By: Matthew Striplen
A man with a shadowy past crash lands on an alien planet brimming with hostile life forms. Most of your comrades are dead, and those who are left are not who they appear to be. Fight to survive in Exile’s End, an homage to ’90s Metroidvania.
If I had to sum up the controls in Exile’s End in a single word, I would choose “limiting,” especially as it pertains to combat. The first weapon your character, Jameson, acquires is a simple rock, but using it is hilariously difficult.
Jameson lobs the rock so far away that hitting anything often requires the player to first run away from the enemy. Plus, the hit detection system is faulty, in that the damage will not consistently register on a direct hit. A safer bet, ironically, is to aim short so the rock bounces into the target.
Lag is another limiting factor. After performing any attack, Jameson can’t move or jump for a split second. This leaves him open to taking damage, especially when confronting multiple opponents.
Lastly, Jameson can only shoot left or right. Diagonal shots are only made possible by special weapons, while shooting up is impossible.
Eight- and 16-bit games have been fashionable over the past few years. Part of what makes the retro movement special is seeing the advancements in programming put to work in such an old style. Exile’s End instead looks like a game that could have actually been released in the ’90s.
Although the environments are certainly detailed, they lack the finesse that other pixel artists have achieved in much older games. On the bright side, Exile’s End sports a handful of cutscenes that deliver a more impressive performance.
In terms of sound, this game brings a mixed bag. Dark, foreboding music pulses through the whole game, lending an atmosphere of dread and danger. Not all the music is particularly pleasant or interesting, however. Some tracks become monotonous and lose their impact after a few loops.
Much of Exile’s End takes direct inspiration from the Metroid franchise. The extraterrestrial setting, nonlinear gameplay and power-up system seem to be lifted directly from the likes of Super Metroid or Metroid Fusion.
As in many Metroid games, unfortunate circumstances lead to Jameson losing all his powers. He must simultaneously complete his quest while also continuing to upgrade his suit. These upgrades enhance his battle capabilities and also allow him to gain access to previously unavailable areas.
Although this formula works very well in the Metroid series, Exile’s End misses the mark in several key ways. There are only a handful of enemies in the entire game, some of which are just palate swapped and enhanced versions of weaker opponents. As the game progresses, the difficulty is inflated by simply flooding the screen with more and more enemies.
Some enemies have questionable AI, most notably the soldiers and purple aliens. When struck by a bullet, the soldiers return fire instantaneously, leaving no chance for the player to avoid taking damage.
If the player is far enough away from the enemy, recovering from the lag before taking damage is sometimes possible. However, the soldiers are capable of shooting normally as well as from a crouched position, and they’re able to assume either stance instantly.
Purple aliens have the opposite problem. They meander around the stage, only turning to fight when provoked. When they approach you, they’ll always stop short of being able to strike the player. This means the only way the player will actually be threatened by them is if the screen is already crowded with enemies or the player actively walks into them.
And then there are the snakes. These infernal things are the most difficult opponent to kill in the entire game, and they’re also the first one the player encounters. They slowly crawl along the floor or ceiling, dropping down from above when the time is right. They’re slow and have no projectile attacks.
So, why are they dangerous, you might ask? Because hitting them is near impossible. Your best chance of destroying them is with a rock, since they’re too low to be hit with gunfire. Even if a snake is on an elevated ledge, hitting them is still difficult due to the fact that they are only a few pixels wider than the bullet itself.
After a given area is free from snakes, switching to a different weapon is probably a good idea. Weapon selection is triggered by hitting R/L to scroll through your list. This feels cumbersome because scrolling from one end of the list to the other can take a few precious moments.
Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but calling up the weapon list does not pause the game. When surrounded by enemies, selecting the desired weapon can be difficult, which often results in accidental item usage. This a major problem when key items, like the med-pack, only hold one use.
Should the player get tired of the campaign, there’s a survival mode to switch things up. This places gamers in an arena with three goals: destroy all enemies, reach the exit before time runs out and, of course, don’t die.
Bizarrely, the first level is significantly more difficult than subsequent stages. Killing an enemy rewards the player with additional time, and since there are few enemies to be found, running out of time is a real concern.
Although later levels are swarming with foes, the additional weapons and upgrades make mowing them down much easier. After a handful of stages, the environments get recycled and the difficulty caps out. I didn’t notice much difference between Level 10 and Level 20.
Exile’s End is a throwback to the games of the ’90s, capturing every aspect of the era, including the flaws. Ultimately, the clunky controls, poor enemy AI and subpar level design prevent the game from truly emulating the classics that inspired it.