Xenoraid is a “bullet-hell” space combat game developed by 10tons Ltd, which places players in the shoes of pilots of a fleet of four ships, and asks them to undertake a series of missions which read like the plot of Independence Day. The aliens are attacking, so it’s time to carve a path through the enemy fleet and deploy a nuclear bomb on their mothership. This plan, predictably, doesn’t work. Fortunately, the game’s strength isn’t in the narrative that the dialogue and mission set-up relates. These are framing details, set pieces for the main draw of the game, the gameplay.
Right off the bat, Xenoraid establishes a key fact without needing a word of dialogue: The enemy ships are more advanced and manoeuvrable than yours. There is, of course, text which talks about how the ships the player is using are modified aircraft, rather than true spaceships. More important than telling the player this, Xenoraid lets them feel it. While enemies are performing complicated manoeuvres and rotating on a dime, the player’s ships move at the exact same speed and possess no ability to turn. Even the large cruisers, the bulky and slow ships which can absorb a tonne of fire, are able to navigate behind the player and open fire.
All of this places an emphasis on strafing, dodging left and right to avoid shots and riposte. Xenoraid could easily have gone wrong on this front by giving players an ammo limit on the primary fire of their ships, but instead opts for a cool-down system, where guns build up heat the longer they’re fired, and shut down temporarily if they become too hot. During the time where the Primary weapon is cooling down, the player may still manoeuvre freely, fire a secondary weapon, and most importantly, switch ships.
Rather than the fleet serving as a set of “extra lives” they are individual ships which can be toggled between as needed, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. These ships can be customised between missions using the currency rewarded for completing the mission (and occasionally dropped from enemies) on both a personal scale, where each ship has specific upgrades, and on a fleet-wide scale, such as giving every ship in the fleet 20% more health. These ships and the ability to toggle between them serve as a core component which differentiates this game from other bullet-hells. Ship-switching is not instantaneous, and during the transition, neither ship can take damage. In later levels, this is a key tactic for avoiding stray asteroids or an unfortunate bolt from an enemy.
The combat isn’t without quirks, however. Strafing is a key tactic, but the ship’s aim tilted while moving, which can take some time to adjust to, but gives a rewarding sensation of speed when utilised properly. Enemies fly in patterns which allow this feature to be a tool, rather than a hindrance, particularly with the area-of-effect weapons such as the shotgun and flamethrower. There is a toggle for this setting, but the game feels disjointed when the setting is changed.
Contrasting this is the default control scheme for movement. Unless altered, the game uses the arrow keys for movement and the number keys to switch between ships. Due to the need for a hand to be on the mouse at almost all times, the act of toggling ships becomes a feat of dexterity rather than the swift, easy action it is from the WASD configuration which is most familiar to today’s players. Fortunately, the steering controls can be altered, which makes the game much more user-friendly.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous. Not because of particularly stellar graphics, but because of the way the art-style is utilised. With so much action taking place at once, every flash and particle effect has to be about function, rather than form, and in this respect, Xenoraid is top-notch. Whether it’s the way the propulsion trail on enemy ships changes to indicate how close they are to death; the clear and vibrant markings on the asteroids which are either explosive (bright yellow-orange) or reward destruction with extra resources (bright blue, the color of the currency); or the way enemy ships (bright beige in most cases) contrasts against the dark background of the playing field (which is flecked with interesting objects to communicate that the player is, in fact, in space rather than a dark void) but never draws the eye away from the enemy in a frustrating way. It remains static in each level and leaves the sensation of movement to be communicated by the enemies.
Similarly, the game’s UI is minimalist, with a counter which tracks the number and type of enemy ships remaining, as well as the state of each of the player’s ships. Both of these HUD-like charts are tucked away in the bottom corners of the screen, where they might be glanced at in a moment of peace, but otherwise, sit, semi-transparent, never flashing or demanding attention in the middle of heated combat. The counter which tracks the enemy ships is particularly important, as it allows the player to budget their non-infinite resources mid-mission, rather than having to guess what opposition remains.
The game’s progression is engaging, with options given to allow for diverse play, but it suffers from the chapter based nature of the game. The game is divided into groupings of levels, with checkpoints given after each grouping is completed, and each chapter is comprised of a collection of these checkpoints. The checkpoint system is, at first, an odd choice, as players must often complete three levels before they can save their progress and put the game down. It also serves as a safeguard against players making an under-optimised decision between levels, such as buying an upgrade they believed would be more useful than it was. Xenoraid also wards against long iteration cycles by allowing players, upon failing a level, to either reset to the most recent checkpoint, or simply restart the level. In doing this, it sacrifices short play cycles for a more rewarding, less stressful iteration cycle, and never locks the player into a choice made in the span of a given checkpoint.
