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Spirits of Xanadu

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By Bobfish25-03-2015
Spirits of Xanadu

The Defence

Developer:
Allen Trivette, Lee Williams
Publisher:
Night Dive Studios
Genre:
Action, Adventure, Indie
Release Date:
26-03-2015

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce 8600
AMD equivalent
RAM:
4 GB
HDD:
900 MB
DirectX:
OpenGL

The Case

In the heady days of yore, the far distant years of my youth, science fiction was distinctly different from the way it is now. A combination of shoestring budgets, dodgy special effects and self-indulgent posturing conspired together to engender an industry focused around, ahh, shall we say, philosophical theorising. These days, it’s all about the spectacle and the veneer of profundity, but often lacking the backbone of what made the sci-fi of my youth so...intriguing. Thankfully, this is making a shift back, to a degree. Which brings us to Spirits of Xanadu.

The Trial

Let’s get this out of the way, right now. I love this game. But at the same time, I have to agree it’s very...well, it’s not exactly a good game. At least, not from a game perspective. Gameplay is very, very simple. Pretty much your bogstandard, cheap and cheerful, simple as they come functional control scheme. So much so there isn’t even a reload key. Which is fine, because you have energy weapons that never run out of shots. There are lean options though, which is nice. Redundant, but nice. Though it’s animated more like a sideways moonwalk than an actual lean.

Well, this looks inviting. Can I turn the lights off again?I brought smores.

Well, this looks inviting. Can I turn the lights off again?

It’s also rather on the short side. With average play time being around 2-3 hours. However, multiple endings and a lot of hidden lore make for a high replay value. So all told, you have a good 6-8 hours. Having said that, this will be a difficult game for me to recommend. The bane of many a gamer is in full force here. Audio and text logs in abundance. Something which will put a lot of people off. Which is a shame, because what’s actually hidden away is absolutely fascinating. If you’re coming for a deep narrative experience...you will actually be thoroughly riveted, but there’s a lot of digging and lateral thinking involved to appreciate it all.

See, in a style more akin to Dark Souls or Fallout, the story is told through the setting itself. Little features like the way some of the crazy robots will call out “would you like to play chess?” before running up and exploding in your face. Think of it as being a multi-layered, existential exploration of Humanity. Yeah, it’s almost painfully pretentious, and that’s precisely why I love it so much. The game, as in the nuts and bolts of the very simplistic Unity textures and trimmed down gameplay are a framing device for something of more substance.

I don’t want to give too much away, for a change, because it’s all so...vague. So suffice it to say, you get out what you put in. If you go into this and see a really simple, amateurish cheap indie game, that’s what you’ll get. If you let your imagination go on a journey of self-reflection, dig deep into all of the scattered lore and set out to make sense of precisely what happened to the three man crew of the Xanadu. Well, now that’s another story.

I want to play a game...within a game.

I want to play a game...within a game.

In short, what I’m saying is this is definitely not for everybody. It takes a liberal dose of pretence to really appreciate the game’s full complexity. Something which I, thankfully, am more than willing to do. The devs have even been canny enough to facilitate this by including a “Peaceful” mode. Which allows you to explore the Xanadu at your leisure, without being pestered by the homicidal machines that will respawn indefinitely. Something which, having played the game on hard, I can very much appreciate. Dying time after time after bloody time, going back to that sodding brig and having to run back to where I was killed, only to die again, gets old real fast. Even with the ship being on the small side.

On the plus side, the entire ship, barring two locked doors, is there for you to explore at all times, and in any order you choose. Finding the codes to unlock those said doors, is an exercise in frustration, but the payoff is worth it. If you are committed to unravelling all the ship’s secrets at least. The same with the multiple endings. They are not so clear cut as with many games, and will require a lot of exploration, attention to detail and lateral thinking.

The Verdict

Having said all of that, I still heartily recommend the game. I must simply caution, again, that you will need to have a very particular intellectual bent to appreciate the full complexity of the events that transpired in the far future of 1983.

