Review: Xeno Crisis

It's hard to know whether even the most optimistic of us would of believed that, more than 15 years after it's inception, the Dreamcast Junkyard would still be reviewing new titles for the console which we all share a passion for. Yet here we are, in a year many of us believed we'd be living on the moon and driving flying cars, still hungering after more releases, and our appetites being sated with a steady supply of some of the finest Indie releases we've ever had. Our childhood fantasies of space-age dwellings and hoverboards, neon lit utopias and colonisation of other planets may not have been met - the steady diet of science fiction fueled expectations of our youth replaced instead with social media, disappointing Sega announcements and a global pandemic - but our consolation prize seems to be an incredibly healthy independent development scene, far removed from the 'yet another Shmup' days of old.
I can only imagine Bitmap Bureau grew up with the same dizzying expectations of our future. For them, the future was clearly 'out there', rather than 'stay at home', and in this new release for the Dreamcast, it seems mankind has indeed ventured away from our terrestrial origins, and made a life for ourselves amongst the stars. Of course, for every Utopian prediction that science-fiction gave us, there was a darker, grimmer dystopia waiting around the corner. For every Star Trek, there's an Aliens, after all. It's safe to say, that the universe that Bitmap Bureau believes mankind will inhabit may have just a touch of the latter - even the title of this new release hints at that. Xeno Crisis - not 'Xeno family picnic' you'll notice, paints a universe in which the Earth's best and brightest must deal with a threat of the extra-terrestrial kind. A distress call is received, and our guys at a research station seem to be dropping like flies due to a serious bit of unwanted alien violence. Step forward Commander Darius and his elite marines, our best hope at beating this off-world menace, now tasked with taking on whatever nasties the galaxy throws at them.


It's a classic sci-fi scenario, one we've probably heard many times before, but there's a reason for it's popularity - we all want to be the saviour of the planet against a horde of ugly, puss-ridden, vomit belching aliens, whilst shooting a completely infeasible amount of ammunition and shouting out Arnie-like quotes in a terrible Austrian accent. It's violent, it's action packed, it's all shouty, sweary and loud, and most of all, it's bloody good fun.
Bitmap Bureau promised to deliver this with Xeno Crisis during a highly successful kickstarter back in 2017, with plans to release the game on various consoles, both current gen and classic, and as well as bringing us glorious 80's action flick silliness, it was going to take a not-inconsiderate amount of inspiration from classic twin stick shooters of old as well. It felt like it was ticking all the right boxes, and now it's the Dreamcast's turn to experience the games delights after various other versions had their time to shine. The important question though, as always, is, well... is it any good?

You're damn right it is...

I want to be open and honest with you all first though. We at the DCJY don't get paid to write our reviews, we don't hype games up for no reason, and we certainly don't have a problem with calling out games when they don't live up to the expectations that we have. We're Dreamcast fans and gamers; always have been, and always will be. You won't find us posting crap just to get more likes on social media, or declaring to the world that we are the authority of all things Dreamcast related. We're a bunch of mates who chat a lot of crap, write some words occasionally, and like to take the piss a lot. But we're also honest. Some of the guys at Bitmap Bureau are friends with members of the DCJY, we get a shout out in the games credits, and our man Tom even supplied the developers with beloved Twin Sticks and a couple of Dreamcast consoles to help them out during development. But I paid for the copy of the game I'm reviewing here, and just like the rest of you, if I've paid for something, I want to it to be good. Rest assured, if I felt this game was terrible, regardless of how nice the developers are, or how much we respect the indie scene, or whatever, I'd be saying just that.
The thing is, I don't need to tell you the game is a disappointment, as Xeno Crisis surpasses even my most hopeful expectations. Playing it on the Dreamcast was my first experience of the game - although I've been tempted with the other versions, I knew this was incoming and I've got a set of twin stick controllers begging me to open them up and use them again. I knew broadly what to expect of course - a multi-directional arena shooter of the 'twin stick' variety (I'll use this term again, and whilst I know most reading this will know what I mean, for sake of clarity - you don't require 'twin sticks' to play the game at all), screens full of alien creatures and some screen sized boss fights.
Xeno Crisis has all that - it feels exactly like the sort of early 90's game that a brilliant, probably British, development team would have released (probably on the Amiga). Its 16-bit aesthetics perfectly fit the gameplay style, and whilst there will no doubt be those who will shout loudly about this being 'JuSt a MeGa DrIvE GaMe!' semi-coherently on social media, it's best to ignore those people, and revel in the retro glory the game delivers.
After a short, fully voiced, intro (very much in a 16-bit, static screen style - but positively overflowing with gloriously silly retro sci-fi video gaming tropes) you're presented with a few options and the ability to start the game. As one of the 'soft southerners' in the DCJY team, I'd obviously recommend setting it to 'easy' (and I'll go into just why a little later), but once you start the game up, it's mere moments before you're plunged right into the action, making your way through various rooms in the colony, and facing off all manner of ugly alien bastards. The first few levels start off nice and easy, of course, but to be honest you won't need much time at all to know exactly how to play the game. Like the very best shooters of any sub-genre, it's incredibly easy to pick up and play - but will take a considerable amount of time to master. I am getting ahead of myself slightly though, so let's take a bit of a look at various aspects of the game first, before I start waxing lyrical about the sublime gameplay (damn it, couldn't help myself).

