element and genuinely changes the way you approach each section. They all fire and act differently so working out how best to use them is key.
During the battle enemies occasionally drop dog tags that act as the games currency. The more of these you pickup the better the upgrades you can buy. Between each stage you have the chance to upgrade your core skills made up of increased life, ammo and power as well as speed. The way you play the game will probably determine which of these you see as most important and different stages will require different skills.
Scattered throughout the randomly generated stages are colony folk being held hostage. Securing their safety will award points and is vital if you want to achieve a top ranking at the end of the stage. A nice touch is how the hostages are named after backers from the Kickstarter campaign.
Bosses appear at the end of most stages and these mega beasts all have different attack patterns to learn, just like the good old days. Plenty of hardcore gamers will want to beat every level with one credit and this one will keep you coming back time after time. A two player option is also available for you and a friend to take on the alien waves.
The only real criticism in the gameplay is the lack of diversity in room layout. There is the odd rock or barrel that mixes things up but some of the rooms are very sparse. It would have been good to see some more walls that would have added a little extra strategy. However, the fast paced action may have suffered if more obstacles and scenery were added.
Visually, Xeno Crisis is everything you would want from a retro inspired title. Lush pixel art with bold colours and animation that really brings the spectacle to life. Bitmap Bureau deserve a lot of credit for creating such a visual treat and there is variety in the stages that helps break up the repetitive gameplay. It is some of the best pixel art we have seen in a while.
The soundtrack oozes quality and is one of the reasons why this game is such a classic in the making. Thumping beats pound out and raise the heart rate. The chiptune-esque rhythms and sounds bring everything together in a way that clearly shows the developers were seeing this as a passion project. Anyone who is a fan of 16-bit music will have the nostalgia gland pleasured and this soundtrack is good enough to listen to on its own.
Xeno Crisis has been a breath of fresh air in a crowded market of indie games harking back to the glory days of pixel perfection. This feels like a real Mega Drive game and would have been well received had it been released 25 years ago. The random map generation and fast action add heaps of replayability. If you purchase one indie title this year make it Xeno Crisis. It is a rare gem of pure playability mixed with a gorgeous art style and a kicking soundtrack.