MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on May 8th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Project Xenon Valkyrie Plus, Roguelike, action platformer, 8 bit, indie game, game review, Diabolic Mind, Cowcat Games


Project Xenon Valkyrie+ is a new 8-bit styled, "Rogue-like" action platformer, developed by Diabolic Mind, and published by COWCAT Games. It is available on the PS4 and Xbox One digitally, on PC via Steam, and on the PS Vita digitally as well. For PS4 and PS Vita owners, the game has crossbuy as well, so that's a nice bonus for Sony hardware fans. PXV+ (as the game shall heretofore be known as) combines a "Rogue-like" random level generation aspect with traditional 8-bit art and aesthetics, albeit in a widescreen aspect ratio, with action platforming, traditional combat, and some interesting mechanics. The game has a lot going for it, but ends up being a bit less than the sum of its parts.



PXV+ is based in a very amalgamated world, combining science-fiction technology, like ray guns, automated turret cannons, tanks, and robots, with traditional fantasy elements, such as witches, swords, large, fantastical creatures, areas illuminated solely by torches, magical abilities, and more. The game has some light RPG elements, such as the ability to level up your character and earn XP, and then the opportunity, between stages, to then choose where to allocate those points, be it vitality (health), strength (attack damage), defense (how much damage you lose when you take a hit), or the ability to carry and use more ammo for your gun weapon.

In PXV+, You chose from one of three characters.  First is Eloen, the white-haired maiden who graces most of the promotional art, and sort of acts as the game's default character. Second, there's Nue, a weird sort of fish/ant hybrid dude, and third is Renna, a pink-haired lady.  Each character starts with their own sword and gun weapon, their own stats, and each has a special ability. Eloen can set an unlimited number of bombs, one at a time, and after each one, there's a "cool down" period before she can set another. Nue can jump super high as his special ability, and Renna has a scanning ability that allows her to get more detailed info on the game's radar screen than the other characters. Each can also throw up to 3 grenades, and each has wall-jumping abilities that you have to learn pretty fast in order to properly progress in the game. Each character also has other traits, such as Nue having the ability to avoid taking damage when touching some enemy sprites.


When you find exceedingly large characters like this one,
you'll want to take them out, because they will give up a
key you'll need to open the large item chest in each level.

Regardless of which character you start out with, you start out pretty weak, so as the old adage goes, "Slow and steady wins the race." Yes, it's an action-platformer, and you might want to try and play it like a run 'n gun game, but each hit you take in the game reduces your likelihood of making it to the next area, or past the next boss, by a fairly significant margin. Playing the game more slowly and methodically is the best way to ensure that you're being careful about your progression. You'll need to use your sword weapon for most enemies, because you have a limited and finite amount of ammo for your gun weapon, even if you upgrade it. Also, you'll have to rely on melee combat alone for boss fights, as your gun, grenades, and special abilities are all disabled during them.


This boss looks very imposing, but once you figure out
its pattern and determine its weak spots, it's cake.

The basic story of the game is that a witch named Lumila is taking over the world with her army of mutant robots in her quest to resurrect the god Deftos. She's employing the use of a pure energy reactor and has put all kinds of mutant robots and creatures in your way to stop you and your ragtag team of fighters from foiling her plan. She's apparently in control of the Nuul, a race of mercenary soldiers, and their general, Grulguk. She's also used some high-level hacking technology to control nearly all the robots on the planet. Apparently, she doesn't want you to reach the Gigacocoon, where she's planning on using the pure energy reactor to hatch the egg of the ancient god. If it all sounds kind of fantastical, it is, but ultimately, the plot is very secondary to the game, as it's almost all action and only bits and pieces of story exposition between levels.

The flow goes like this: explore a level, fight a mini-boss, get a key, find the large chest in the level, and use said key to open said chest, and reveal (hopefully) a stronger weapon than one that you're carrying, so you can take it with you and increase your firepower. You then need to reach the bottom of the level so you can teleport to the next area, power up your character, talk to a couple NPC's, and use your XP to get stronger. If you collect 'cells' during a level (the game's currency), you can buy items from the shop that will often appear between levels as well. And oh yeah, there's a guy begging for money after every level, so you can choose whether or not to be a benevolent hero as well. Rinse and repeat, and then after the 2nd stage in the same area, you get to fight a boss. Complete that boss fight without dying, and you may have the option to pay money and materials to unlock a teleporter, so when you die (and you will inevitably die), you can teleport to the new area, and be granted some token XP to help you power up a bit before taking it on.  If you happen to reach the teleporter in an area with a key, but didn't find the large chest, you have the option of teleporting back to the top of the stage so you can find it. It's definitely worth scouting out the chests in each area, so you can see if you're lucky enough to find a more powerful weapon.


