I have to say, Xenon Valkyrie rather caught me by surprise. In my seemingly unending quest to find more good games with roguelike elements and procedural hilarity, I was surprised to see what at first glance appeared to be something like a sci-fi version of Spelunky.
DEVELOPER: Diabolical Mind
PUBLISHER: Diabolical Mind
GENRE: Roguelite Platformer
RELEASE DATE: 3rd of February, 2017
… which isn’t an inaccurate description, really. However, while Xenon Valkyrie clearly takes some ideas from Spelunky, it runs off with them in a totally different direction, putting its own spin on things… even if that spin has a tendency to glitch into a wall every now and then.
Firstly, let’s get one of the game’s most striking aspects out of the way: the graphics and audio. Normally, I tend not to focus too much on graphics whatsoever, particularly when reviewing games. After all, as far as I’m concerned gameplay is by far the most important aspect of any game… not the look or sound of it. But every now and then there’s one that really stands out to me in terms of its visual or audio aspects, and this is one of those games. Frankly, Xenon Valkyrie is absolutely gorgeous. The screenshots don’t even come close to doing this one justice. I love the unique appearance and atmosphere of each area, the otherworldly feel that each different zone has, the massive bosses, and the incredible amount of obvious time and effort that went into making all of the painstakingly detailed pixel art showcased throughout the game. In addition though, the music is also absolutely fantastic… I’d love to get the soundtrack to this one, which isn’t something I say very often. Xenon Valkyrie very much delivers in the visual and audio categories, I can say that much. With that out of the way though, how does the actual gameplay fare?
At its core, Xenon Valkyrie really can be described as being like Spelunky in many ways, from the overall structure and progression of the levels, to the mechanics and general feel of the combat. Like in Spelunky, your character is small… only about the size of a single block/tile… and so are the vast majority of your enemies, meaning that the game can fit quite a ton of stuff into your view at once. Also like Spelunky, the levels are traversed in a top-down fashion. You start each stage at the very top of the map, and must make your way downward to the teleporter below, in order to reach the next area. And finally, even the combat is Spelunky-ish in the way it works. Your small character has an equally-small melee weapon to use as a main attack, and that very short range means that much of the time combat will tend to be oddly careful, as positioning is everything in this game. One thing that always got me about Spelunky is that enemies often managed to be very difficult to deal with, yet if you really examined them, their patterns were often extremely simple. That is the case here as well: enemies with seemingly simple patterns that nevertheless manage to be a huge thorn in your side. Overall, so far this really is shaping up to be very much like the game that it seems to take inspiration from.
However, all of those things really just form the base of the game. Where Xenon Valkyrie differs is in where it goes with that base, and in the quirks that it throws into the mix. Unlike Spelunky, this is a game with relatively slow pace to it overall. This isn’t a game designed for speedruns…. a single level can take some time, and there isn’t any actual time limit. You simply need to reach the teleporter. However, your enemies are EVERYWHERE. And instead of just dashing past them, you’re heavily encouraged to actually engage in combat with them, an aspect of the game I greatly enjoy. You have stats in this game that drive your character, and in order to stay strong enough to handle the many challenges the game flings at you, you need to gain experience and level up through combat. This gives you much incentive to explore the levels and actually fight things, rather than just charge past everything like some sort of rampaging moose. What’s more, combat is a little tougher here. Firstly, you cannot simply stomp onto enemies like you can in Spelunky. You also cannot simply obliterate them with a single swat of your weapon. Each enemy has HP of its own, so you’ll need to whittle that down in order to defeat them… much of the time there are no quick kills here. While you do not have the ability to Goomba-stomp things, one big advantage you do have is your gun, a weapon with incredible range yet limited ammo. Yet you will probably use this sparingly… it’s actually fairly tough to use as a price for the power it offers, and using it incorrectly will either just get you killed, or cause you to run out of ammo in those moments when you really need it. Recognizing when and where to use each of these two main weapons is a very important part of the game as a whole, since it focuses so highly on combat.
Of course, simply chopping or shooting things isn’t all you’ve got going for you. Each of the game’s three characters also brings their own unique third tool to the field, giving them specific advantages. One has a time bomb for digging through terrain (yes, terrain is destructible), the other has a funky radar for finding the all-important treasure boxes, and the other has a sort of super-jump thing. You also have limited grenades (very limited) to help you in emergencies. And you have one other very important tool: the wall jump. If you remember things like the old Megaman X games, it works a lot like that, functioning as a way to allow you to scale nearly any vertical surface. With this, you can deal with all sorts of complicated level layouts, which the level generator will repeatedly throw at you. And of course your character will be constantly growing stronger, increasing in stats through level-ups by spending your experience in the between-level rest areas, finding powerups, and even finding new melee weapons and guns. You’ve got quite a lot going for you, and it’s all done in a way that’s fun to use and very easy to understand right away… there’s nothing complicated at all about the absolute basics of gameplay, and the controls are very tight and well-done.
