Taking inspiration from some of the greats of the adventure genre such as the Legend of Zelda series, Tiny Roar’s XEL is an ambitious entry that takes the player all the way to the depths of space, back and forth through time itself, and right in the middle of an endangered last bastion for survival.
This bright and boisterous sci-fi world is where the player is introduced to Reid, a star pilot shipwrecked in a mysterious garden with mysterious ruins and no clue about how she got there or even who she truly is. The only thing she knows is that answers won’t come to those that don’t seek them - and it’s up to you to help her in her quest.
The Good - So much space!
XEL throws the player into a vibrant visual spectacle from minute one and it becomes increasingly clear that there’s more to it than what's on the surface. Other than looking beautiful, XEL’s world design is extremely fun to explore. There is a lot of space on the map and areas to play around in, plenty of nooks and crannies with destructibles to make sure exploration does not become monotonous - or to seek out health after a less than stylish combat encounter - and good views to closed off paths that immediately entice curious minds into finding a way to access those areas. XEL has a lot of verticality in its design, making good use of observable high and low ground to really drive the point home about the magnitude of the area surrounding the player character. Even the main required paths don’t feel stiff or like hallways, rather feeling like a natural progression to take.
Furthermore, XEL has a good number of mechanics that provides the player with increasingly fun ways to interact with the environment, as well as enemies through gadgets and abilities that Reid obtains throughout the game. In true Zelda fashion, Reid soon starts to build up an impressive arsenal of tools for fighting and exploration. Blade and shield, dodges, gadgets, consumable items, time manipulation, regenerating shock traps, and more are available; focusing on either one can completely change the way the player approaches the otherwise very simple combat system and the environmental puzzles, making for a very engaging experience.
- A beautiful, fun world to explore
- Good map design
- Varied mechanics for combat and exploration
The Bad - A glitch in the matrix
There are two distinct matters to look at when talking about XEL’s shortcomings: game design and software performance.
When it comes to the general design, it can be said that XEL’s humour is fairly hit or miss. The game’s atmosphere and characters lend themselves well to moments of humour, but there were moments where it felt very flat and forced, especially in the general way that the main characters speak. It feels slightly off and out of touch, often sounding somewhat unnatural.
The camera is fixed at a point very far away from the main character which makes it great for enjoying the scenery, but not so good for properly following the action and animations of Reid and similarly-sized enemies. Certain important items such as health pickups are simply too small to be properly seen, occupying such a minuscule space in the zoomed-out world; the player will often have to squint to make sure they don’t miss an essential item drop. When objects inevitably get between the camera and Reid, there is nothing to help keep track of her: no outline on the character model itself or transparency put on the object. The player simply has to guess where Reid - or any relevant items - might be if they happen to fall behind a piece of the scenery.
Although aggravating, that does not come close to the true main issue with XEL: the software performance. In many situations, the scenery will not fully render until after a full second, leaving deadly gaps in the world for the main character to fall into while other areas will have extremely noticeable frame rate drops. Dialogue and cutscenes end abruptly before characters finish speaking or moving - even in the overworld, and not just during said cutscenes. Facial animation doesn’t always line up with dialogue and voice lines will trigger at random in the overworld when Reid moves past certain spots, even after the issue at hand has been dealt with. The game is bursting with bugs, glitches and performance issues sprinkled throughout the entire experience.
But most unforgivable of all is a glitch that happens upon death in a certain location that can completely lock the save file, where the game will not load again except for one of Reid’s voice lines and the game over sound. It persists even after reinstalling the game, essentially destroying the save file and forcing a restart from the beginning on a second slot. The phrase “game-breaking bug” comes to mind, and in XEL’s case, it seems very apt.
- Hit or miss humor and dialogue
- Extremely user-unfriendly camera
- A MASSIVE amount of bugs, glitches and performance issues
- At least one literal game-breaking bug that essentially locks a save file.
Final Score: 4/10
This score is particularly painful to give because it is clear that XEL has all the makings of a great game and could have been a stellar experience. Although it is possible that in the future, most of the performance issues will be patched, there is simply no denying the fact that upon release, every good aspect of the game is absolutely overshadowed by the poor performance and the literal game-breaking bugs. XEL is a small gem that seems to have never been polished, or even properly taken out of the earth to realise its full potential. It’s a tragedy; It could have been a diamond.
XEL presents an interesting world to adventure in and characters with a lot of stories to tell, but the sad matter of fact is that no story can survive the constant, violent breaking of immersion caused by the present issues. I hope that in the future, its full potential can be realised.
Thank you for checking out our XEL Switch review, thank you to Assemble Entertainment for providing the review code and thank you to our Patreon Backers for their ongoing support: