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Review: Xenocider

Full disclosure: The Dreamcast Junkyard has been reporting on the development of Xenocider pretty much since we learned of its existence, and prior to that we reported on Retro Sumus' previous foray into indie dev, Ameba. Over the years we have built up something of a friendship with Carlos Oliveros and the development team working on Xenocider. However, in the interests of transparency and 'ethics in games journalism,' we will not be giving Xenocider a free pass. This review will be conducted with the same unbiased cantankerousness as you've come to expect here at the Junkyard. With that out of the way, on with the review!

Retro Sumus first appeared on our collective radar way back in November 2014, when the Spain-based indie developer announced a visual novel starring a down at heel detective trying to solve a mysterious, supernatural murder. That game was Ameba, and since it was first introduced to the community it has been put on the back burner. Not because of any kind of internal turmoil, development hell or the game quietly becoming vapourware; but because Retro Sumus turned their attention to another project that was initially going to play second fiddle to Ameba. That side project appeared to hold more appeal to the development team and as they pivoted away from Ameba, the projects switched places with the former going into hibernation and Xenocider - the other game - stepping into the limelight.

Now, almost 7 years later, and after a number of huge revisions and an entire lore being created, Xenocider has finally landed on the Dreamcast. A bespoke, independently developed title, created and sculpted for the best part of a decade to run exclusively on Dreamcast hardware and utilising a game engine built from the ground up. You really couldn't make this up. And now, at long last - and much to the relief of the long-suffering dev team, no doubt - Xenocider is finished. It's real, it exists, it is playable on an actual Dreamcast...and by jove it's glorious.

As my learned colleague Mike Phelan alluded to in his comprehensive Arcade Racing Legends review, it would be quite easy for us Dreamcast fanatics to frothingly praise any and every new game to hit the console as a marvel, a wondrous and near perfect experience, simply by virtue of it being a game released for the Dreamcast. To proclaim everything as amazing, awesome, fantastic (or to use any number of other equally meaningless superlative descriptions) is far too easy these days; to turn a blind eye to a game's shortcoming and to give it a free pass simply 'because it's on Dreamcast.' I am all too aware of this trap, and I refuse to fall down into it. I am a hard man to please and I don't believe in sycophantically announcing every new Dreamcast game as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

With this in mind however, I'm quite confident in saying that Xenocider, for all its faults - which we'll cover later - still manages to elevate itself to the upper echelons of the Dreamcast indie library and sit proudly up there alongside stuff like Xeno Crisis, Alice Dreams Tournament, Leona's Tricky Adventures, Wind & Water Puzzle Battles and Sturmwind. That's because this is a game crafted with obvious love and devotion not only to the Dreamcast, but also with a devilish wink and a nod to other games it clearly takes inspiration from; simultaneously offering a refreshingly original take on the sci-fi shooter genre while presenting the discerning Dreamcast gamer with a hoard of gameplay modes, and as many extra bells and whistles as you'd normally expect to find in a current gen title.

Before we get to the game itself, it's worth mentioning the love and care that has clearly gone into creating the whole Xenocider package. From the excellent bespoke cover art drawn by DC Comics' Agustin Padilla, to the quality of the printed booklet and covers, to the artwork on the game disc itself (and on the bonus music CD if you have the two-disc special edition), everything about Xenocider's physical appearance exudes an air of professional attention to detail that is fantastic to see in an independently developed Dreamcast game; and like the JoshProd, Bitmap Bureau, Yuan Works and Duranik titles which came before it, the faux NTSC or PAL styling of the boxes means Xenocider will slot nicely in alongside its contemporaries on any discerning Dreamcast owner's shelf of indies.