This mentality is continued in the chapter to chapter progression as well. At the end of each chapter, the slate is wiped clean. No matter the state of the player’s upgrades or ships, changing chapters results in a new fleet, new upgrades available, and a new pool of starting resources, rather than carrying over from the last chapter. From a design standpoint, this is an excellent move, as it ensures that the player cannot be locked into a no-win state at the start of a chapter, no matter how narrowly they finished the last one. The developer knows exactly what resources the player has at their disposal to start with, and can design the challenges accordingly. From a narrative standpoint, this decision makes sense as well, as each chapter is centred around a different planet, implying that the fleet present for that chapter is comprised of the ships immediately able to respond, rather than those which flew there. This communicates a sensation of urgency and makes the alien threat feel more organised.
Unfortunately, from the standpoint of the player, it is also incredibly limiting. If the player has done a fantastic job in the previous chapter, their upgraded ships, which feel like they could take on the whole alien race if needed, are left behind. Instead of rewarding excellence in a chapter with long-term gain, Xenoraid errs on the safe side with this modular design. To work against the potential for the player feeling cheated, the opening missions of each chapter go above and beyond to feel as though they are tailored to the player’s starting loadout. This is particularly prominent in the second chapter, where the player is first given access to bulkier ships, one of which possesses a flamethrower with a damage-over-time feature.
In response, the game presents a new, heavier type of enemy ship with more health and a more damaging attack. This ship is particularly susceptible to the flamethrower due to the larger size. This makes it easier to catch in the flamethrower’s arc, and the increased durability of the ship gives the DOT of the flamethrower an opportunity to shine, as the player can watch the ship burn (another instance of the function-over-form art direction) while they turn their attention on other ships. Similarly, the increased firepower of these enemy ships isn’t communicated by way of a larger bolt, which would be harder for the player’s bulky, less agile ships to dodge, but by projectiles which are identical to the basic spherical projectile of the enemy ship, but feature two spheres connected, telegraphing that the shot does twice as much damage. By these simple things, Xenoraid recognises that the player may feel robbed, and in the first instance where this feeling would come about, resolves it before it has a chance to fester, encouraging the player to look for more nuanced counter-play in later missions and chapters, rather than feeling disheartened.
Xenoraid‘s audio is perhaps the game’s weakest point, it doesn’t really make an impression on you. It performs the job of creating ambience and not distracting the player but isn’t remarkable. Audio cues for enemies are spot on but can be overwhelming when there are many enemies on the screen, particularly when combined with the player’s own sound effects, such as the firing of the chaingun. The player’s sounds are immersive, and there are little touches like the wind-up of weapons which have it, or the buzz of the missile which creates an electromagnetic pulse, which show an attention to detail that, unfortunately, gets lost in the bedlam of a pitched dogfight.
Xenoraid is a fast-paced bullet-hell set in space. It takes modern game-design to a genre which was previously used to farm quarters in arcades and does so with a polish and attention to detail that allows it to stand head and shoulders above competitors. The variety of ships replaces the standard “Fly over power-ups” formula other games in the genre use. Xenoraid takes full advantage of the gameplay element this feature creates, though the lack of health pickups mid-mission is apparent. This becomes even more obvious as the game progresses and more resources are spent on repairing ships between missions than on buying upgrades. Still, this focus on avoiding hits, rather than enduring them, creates an atmosphere of frantic gameplay, and the foresight of the developer actively attempts to diffuse frustrating situations created by the design decisions.
The game has little replayability, on account of all the missions being pre-generated and self-contained, as well as an odd limitation. Players who have completed a level or checkpoint cannot go back and replay levels at their leisure, and must instead restart an entire chapter and play through it in linear order again. This makes practising against specific obstacles or difficult enemies much more tedious but is only a minor flaw outside of further crippling replayability. The game does feature local co-operative play in both the campaign and survival modes, but this feature was unable to be tested. It appears, however, that up to four players can participate at once, utilising multiple controllers, which could greatly extend the length of enjoyable playtime. The survival mode, in and of itself, comes in four difficulties, each of which assigns a player a pool of starting resources and ships, which can be tweaked and tailored, but, as a result, lacks the sensation of a finely-tuned experience that the campaign offers. For $9.99 USD, it would be difficult to find a better game.