XEL pronounced Excel, yes like the spreadsheet application, is a forced isometric perspective adventure with Metroidvania type elements. At least in terms of certain areas being inaccessible at the outset. To begin with you can’t hit anything. So you get a sword. And then you can’t open gates until you get a neat electric trip mine. Or you can’t make health items from items you get off enemies until you meet the NPC that sounds like Yoda who’ll sell you the recipes. We’ll go with Xel for the rest of this review though, ta.
There’s something loveably janky about Xel. It starts when you get the first cutscene and your player character; a purple haired lass called Reid with a jewel in her forehead; starts chattering away. The lipsync is way off and you begin to wonder what language would match it. The Hamburg based-dev Tiny Roar give a hint that German is the right option for the audio. Even then it’s slightly off but it’s better than the English audio track.
Oddly, you can’t select English subs with German audio, it’s one or the other. A bit of a weird oversight if you ask us as it’d be nice if you could enjoy the occasional cutscenes with a little help from the subtitles too. A little later on we found a log that we could stand on. Not for too long though or we’d fall through the scenery. Game over. Or if we walked from one area to another a little quickly and the game didn’t catch up, we’d fall through the scenery. Game over. You get the picture.
Another example was the section where we went looking for a chest but got locked in due to the weirdly sketchy gaps in walls that didn’t let us throw through an electro-mine to trigger the switch and escape. It was only by sheer luck that we got out due to an errant throw. Then there’s the pop-up of textures as you’re literally within yards of them. Or reloading from a save and the engine not rendering properly.
There’s quite a few rough edges here with the framerate often dipping into single figures, even on a PS5. Load times from save are glacial too. The game code is spectacularly unoptimized. We’re not sure whether the PS4 port was done in-house or by publishing partner Assemble Entertainment. Xel originally came out on PC this time last year so it isn’t like a reasonable amount of time has passed since. Graphically you’d be forgiven for thinking this could’ve released on PS3 and not looked out of place if we’re honest.
Yet despite everything, we felt compelled to play a decent chunk of Xel before beginning to pen this review. There’s a certain charm to the earnest delivery of Reid finding her way round the titular arcology floating in space. The po-faced guy Desmond is as dull an NPC as you’d ever meet and the regular shoehorning of crap memes into the dialogue gets old quick. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But still we played. Admittedly feeling a bit under the weather and actually falling asleep during our first extended session with the game wasn’t a great sign, but hey. Returrn to Xel we did.
Signposting is pretty woeful and you’ll often find yourself running in circles with no particular idea as to where to go next. Experimentation and hoping you don’t glitch out due to a bug are as much part of the equation. As you get a better idea of where to go, you’ll stop getting less lost than at the outset. Still the jankiness prevails. It says a lot that this stopped us playing Dicey Dungeons for any time at all. There’s something to Xel that transcends its obvious flaws and shoddy implementation.
As you’re beginning to gather, we’re struggling to put into words why we’re still playing Xel. It might be a bit of a mess but this is our sort of lemon. Though let’s be honest, even if the technical issues were ironed out Xel would still be a mess. But a glorious one. We got a similar feeling to when we played Retromachina two years ago in terms of the abandoned settlements inhabited by hostile robots and the bleak desolation of it all.
The wrinkle here is you have a time travel mechanic of sorts, brought on by the crystal in your forehead. It makes sense in context, trust us. It’s generally well done, even though if we’re not entirely sure we’re necessarily meant to get to some of the areas due to the otherwise glitchy nature. As you proceed, you’ll find various areas that are inaccessible in the current timeline but with a prompt to tap , you can access them. Often there’s also enemies lurking to hit you in the alternate timeline too, so you need to tread carefully.
A little while into the story you’ll unlock the ability to upgrade your weapons. Crucially the missing components, outside those dropped by defeated enemies, are only found in chests, usually gated by the tools you don’t yet have access to. A bit annoying but backtracking becomes all the more essential if you want to upgrade your toolbox. Annoyingly, one mulligan that gains you access to a new area immediately becomes unavailable for future use so you’re reduced to the same old hunting for keys nonsense.
What we found intriguing about Xel is that it largely succeeds in providing you with a reduced toolset and upgrading your existing tools rather than abandoning them altogether in the manner of say, Titanfall 2. Amazing though that is. Though the less said about the trophy for completing the game without any upgrades the better. We’ll pass, thanks.
It might be you unlock a fast travel option at some point after the eight or so hours we’ve put in, running through areas you’ve previously cleared only to find them repopulated never gets old. Or missing on a parry when you’re limping back to base to get your health back up, only to see the game over screen once again. We live for that. You’re also asked to run back to home base a fair few times, past lots of hostiles. Yup. Good times for all.
Tellingly the default option is to quit when that happens, we fear many will have and never returned, especially those fickle Steam gamers. We’re a bit baffled by the warning saying ‘unsaved data will be lost’, especially given you’re bounced back to your last save anyway.
Talking of saves, every time you get the opportunity to do so, take it. You never know when a glitch will take you unawares or if you’ll run into a tough enemy. It’s the same old retreading the same ground over and again story.
In conclusion, despite the general bugginess, sketchy performance and an otherwise terrible PS port, we found ourselves liking Xel irrespective of what a mess it is. See, it’s not just PC owners that get terrible ports like The Last of Us or Jedi Survivor, we get them on PlayStation too. We should feel special sometimes too, after all, why else did we buy consoles instead if not to avoid this sort of thing. Only a special lemon like Xel makes it through and somehow remains fun despite everything conspiring against it.
+ When it comes to gadgets, sometimes less is indeed more
+ Generally well thought out weapons and environmental puzzles
+ The best sort of lemony goodness
- Graphically unsophisticated
- Language options are weirdly implemented, no option for different subs to speech
- Buggy almost to a fault and chock full of old meme references