Another interesting boss that I had difficulty at first,
but again, once you learn the pattern, it's not that
difficult to get past, and even clear without taking a hit.

The graphics have a nice 8-bit look and feel to them, and are colorful enough to see what's going on, but dark enough to sort of help convey the tone the game is looking for with the story. In terms of color palette, it falls somewhere in the 16-bit era, in terms of colors on screen, and looks more like 8-bit sprites with SNES level color capabilities. Call it a 12-bit look, not unlike Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge, but with less detailed sprites, and a bit of a "chibi" kind of appearance. Each area has a distinctive look and feel to it, much like any well-designed, classic platformer would. The bosses are also interesting, and some of them are very large, screen-filling abominations that appear very imposing. Overall, I quite liked the look of the game, despite being slightly underwhelmed by it at first. After a while, however, the style grew on me, and I appreciated the design.


Purple haze, all in my brain.

In terms of the sound, this game has some very nice chiptune music accompanying it. The first screen has an upbeat tune to get you pumped for battle, and the first area has a good tune that sucks you into the action. The second area is darker and somewhat more foreboding, so the music gets a bit more somber. And the boss music is sufficiently tense, while remaining catchy. Depending on how long it takes you to get through a level, each theme can get a tad old after a while, but that's the danger with all chiptune music. Overall, it's a solid soundtrack. Sound effects are mostly good as well, with decent explosion sounds, some fun "boops and beeps" type of effects that serve as fun callbacks to earlier times. All said, the sound design is well done.


Sure, I earned a trophy, but did I have to die right after that? Sigh.

Where this game begins to stumble is in some of the design choices. First, the characters have too much inertia. That's always a fine balancing act with any platforming game, but in PXV+ it's definitely an issue. When you move, you need to be very aware of where you're at, and how much space you're allowing between yourself and an enemy, lest you run into them. The same goes for the space between your character and a ledge. I can't tell you how many times I tried to make a jump from the very edge of a platform, only to fall because you can't jump from the edge of a platform. By the time you've hit the jump button, you're already falling, in most instances. Don't expect Mega Man levels of jumping precision here. You'll be tapping the D-pad (or moving the analog stick ever so slightly) a lot to position your character right, or to drop straight down from a platform to avoid falling onto a set of spikes. As an aside, one nice thing about the game is that spikes only hurt you if you fall on top of them - running into spikes is as if you're side-stepping them, so that's a small mercy that will help you avoid damage in many instances.


I still haven't figured out how to beat this boss without taking damage.

Secondly, even though you can use the right thumbstick to hold up or down to preview what's below you, there are some random level layouts where you won't be able to see what's below, so you have to make blind jumps. Even though you can hold down on the thumbstick while falling, and course correct slightly on the way down, you're likely to hit spikes or an enemy, and take damage. For a game that makes it hard to recover after a level, and offers very few health pickups during the levels, this is just cheap.

Thirdly, the completely random nature of level generation means that you might end up fighting a particularly nasty mini-boss during the level, lose a bunch of health, obtain the key, and find the large chest, only to waste a key opening it to find a weapon that is less powerful than what you have already. When you're down to your last 2 or 3 hitpoints, that can really take the wind out of your sails. Add to that the randomness of the shop items, and you might not even have the chance to buy a health pickups between stages, because you won't be offered any in the shop. It just feels like the game is artificially trying to be harder, for the sake of being hard. It's not like The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ where you discover new weapons and upgrades via chests and boss encounters, and keys are reasonably easy to come by. You only get keys in this game by beating mini-bosses, and unless you've upped your strength, or have found a good weapon before you encounter one, be prepared for a long fight, because they're damage sponges.


This...is my BOOM, oh you get the picture.

One of the things you acquire throughout the game is a substance known as Teamerite. With it, you can buy weapons from the shop in the first area, but that doesn't actually give you the weapon: instead, you merely get that weapon thrown into the mix for random drops. Also, once you reach the third area, assuming you have enough Teamerite and cells, you can pay a robot to help you, and he'll gladly take 2 or 3 Teamerite off your hands in exchange for one of several helper robots, known, somewhat oddly as "Dookballs" (*gigglesnort*), one of which will shoot at enemies, one of which helps you leech HP, and another which helps you leech ammo from enemies. However, since the game has a one-life with permadeath setup, once you spend that Teamerite, it's gone, and you'll have to earn more in order to buy another helper.