Looks
The last few years has seen a torrent of 'retro styled' games; games that throw about '8-bit' or '16-bit' into their graphical descriptions at every opportunity, regardless of whether they really are or not. Xeno Crisis was released for the Mega Drive, amongst various other platforms, and so rather than being 'inspired' by the look of old games, this is an authentic 16-bit game visually. Gorgeous, beautiful pixels abound; limited colour palettes are used superbly, perfectly recreating the feel of an early 90's shooter. Sure, this isn't stretching the 128-bits of power of the console - but we're long past those days where pixel-art was seen as archaic, and Xeno Crisis does everything right in both giving us a nostalgic vision of gaming days of old, and a legitimately attractive retro-style title. I especially love the colours used in the game - it brings back memories of playing the Chaos Engine and Speedball 2 (not the only time I'll be mentioning the Bitmap Brothers back catalogue in this review); a distinctly British style of artwork that draws on 2000 AD style comic book aesthetics and a darker, edgier vision of the future.
It's also incredibly smooth. And I mean, really smooth. Southern gentlemanly voice smooth. There's zero slowdown (which, to be fair, is to be expected), enemy sprites scurry around the screen and are met by your barrage of sprite-based projectiles with zero issue. Sure, it's not a 3D spectacle or anything, but even compared to the various other 2D indie titles on the console, Xeno Crisis manages a frenetic pace at times without any technical issues getting in the way. Even the cut scenes and intro screens the game presents are well done, again evoking the era they take inspiration from perfectly without feeling inauthentic.

Sounds
If there's one area that the DC indie library excels in, it's in the audio department. We've been absolutely spoilt with the superb soundtracks that have been given to us - from Sturmwind to Hermes, Battle Crust to Neo XYX; the quality has always been exceptional. Xeno Crisis certainly has some lofty heights to reach if it wants to stand alongside these - but, once more, it does it superbly. I spoke about 'being authentic' in the visuals, and the audio here is exactly the same. If you've played any game involving aliens, guns or space marines in the 1990's, you know what to expect here. An electronic, bass heavy, rock infused soundtrack greets you, one part 80's action, one part science fiction epic, all parts glorious nostalgic fun. The perfect accompaniment to the action on screen, it never overwhelms, never gets in the way, but makes the game just that bit more exciting. In the manner of many 16-bit titles, the tracks are selectable from the options screen to listen to, which is a nice touch. It maybe doesn't quite match the very best it's Indie rivals achieve (I will sit here and talk about that Battle Crust soundtrack all night if I have to), but it's bloody good.
The fully voiced intro is accompanied in game by various voice samples, and again these fit the style of the game perfectly. 'Look at the size of that thing' or 'This doesn't look good' are two examples of the sort of short voiced elements you'll hear - and you know what, that's exactly what you were expecting to hear when you started playing, and you know it. Credit goes again to Bitmap Bureau for knowing exactly what to put into the game to make it feel so authentic. The sound effects in the game are equally well placed, and the full scope of audio output that the game has all melts into one coherent and listenable package, never jarring, perfectly nostalgic. It yet again brings to mind of one of the most beloved British gaming developers of the 90's, reaching the same sort of levels of audio brilliance that The Bitmap Brothers managed to deliver in their dark and dirty future view of the world. (for the record, Bitmap Bureau and Bitmap Brothers aren't connected as far as I know, although the latter clearly had some element of inspiration on the former - but then, name me a British developer who wasn't inspired by them)

