XEL is an action adventure from Tiny Roar in the vein of Zelda. Protagonist Reid is an amnesiac with time-traveling abilities who must save the titular XEL, a giant spaceship with an entire fake ecosystem inside it, from a sinister plot.
Like in Zelda, you traverse a top-down maze-like area looking for items and keys that can be found by solving simple puzzles, hitting enemies with your sword, and walking extremely slowly across a world that’s far too spaced apart for its own good.
The combat is the largest part of the game, and it is clunky and barely functional. The basic attack is a one-two slash that repeats over and over, but the sound and visual feedback on hit is limp. On top of this, pressing the button too quickly will see your input ignored, and there’s no combo rhythm to the attacks that makes it feel snappy.
You also have a block and dodge, but the block will malfunction if you press it too soon after attacking or after being attacked, or sometimes for no reason. The dodge doesn’t come with many invincibility frames, so you can easily fail to dodge far enough before an enemy swing comes out. Enemy attack animations are hard to see and don’t always match the hitboxes too, exacerbating the other problems.
Both blocks and dodges draw on a stamina bar, and once that’s gone, there’s no avoiding damage. That leaves you to deal with the awful and inconsistent health system. Hearts drop from fallen enemies infrequently, so your next best bet is to find a stack of crates, which aren’t always present. If there are no crates and no enemy drops, your only option is to eat food. Food can be crafted at a fireplace, but only if you have crafting materials dropped from enemies and boxes. It’s easy to run out during a long dungeon where there’s no place to cook. But if you don’t run out, bosses are a joke where you just smash yourself against them, constantly healing up to full.
You’ll frequently find yourself lost and running in circles trying to find the path forward, heightening frustration as your health slowly melts away to the janky combat. Since you can only save at certain points in the world, you end up in a battle of attrition where the punishment for failure is significant progress loss.
On its own, the combat would make for a frustrating, unfun game. But the puzzles only reinforce that sensation. They’re either too easy or involve walking around in more circles until you find the item you need to solve them with no trouble. At least some of the puzzles use a cool-looking time travel mechanic, I guess.
With the exploration, combat, and puzzles being unpolished and boring at their core, all that’s left is the story. And it’s bad. We didn’t need another amnesiac protagonist, especially one who can’t tell who the obviously evil guy is, and could have done without the awkward writing that makes most characters seem like robots. At least the voice acting has one of the worst “Nooo”s in gaming history.
The music and art are basically fine, though the game is a technical mess. The environment often obscures the gameplay, the animations don’t always work correctly, and certain cutscenes give the game blurry, artifacted edges.
The real killer here is the pace and flow of the game. XEL is slow, uneven, and frequently insulting to your time and intelligence. The nicest thing I have to say is that you can easily imagine a better version of this. That said, I can’t recommend playing the actual release. Go buy a chocolate bar or something.
XEL releases July 12 for PC, July 14 for Switch, and later in 2022 for PS4, PS5, Xbox Series, and Xbox One for $18.99.
Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for XEL.