By this point, I think it’s fair to say the top-down space shooter genre has built up a well-respected reputation for itself as being the comfort food of the video game world.
Enter any arcade in the late 1980s or early 90s and there certainly wouldn’t have been any shortage of experiences like the newly released Xenoraid. That isn’t to say that Xenoraid is old-fashioned and not worth your time, though. Far from it.
In Xenoraid, you take on the role of the human resistance tasked with preventing a fleet of unwanted alien hordes from reaching planet Earth, only having your speed, wit and mechanised squad of spaceships to help you reach this goal. Not a wholly original premise for a sci-fi shooter, sure, but going into Xenoraid it becomes instantly apparent that for all intents and purposes the narrative takes a backseat, instead letting you sit back and enjoy the tight gameplay in all of its brilliant shoot ‘em up glory.
Xenoraid differs from other scrolling space shooter games in the sense that rather than asking you to take control of a single ship to defend waves of enemy fighters, you’re instead able to command a squad of four. You see, each of the controller’s face buttons represent a spacecraft in your squadron that you can call upon to take point whenever you feel necessary. This adds a nice layer of strategy and depth onto what would otherwise be quite a generic experience, and the choice is inspired to say the least.
Other space shooters, such as Galaga, Space Invaders and even Asteroids to a certain extent, may give you the means to avoid your enemy’s line of fire through the ability to rotate, swerve and manoeuvre, but Xenoraid actively removes your ability to do this. Instead, it encourages you to swap out your ships on the fly in order to successfully gain the strategic edge and dodge the ever-present asteroids and enemy blasts.
Got a stream of lasers that are uncomfortably close? Swap to the next fighter! Ship’s weapon not quite powerful enough to do the job? Swap to the next fighter! You get the idea. This subtle yet unique element of gameplay is something which helps Xenoraid really stand out from the pack, keeping the action fast-paced, enjoyable, and always put me on the edge of my seat.
Xenoraid has certain rogue-like elements in that progress carries over from mission to mission across each of the game’s five “battles”, or levels to put it in layman’s terms. Each of the five levels feature anywhere between five to ten individual missions which see your given squadron defend their base against the alien threat. Throw in a relatively straightforward but effective upgrade system and Xenoraid eventually starts to develop an addictive risk/reward progression system.
You see, the worse you do in each mission dictates how many available credits you’ll have left to devote to upgrades either in the ship bay or tech lab, which can largely make your time playing a lot easier. Various times whilst in the midst of an enemy wave did I find myself wincing in frustration every time my ship took a hit, knowing that I’d then need to spend money repairing it to full health in preparation for the next mission rather than upgrading its guns or shield further. It’s an addictive gameplay hook that wisely encourages you to play better, swapping out your ships in the attempt to avoid damage so as to let you buy a new upgrade from the game’s tech lab.
These upgrades become more essential as Xenoraid goes on; not only due to the amount of enemies on screen increasing wildly, but also due to the fact that unlike most other top-down space shooters you cannot direct your ship’s line of fire to anything other than straight ahead. Darting around the four corners of the screen shooting anywhere in a 360° area isn’t a possibility, and so you’ll need any help you can get when the pressure is on.
For a relatively small package, Xenoraid comes jam-packed with a bunch of different and interesting ways to play. Of course, there are your standard campaign and co-op game modes, but there’s also a wave-based survival mode for those of us that have a true death wish, keeping the heat turned up to max until every enemy ship featured in the wave is successfully obliterated.
From a pure presentation point of view, Xenoraid doesn’t “wow” you much in its visual or aesthetic style. The ship designs and galactic backgrounds are designed to be otherworldly enough, but after playing through five bombastic levels against thousands of enemy crafts, they’re really only there to serve a purpose. It’s with a great deal of appreciation then, that Xenoraid’s soundtrack expertly sets the tone of tension and pressure whilst delivering many motifs and crescendos that are undoubtedly reminiscent of Blade Runner.
The only real bad thing I can say about Xenoraid is that some people might find actually controlling the ships featured in their squadron a little bit floatier than they’d like. While after purchasing certain upgrades manoeuvrability does improve, moving your ships across the screen doesn’t always feel quite as tight as it perhaps could have.
Despite a couple of niggles though, Xenoraid is an excellent example of how a modern top down spaceship shooter should be done, purposefully going out of its way to do something a little bit different. It sets out to be something more than just another Galaga clone, and thankfully it succeeds with flying colours. I can see Xenoraid remaining part of my digital library for many months to come, being an absolutely brilliant way to kill 20 or 30 minutes whenever I’m in the mood for fun and short-burst gameplay.