Case Review

  • Open Ended: You can go where you want, when you want.
  • Subtlety: Making sense of everything will keep your brain engaged long after closing the game.
  • Presentation: The look is interesting and unique, but very low poly and texture.
  • Simplicity: It’s an interesting motif, harkening back to old school sci-fi, but will present a barrier to some.
  • The Plot: It takes so much effort to find it, honestly, you might not even want to try.
4
Score: 4/5
There’s a lot to like, and a lot more to appreciate, but you have to work for your cookies.

Appeal

First off I have to say that horror or just “scary” games are not my forte. I spook easily and don’t often enjoy that too much. That being said, Spirits of Xanadu was good at easing me into the experience. It’s a very nice indie venture that doesn’t hold your hand too much while still allowing you to follow the story nicely and keep from too much distraction. You are assigned the mission of assessing and repairing the Xanadu, a research space ship, to function and bringing it to Earth. A ship with crew of only three yet no one to be found around. Your job as a player is to wander around the ship until something catches your eye, and investigate it. A lead, a clue, anything to make sense of the situation you’re in. This is partially achieved by interesting approach to games visuals. Solid colors make up the inside of the ship with flat mindless colors to leave your mind vulnerable to the unexpected driving force that hypnotizes you while you’re unaware. Indoctrination.

With all these shapeless, colorless walls you’d think it’d be hard to tell a story, and maybe it is. Storytelling relies on finding audio logs the crew have recorded and left in random places, or the occasional computer email. There is no communication of any sort. No NPCs to speak of other than the occasional suicidal basketball robot. Combat is doled out at a relatively consistent pace and tapers off as most enemies die permanently. A peaceful mode is offered to those who wish to play the game purely for story. Leaning around corners to check for threats is a very strange and abuseable mechanic. You’re pretty much invisible as you lean, and are offered a clean shot at whatever you’re trying to hit. But considering the type of game it is, I completely forgot it was even there until the final moments.

Overall the game is able to integrate modest gun play with a short story decent enough. Interesting game for a cheap price, but still feels as though it was a game created for a story or mechanic the developers wanted to experiment with. But that’s not to say it’s a bad game. I played it through with my younger sister and we both enjoyed it for its creepy atmosphere instead of a series of jump scares it could have been. And as a bonus it works perfectly with a triple-screen setup.

3
Score: 3/5

Appeal

It’s not really a good idea to judge a book by its cover, but when a game’s selling point is there is a “Peaceful” difficulty that turns all enemies passive “explore the ship, absorb the story, and solve puzzles at your own leisure with no pressure” you’d probably be right in thinking that Spirits of Xanadu is very much a “story first, gameplay secondary” kind of game. Truth be told, if you turned it on, you probably wouldn’t miss the combat. The guns feel clunky, the enemies are really boring to fight, and for some reason, you can aim down your sights when they already have pinpoint accuracy firing from the hip. Infinite ammo and regenerating health pretty much kill off any sort of challenge coming from having to manage resources, which usually having to conserve scarce resources are what make games like System Shock, one of the games it claims to be inspired by, so tense and exciting. Also, kinda petty but there’s an enemy that is some sort of rip off of the manhacks from Half Life 2, spinning blades of death and all, that shoot lightning at you instead of using said blades.

As far as story and atmosphere, you’ve seen it before, and done better. It’s the basic and generic formula of “you’re on a ship after something MYSTERIOUSLY happens to the crew and you have to fight through security and find audio logs to find out what happened.” You can pretty much guess what happens. It does that cheesy “someone’s following you! Look they are right over there BUT NOW THEY AREN’T” as well as doing the Doom 3 take on horror of “You’re somewhere dark with a flashlight.” It also promotes that the game has puzzles, but they are hardly brain-busters and usually don’t deviate from “It tells you there's a problem so you solve the problem by interacting with something.” Xanadu feels the need to hold your hand through the experience. Get lost in its tiny map? Don’t worry there are directories everywhere. Don’t know where to go? The intercom will tell you. Die? Instant respawn with no penalty.

All in all, Spirits of Xanadu is a very amateurish game. I’d like you to take a moment to realize just how amateurish a game has to be to make me, someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes indie games, call one that.

1.5
Score: 1.5/5
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