I studied art back in college, though the art faculty was never very impressed with the way I spent most of my free time in the other wing of the mass comm building, dabbling in journalism. Still, even though I was coming to realize I'd probably be better as a writer than an illustrator, I nevertheless poured my heart into my work.
As such, I was always a little crushed when I'd near the end of a drawing or painting or some other composition and step back to admire my work only to have the professor appear from nowhere and scrutinize the image over my shoulder. "I really like it," he'd almost invariably say, before adding a trailing, ominous, "But...."
And that is precisely how I feel about Renegade Kid's new mini-platformer Xeodrifter, freshly launched today for Nintendo 3DS and Steam. It's compact, charming, and leaves the player to his or her own devices... yet it lacks a certain something that would elevate it from "pretty OK" to "great."
Let's talk about what works, though, which is nearly everything. Using the same general chunky visual style as Mutant Mudds, Xeodrifter begins by setting the player adrift in space and allowing them to find the resources they need to repair their ship's hyperdrive on four different planets. While the navigation cursor points you toward the first planet you'll need to explore, you're never railroaded into taking a particular path except by the limitations of your character. There are no invisible walls, no error alerts to lock you out of a given space. If you have the means to reach an area, and you can survive against its monsters, you're welcome to explore whenever and wherever you like.
The further you venture into each planet — and your path through the game will ultimately involve a tremendous amount of criss-crossing between worlds as you backtrack to explore previously inaccessible rooms and nooks — the more you empower your little astronaut to delve into each environment. You'll learn to use a dashing booster that allows you to skim across the water, rocket yourself into the air, and switch between near and far visual planes wherever the environment introduces overlapping areas. You'll also have to combine these powers in order to find the keys you need to access the resources you seek, e.g. changing planes while dashing or chaining a dash into a rocket jump at just the right time.
Likewise, your tiny space person acquires a number of basic power-ups as you explore — health and gun power — and you're allowed to use these as you see fit, too. Health is health, sure, but gun boosts allow you to customize your powers at will. You have five different gun style panels and can allocate each of the power-ups you acquire as you see fit.
Feel like your basic weapon is too weak? (It is.) Pour resources into boosting its strength. Want a little more lateral range on your shots? Specialize in a wave beam that works exactly like the gun by the same name in Metroid. Or mix-and-match: Boost your gun's attack power while supplementing it with a few points of rapid fire or spread shot. You can even predefine three different gun combos and switch between them instantly with the press of a touch panel.
None of this is ever really communicated to you, though; aside from text prompts that you've saved your game or a terse sentence explaining how a new acquisition works, you're really left to sort out the workings of Xeodrifter on your own. Where most metroidvania games draw upon the style and ideas of Super Metroid (which Xeodrifter does, to a degree — that dash power-up is directly inspired by Samus' Speed Booster), this adventure hearkens back to the original 8-bit Metroid. There are obvious nods, like the strange bubbles that make up the walls of certain planets (a la Metroid's Norfair zone), the tube-shaped enemies that drift back and forth, and the stumpy like monsters covered by spines that patrol the game's tall vertical shafts. But more meaningfully, Xeodrifter creates a feeling of loneliness and isolation, the sensation that you're stuck in this maze with no one to rely on but yourself. It really nails that "lost in a space labyrinth" feeling that Metroid evoked, and it's great.
Here comes the "but," though.
But, despite nailing the classic metroidvania spirit so exactly, Xeodrifter doesn't quite come together in the end. The game feels like a small production, so perhaps that's understandable, but it suffers from a lack of variety and balancing that leave it feeling like the project hasn't completely made its way beyond the prototype stage.
Xeodrifter stumbles in small ways: Things like the placement of enemies, or the way your astronaut's planar shifts tend to be difficult to judge. Monsters tend to lurk just out of sight as you explore, forcing you to pick your way carefully even through regions you've traversed several times, turning the constant backtracking required to complete the adventure into a slog toward the back half of the journey. One particularly irritating sequence has you dashing back to your ship across a pool of toxic liquid, but a powerful creature sits on the other side and will hit you from off-screen with an absolutely devastating attack if you don't stop running the instant you clear the pool. It's little things like that which make Xeodrifter slightly more annoying than it really ought to be.
The real bummer, though, comes in the form of the bosses... or should I say boss? There's only a single boss creature in the game, and encounters with its progressive forms simply involve learning more and more elaborate patterns. The monster seems to stay one step ahead of the player, which keeps it challenging, but ultimately it gets to a point where the boss fights are so stacked against the player that it ceases to be fun anymore. The boss tends to crowd the player, who has very little damage knockback or mercy invincibility, and a single slip-up during the lengthy and toilsome fights can undermine several minutes of complex, precision reactions. Ultimately, I reached the point at which the boss acquired a protective shield about a third of the way into the fight and began spamming the room with a massive, screen-filling laser beam that made it practically impossible to chip away at the shield. After trying again and again for half an hour, using every permutation of weapon I could think of, I ultimately conceded defeat. Maybe there's some trick I'm overlooking, and maybe I could eventually win with perseverance, but I wouldn't enjoy the experience — so what's the point?
I could see this appealing to the same sort of person who gets a thrill out of battling the insane super-bosses in Cave shooters, and that's all well and good. But the repetitive and intensely memorization-intensive battles with the bosses stand at odds with the mellow, exploratory design that makes up the bulk of Xeodrifter. With just a little more fine-tuning (and some slightly less unbalanced bosses), Xeodrifter could be a great adventure. But... as it is, it feels slightly unfinished.