Gameplay
The aesthetics of a game can only get you so far. A game can wow you for a while, but soon enough even the greatest visuals or most foot-tapping soundtrack will feel hollow if the gameplay underneath isn't strong enough. It's a good job then, that Xeno Crisis excels in this area more than any other. Anyone who has ever experienced this type of game before will know exactly what to expect, but for those who haven't, I'll try and explain. You control your well-armed character with the D-pad or stick, whilst independently controlling the direction of fire using the face buttons. You have full 8-way directional control (by utilising two face buttons at once), and have the added abilities to roll and toss a grenade at the enemy scourge. You have a melee attack if you run out of ammo (and you will), but it's the multi-directional shooting which is very much the heart of the game. You enter the games 7 areas and make your way through the various rooms, facing increasingly difficult and abundant enemies, rescuing hostages, finding new weapons and generally, kicking a lot of arse.
It's not an exaggeration when I say that the game just feels right. It's an instantly pleasant gaming experience, especially for those who have played this sort of game before, and you always feel fully in control. Sure, the sheer number of enemies become overwhelming at a rather rapid pace, but that's part of the charm of this style of game. Using the face buttons on the pad feels natural (although using the twin sticks elevates the game to the next level - see the next section for my thoughts on that), the range of weapons you can pick up have all the usual suspects (shotgun, flamethrower, rocket launcher) and are all implemented really well, and there's just the right amount of power ups scattered about as well. You can 'level up' your character between levels to give greater damage, speed or health stats, amongst others, which is a nice touch, and buying these is dependent on collecting dog tags throughout the levels. You can also select a female or male character to start the game with in single player mode (named Sarah Ridley and John Marsh, respectively), each having slightly different starting stats.
In-game, your enemies are numerous, varied and grotesque. Each has a different way of moving and attacking, which quickly makes you realise that a fairly large amount of strategy is needed to master the game. Defending a corner early on in the game against rampaging Xenoids may be possible, but get to the dunes and the Tremors-like burrowing worms that live there, and the same strategy is bound to result in a quick death. The frantic pace of the game may make forming a strategic approach difficult, but it'll soon become second nature to start planning your attack patterns based on previous run through's, and is another sign of just how 'pure' the gameplay of the game is. Ammo is depleted quite quickly, so getting to the ammo crates in game forms another layer of strategy, usually resulting in you having to melee your way through a few nasties first. There's not a massive amount of superfluous gimmicks here - it's run, roll, evade, shoot. Simple to play - tough to master. The very best games get this perfected, and Xeno Crisis manages a very worthy example of how to elevate gameplay above all else. You do get to rescue some hostages for points, the names of which are backers of the game - this is a nice, rather non-obtusive element of the game, and one which has meant several people have opened conversations with me saying 'Hey, are you that guy I keep saving in Xeno Crisis?'.
The boss battles will be familiar again to seasoned gamers, and these monstrosities will take a fairly large amount of abuse before you dispatch them to whatever hellish afterlife they will be delivered to. I had instant memories of Smash TV upon seeing some of these beasts, a game which clearly was an inspiration to the developers, and they do everything an end of level boss should do - test you, make you focus all the skills you've learned, and leave you with a sense of accomplishment upon beating them. The sheer size of them can make navigating around them slightly tricky on a few occasions, but overall, they're a sight to behold. When you walk into that room and are confronted by the boss on screen, there's a very real feeling of 'Oh shitballs, this is going to be a battle', and that's ultimately the exact feeling you want to have.
You have a relatively generous amount of health (shown on the screen and VMU, in a lovely little touch from the developers) to utilise through the game, and a number of continues to use as well, if score chasing and perfecting the level isn't your number one priority. In the games 2 player co-op mode, you can also revive your fallen comrade. Which brings me nicely to that element of the game - the 2 player mode. Arguably it's the best way to experience the game, teaming up with a comrade against this seemingly insurmountable enemy onslaught. Whilst I haven't played this mode as much as solo player - my co-op partner being my wife who isn't exactly the biggest fan of this type of game - it seems to play just as you'd expect it to, is enormous fun, and once lockdown is out of the way, may be a new favourite at gaming conventions.

Control
As discussed above, that the game plays so well is a credit to the developers - but it's also important to discuss just how great the game feels on various control inputs for the Dreamcast. Whether picking Arcade Stick, Ascii pad, the new StrikerDC pad or even the standard controller, the game is immensely playable, comfortable and enjoyable. The controls never get in the way of the gameplay - something which really hurts other titles - and you never feel like you're at a disadvantage depending on your choice of controller.
That being said - this game is spectacular with the Twin Sticks. Not just 'oh that's a bit of novelty fun', this is balls out, running round the garden waving your shirt over your head screaming in the rain fun. It's just an absolutely perfect fit, arguably the best way to use the sticks on the DC (I await the hate mail from Virtual On fans) and honestly, one of the most tactile, purely enjoyable experiences on the Dreamcast. That's a pretty massive thing to say, I know, and no doubt some will think it mere hyperbole. All I can say is - go get some Twin Sticks, pop on Xeno Crisis, and you'll know what I mean.

