Review: Xeodrifter (3DS)

Short, sweet, and tough as nails.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 12/16/2014 13:00 1 Comment     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Retro presentation well implemented; solid challenge; weapon upgrade system; fun boss battle; short length serves to focus the experience and ramp up the pace; A unique take on a Metroidvania game
Poison Mushroom for...
Checkpoint system is too unforgiving; Needs more enemy variety; Weapon upgrading is a little hard to understand, initially

I really love Renegade Kid. The developer is an indie studio, but is fairly high profile despite that label. Anyone who has played and loved Mutant Mudds (Maxwell has a hidden cameo in this game, by the way! Keep your eyes peeled), Moon Chronicles, and Dementium is familiar with Renegade Kid, and knows just how good its games can be. Now that Xeodrifter has bowed on the 3DS eShop, the streak of excellence continues, albeit in a pint-sized package. With a retro aesthetic and familiar, Metroidvania-style gameplay, Xeodrifter is immediately accessible and expertly crafted.

Fans had been looking forward to Treasurenauts before Jools Watsham, the head of Renegade Kid, declared that he had been struck by an immutable need to create a Metroidvania game. A fan of titles like Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Watsham wanted to leave his own stamp on the beloved subgenre, and pushed Treasurenauts to the back burner for what would become Xeodrifter. It was a pretty interesting and dramatic shift, to publicly announce that he would be stopping on a dime to scratch an itch like that, and though it could have been a disaster, Watsham pulled it off admirably with Xeodrifter.

The premise of Xeodrifter revolves around a nameless, nomadic space explorer who is roaming through a place called the omega sector. The warp core of his ship is damaged, however, leaving the wanderer stranded and forced to explore the sector’s four planets in order to find a way home. Watsham’s love of Metroid is apparent from the second the game boots up, as the nomad, his ship, and the environments of the four planets feel straight out of Metroid and Super Metroid. Not in a rip-off sort of way, either, as Xeodrifter takes the basics of the two and makes them entirely its own.

Utilizing the Mutant Mudds game engine, Xeodrifter maintains a retro, pixelated look that rests somewhere between 8- and 16-bit, with very colorful and bright sprites. The effect of the lava/death pools was particularly was a standout for me during my travels through omega sector’s four planets. The music is more atmospheric than anything else, but it’s a perfect fit for the game, working wonders with the chiptune sounds that are so familiar in retro games of today. For fans of old school gaming, Xeodrfter is equal parts retro and modern, and a better product for it.

Exploration is at the heart of Xeodrifter. The game has a small overworld where players can pilot the nomad’s beleaguered ship around omega sector to reach each of its four planets. There isn’t much to do with the ship beyond going from point A to B and saving, but I thought it was a lot more interesting than clicking bland menu selections, instead. I’ve wanted to pilot Samus’s Gunship for years, and this is probably the closest I’ll get! In any event, when the nomad hits the surface of a planet is when the real fun starts. The variety of abilities that unlock throughout the adventure are simple to use and perfectly layered in. Whether it was jumping into the background of the environment (that Mutant Mudds engine at work), or phasing through walls, I got a thrill out of trying to find every secret in the game.

Like Metroid or Contra, Xeodrifter‘s core gameplay is run and gun action. Where the title differentiates itself is in how the nomad’s blaster is upgraded throughout the adventure. Rather than layer the energy beams like in Metroid, or provide temporary powerups like in Contra, Xeodrifter instead allows players to customize their weapon as they see fit. There are five different beam choices, ranging from a rapid fire to spread shot, and three customization slots to assign them to. Each of the beams can be augmented with Gun powerups littered throughout each planet. The powerups are not exhausted permanently when assigned to a particular beam, either, meaning players are free to experiment with finding a setup that works for them.

Even better, though, is that two beam types can be joined together when enough Gun tokens have been found. Max one beam, and additional tokens can be set to another beam in the same customization slot. Meaning, not only can players have a spread beam, they can work to have a rapid fire spread beam. It’s just a brilliant design, though if it has any drawback, it’s that the game doesn’t really explain how it works. The customization options are all on the bottom screen, and while there are some arrows that indicate where to click to utilize recovered Gun powerups, the “how” of it isn’t made plain. I was able to work it out without much of a headache, but a little clearer direction would have been welcome, especially for players who aren’t as capable.

