Spirits of Xanadu – Review
Spirits of Xanadu captured my imagination as soon as my groovy editor (flattery will get you nowhere – ED) slung the review code my way. Set on a stranded research ship orbiting a mysterious planet, players take on the role of an operative sent to resume contact with the small crew, make any necessary repairs, and shepherd the ship and its important scientific cargo safely home.
The game is the work of two independent developers, Allen Trivette and Lee Williams and is published by Night Dive Studios. The game is certainly an impressive achievement for just two developers. Your journey starts as your operative arrives and docks with the Xanadu. There is no introduction. No tutorial. You start, just standing in your small shuttle as it docks. You could step out your ship and blunder around, but if you open the briefcase on the console you’ll get an introductory audio log thanking you for accepting your mission, explaining what you need to do and wishing you luck. Then you’re on your own.
The graphics are basic. There aren’t many textures or details, but this just gives everything a clean sterile look. You’re on a spaceship, after all. The sound, particularly the ambient sound is great. There are always sounds in the background. Engines humming, or vents hissing, or … other less distinguishable noises. This sets the atmosphere for the game perfectly. The ship is foreboding, and you will feel nervous. It won’t help that the power is out when you arrive and you’re in the dark. The ship’s computer makes announcements throughout the game, sometimes asking all the crew to assemble in one area of the ship or another, which adds to the creepiness when you eventually discover their fate. As the game progresses your character starts to suffer from hallucinations which added some extra awesomeness and creepiness to the proceedings.
Spirits of Xanadu evoked memories of playing System Shock which, in my opinion, means the dev team did a pretty good job. It’s probably not a fair comparison though, as Spirits is ultimately a much shorter and simpler experience.
Much of your time will be spent carefully searching every nook and cranny of the ship for audio logs, reports and other clues to the goings on. There is no set order in which you need to accomplish your tasks, although you can makes things easier or harder for yourself depending on how you proceed. You will need to be alert and attentive, and piece together what you need to do to get the Xanadu to its final destination. There aren’t any puzzles as such to solve, but you will need to piece together various pieces of information to re-activate Xanadu’s various systems and access some areas.
Apart from the exploration you will need to defend yourself from the ships contingent of murderous robots. A pistol is available early on, but if you’re in a rush you could still miss it. You will face turrets, mobile cannons (that look a little like Daleks), irritating flying drones and highly annoying androids that charge towards you before exploding. There is no ammo to manage, but some enemies are a bit tough to take down, and I died a lot to androids. If you’re fastidious you can find a shotgun and an SMG for increased firepower. If death by kamikaze robot gets you down (it did me) you can helpfully turn off robot aggression so you can sleuth in peace. The game doesn’t punish you if die (though you’ll miss out on an achievement). You merely wake up in the brig, ready to resume your activities.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t have the patience required by a game like Spirits of Xanadu. I don’t think Spirits will keep the attention of gamers who like things laid out in front of them. I can’t really fault the game for its hands off approach, but I tired quickly of my search for the last few audio logs. At one point I felt that if I had to open one more damn drawer I would go insane! Well, more insane. By that time, my poor in game alter ego was experiencing permanent bad indoor weather (you’ll see) and pronounced auditory hallucinations. Anyway, I managed to achieve only one of the endings (the bad one). It’s quite obvious to me, that should I ever be sent to space to troubleshoot a problem, I would certainly die there. Oh well.
I’m glad I played Spirits of Xanadu. It’s an experience worth having. The story is well constructed, chilling and riveting as it plays out over audio logs and through crew reports and messages. To get the most out of it, however, you need to be patient and methodical.
Joel Guttenberg hearkens from the motherland in deepest, darkest southern Africa, but now calls Australia home. His interest in games led to a career in IT, both of which continue to this day. He occasionally wrangles electrons into stories that are hopefully fit for (e)print and never, ever, sleeps on the job.