Platform: PC (Free Play)
Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team
Completion Level: Campaign Completed ~10 Hours
This is our first analysis for a free-to-play game, one that plays smoothly and well, right in your browser. Our compliments to Ed ‘Ryzed’ Ryzhov for putting together a fine, polished game in a little (and entirely free) package.
What first struck us was the similarity to the original Unreal first-person shooter game of the late 90s. The look of the geometry, the music, and even the way the camera does fly-overs through the playing field harken back to that stylish game. Unreal was technology quite impressive for the time, the look of which is now displayed in your internet browser. We were not surprised to see Unreal mentioned in the credits as one of the developers’ inspirations. This game pays homage to that classic pre-HALO era when FPS games were almost exclusively PC.
Xenosquad does not do a ton of things, but what it does choose to do is executed well. The technology is sound, and the polish more than adequate (especially for the price). Now you’re not going to find long, elaborate stories about multiple kingdoms and backstabbing viziers. We’re not fighting for or against world domination as is often the case in a purchased SRPG. What you will get for your ‘purchase’ is a fun game that allows your characters to grow, and offers you challenges that increase in complexity.
The camera is set above the square, grid-based action, in a largely standard set up. The characters and environment are all 3D geometry.
- Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight: The third weapon you get was a combat rifle with a bayonet. It brought melee attacks into the mix, rounding out what is often a ranged-attack-only setting. Since the game structure was one of limited ammunition, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, the addition of unlimited and powerful melee strikes was a fun boon. It also opened up strategies like stationing a trooper with a bayonet next to an enemy generator and letting him go to town every turn.
- Reading Is Fundamental (but unnecessary here): Manuals are a thing of the past when it comes to learning how to play the game. In-game tutorials are common in retail games. Many free games just pile up a bunch of text and arrow filled screens in the beginning. Xenosquad included a detailed, in-game tutorial that was not overbearing or annoying.
- Music – The 90s Greatest Hits: Props to “The Sands” whose tracks were subtle, techno, and fitting. Very original Unreal (1998). The music was a light touch, and did not get bothersome. Of course, it was easier since the game was short in comparison to most SRPGs, and the music did not have to exhibit the same staying power.
- Lowest Score Wins: We are not fans of the Disgaea school of ginormous hit points and attack numbers. Sums that can routinely range into the thousands. It becomes mind-boggling and meaningless. We think smaller numbers are easier to relate to, and more personal. You value every hit point when you only have 12. You appreciate landing an attack worth three.
- Polish – It’s the little things: Nothing about this game appeared thrown together. Whatever amount of polish you’d expect from a free-to-play game, XenoSquad likely exceeded it. For example, every level had an Unreal style flying camera loop.
- No Bargain Bin Special Effects: The fully 3D world was visually active with moving environmental sludge, satisfying destruction of enemies, occasional explosions, and fun sparkles for pickups. Have we mentioned this game was free?
- Interactive Environment — It’s the Future: If you have read some of our analyses, you know we appreciate interactive environments, demonstrated in the classic train yard scene of Shining Force III. Although not of that scale that scale, Xenosquad did have switch-based enemy generators and doors along with large, moving platforms. Many retail SRPGs would benefit from the inclusion of just these elements.
- A little bit of variety goes a long way: There was a pleasing amount of mission variety. In addition to the standard “destroy all the aliens,” there was:
- Get to point A
- Shutdown the Monster Generators
- Survive for X Rounds (And possibly more. Again, retail SRPGs, please take note.)
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Classic Action…point system
We are fans of action point (AP) systems when made accessible, properly limited, and clear. So crafted they can be the key to a great game. This game followed a model we like, exemplified in Rebelstar Tactical Command. Each unit had X amount of action points to spend in a turn. Go far without attacking. Go a medium distance if you still want to attack. Stay still and burn all your action points on attacking multiple times.
Normally we would ding an action point system for allowing multiple attacks. It can be very frustrating when an enemy unit walks up to one of yours and attacks two, three, even four times. Ugh. But Xenosquad cleverly avoided that frustration by mixing in a high percentage of ranged attack misses. Doing this in a non-frustrating way was an accomplishment in itself. And while your melee attacks always hit, the enemy’s did not. Again, a frustration reliever.