Like Daisuke Amaya’s Ikachan (another great 3DS game!), Xeodrifter is a very short experience. My first playthough clocked in at about three and a half hours, and I almost snagged every powerup in that initial outing. Don’t let Xeodrifter‘s brevity act as a deterrent, however. Though I wish the title was longer, being short is no vice; indeed, by sticking to four planets, Renegade Kid distilled Xeodrifter down to a more focused game, cutting off any fat and keeping the pace blistering. For music fans, think Linkin Park’s Meteora album; no fluff, just 13 tracks of three minute (or less) amazing songs. Xeodrifter is the Meteora of Metroidvanias.

Rather than slowly moving from section to section of a gigantic, branching world like in Metroid or contemporary Castlevania games, Xeodrifter‘s planets are compact and easier to remember the layout of. I immediately knew where to backtrack to in order to unlock another health or weapon powerup, and the structure of the game made it a breeze to get where I needed to go. There was one element of the game’s pacing that left me wanting, though, and it was the checkpoint system. Before and after boss battles (more on those in a second), the game autosaves so that players can retry without having to make their way back over and over. That same consideration is not extended anywhere else in Xeodrifter, unfortunately.

I think that besides being an homage to the difficulty of older titles, the limited checkpoints were likely also intended to serve the more practical purpose of keeping players from blasting through the game too quickly. Whatever the reason, I found myself having to traverse the same huge stretches of a planet multiple times, but too often it was more unreasonable than it should have been. I’d poke around nooks and crannies, discover two or three powerups, almost make it back to my ship– and then die. And have to do it all over again. It wasn’t always that traumatic, but it happened enough times that it became irritating. Considering how creative Xeodrifter is elsewhere, it would have been great if Renegade Kid could have at least taken a stab at unique checkpoints, like Shovel Knight‘s risk and reward system, but the current setup was too brutal for my tastes. It’s by no means game breaking, but it’s a frustrating design choice, for sure.

As far as enemy variety goes, I find myself a bit torn on how I feel about Xeodrifter‘s approach to the nomad’s rogues gallery. There are only a handful of enemy types on each of the four planets, which was somewhat underwhelming, though by no means a total deal breaker. What really got me conflicted is that there is only one boss in the entire game. The battles with this lizard-like monster are frenzied and fun, growing in complexity over the course of the six times it’s seen. Each defeat yields another ability needed to scour the entirety of omega sector, making victory all the sweeter. That all said… it’s still one boss. Going that route mostly fits with the focused, brief game that Renegade Kid wanted to deliver, but at least one other boss to balance things out would have been beneficial. Still, what was done with this single boss remains impressive. Especially that final battle– I felt like a beast when I finally put him to bed for good.

Xeodrifter isn’t the best title on the 3DS eShop, but it’s still a remarkable and unique retro experience. Renegade Kid has brought fans a challenging, exciting game that plays in the Metroid sandbox while still establishing its own identity. Clever weapon upgrades, great presentation, and a laser-focused adventure clocking in at only four hours or so has breathed fresh air into the Metroidvania subgenre of video games. If not for a lack of enemy variety and an overly brutal checkpoint system, Xeodrifter would be sitting right at the top of the heap with the best games in the 3DS eShop. Instead, it’ll have to settle for being really, really good. I encourage everyone to give this title a download, though, as it’s an absolute blast to play, despite its shortcomings.

One Response to “Review: Xeodrifter (3DS)”

  • 849 points
    ejamer says...

    A short experience isn’t bad as long as it’s a *good* experience. SteamWorld Dig was that way for me – not terribly long, but so enjoyable that it was one of my favorite gaming experiences that year.

    Somehow Renegade Kid games always leave me disappointed though – feeling like I should have enjoyed them more than I actually did. Despite that I keep buying because (a) they are always well made, and (b) they always look so appealing.

    Xeodrifter will be a sure pick up once my 3DS XL has been repaired. Here’s hoping that it bucks the trend and blows my expectations away!

    For anyone who has finished the game: does Xeodrifter have much replay value? Metroid was designed with different endings depending on how quickly you finished, SteamWorld Dig offered a ranking based on your time and completion percentages. Does this game do anything similar?

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