Xel is the latest in a long line of vibrantly colored isometric adventure games that blatantly take inspiration from the The Legend of Zelda franchise. While it has the foundation of a worthwhile game – who doesn’t love a good dungeon crawler? – that foundation gets buried under a rubble of technical issues, both minor annoyances and game-breaking bugs.
Xel starts off with Reid, a joke-spewing wisecracker, crash landing on a planet with no memories. She doesn’t know where she is, or even who she is. A cute flying drone makes her acquaintance and together they venture off in search of answers, eventually coming across a society whom Reid will help to keep their space station from overheating and going bye-bye. Once this quest is given, you’re free to explore the world of Xel.
Out in the wilds, you’ll experience Xel’s simple gameplay. If you’ve played a The Legend of Zelda game or any game that’s taken inspiration from the series, you’ve played Xel. You’ll use a sword to strike enemies and your shield to block and parry attacks while also being able to dodge-roll out of the way. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t evolve much past that. You can’t even re-map the controls, a feature I wish Xel included. It positions the right bumper as your dodge button, which took me a while to get used to after playing so many action RPGs that typically utilize one of the X/Y/B/A buttons for dodging.
Environmental puzzles are the second large chunk of gameplay. Reid eventually gains a ‘time core’ ability that allows her to travel back in time to influence the environment. You’ll mainly be traveling back to position items in the past that allow you traverse broken bridges or flooded areas in the present. The puzzles aren’t difficult and won’t slow you down too much. They provide a bit of a break from mashing the B button to hack away at enemies, and I enjoyed them.
No experience points get rewarded from combat or puzzle solving, and the gameplay can feel stale after a bit, making me feel no qualms for running past enemies and skipping fights. This is especially prevalent after dying. Xel has checkpoints scattered about which you can save your progress at and you’ll respawn at the latest one upon dying. To keep Xel from dragging, I’d often prefer to skip fighting enemies and get to a new, unexplored section of the map instead of replaying combat I’d already done.
Speaking of dying, the environmental design can often get in your way and cause Reid to die, leading to frustration. There are points in the map where the environment – branches and leaves of a giant tree, for example – will obstruct your ability to view Reid. This becomes painful if you get cornered between enemies as you’ll be slashing away blindingly – Xel doesn’t even offer silhouettes when stuck in a situation like this.
Some areas of the environment have very little detail or polish. When I first booted up the game, I wondered if the textures simply hadn’t loaded before realizing the splotches of various green colors dominating my screen was how the grass was supposed to look. The rest of Xel’s world offered more of the same, with vibrant colors being substituted for detailed environments and textures.
The camera is also very far back, making it impossible to enjoy any detail in the world. Reid can look like a blue stick figure at times and obtainable items out in the wild appear to be using as few pixels as possible, making them extremely easy to miss. You’ll be needing a new prescription from playing Xel after straining your eyes so much trying to figure out if that teensy gathering of pixels is a heart or an enemy.
If Xel’s issues ended at repetitive gameplay and dull environments, it still might be a game worth recommending. However, Xel is littered with so many technical issues I don’t think I could recommend it to anyone in good faith at this time. We’ll start with the basics – the framerates are atrocious, both in the Switch’s handheld and docked modes. There are constant dips and stutters, and trying to play Xel on a TV is virtually impossible – it’s a test of patience as the game’s framerate struggles to achieve even a consistent 30 fps.
Then there’s the poor lip syncing, terribly compressed cutscenes, inventory screen freezing, and whole areas just popping in from a gray void. A few times I’d be going from one section of the map to another just to fall through the ground as the environment never loaded. Another bug that annoyed me was when the first item I purchased from a merchant never showed up in my inventory, turning me off from buying anything else.
I did encounter one game-breaking bug, which needs to be patched ASAP before more people encounter it: after acquiring a key to unlock a door and progress an early level, a cutscene played introducing the next boss, a giant robot spider. Once this cutscene ended, the game should have put Reid in the boss’s arena for the boss fight. Instead, Reid was stuck in a hallway with the giant spider chilling on the other side of a door that would never open. This stopped all progression in the game for me and caused me to restart the game. Not fun.
Ultimately Xel has the makings of an intriguing Zelda-like dungeon crawler. I’m keen to explore the vibrant and interesting world, the puzzles are fun to solve, and the gameplay can be engaging at times. However, in its current state, Xel feels unplayable too often. Technical issues abound, from minor annoyances to game-breaking bugs. I can’t recommend the game until I’m sure others wouldn’t also experience any progress-inhibiting bugs. It’s a shame – with a little more time in the development oven and TLC, Xel could have been so much more than it currently is.
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