The Good & Bad
Conveniently Together in One Point:
- It’s Nano-Tastic: Upgrading, the RPG part of the game, was helpful for tailoring the gameplay to your style, although a couple of stats were unclear. What exactly did ‘power’ mean in terms of gameplay? Was it armor power? Weapon power? Hitting power? We still don’t know for sure. The microscopic interface for choosing how to spend your upgrade points also needed help.
- Art Direction—going one way: The environmental tile sets, while not revolutionary, were executed to highlight gameplay. However, our reaction to the character art was mixed. The space marines were drab, and needed more differences than color. The aliens were well done (especially the big guys) with size and varietal characteristics clearly showing their alien nature. The little melee aliens were fun to destroy, but their attack mechanism was unclear.
- The Camera Is Your Friend (and not an evil robot trying to take over the world): You could rotate the camera 45° with buttons, and slide it along its plane with the keyboard or mouse. Good. The camera tried to be reasonably smart and (mostly) succeeded. But a camera with its own brain sometimes did what IT wanted over your wishes.
- Medic! Healing came a little late in the game, but we liked their system. It allowed as much healing as you had action points to administer, getting back one point of health at a time.
- One Shot — One (over) Kill: We appreciate sniper rifles. They were fun in the original Unreal, but this sniper rifle was overpowered. It never missed, and hit from incredible distances. The ammunition should’ve been much more limited, and there should have been more of a chance of missing. Rebelstar really handled that well.
- Copycat Weapons: Your first three weapons were too similar. The oversized handgun, and proceeding two rifles did mostly the same thing. They needed a little more visual variety, and a lot more gameplay variety.
- “We’ve Leveled Off:” The difficulty ramping was occasionally frustrating in the early levels, then grew too easy with careful play. This part of the development process can be very tricky, and can be aided by play-testers and objective developers. (Staying objective is hard, and seeing the game like a newbie after working on it for so long is not easy.)
- Dead-end: Don’t design players into a corner. A monster was introduced requiring a grenade launcher to be destroyed. But you may not have had enough money to buy a grenade launcher. We did not. They did make allowances, positioning three single-use exploding barrels for the three monsters. The barrels could also destroy them, but there was no room for error. Imagine not having the knack to beat them with the barrels. What would the option be? Start over?
- Death? — Whatever: Veterans of Play What You Like analyses know that how death is handled is important. Falling in battle with little penalty leads to less caring for your characters. Investment in the entire game drops, and pretty soon you’re not playing at all. If one of your marines fell in a Xenosquad mission, you just completed the mission without him, and he was back for the next mission as if nothing happened. Not the best way.
Suggestion: Death is not the End
We think the Phoenix Down method (as exemplified in Final Fantasy Tactics) is the best way to handle death. Here it could’ve been an emergency medical kit that a fellow marine administers. Get to the fallen soldier in three turns or not have him for the next mission. Or lose him forever, and have him replaced in the next mission with an non-upgraded rookie.
Sure, space marines are overdone and a bit cliché. But if there was ever a place for them, it’s a small, fun game like this whose missions are designed for that specific character type. While the Marines were somewhat unoriginal, the few enemy alien types were varied and interesting. Armored ones you had to hit from behind, fodder types that were good for bayonet action, shooters who utilize cover, and of course the giant bruiser whose natural enemy seems to be exploding barrels.
Although there was not much story in this game, its minimalist delivery system reminded us of R-Type Command whose story was delivered through the short text logs of the protagonist. Here, they were delivered in short text box instructions before each level. But the idea of a headquarters behind you was communicated, and you did not feel alone in the war. The increasing challenge of the missions and more difficult alien types also transmitted an impression of story/war progression.
At the end of the game, we know no more about the characters than their names and apparently their favorite armor colors. But it’s enough. Enough for a free game, and enough for ten hours of solidly laid out, diverse, turn-based gameplay. We would recommend checking out Xenosquad if you are a fan of this genre, especially because the barrier to entry is so incredibly low.
“If you like Xenosquad, try:”