Another negative is that, while the teleporters are nice to have, so you can practice an area and get better at learning enemy patterns, you're just too weak in a new area, even with the token XP you're given to upgrade. You either don't have enough HP, can't inflict enough damage, because your Strength is too low, you didn't find a decent enough sword or gun, or your defense is so low that the harder enemies sap your HP too quickly. So ultimately, unless you're an absolute ninja at this game, it's better to play through the entire set of stages, and hope you win the lottery with the easier bosses, and good level layouts without any blind jumps, drops, or cheap enemy placements.


I'm glad this big fella is just a decoration in a weapons shop,
and not a boss you have to fight. Scary looking dude!

All these little problems, along with some of the enemy behavior, add up to a bunch of little frustrations that add up to a much more aggravating experience than it should be. Don't get me wrong, I definitely had some fun with the game, but as much as I plugged away at it, I was never able to get any further than reaching the Gigacocoon, and I was only able to get that far about half the time I played. There are some fun things, like the fact that there are 100+ weapons to unlock and find randomly, but the best weapons in the game are locked behind the Teamerite paywall. The 2nd level weapons you can unlock are all very expensive to acquire, and if you even want the chance for those to randomly drop (which is still exceedingly low), you'll have to pony up a lot of that virtual currency. If you pay the "bum" who's always asking for Cells between each level, he'll show up after the 3rd area, and give you access to a hidden location, known as the Icy Tundra. It's a cool area to explore, but I was never able to get past the 2nd stage of that area, because I was always low on health, and I don't even know if there's anything of worth past that, or if it just dumps you into the Gigacocoon, which is where you would have ended up had you skipped that hidden area. I was never able to unlock a second transporter, so I could reach the 3rd area straightaway, which was another annoyance, and the inability to access the Gigacocoon without playing through 3 complete areas and multiple bosses, when the carrot of a transport system is dangled in front of you, feels like more of an insult to injury.


The game has a unique and interesting explosion effect, that's for sure.

What we end up with here is a game that has a lot of good ideas, and a lot going for it, but the myriad issues plaguing it hold it back from being truly great. The Rogue-lite nature of it may be appealing for some, and the fact that the game has a timer going as soon as you start will make it appealing for super skilled, Jedi-like speedrunners, but its appeal is otherwise going to be somewhat limited. The cool design aesthetic, good music, and interesting locations made me want to play, and some of the cool stuff I unlocked kept me going, but I reached a point where I hit a wall, and wasn't ever able to keep progressing. I expect that from a Platinum Games title, but at the end of the day, I know those levels are all choreographed, and it's a matter of learning the patterns and sequencing of each encounter. With a game as random as this, that's not possible, so ever seeing the end of the game, if that's even the goal, seems like a much more far off prospect.

My understanding is that this game was made by a single person, much like Axiom Verge. Hats off to the developer, for some outstanding work in many areas. However, where Axiom Verge makes nearly all the right design choices for a powerful experience, this game seems to shoot itself in the foot too often with characteristics that seem to be designed to punish the player. Unfortunately, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this game. I really wanted to, and I wanted to like it more than I do, but it's just not quite as fantastic as I was hoping it would be. Too many little frustrations and nagging issues remain for me to recommend this to anyone, outside of the challenge seekers and folks who can't get enough of "Nintendo hard" games, but with the added challenge of the random level and weapon load-outs.  That said, Project Xenon Valkyrie+ is an interesting game that at least warrants a look, and I'll be curious to see what the developer does next time, as there's obviously talent at work here.


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Comments
 
I can't agree more with this review. I absolutely wanted to love this game, but it tossed in just a few too many annoyances to hold me. I have no issues with a game being difficult and requiring me to git gud, but there were so many random elements at play that it really boiled down to dumb luck. The fact that I bought several of the higher end weapons from the shop, and then never found a single one in a chest further soured me. Close, but no cigar.
 
Great review, thanks so much! I love it when a reviewer points out intelligently the strenghts and weaknesses of a game and goes in depths in aspects of game design. Additionally, you don't let your wishful thinking and love for a genre come in the way of an honest, fair review.

Too bad that the game didn't turn out so well; but an Axiom Verge, Nex Machina or Owlboy and a couple of other indiegames are extraordinary examples among an otherwise overheated retro-gaming niche driven by nostalgia.

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