It seems we cannot go a month without news reaching my office of a new Dreamcast game. That is no bad thing as Xenocider, the new shooter from Retro Sumus, blasts onto Sega’s enduring white box. Before we jump into the review a huge shout out to Retro Sumus for sending a review copy my way, cheers guys! Anyone that is familiar with indie titles on the Dreamcast will know that many of them are shooters. And while Xenocider is another, this one is not a traditional scrolling shmup. It is a homage to Sega shooter Space Harrier and is all the better for it.
The game has been released in physical format and is available for purchase via the Retro Sumus website. The PAL and Steelbook have long sold out but you can still pick up a standard copy. Xenocider was first announced way back in 2014 during an interview with the Dreamcast Junkyard. It then went on to enter development with a demo coming soon after. Since then, updates have included beta tests and content information before finally seeing release January.
Xenocider, like most shooters, has a story that takes a backseat to the main action. We all know that shooters are about high scores and progression on one credit! You are Xara, a world destroying cyborg who just loves blasting things. Your mission is to explore planets taking out everything in your path. These planets make up the seven levels of Xenocider with each having the usual boss battle. There is a little more to the story but, for the most part, you’re blowing things up in a crazy on rails world. Before each of the main levels there is a little description of the planet and you choose between two routes.
This instantly made me realise that there is longevity to this seemingly shallow blast fest. With different branching paths you can play through the game in a few different ways. Although the end level boss is the same for each path, it does give you more enemy patterns to learn. As you start the game you are greeted with some impressive visuals, it is great to see a new 3D game on the Dreamcast as opposed to another pixel art title. The graphics during these brief scenes are very reminiscent of the cutscenes you would expect of early Dreamcast games. You can see the level of detail the developer has put into this title, it is most commendable.
There are several modes in Xenocider but you only start with the standard story mode. In this mode you make your way through the levels with limited lives. Xenocider is hard, very hard, and you will do well to clear all the levels on your first go. Like any shooter worth its weight, you must practice, practice, practice. So it is a good thing that there is a practice mode that allows you to replay levels you have cleared in the story. This will come in particular handy later on when the bosses are not always obvious and you need a few goes to learn the pattern.
After clearing the main game new modes open up. One being a harder difficulty and two mini games that add value to the main content. More on these later but suffice to say that this feels more like a licensed release than most indie games. Between the levels there are bonus stages that are simple shooting galleries. Clear all the enemies and you are rewarded with extra upgrade points to spend on Xara. There are several abilities that you can upgrade as you play through the game. Extra upgrade points are also awarded for finding the hidden Dreamcast power up in each level. Deciding on what to upgrade will depend on your play style but I recommend getting extra shields first. After that start powering up your weapons.
There is plenty to get your teeth into with the two mini games that are unlocked after getting so far in the main game. The first is a Space Harrier clone that oozes nostalgia. Just like the Sega classic you fly into the screen and fire at everything that comes your way. It plays just like its inspiration and feels like a game all on its own. This mini game is very addictive and also difficult. The end of stage bosses are brutal but fair and anyone who loves a challenge will get a real kick from it. The second mini game is a Rez like shooter with wire frame style graphics, It plays similar to the bonus stages from the main game and your aim is to survive and score high.
There is a lot of content in Xenocider and you also have a few achievements to unlock. It feels like three games in one at times. Shooter fans and casual gamers alike will have lots of fun working their way through it all. My only criticism of the overall gameplay is the main levels feel short at times. Even with two routes per stage you do reach the boss in a couple of minutes. This is not always bad as the game is clearly aimed at those who enjoy repeating levels to improve their scores. Those looking for a long adventure may want to give this one a miss. But arcade junkies will feel right at home with the game length.
One of the more interesting features in Xenocider is the control system. Anyone that has played Charge ‘N Blast on the Dreamcast will understand the concept. Your analogue stick aims your weapon while the triggers fly you left or right. If you have not played a game with this set up before it may take a moment to get your head around how it works. The face buttons consist of jump, auto-fire on/off and your secondary powers. depending on the load out you choose at the level start the secondary powers are a shield, nukes and extra shots. What you choose will depend on your play style and the boss you are about to face.
