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I forget how I discovered Xeno Crisis but it immediately piqued my interest because it looked like Smash TV mixed with the movie Aliens. A twin-stick shooter inspired by one of the greatest action movies all time? Yeah, I’m in. I’ve been looking forward to playing it for a while now but wanted to wait for the PC or Steam release before I gave it a shot. Developed and published by Bitmap Bureau, Xeno Crisis was a Kickstarter project that met its goal and then some which resulted in the game being released for the Sega Genesis, Dreamcast, and the Neo Geo, I think in 2018. It was released for PC and Switch in October, 2019. For this review, we played the PC version.
There is a story which is conveyed through images accompanied by text. The Steam page contains a link to the manual which goes into a little more detail. After reports of an “alien” presence at a research station situated in the orbit of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, two Marines are sent to investigate – John Marsh and Sarah Ridley. The story is simple and a good enough setup for the gameplay and there is multiple endings.
Xeno Crisis can be played solo but it also supports up to two players. There’s two difficulty modes – Easy and Hard – and Easy is not as easy as you might think. Xeno Crisis is a very challenging game. It’s like Smash TV but you can’t pump money into the machine to keep going. You lose all your health and it’s Game Over but you can use an Elixir to continue playing. In the 2 player mode, if one player falls, the other player can revive them. You can play as either John or Sarah, choose their outfit color, and both of them play exactly the same. You can move around the environments freely, perform a melee attack, roll, and aim in eight directions. Rolling around is a good way to avoid danger and it can also inflict damage to enemies. The game plays out in Areas and the goal of each one is to progress from room to room by clearing them out of enemies and most Areas end with a boss battle. There’s seven Areas total so the game is short but you’re going to need to master the mechanics to survive. Even on Easy, the game will hand you your own ass. Both characters are always equipped with an assault rifle and some grenades. You can only take a certain amount of hits before you die but to aid you are pick-ups that spawn in the Areas as you play.
Playing with a buddy can alleviate some of the challenge but I think what really separates this from games like Robotron or Smash TV is the upgrade system. Enemies will occasionally drop dog-tags when killed and these act as a form of currency. You’re given the opportunity to spend the dog-tags on equipment or upgrades after beating an Area. These include things like powering up your weapons, increased health, speed, grenade count capacity, ammo count and capacity, a gas mask to protect yourself from toxic gases, and elixirs which are extra Continues. There’s a good chance you’re going to see the Game Over screen more than once so you’ll have multiple opportunities to practice and determine when to buy certain upgrades. Ammo and grenades will frequently spawn as you play and we are not a fan of the limited ammo capacity. It seems odd because ammo boxes spawn so frequently that it’s like what’s the point? I think the idea is that it keeps you moving but I’m just guessing. We were struggling to get passed Area 5 and eventually used the Cheat Engine just to beat the game. There is no Area or Level select or anything like that so once you use up all your continues, you have to start over from the beginning. One of the cheats grants you infinite ammo and I can tell you based on experience that even with infinite ammo, the enemies and projectiles will keep you moving so limited ammo just seems unnecessary. Sometimes, there can be so much going on, that just trying to avoid attacks is hard enough. You get into a rhythm, running around all over the place, dodging projectiles, while unleashing streams of bullets at everything on the screen, then you run out of ammo which is annoying when you have to dodge or melee your way to the ammo box which will often be surrounded by foes, especially in the later Areas. There is a scoring system in place where you’re awarded points for kills, among other things, melee kills result in double the points, and you’re ranked at the end of each Area. It makes me wonder if the limited ammo capacity is a way of encouraging players to utilize melee attacks.
The assault rifle, melee attacks, and rolls are not the only ways to take down enemies. Weapons will often spawn in the rooms and will last for a limited time once acquired. You can burn foes with the flamethrower, blow them up with the rocket launcher, mow them down with the Vulcan, and decimate them with the BFG. There are some others and they all prove to be useful. The enemies are relentless and more enemies are thrown at you on the Hard difficulty. They will come from multiple directions and you can’t leave a room until all of the enemies are dead. They run around the rooms, some fire projectiles, others lob explosives, and some fly around. There are zombies or mutants or whatever they are and they’ll get back up after being shot but explosives and melee attacks can take them out instantly. Eventually, you’ll come up against turrets, little robotic foes, and baddies with shields that can block your shots. Each Area throws new enemies at you and the game just gets harder and harder as you progress. The bosses, too, can be challenging and surviving these battles will require memorization of their attack patterns.