So what of the actual game then? Well Xenocider is essentially an 'into the screen' run and gun shooter much in the style of retro favourites such as Space Harrier and Sin & Punishment. I'm not remiss to use those two titles as comparisons as Retro Sumus themselves have often cited those games as inspirations for Xenocider. Here though, you take on the role of Xara, a cybernetic Oppenheimer - quite literally a destroyer of worlds - who must planet hop through the star system, wiping out all lifeforms in her wake before eliminating an end of level boss...and ultimately the very planet itself. Pretty hairy stuff, we're sure you'll agree, and it's upon learning the main objective of the game that the title starts to make more sense. Furthermore, to reveal quite why all this death-bringing is going on would be to reveal spoilers...so we'll say no more.


You achieve this slightly dubious and blood-soaked (slime-soaked?) task by choosing a planet to assault, and one of two alternate paths to the end of level guardian via Xara's ship's navigation console, and then you are thrust planet side (or beneath the waves or into a cave system, depending on the planet) to start murdering flora and fauna with extreme prejudice. Similar to the aforementioned Space Harrier, Xara then proceeds to run, hoverboard or swim toward her goal automatically and you are given control over her primary weapons reticle using the analogue stick and her ability to move left and right on various 'lanes' using the Dreamcast controller's triggers.

 

In some ways, this makes Xenocider a sort of 'on rails' shooter, where you have to dodge incoming projectiles fired by the planet's various indigenous lifeforms; or natural hazards in the form of lava pits, fallen rocks or chasms. In the case of the environmental hazards, you are also afforded the ability to hover for a short period, and so leaping over stuff as opposed to going around it is always an option. But it is this lane based gameplay that differentiates Xenocider from its influences (certainly in the main game mode, anyway), and adding in extra weapon abilities via a couple of floating assistance drones (known as Xenopods) that can be equipped with extra blasters, nukes or a shield further instils a sense of originality.

Retro Sumus must be applauded for adding a fairly intuitive interactive tutorial stage at the start of the game, which does a great job of explaining the controls and the various Xenopod power ups at your disposal through the rest of the adventure. That said, it is fairly straight forward once you get a few stages under your belt; dodging and blasting enemies, collecting bonuses and marvelling at the variety of the worlds and the staggering creativity on display in the design not only of the rank and file enemies, but also the fantastic boss characters. From giant crabs that have sunken galleons for a shell, to floating Egyptian pharaoh...things...the boss fights show off Retro Sumus' creative - and often batshit crazy - flair.

That said, Xenocider is not a game you should expect to literally fly through on your first attempt...even though you are quite literally flying most of the time. Not only is there an absolute glut of content and extra modes (more on those shortly), but Xenocider is tough as old boots, so expect to become well acquainted with the 'mission failed' screen in the first few hours of play. Your reward though, should you manage to tough it out, is well worth the wait.

See, Retro Sumus have gone all out with Xenocider's unlockables and bonus stages. Do well during the run through the preceding stage and you'll be treated to a space-based 3D shoot 'em up bonus stage which is very reminiscent of stuff like Soul Star. Furthermore, the developers have shoehorned in a whole host of unlockable achievements which in turn open up a whole host of extra modes including a full on polygonal recreation of Space Harrier complete with multiple stages mimicking the Sega original's aesthetic; and a Resogun-esue retro shooter that delights and frustrates in equal measure. It's really, really incredible how much stuff is hidden away within Xenocider and to reveal everything here would spoil the surprise. Rest assured, Xenocider is worth the price of entry for these extras alone, let alone the excellent main game. Seriously, these extras could probably form the basis of individual games in their own right.

But there's more gushing to come, I'm afraid. Xenocider is literally one of the most impressive Dreamcast indie titles I've ever seen in terms of presentation and visuals. Not only is the game fully polygonal and running on a bespoke engine (known as Dreamer) created specifically by Retro Sumus for the Dreamcast hardware, but everything runs at a consistent 60 frames per second. It doesn't slow down, ever, even when the screen is full of enemies and the diversity in environments and enemy types is just outstanding. The Dreamer framework was actually created by renowned Dreamcast programming royalty Chui, who is the same wizard behind the Neo4all Neo-Geo emulator for Dreamcast, as well as countless other games and emulator projects for the system.

