Twin-stick shooting gameplay is simplicity in its truest form. There is a lot that can be done with it, since the mechanics of being able to fire in any direction while strafing around oncoming threats can be applied to so many kinds of games.
There have been RPGs with twin-stick action, some are like platformers, and the amount of varieties of shoot ’em up style games that use this kind of gameplay are endless. With a distant overhead perspective and responsive controls, there is no limit to how these design flourishes can be applied.
The boys at Bitmap Bureau aimed to create a Smash TV style arena twin-stick shooter with Xeno Crisis, with a heavy influence with the 1986 classic film Aliens. On top of also creating it with the limitations of SEGA Genesis specs in mind for a fully playable 16-bit cart; Xeno Crisis promises to be an authentic throwback to arcade adrenaline fueled action.
Developer: Bitmap Bureau
Publisher: Bitmap Bureau
Platforms: Windows PC, Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One (reviewed), Evercade, Dreamcast, Neo Geo, Sega Megadrive/Genesis
Release Date: October 28, 2019
Price: $19.99 USD
Xeno Crisis makes a very strong first impression. The opening pixel art smash screens play lip service to the kinds of sci-fi action-sploitation that was very common in the late 80s and early 90s.
Images of cold metallic labyrinths and flashing red lights and gooey xenomorph knock-offs flood the screen. The awesome wave of nostalgia of anybody growing up in the 80s will have flashbacks of video rental stores, and the big faded standees of aliens and Sigourney Weaver lugging a massive space gun, covered in sweat and grime.
The first level begins and it will feel like coming home. The controls are fluent and very tight; so perfect for digital output that using any analogue stick makes for an inaccurate experience. For multi-directional shooting in eight directions, a real space marine uses the face buttons for pin-point precision.
Regretfully, not everything works as it should. Xeno Crisis has a pathetic melee attack that is too short to be effective against a huge wave of several bunched up monsters, and has too long of a cooldown. On top of a weak feeling audio-visual cue, it’s so worthless that it’s barely worth remembering.
Ammo runs dry very quickly, and even though ammo drops will randomly spawn as the counter draws close to zero, it’s easy to get completely surrounded. If the melee wasn’t as limp as Phil Fish’s bicep, then maybe chances of survival wouldn’t be as unfair.
Xeno Crisis is already a very hard game, and there is a bit of luck when it comes to victory because the maps are randomly generated. Compounded with random weapon drops and dog tags for upgrading; everything is working against the player.
Playing on easy is not a viable option for anybody with self-respect, since this locks out the true ending. Abusing the dodge roll’s invincibility frames is also not a reliable strategy, as you come out of a roll with a slightly too long cooldown. This will only delay an inevitable hit and draw out shoot-outs, since not upgrading power will make enemies take too long to kill.
Xeno Crisis has an upgrade system in it to add a bit of variety and replay value. There is no way to save stats for a replay to make a further run slightly easier, and both playable characters cap specific attributes at different levels.
The lantern jaw-guy will lean more heavily into gaining more damage output, making him the only real option for anyone who doesn’t want to get bored shooting endlessly at swarms of aliens. The Jill Valentine look-alike is a speedier character which makes evasive tactics more viable, but she caps her strength at only three levels.
Enemies randomly drop dog tags which function as the currency to purchase upgrades between levels. The stats are self-explanatory, but players are also given the option to buy continues too.
The prices on these boosts and continues are pretty high on the standard difficulty. Often there are not enough dog tags to pick up in a level to buy back that used continue, since they go for 100. On the easy mode, prices are much more fair and continues fetch for 30, with everything else also costing about one third the normal price.
Xeno Crisis is also a very short game to make up for its high difficulty. This is one of those games where the incredibly short length is padded out by extremely high challenge that demands replays and a bit of luck. This is all well and good if Xeno Crisis was fast paced and addictive, but more often than not the shoot-outs feel mind-numbingly boring.
The core experience revolves around goring through randomized but samey rooms or arenas and getting locked in; while bootleg xenomorphs, pod plants, and grabboids try to eat your brains. Some levels will have a couple of the crowdfunding backers to save, and other times players may have to find a key card to progress.
Beyond these very basic parameters, Xeno Crisis is so simple to the point it becomes boring. There is just not enough meat in here to sink your teeth into, and the overall package feels more like a bonus mode to a much more involving game.
It’s easy to imagine that there would be large and complex interconnected maps that unfurl like an overhead metroidvania. Various areas that would have their unique hazards and gimmicks attached to them, and cheekily hidden key-items and puzzles to solve. Unfortunately, that would be too complex of a game; and what we get is the barest of bones, comatose shooting.
If the high challenge doesn’t keep you awake, then expect to gradually nod off as the tedium of the action flatlines as if you are on your deathbed. It’s too bad that Henk Nieborg’s incredible pixel art and animation is put to waste on such a basic twin-stick shooter.
The visuals go beyond just being an homage to the film Aliens; they are seemingly inspired by the incredible and garish toy line from Kenner. Back in the 80s and early 90s, it was common for ultra-violet hardcore R-rated films to get toys and cartoon adaptations for kids.
Brutal movies like The Toxic Avenger, Robocop, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Aliens had graphic violence and the kids all thought it was awesome. Aliens was especially a fan favorite, since the Kenner toy line vastly expanded the setting and premise to a huge degree, and introduced a wider variety of colorful monsters.
Henk Nieborg sneakily implemented a lot of the flair seen in those action figures. Many of the enemies in Xeno Crisis have a bright and colorful plastic sheen, and rubbery bounce in their animation. They don’t come off as fearsome, so much as they do adorable.
The background art for the arenas also resemble play sets that you might see in a toy commercial- the only thing missing would be the kid’s hands and a really hyped voice over. The gore is also nice and chunky- enemies will explode like melons packed with raspberry jam.
The only mistake with the graphics is the oversight of not having any CRT filters to make the visuals more authentic. Most of the game is not in widescreen; the developers went through the effort to emulate the limitations of the screen real estate, but forgot about the way phosphorous screens had a specific look to displaying video games.
The music is rousing chiptune fare, but not anything stand out. It’s very serviceable, and sounds like noise one would hear blaring in an arcade, desperately trying to get your attention. The voice clips of the announcer are much more memorable, with lines delivered with bravado and gusto.
The sound for the gore is noteworthy for sounding like digitized squishiness. It’s what it would sound like if Super Mario ate a ton of Taco Bell and chased it with prune juice.
Most of the music will fade into the background of the sound of gunfire overpowering everything else. Xeno Crisis constantly throws fodder at the player, so there is rarely a time with guns are not blazing.
The crisis gets tepid pretty fast, and the only saving grace is to bring a friend to liven it up. The co-op gameplay is sadly limited to only local, and there is no online feature at all. Across all the different platforms that Xeno Crisis was put on- the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions make no sense to not have online play.
Obviously the SEGA Genesis version would only have local co-op, but even the Dreamcast could support online play if they tried. Playing with some one can ease the challenge a bit if they know what they are doing, but mostly the other player will also take up valuable resources.
Xeno Crisis has its heart in the right place, but is too stingy with offering enough content to make it worth the absurd asking price of $19.99 USD. It’s a slick looking retro style action game, but one that aspires to be something very basic. If it wasn’t so utterly repetitive, it could easily be considered a classic.
Xeno Crisis was reviewed on Xbox Series S using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.