Zelda games have laid out a comfortable roadmap for developers to follow when making action-adventure games, and there's no shortage of Zelda-likes to enjoy on Switch and elsewhere. Tiny Roar evidently took heavy notes from Nintendo’s storied franchise when putting together XEL, which takes cues from both classic and modern Zelda titles and places them in a beautiful sci-fi setting that, at first glance, is perfect for exploring. Unfortunately, there are some serious technical issues with the visuals on Switch that hold it back from reaching its full potential.
XEL follows the story of Reid, a wise-cracking spaceship pilot who crash-lands in a strange environment with no memory of her past or even her name. She is quickly joined by Chap, a silent robot floating companion who encourages her to look around this strange new land. The world is bright and colourful, giving a beautiful glimpse into a world of advanced technology that has been reclaimed by nature.
Chap is a clear stand-in for Navi from Ocarina of Time and the chime that plays when Reid picks up items off the ground is an obvious nod to Breath of the Wild, while the structure of the game plays out similar to classic Zelda games. New items are earned while exploring sections of the world that allow Reid to venture further into these dungeons and access new areas. The game’s structure will be immediately recognisable to fans, while there are enough new mechanics to keep the game from feeling like a lazy copy.
XEL plays out in an isometric 3D world that offers both combat and puzzles in equal measure. One of the best mechanics that is introduced early on is Reid’s Time Core ability, which allows her to seemingly slip between the present and the distant past. This gives glimpses into the world before the collapse as well as the means to solve many of the game’s best puzzles. Interacting with the past to influence the future is a fun mechanic that adds a bit more depth than the simple combat allows.
As expected in a game that openly takes inspiration from the Zelda franchise, Reid’s main weapons are her sword and shield, both of which can be upgraded. To further enhance her abilities, she can cook up recipes at campfires and eat plants that give her more stamina or health, depending on the choices the player makes.
Most of the game's publicity openly courts comparisons to Zelda, which is a brave move on their part. Unfortunately, there isn’t a level of polish in the Switch version of the game to allow it to stand up to these comparisons. Sections of the map will slowly spawn into existences as you approach, breaking the immersion that the developers are working so hard to create. The worst technical issue, however, is the stuttering frame rate that shows up when groups of enemies surround Reid. In both docked and handheld modes, the game doesn’t run smoothly enough. It feels like a case of Tiny Roar’s ambitions outstripping its budget, resulting in a game that tries to run before it can walk.
Aside from the frame rate issues and textures failing to load, there were several bugs that we encountered during our playthrough. Characters would introduce themselves and then slowly drift out of the cutscene. Several times, Reid fell through spots in the floor that failed to load in. All things that can and hopefully will be patched in the future but they heavily impacted our enjoyment of XEL at launch.
These flaws are more frustrating because the world has a great look and feel as you explore it. While it doesn’t have a true open-world environment, the regions are different enough that moving from one to the other is satisfying and fun. As your arsenal of weapons and gadgets increases, combat becomes a deeper and more satisfying experience. It is largely a simple affair of figuring out the pattern that enemies attack in and getting Reid to beat them with her sword, but there is more on offer as you gain more abilities and power.
It is just a shame that the camera remains so far away from the action; enemies are small and distant outside of a few boss fights, lacking the character and charm that the rest of the world has. We would have killed for the ability to zoom in or even rotate the camera as we explored so we could see some of the details that the world had to offer.
There is plenty to enjoy in XEL, from the writing to the world-building to its cast of characters. There are moments when the humour falls flat, but the irreverent tone remains balanced against the obvious stakes of saving the society that has grown from the ashes of what came before. The attempt at creating something unique is there, even if it isn't always achieved. Delving into the history of the world and discovering how it reached such a state is the best part of the game, which marries the time manipulation mechanics with the storytelling in a great way. There is such a good game hiding beneath the surface of XEL that struggles to get out, fighting against a flawed presentation that hampers the message it is trying to send.
The setting and characters of XEL deliver on the concept of sci-fi Zelda, but a mixture of dropped textures and stuttering frame rate along with some obvious bugs mar an otherwise fun experience. There is a very fun game hidden beneath the surface here, but it feels like the developers reached too far in their ambition and fell short, resulting in a somewhat messy, and ultimately unsatisfying experience.
XEL takes many of its cues from the Zelda franchise, with combat and puzzles that keep things interesting throughout as well as a charming, fun cast of characters. However, technical glitches in the Switch version make it difficult to enjoy at launch. There is the potential for a great game in here, possibly after a hefty patch to fix some of the bugs, but despite its obvious promise it fails to live up to its potential in its current state.