I picked up Spirit of Xanadu, a sci-fi/horror FPS by Night Dive Studios a few weeks back and it’s got me thinking. From the outset, it sounds like a promising mash-up of System Shock, Alien and Event Horizon with an interesting neo-retro aesthetic that instantly appealed when I fired it up. Set in the alt-past of 1983, the story revolves around an unnamed engineer who has been dispatched to help the stricken deep-space vessel Xanadu and return it to Earth. While investigating the ship, you have to avoid sinister robots intent on cutting you to ribbons and piece together the mystery of what went wrong. You can choose to turn off the robots and turn this into a sci-fi Gone Home if you wish but for completions sake, I left them on. In the interests of brevity and keeping this a spoiler-free review, I’ll not say more about the twists and turns but we’ll come back to the plot and story later.
Graphics and gameplay wise, it’s an interesting and solid game with no major issues that I could find. Controls are smooth if a little clunky at times and I noticed the odd visual glitch but compared to some of the latest AAA game release disasters, this is nothing. If you’re running a slightly older gaming rig, turn the resolution down and it runs beautifully but you may notice slowdown if you insist on running it at full specs. It has this interesting, stripped down aesthetic feel that screams retro-futuristic and it plays around with its world in wonderful ways.
Some of you young ‘uns might be confused by the giant floppy discs and dodgy computers but it’s a joy to see this kind of design return to games. Last year’s Alien Isolation was a masterclass in this style and Xanadu is a lesson in taking that and making it your own. Neon lasers flash down sterile white corridors, bright contrasts with dark and little touches really stand out – it’s certainly a game made with tender, loving care. The ships design itself is nothing to shout home about but again it doesn’t offend, the layout feels logical and it’s interesting enough to keep you wandering around.
Gameplay is solid but nothing to write home about as it’s essentially a standard explore-em-up so you’ll spend the vast majority of your time wandering the ship opening drawers, reading things and listening to audio files. It throws some interesting little scenarios at you from time to time and without spoiling some surprises, it does play with the expectations of the genre. You can engage in combat with the Xanadu’s robotic crew but you’re limited to just 3 weapons, 2 of which can be completely missed if you don’t pay enough attention when looking around. They’re fun if limited but really, this isn’t an FPS so don’t expect tense gun battles or set pieces.
Remember when I mentioned the plot earlier – the engineer, mystery ship and all that? How many of you instantly started listing off numerous films, games and books from the past few decades that either match this scenario or play around within its connotations? How many more stories can we tell that revolve around mysteries on spaceships before they start to blur together? The opening sequence, with the engineer’s shuttle docking with the Xanadu while a repeating message plays over the ships intercom made me openly chuckle at how similar it as to another of my favorite games, Dead Space.
I had to fight against the overwhelming feeling of Déjà vu that washes over the game from start to finish and it’s a rare moment when you enter a room and don’t feel like you’ve done this before somewhere. This is a problem for Xanadu as frankly, the story just wasn’t enough to keep me going. It all feels very familiar and that’s a little sad, frankly – when your gameplay is functionally sound but uninteresting in itself, you need to rely on a compelling and gripping story and I just didn’t invest in the crew of the Xanadu or its mysteries. Lacking the wit and charm of some of the games it clearly apes, Xanadu just comes over as less – less interesting, less relevant and less worthy of your time.
A Place Where Nobody Dared To Go
Gameplay - 5/10
Plot - 5/10
Design - 8/10
Flashes of inspiration wrapped in a stark, gripping visual style aren’t enough to carry the game. A well-written if derivative story and slightly duff gameplay lead to an underwhelming near-miss that was just so close to being superb.