Elsewhere, the menu screens and transitions between them are flawlessly stitched together, with video segments and loading times that put my Xbox Series X to shame. It's hard to believe this is an indie game developed by a small team in their spare time, and not a mainstream title developed by Acclaim or Ubisoft or even Sega themselves. It's really quite something. But that's not all - even the music is awesome, perfectly suited to the action, and never feels out of place or annoying. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you do purchase that special edition with the additional music CD, you won't be disappointed with what musician Juanjo Martin has achieved; some of these tunes are absolute bangers - from the main theme to the bonus stages to the boss battles Xenocider is an aural pleasure for the eardrums. Is 'ear candy' a term people use? If it isn't, I'm certainly using it in this instance. Turn it up folks, turn it up loud.

So yes. After all of that you could say that I am a fan of Xenocider. It's almost a complete box ticking exercise of how to create an indie game. Bespoke engine - check. Awesome visuals and presentation - check. Multiple unlockable bonuses - check. I suppose the only real areas that I could find fault are that this type of game will not appeal to everyone, as these types of into the screen shooters are very much a 'love it or hate it' type of experience. But then, that isn't really a negative on the part of Xenocider. 

If I had to really try hard to find any kind of criticisms, they would be that sometimes the game can feel extremely difficult and some of the boss encounters do seem unfairly weighted against you, meaning the controller can be in danger of being flung at the nearest wall as you die for the 8th time and have to restart a stage. And as a sort of addendum to that, this unfairness can bleed over to the stages in general, when you are being absolutely swamped with enemies and it can actually be quite impossible to avoid being hit simply because there's so much stuff going on, so many enemies and so many hazards all around. Also, the default aiming reticle speed is way too slow, so you'll need to turn that speed up to be in with a chance of getting anywhere. Finally, (shock horror!) Xenocider joins that small and exclusive cabal of Dreamcast titles that aren't compatible with the official 4x memory card. Tsk.

Joking aside, these are minor gripes in the face of such an impressive achievement. What Retro Sumus have accomplished with Xenocider is nothing short of incredible. It may have been almost a decade in the making, but the polish that has been lavished upon this game is clear to see from the very first splash screen to the final credits. There just so much to see and do, so many little touches that will make you smile. And while you may not be smiling the whole time as you die, die and die again...it won't be long before you are once again reminded that this is a new Dreamcast game in 2021. One that gets so, so much right in other areas. That's enough to put the smile back in itself. 

Indeed, if the recent Xeno Crisis showed just how high the bar can be set for modern indie titles on the Dreamcast, then Xenocider stands proudly alongside it and holds the bar with an extra pair of cybernetic, murderous hands. Absolutely stonking stuff.

If you'd like to acquire a copy of Xenocider for yourself, be sure to head over to the Retro Sumus website. And if you already have the game in your possession, tell us what you think in the comments below.

7 comments:

Lewis Cox said...

Great review. Got my DVD box copy on the way!

DCGX said...

Not compatible with the 4X Memory Card? NO!

Ah well, I'm still excited to get my copy. It definitely seems like both the devs and the game delivered.

Did you try the game with the Twin Stick?

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks @Lewis

@DCGX no I didn't play with the Twin Stick as (oddly) I gave it to Bitmap Bureau to add compatibility to Xeno Crisis. I understand that Xenocider is fully compatible with the Twin Stick though, would like to know how it plays when more people have it in their hands.

Retro Faith said...

I will test with the twin stick once my copy arrives

SegaSen said...

I ordered one based on your recommendation. I felt a bit disappointed after Arcade Racing Legends.

Tom Charnock said...

@Retro Faith - let us know how it is (sure you'll do a video on it!)

@SegaSen - yes a few people were left a little underwhelmed by that title, including our own Mike Phelan. Haven't played the final release myself though so I can't really comment!

mazonemayu said...

Stunning, a work of love...and that music...I couldn’t help but smile when I heard “ Get ready!!!”