The controls feel tight but there is some odd collision detection at times. Nothing that spoils the gameplay but the third level has some odd enemies that are hard to avoid. With practice however, you will start to overcome these slight flaws. Moving Xara around feels solid and the gentle auto aim really helps to make the shooting accurate. You get a real buzz as you clear the levels. The later ones are tough and will take a few goes before you crack it. After a couple of days play I found myself wanting to clear the first level without taking any damage. Xenocider is a pure arcade title that makes no apology for the difficulty and it forces you to improve.
One of the standout features is how compatible it is with the Dreamcast’s array of peripherals. Most will be fine using the standard controller, but in true Retro Faith style I felt compelled to try Xenocider with the official Arcade Stick, Twin Stick and ASCII FT controller. The fact that this game is compatible with the Twin Stick is like a gift from above. We have been blessed with another title that works with this hallowed of controllers in Xeno Crisis from Bitmap Bureau. Having yet another indie title that I can use with this behemoth is refreshing given how few licensed games take advantage of it.
Starting with the standard Dreamcast controller having the analogue triggers on the top feels great. You can almost feel yourself leaning into the shoulder button to swoop left or right. The stick aims well and the spacing between the face buttons means you have great control and everything makes sense. You can understand right away why Retro Sumus chose the control system as soon as you start playing. Using the ASCII controller was also decent. I did have to remap the controls to suit the six face button layout but the accuracy of the d-pad was immense. Once I got used to having swoop left and right as face buttons, and not shoulder triggers, I was blasting away again. Both the controllers have their advantages, but both also play just fine.
Next up, I tried my hands with the Twin Stick and boy is this amazing. It almost seems as though Xenocider was designed around these accurate sticks. The left stick moves your aim around with such ease and your left and right swoop feel great with the pressure of the second stick. Again, I found it useful to remap my controls so jump and auto-fire were in better positions. That left the top triggers to control my nukes in true fighter pilot fashion. It may just be the big smile on my face caused by having another twin stick game, or the fact it all feels so natural, but this is the way to play Xenocider.
Lastly, I plugged in my trusty green goblin stick. Again, another remap (there is a theme here) of the controls to get them comfortable. My initial impression was that the Arcade Stick is not a good feel for this type of game. Most arcade sticks are designed for traditional shmups and fighting games and this really stuck out as I struggled to move the curser quick enough to aim. This was alleviated a little by adjusting the cursor speed setting in the options but overall it feels clunky. Another issue I found was with the spacing of the face buttons. For fighting games the big round buttons work a treat, but in a game where you may need to push two buttons at once it was uncomfortable at times. A real shame, but seeing how good the other three controllers work it is not a real issue.
Graphically, Xenocider is detailed with solid polygons that look chunky. However, some of the levels lack some colour. Again, pointing out the third one. It may just be my preference for bright visuals but I do not like much about it. The others, especially the last two, are an assault to the senses. Diverse enemies and effects litter the screen in an explosion of colour and the inspirations from Fantasy Zone in Space Harrier will not be lost on you. Speaking of Space Harrier, the mini game looks gorgeous. Full, blocky trees and dragons fill the screen. There is such attention to detail that you would be forgiven that this is a 3D update to Sega’s blasting classic. The rest of the visuals are detailed and some of the bosses are mesmerising. My favourite being a large worm that feels like fighting Del La Rol from Phantasy Star Online.
While it would be easy for me to point out the lush 3D graphics, it is actually the sound that I find the standout feature of Xenocider’s presentation. Smooth techy beats mixed with some pumping bass bring the action to life. It pulsates along, almost in time with your shooting. Anyone that has played Rez will instantly recognise the cool mix of blasting with fast tempo synth tunes. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, combining the visuals and gameplay of Space Harrier with the music and rhythm of Rez must be worshipping! I really feel that Retro Sumus has nailed the presentation of Xenocider. It is a joy to experience and I had a constant smile on my face throughout my playtest.
In conclusion I think anyone, anywhere who has even a passing interest in Dreamcast indie games should buy this. From the amazing soundtrack, to the over the top visuals, Xenocider will please anyone who enjoyed Sega’s arcade games from around 2000. Those that enjoy a tough challenge will find it here, especially on the hard mode. I am thrilled that Xenocider has made it through its development unscathed and hopefully this will be the first of many Dreamcast games from Retro Sumus. The fact that such a strong title has come right on the back of Xeno Crisis just shows how lucky we are. It is still thinking.