They mostly come from the top of the screen… mostly.
Xenoraid on PS4
A cascade of enemy vessels spirals toward me and Lt Newell’s ship has pretty much had it. Just as the enemy opens fire and hot plasma rushes to seal Newell’s doom, a quick tap of the square button and the young ensign Burnell switches in. “I’m taking point,” he declares in a cocky swagger – fresh out the academy. (I imagine there’s probably an academy.) After trading blows and vanquishing the enemy, Burnell’s ship is hit pretty bad; just as he deals with a hulking enemy cruiser, his computer announces that he’s at critical damage. “It’s just a scratch,” he says. Classic Burnell. The hot-headed bastard would have us all rush headlong into the alien fleet. He’s got everything to prove, and he proves it, finishing the beefy frigate with a couple of deft missiles and a flurry of laser fire. Mission accomplished, Burnell. You were good – maybe too good.
Of course, that backstory took place exclusively in my head while playing Xenoraid, but such is the beauty of roguelike permanent death characters. They take on lives and stories all their own. It’s a nice addition to the vertical-scrolling space shooter. There are robot pilots too; their superior officer refers to them as rust-buckets. It’s political. I won’t go into my droid story now, don’t worry.
If you’ve played anything from Gradius and R-Type, to Xevious or even Asteroids, you’ll be in familiar territory here. Alien ships descend from the top; you’re at the bottom; you have complete freedom to move in any direction; and can blast with your primary weapon and punctuate your attack with the odd missile. Shooting feels good. The little ships are charmingly early-stage: they look like classic NASA shuttles retrofitted with guns and rockets. Little boosters sway you in all directions and the ships feel bottom-heavy – it makes aiming a very rewarding thing to get the hang of. There’s little as satisfying as heaving your ship from left to right, pinging off a missile, and hitting a ship top-right corner. It’s like putting top spin on a tennis ball. It’s also nice how few hits you can take: it makes it all a little weightier, and forces you to play defense.
Speaking of playing defense, the team approach fits very nicely indeed, and means you have to monitor your four-strong squad constantly to see how everyone is doing. You accrue credits as you play and it’s more expensive to buy a new ship than it is to repair an old one. Plus if characters stick around you’ll have more time to come up with backstories. If you’re caught between an asteroid and a swarm of enemy fighters, switching out to a teammate is a good way to dodge damage. You’re invulnerable until the next fighter takes up position, which is indicated by a little white outline you can place where you like. Rapid switching is the key to opening up the game’s frenetic battles; when things get hectic, a squadron is more adept than a single pilot – no matter how bloody flash Burnell thinks he is.
Genre staples abound: screen-filling bosses, little plasma balls that irritatingly follow you around, enemies that like to dodge your shots and close you from the sides. It’s well worth taking a little time out and spending some of those hard-fought credits on upgrades. Not just because adding further outlandish contraptions onto your humble craft makes you feel like a NASA-sponsored Xzibit, but because the game throws a chewy challenge your way. It’s worth making improvements because you’ll actually need them: your weapon overheats when you really need it not to, so you should invest in the cooling chamber; while you’re at it, you should probably double your rate of fire – why not? There’s an awful lot of Xenos(?) about. In fact, Should you find yourself outnumbered (you will), why not bring a friend? The co-op mode isn’t so much a nice touch as an essential one. It’s fun and whilst it’s nothing new, it works well.
These little touches, whilst nice additions, don’t quite save Xenoraid from slipping into the quicksand of its basis. You have been here before, many times over. It’s not difficult to get tired of it. There are efforts to pep you up here and there: at one point a sort of space flamethrower (science be damned) is introduced into the mix, and there are enemies that have energy shields and homing lasers, breathing some variety into the campaign. The music too does a nice job of setting the atmosphere; it has a nice driving synth to it that recalls Amiga classic Alien Breed.
These additions have been layered on top of a very old chassis, and while they do stave off boredom for a little while, it feels like chugging cheap energy drinks to prolong the inevitable crash. When there are games out there like Rez and Geometry Wars that reinvent that chassis, it’s difficult to play something like Xenoraid and feel… well, much at all. That being said, I am thinking about writing a book about Ensign Burnell one day.
Score: 3/5 – Fair