XEL is Tiny Roar’s modest attempt to make a Zelda-inspired puzzle platformer, and in XEL you take on the role of Reid. Reid’s spaceship crashlands on a planet and the accident causes her to forget who she is and where she’s from. Upon waking, Reid is accompanied by a floating robot guide called Chap. Once Reid finds a sword and shield to defend herself from robot enemies, she meets a boy named Desmond. It turns out Reid didn’t crashland on a planet – she crashlanded on XEL, a massive artificial biome adrift in space – and Desmond and Chap need Reid’s help to restore XEL so the entire colony doesn’t die.
XEL has all the hallmarks of a noughties 3D platformer:
- Edgy cartoonish dialogue – check
- Main character with amnesia – check
- Pre-rendered cutscenes that differ from the game’s actual graphics – check
- Locked camera angles that obscure portions of the screen – check
- Clunky animations – check
- Frequent texture popping – check
For a game that features time travel, XEL feels firmly stuck in the past. I’ve been predicting the turning back of the clock and the resurgence of games heavily inspired by the 2000s for a while now but if XEL is anything to go by I don’t want it. If a game is going to be a homage to the PS1 and N64 era it needs to hit the nail on the head. It’s a difficult requirement to perfect because you have to make it feel nostalgic but contemporary at the same time. Unfortunately, XEL’s lack of originality and poor performance (previewed on Nintendo Switch) means it’ll dissipate into Legend of Zelda’s shadow in no time at all.
It’s not immediately apparent if XEL intentionally feels antiquated or if it’s simply down to being a bad game. Upon further investigation, it’s evident that developers Tiny Roar are trying to distil the charm of classic 3D action-adventures but have also undoubtedly made a less than impressive game at the same time.
A broken clock is correct twice a day, as the saying goes, and XEL does have some solid pros to back its corner. If you ignore the fixed camera the level design is actually quite good. Environmental textures are flat but they suit the artistic direction Tiny Roar are going for. Levels are large too and the scarcity of characters, vehicles and buildings genuinely feels like an efficient space colony gone awry.
Although the writing feels like something you would expect from a Cartoon Network kids show at least it’s all performed well by a cast of actual people. There are no R2-D2 bleeps and whistles from the characters (except Chap, of course) so it should be applauded that such a small game spent a portion of the budget on spoken dialogue.
However, XEL is a buggy mess which is best avoided until it is patched – it’s unlikely fixing the bugs would make it feel less like a relic.
Here’s a silver lining though! Tiny Roar have clearly been ambitious. Games are difficult to finish and nobody tries to make a broken game. For all its problems, the team would have learned so much from making XEL, and all that knowledge will get poured into their next game. So I will definitely be keeping an eye out for what Tiny Roar make next…