Enemies
A mention must go to the range of enemies on offer in the game. Drawing inspiration from a multitude of sources, you face off against running bipedal alien creatures, exploding blobs, ugly, scurrying little bastards, hateful spider-like abominations and evil looking demonic creations from the pits of hell. And that's just the normal beasties - the bosses display a similar level of diversity and gruesome, butt-ugly nightmare fuel.
I was really impressed by the diversity of enemies on offer, subtle hints at gaming inspirations, and the very varied way each character attacks. It feels like you're in the midst of some strange, otherworldly alien invasion, and makes the world just that little bit more believable. Obviously, only if that believable world is some sort of demonic house party you wish you weren't invited to - but the way 2020 is going so far, who knows, this may be a rather unfortunate glimpse into our future (and in case it is.. I want to be the first to say that I, for one, welcome our new hellspawn overlords...).

Depth and Difficulty
The game consists of 7 areas, each split into various rooms and ending with a boss fight. Whilst this isn't the longest game you can experience on the Dreamcast, it's pretty standard for this type of game, and just about finds the balance between keeping things fun and being a bit of a slog. Of course, I've not finished the game yet, as I'm just terrible really, but the more skilled players will no doubt be able to complete the game fairly easily - at least, if they select the 'easy' difficulty.
Stick to the default hard mode, and even the most agile and nimble fingered of you out there will have their work cut out. I managed to get to the area 3 boss on my first run through on easy mode, which is about right really, but found the hard mode punishing. Is that a complaint? Nope. I don't expect to finish every game I play, and I know there are plenty out there who will be able to and will love the challenge offered to them. For those who don't like this challenge, there's no denying that the game - even in easy mode - can be very difficult at times. I don't just mean 'oh it's slightly hard' - I'm talking full on, sweat inducing, lump in the back of the throat forming, ball clenchingly tough as old boots hard. It is however, yet again, to the developers credit that the sheer joy of playing the game will inevitable lead to repeated attempts, and little frustration or boredom - at least for a good long while.

Packaging
It's always important to mention the packaging of these Indie titles I feel. Those of us who snap these releases up always feel like we want something a little special to hold in our hands (oo err). There are three variants of the game, corresponding to the three standard regions for DC titles. Each has it's own cover art and disc art, and are all very professionally done and look the part - the Japanese style one even coming with a spine card.
The manual itself is full colour, informative and genuinely useful. In fact, it's probably the best game manual I've seen for any platform for years. The game also came with some lovely art cards and stickers, although that may just be for the Kickstarter backers. That all being said, the standard CD case for the PAL variant is not quite as nice as the JoshPod full PAL-style packaging, but it still looks the part. It's highly professional, looks great and fits into the collection - what more could you ask for?

Closing thoughts
I expected a lot from Xeno Crisis. I knew the style of game was going to be fun, I anticipated the use of the twin sticks as a real bonus, I really dug the style and aesthetics the game looked to posses. But I always tempered that enthusiasm with realism. A 16-bit 'port', would it be able to hold it's own on the Dreamcast? The Indie market has grown up in the last few years - would this be enough?
The answer, of course, is yes. But more than that, it's seemingly made me realise something that I've missed in some recent titles. That, simply, is the pure joy a fun, well made game can bring you. It doesn't try and reinvent the wheel - it's not creating a new genre, or trying something so out there that it has to be called 'experimental' to get away with it. It just takes good, old fashioned fun gaming, gives it an aesthetic quality that us DC fans can appreciate, and never forgets that unless you're having fun, you're never really going to come back to it.
I'll be playing Xeno Crisis for some time, and I look forward to each and every re-entry into that damned colony and it's ugly denizens. Even though I know I'll probably die horribly, surrounded by those ugly alien bastards gloating at my downfall, even though I know I'll walk into a room eventually and just cry out 'Oh bollocks' as I see what faces me. Because it's fun. Bloody, silly, exciting fun. And that, really, is the greatest compliment I can pay any game. Indie Dreamcast developers - a new challenger has arrived in the arena, and it's here to show you how it's done.

So what do you think? Have you picked Xeno Crisis up for the Dreamcast? Tell us if you agree or disagree with our review in the comments or on Twitter. You can find out more about Xeno Crisis at the Bitmap Bureau website.

3 comments:

DCGX said...

I got my copy yesterday, and can't wait to try it with the Twin Stick.

Blondejon said...

now that was a review and and a half. I watched toms video and thought "aha chaos engine in space i bet Mike will like this" I was right, you do. I wonder if they took their name from the beloved bitmap brothers, the game certainly reminds me of their work. THis is on my xmas list, thanks again for a great review mate

DCGX said...

I posted my thoughts on Dreamcast Talk, but I do have a major gripe: how high scores are handled.

It's nice to have the high score and current score on screen as you play, but the lack of any sort of leaderboard almost defeats the purpose of the game, which is to go for high scores. That, and both difficulties go towards the same high score. So I set my high score on Easy, but since I haven't beaten that score when playing on Hard yet, I have no idea what my best score on Hard is unless I write it down somewhere.

It's a curious omission.