Each Area varies in appearance and the new enemies introduced usually fit the theme of the Area. You’ll battle your way through a lab, forest, dunes, and facility, among some other locations and while they all look different, the gameplay never changes. Every Area consists of numerous rooms which are all like small boxes that will be flooded with enemies and I believe the rooms are randomized to a certain extent. Some rooms contain explosives which are forms of environmental hazards but most of them are pretty safe to navigate. Hostages can be found in some rooms and rescuing them does reward you with points. As you progress, the Areas seem to increase in size. By that I mean, there will be more and more rooms to explore. Because of this, some areas seem to drag on and I think the game would have benefited from less rooms, maybe even less enemies. It’s not like the rooms within an Area are drastically different from one another and you’ll see all of the enemies an Area has to offer, usually by the third or fourth room. Then you just progress through the rest and they all feel the same. You’re just fending off waves upon waves upon waves of enemies. It sometimes feels like too much. Smaller Areas or more diverse environments and encounters would have been welcome. On the plus side, most hits and deaths were our fault but there were certainly some cheap ones. Like enemies spawning on top of you as soon you enter a room. Luckily, that didn’t happen often.
If you manage to beat the game on Easy or Hard, you’ll be given the code for the Infinite mode. After I entered the code, the main menu showed three game modes to play through. Arcade which is just the regular game, Infinite, and Boss Rush. I was hoping the Infinite mode meant infinite continues or something but instead it means surviving for as long as you can in a single room. Pick-ups and upgrades will be dropped as you obliterate your foes. Boss Rush is exactly what you would expect. You have to try and defeat each boss without dying and you can purchase upgrades in between battles.
Xeno Crisis was designed to look, feel, and sound like a Genesis game from back in the day. And for the most part it nails it. The game contains plenty of color, I love the muzzle flashes of the assault rifle, explosions look great, and the game has a nice chunky visual style. The character, enemy, and boss designs look great and there’s a good amount of detail in the environments. On the audio side, the music is pretty good overall, I love the tune heard at the main menu and most of the songs are catchy. I wasn’t blown away by the soundtrack but it’s not bad. The sound effects are alright, they get the job done. The weapons fire and explosions sound pretty good, enemies make all kinds of noises as you blow them away, and you can hear an announcer or the commander spouting lines whenever you enter a room. On the technical side, the game runs great. Solid performance. The only bug we noticed occurred in the 2 player mode. It seems that when player one dies during the first boss battle, the boss will only target player one’s dead body and never target player two.
Xeno Crisis is an action-packed, fast-paced, and unforgiving game. And despite some of it’s flaws, I loved it. This is a game that offers a challenge which requires practice and skill to overcome. Or you can just cheat. Most of the Areas tend to drag on because of how many rooms you have to battle through but blowing away hordes of enemies can be an addictive process. The limited ammo capacity is our biggest gripe with the game. In the end, it just seems completely unnecessary. Xeno Crisis is a very challenging game and despite its short length, there’s a good chance you won’t even get to the final area on your first run, or second, or third, or fourth, or fifth, you get the idea. You need to not only like dual-stick or top down shooters but also a challenge because this game will not hold your hand. It would have been cool if there was an Area or level select of some kind, just so you could practice in Areas without having to start over from the beginning every time you run out of Elixirs or Continues. Regardless, we still had a blast with this and I would say the developers did an excellent job at replicating the Robotron or Smash TV style of gameplay.
Ultimately, we would recommend Xeno Crisis to fans of top down or dual stick shooters. It should provide you with hours of game time simply because of the high difficulty. Achieving higher ranks and scores should provide some replay value if you’re into that kind of thing and the game can be enjoyed with a buddy. The developers nailed the Smash TV meets Aliens concept. And that’s part of the allure of Xeno Crisis. I can’t say it actually feels like Aliens in top-down shooter form but it definitely contains nods to the franchise. If you like the idea of blowing away hordes of adversaries, Smash TV style, with a touch of Aliens, definitely give Xeno Crisis a shot.