For all the criticism I’ve read concerning how we define and categorize games, I still our current genre definitions are useful to have. Not because they’re particularly good definitions (that’s a separate issue altogether), but because the industry has behaved as though that’s already the case. It’s that belief that an FPS or an action game has to have these specific features to qualify as such that developers have created such heavily codified bodies of work. These have proved to be important starting points for less experienced developers who not only wish to understand how these devices function, but also to tinker around with their own ideas.
What happens when you lack a clear understanding of genre? You end up with something like Xardion. Although the game knows what an action game should look like, it barely has an understanding of why they’re supposed to look like that. So it lacks the genre’s most compelling traits, leaving us with a hollow reproduction of action game tropes.
Before I go any further, though, I should clarify what I think an action game’s most compelling traits are. The best action games typically invoke some level of excitement out of whoever’s playing. They don’t aim to create a relaxing experience; if anything, they do the opposite. They challenge you; they thrill, they excite, they even stress you out a little bit. These games are so deliberately paced that you never stop to think about anything you’re doing. Your actions flow one into the other. They feel natural, as though they emerge from raw instinct. Of course, that’s never actually the case. The best games are just so carefully structured that you feel as though it is. A game like Dynamite Headdy will offer you a versatile toolset, a world with intricate paths and moving parts, and a certain rapidity demanding that you make sense of it all.
A game like Xardion, on the other hand, only offers a few of those. What it does have might appear to be enough: “guide a team of three robots across various alien worlds” sounds like it should fit with my previous description. But without a sense of urgency to hold everything together, none of that really matters. The alien worlds, far from appearing imposing, lose any sense of identity they had because there’s no pressure to move through them in a precise manner. Moreover, your actions here stop feeling natural. You’re moving through these places so slowly that the game’s underlying patterns become far easier to read. You can see the puppetmaster’s strings pulling at your limbs, dictating where you go and what you do once you get there. So it should be no surprise to hear that playing the game feels stiff, artificial, plodding, and repetitive.
That’s not to say repetition in games is inherently bad. I remember a lot of the therapeutic qualities in Holy Umbrella coming from the highly repetitive actions the game had you perform. However, I don’t see that happening with Xardion. Some of that’s because of the ludicrous extremes to which Xardion carries things, but most of the blame lies with the game’s ambiance. The only reason I was able to interpret my actions in Holy Umbrella as relaxing is because the context surrounding those actions allowed me to do so. Yet Xardion’s intense sci-fi action art style precludes any kind of relaxation.
This is where the game’s failure to understand action game structures really starts to do damage. Without understanding why action games arrange themselves the way they do, Xardion can’t recognize whether or not what it’s actually creating compelling scenarios. So incoherences like the one we see between the art style and play become inevitable. But I don’t limit the problems to this one instance. In fact, I see problems in a lot of what the game does. Even when Xardion does something on purpose, its basic awareness of generic convention limits what effect those actions have on the game. In some cases, they might even prove harmful.
We’ve already seen that with the game’s larger structures. A more benign example would be the three characters you pilot throughout the game. Each one has their own set of unique quirks. To name a few: Panthera can access small passages, Triton can aim directly up when shooting enemies, and Alcedes gently floats down after jumping. While it may look like these characters provide the game a feasible base to work from, their mere inclusion isn’t enough. What they have to do is affect how you engage with the game, whether it’s through new strategies you’re forced to develop or simply because they provide a novel way to interact with the world.
Sadly, neither of these happen. Sure, the characters are differentiated well enough (barely…maybe), but none of the levels utilize those differences. Not only does this blunder rob the characters of their identities, but it also compounds the levels’ problems finding their own. Every character can tackle the game’s challenges equally well, giving them equal opportunity to suffer through the same bland experience. The closest the game ever comes to capitalizing on their differences is in how Panthera is lower to the ground than his peers. Unfortunately, given how rarely that comes up, it’s incidental to the game, at best.
I’d considered ending this review by briefly covering the other parts of Xardion’s design (its story, its music, etc.), but they’re not remarkable and I don’t see how they’re relevant to the larger game. Xardion presents itself as an action game above all else, and it’s along those lines the game fails. Not for a lack of good ideas, mind you; I see a lot of potential in what the game does. Because of the developer’s inexperience with the genre, though, that’s all they’ll ever remain: sad reminders of everything the game could have been.