And that’s a good thing, too, because this game won’t hesitate to beat you over the head with your own face. This is one of those games that’s not at all afraid to boot you right back to the title screen quickly, with punishing and sometimes frustrating deaths (this is using permadeath mechanics, of course… occasional frustration is a given). Your enemies are many, as are the various environmental hazards that you’ll have to deal with at the same time (oh yes, the spikes are here too, by the way, though they don’t kill quite as fast as they do in Spelunky). And then there’s the bosses… massive, screen-filling monstrosities with complicated attack patterns, each requiring a different tactic to defeat. One of my favorite things about the game, actually, is the enemy and boss design. They just plain WORK, within the context of the gameplay mechanics, level structures, and everything else. Enemy pattern design is very hard to do well… this is something I can say from experience. So I’m very impressed when I see a game that does this aspect so well. Basic enemies have a lot of different abilities and attributes that they can use to make your existence short, and one thing the game does very, very well is introducing you to these different abilities. Your enemies effectively evolve over time, with new zones containing enemies that use already-introduced concepts and building upon them. For example, a particular enemy that appears in the very first zone teaches you that, yes, some enemies can explode upon death. It does this in a way that is non-frustrating, as while this enemy is dangerous, its movement pattern is incredibly simple, and working out how to defeat it without getting a nuke up your nose isn’t too tough. In the next zone though, the game will start using that concept much more aggressively, introducing a jumping horror of a monster that leaps around like a madman before violently detonating in your face, if you’re not careful. Even that leaping motion, though, is already introduced to you before that, as an enemy in the previous area uses a slower version of that motion, showing it off to the player and giving a chance to get a feel for that type of movement, and giving some time for you to come up with ways to deal with it before that bouncing nightmare shows up. This trend keeps up throughout the game, and I never found any of the new enemies to ever feel unfair or entirely unexpected… they simply built upon concepts that I’d gotten to know by then, increasing the challenge smoothly. Not that they don’t still have their own surprises, mind you… such as the point when one of the spikes on the ground actually got up and shot at me, that was a rather startling moment. In an overall sense though, despite the game’s brutal difficulty, this aspect of it keeps things feeling fair throughout. It’s the same with the bosses: the design of each is not only unique but very well done, and with enough skill you can work out just how to overcome each one, despite how difficult they may seem.
So, overall… the gameplay of Xenon Valkyrie is challenging, fun, and satisfying. Unfortunately, with all of the good things it does, it also throws in some aspects that aren’t so good. There are some moments in the game where I’d see something, and think to myself… “Why is it like that?” or perhaps “How did that get through testing without some sort of change or fix?” For example, as I mentioned the levels in the game progress in a very Spelunky-ish fashion, taking you from the top to the bottom where the exit is. Much like in Spelunky, this means you’re sometimes going to have to drop quite some distance… but unlike Spelunky, there is no way to glance downwards, to see what might be below you. Considering that what is below you is often A: spikes or B: monsters, this can be more than a bit of a problem. There is a radar that can help you, showing you not just the position of the monsters, but the actual structure of the level, but it only helps so much… you’re still going to have quite a few moments of having to do almost a leap of faith. Of course, you can mitigate that somewhat by doing some strategic digging with your time bomb… but wait, only one character even gets that ability. The other two cannot do this, and this ends up being a pretty large problem for them both, greatly restricting what they can do, where they can go, and making some of those leap-of-faith sections not really having much of a solution. Since they’ll have a much harder time getting to certain areas (if they can get to them at all) they’ll inevitably find it harder to collect money, get EXP, and find the all-important treasure chests, the only source of new weapons in the game.
Yes, there is a shop you can buy stuff from… but they don’t sell weapons or “power items” there. You can buy things like more ammo, more shields, healing… things like that. Shops in this game COULD be interesting… there are a variety of special items to find… but they only sell the basics. And even when you do have those special items, well… good luck figuring out what they do, because the game isn’t going to tell you. Many seem very cryptic: at one point I got what I could swear was a small worm with a pirate hat, and… yeah, I had no clue at all as to what it did. There are also some bugs, which I ran into a lot more often than I would have thought. Hitboxes can get a little wonky, larger monsters can get caught in ledges, the sound might go all weird, plenty of different things can go wrong here, which is definitely unfortunate. The good thing is that the developer clearly cares about the game, and has been making constant strides since release to improve it. However, that some of the game’s issues made it to launch in the first place is something I find rather odd. Though, the worst of all is also the strangest of all: The absolute and total lack of a pause function. That’s right, you cannot pause the game. If you need to step away for a bit, you’ll have to park yourself in one of the safe zones between each level. That’s a definite problem, and I can’t imagine why in the world such a function isn’t there, particularly considering the length of the game as a whole.
If that sounds like quite a bunch of issues, well… that’s because it IS quite a bunch of issues. The game is unfortunately held back a bit by the strange problems that plague it. Now, again, the developer seems to actually be genuinely interested in doing what they can to deal with the game’s issues… I’ve so far found them very responsive to reports from users, and have seen quite a few of the problems that were there at launch fixed as of this review. But many issues yet remain, and this is something that you need to keep in mind when deciding if you are going to give this game a go. Which also means that they do affect my rating of the game here a bit. If it didn’t have as many issues as it does, I’d be rating it one rank higher than I am. However, I can tell you this: the issues the game has do not kill the fun, challenge, or excitement of playing it. If you are the sort of player that’s willing to deal with the sorts of problems here, if you can handle some imbalances, bugs, and oddities without getting too bothered, then in that case, I can very much recommend Xenon Valkyrie. I have greatly enjoyed my time with the game so far, and there is still much in it that I haven’t done yet, and I intend on doing my best to accomplish all of it. And I think that many others out there looking for a good challenge would really enjoy this game too. The gameplay is fun, the challenge is high, the game is absolutely gorgeous and the music is incredible, and it’s all topped off by excellent enemy design and other things. The strange issues do mar the experience a bit, but if you think you can handle that… by all means, give Xenon Valkyrie a go. It may be rough around the edges, but there’s a real gem to be found here, and it’s likely to get better over time.
(click on the image to see the rating explanation)