Metroidvania fans have had some great luck over the past few years; with solid indie titles like Guacamelee! and Axiom Verge, a once-quiet genre has inched back into the spotlight. Though the game's description claims that Exile's End isn't a Metroidvania game, it should indeed be counted in that category. Let's see if the game is worth of being mentioned in the same breath as the above titles.
The developer insists that Exile's End is more of a cinematic platformer, such as Out of This World / Another World, than it is a Metroidvania game. For the first sequence of play, this is largely true. Our protagonist is tasked with landing on a foreign planet to rescue a VIP, when suddenly their ship crash-lands onto the planet's surface. The hero is alone, and must scrounge together resources to continue the mission on his own.
At first, the game does a great job of making you feel totally weak. You'll take fall damage if you drop just a few feet too far, and you have nothing to defend yourself other than wimpy rocks. Your character throws these rocks in an arc pattern, so they take some practice to use correctly. After a bit of exploring, you'll come across a handgun and the adventure proper begins.
Once you have a gun and a few power-ups, the game feels much less like a cinematic experience and more like a traditional Metroid experience. You won't find any quick-time events or laborious controls like in Out of This World / Another World; the controls are simple but solid. Oddly, you have to use the GamePad; there's no Pro Controller support here despite the game failing to use the touch screen.
The story of the game, while light, is mostly told through quick cutscenes and data logs scattered around the world. These cutscenes are animated in 8-bit style (much like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's) and look great. However, you likely won't be too invested in the story. Info logs don't share anything super interesting, and the story really boils down to discovering the dark secrets of the planet while looking for the missing person.
Matching the retro cinematic/Metroidvania theme are the game's graphics and sound. The graphics look like a cross between the Amiga/Commodore 64 home computers and the NES. Aside from snakes occasionally blending into the grass, everything is crisp and little bits like bullets shattering when they hit a wall shows attention to detail. Music is generally solid, too. The tunes aren't too repetitive, and fit the adventure well. Sound effects really pop, especially when jumping out of the water.
The entertainment value of Exile's End is a bit wavy to say the least. The beginning of the game can be frustrating due to fall damage coming from leaps of faith, lack of health, and inability to fight. Once you begin exploring the game proper, those who hate being told where to go will have a field day. Areas in the game contain all sorts of winding paths, leading to items and upgrades aplenty.
However, once you get to a certain area, you're locked in until you figure out how to progress. During our time with the game, we got stuck here and had to re-visit every accessible spot of the map again before finding the way to progress. It turned out that to destroy a switch, only a certain spot on a wall can be destroyed with a bomb, and requires a very specific toss. After this, a random barrier opens up that you probably won't associate with the switch you destroyed. This was a bit frustrating, and made exploration feel more like a chore.
As you explore, you'll find a variety of weapons and items to use. Switching between these is laborious in quick-thinking situations. L and R move between all items you own, but since the game groups weapons with single-use items like medical kits, it's easy to fumble and accidentally waste a precious health-restoring item when you were trying to switch to your submachine gun. Aside from item selection, combat is decent. The variety of enemies is a bit thin, and most weapons can only shoot left or right. Enemies only take a few hits to destroy, however, so fighting never feels tedious.
Eschewing Metroid's traditional save rooms, Exile's End takes a simple approach to saving your game. Every time you enter a new room, your progress is recorded. This is great in some ways, but brings some issues. On the plus side. it's convenient and means you don't have to trek five minutes backward to save your game. However, when you continue after dying, you'll often spawn in a room and immediately be hit by enemies before you have time to react. Because the game also saves your health, getting to the end of a long corridor with only a bit of HP left means that you'll be near-death upon respawning, too. Ammo is fairly common, but health drops come at a scarcer rate. Overall, this could have been implemented better, but is true to the era that this game is styled in.
One of the biggest issues with Exile's End is its map. We're thankful to have a map in the first place, but it's barebones and makes some questionable decisions. The map uses a grid like Metroid, but while Metroid games make certain you can explore every square of the grid, there are spots that you just can't access in this game. This makes remembering where you haven't been yet quite difficult.
There's also a complete lack of icons or information on the map. Doors that lead to new areas aren't labeled, so you might think you just haven't gone through that door yet. There's also no indication of which rooms contain hidden items. After going back and forth between a few areas, it's tough to decipher what's going on with the map. We're particularly puzzled by these issues, as Exile's End has been available on Steam for over a year. Since the player base has made these problems known, they should have been fixed for the Wii U release.
Aside from the main story, there's also a Survival mode. This tasks you with surviving an unlimited amount of stages with increasing amounts of enemies. You start off with a basic handgun, but can upgrade your armor, buy ammo, and purchase new weapons with points in between stages. It's a pretty fun mode, but a small number of recycled maps and a lack of difficulty make it boring after a while. We reached level 24 on our first try without much trouble.
Despite being advertised as a cinematic platformer, Exile's End is really a Metroidvania-style outing. It contains great graphics and sound, and does a fine job of allowing the player to explore and become more powerful without holding their hand. However, the game suffers from a tedious opening sequence, occasional camera and combat control stumbles, and a lackluster map.
Those who absolutely love to explore every bit of a game's world without any direction at all will love Exile's End. However, a few places don't give the player enough guidance, which leads to brute-forcing every possible path until you uncover the solution. This is a solid action exploration game, but needs a few improvements to be a smash hit for everyone.