The movie Groundhog Day exemplifies one of my greatest fears: waking up day after day to repeat the same tasks and experience the same sensations over and over again. I’m scared to death that one morning I’ll open my eyes to the same interminable dross I dealt with the day prior, so imagine my pants-wetting realization that, after having previewed Solarix mere days ago, I was now scheduled to review yet another first-person indie sci-fi adventure featuring hallucinogenic alien viruses in the outskirts of space. It wasn’t until I booted up the game, rechecked the date (you know, just in case it was Friday again), and gave Spirits of Xanadu a try that I realized this was anything but a rehash of the week before; it was something new, something magnificent.
There’s No Welcome Party At The Docking Bay
Spirits of Xanadu sets the stage for the entire game aboard the Xanadu, a cold, lifeless research vessel floating above some mysterious planet millions of miles from Earth. It’s been months since the Xanadu reported back to control, so now a lone operative (that would be you) is tasked with boarding the silent vessel and bringing her back into Earth’s atmosphere. However, the assignment isn’t as easy as simply rerouting the GPS; a legion of murderous robots roam the dark hallways and empty engine rooms of the Xanadu, and our lone hero must fight his way through the mechanized masochists in order to restart the engine and reengage the autopilot. It’s only after hunting through the crew quarters, offices, and recreation rooms that the player realizes some other force is at play. Short audio logs, blood stained floors, and vivid hallucinations tell the tale of a mysterious alien virus that crept inside the minds of the crew and drove them mad, and it’s now up to the player to decide the fate of the twisted, infected Xanadu.
A Plasma Pistol And A Some Riddles
While it can be technically classified as a first-person shooter, Spirits of Xanadu offers so much more than just a simple hailstorm of energy bullets. Sure, you can run through the halls shooting every robot in the face with limitless ammo and three separate kinds of weapons, but that’s a far cry from making any progress in the game. The objectives, which present themselves as vaguely as possible, force the player to actually piece together a strategy to get things moving. You can run and gun till your heart’s content, but you also need to take the time to rifle through every cabinet, open up every drawer, and read every email to fully grasp what it is you need to be doing.
Which brings us to Spirits of Xanadu’s greatest strength. Traditionally, puzzles in videogames almost exclusively rely on stacking blocks or flicking switches in a specific fashion until something happens. While there are aspects of that style here, Spirits seems to rely much more heavily on the grander scheme of things, making each objective and the main overall mission into a puzzle for the player to solve. How do you restart the engine? How am I going to survive the long trip back to earth without fixing the cryogenic pods? What can I do to re-install the autopilot and turn on the lights? The game itself is a giant puzzle, and thus doesn’t rely on more than just a handful of the “flip this switch and stack this box” mechanics that other puzzlers depend on.
Lift The Seat When You Pee, Gentlemen…
In order to make the entire game into a riddle that absolutely requires painstaking attentiveness on the player’s part, the developers of Spirits of Xanadu put a hell of a lot of effort into making the Xanadu almost completely immersive. Nearly anything you could imagine interacting with in real life is a reality here. Players can open drawers, push rolling chairs, turn faucets on, play guitar, and shoot hoops. Hell, you can lift the toilet seat up and down as many times as you want! The number of things you can spend time messing with is off the charts (you can even play an arcade-style zombie shooter in the break room), and it truly adds to the depth of the game. While there are still quite a few static objects in each room, the freedom to snoop through every file cabinet kept me busy for hours. It’s as if I totally forgot there was a ship to save…
Come to think of it, the details of the game are what truly make Spirits a remarkable standout from the majority of the indie crowd. The game’s storytelling is all done via panicked audio logs and email correspondence, and listening to the repeated announcements over the ship’s automated intercom (something I would traditionally ignore out of ignorance, like sunscreen or stop lights) actually becomes necessary. Much in the same way Solarix didn’t need cutscenes to craft an environment of sheer terror, Spirits utilizes beautifully-written letters and memos that are both natural and horrifying. Players get a glimpse into the life and times of the crewmates before the disease; the picture painted is one of organic struggle, of human beings trying their best to get along while living millions of miles away from home. It is downright poetic.
Sure, It May Look Like A Toy
Spirits of Xanadu‘s graphics are very much akin to those of the block-headed FPS Minimum. Smooth, single-color textures and bare-bones polygons rule the visual template, but it all comes together very fittingly. The interactive environment and deep plot compensate for an art form that would otherwise look like a cartoon, and it becomes impossible to not take the game seriously. The music, sound effects, and voice acting are also on par with the game’s overall mood, constantly reminding players that they are indeed aboard a renegade ship devoid of life.
Spirits of Xanadu offers an enriching gameplay experience that lingers on the edge of my thoughts even now. While I feared it would turn out to be just another sci-fi horror adventure, it jumped up and surprised me with meaningful storytelling, interesting mysteries, and three different endings (all of which are extremely impactful, depending on what kind of psychotic person you are).
You can check out my first forty minutes of gameplay (above) or browse through some screenshots below (including an obvious NSFW)!