Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of your personal and customizable “cyberdragon” within the game XenoRaptor. Its five-year mission: to destroy hundreds of thousands of skeletal, buzzsaw spaceships. To acquire unique weapons and upgrades as you progress. To boldly go where no “cyberdragon” (yes it’s actually called that) has gone before! Except it doesn’t go anywhere new gameplay-wise. In fact, this twin-stick shooter doesn’t discover or tread any new ground at all.
XenoRaptor is comparable to classic arcade games like Asteroids. Back in the day, most of those arcade games had three points that kept players engaged: they were easy to pick up and learn, they were difficult to master, and they made you want to keep playing. XenoRaptor checks those first two points off of its list, but, unfortunately, it does the opposite of making you want to continue playing.
Everything about the game starts strong. The music sounds punchy and exciting. The controls are responsive and it’s satisfying to blow up enemy ships. The visuals are a bit blurry but they’re nice and colorful. The large list of potential weapons to unlock grabs your curiosity. But, after an incredibly short time, that song that has played nonstop on each level becomes grating. Blowing up enemy ships in level 6 is no different than blowing them up in level 1 whether you have a laser or a shotgun blast. And those blurry visuals sure did start to take their toll on my eyes after hours of playtime. All of these are issues, for sure, but none of them hurt the game as much as the time it takes to get anything done. Specifically in XenoRaptor’s campaign mode.
In each level of the campaign there are 10 waves. Waves 5 and 10 present you with a boss battle and the reward of a new upgrade or weapon for your *sigh* “cyberdragon” if you are victorious. Once you’ve beaten wave 5, you have the option to continue to the next level or fight on towards wave 10. Never. Fight. On. Every level after level 1 took me more than half an hour to complete. Level 6 took me close to two hours to complete in one continuous run. I say one continuous run, because if you die on any wave *WAM!* back to the beginning of the entire level for you. That kind of punishment feels catastrophic to the pacing of a game like XenoRaptor. One of my favorite bullet-hell games, Cuphead, will have you losing a lot because of some super difficult boss fights. However, when you complete a stage in Cuphead without dying, it takes a few minutes rather than two entire hours.
Those hours spent playing could have been much more tolerable if the encounters with enemies felt like they were progressing or evolving in some way. Enemies will come from off-screen and try to shoot you or ram into you. That is all. Eventually, things will be spiced up with an enemy having a laser or a boss that turns into multiple smaller enemies once you think you’ve defeated it, but it never feels like the game is becoming more challenging because of the foes. The difficulty feels incredibly arbitrary. Most of my deaths were due to accidentally boosting into an asteroid, or getting annihilated in a single hit by a specific enemy’s laser blast that travels quicker than any other projectile in the game, can come from off-screen, and aims for exactly where your ship is moving to. However, ultimately it’s not as bad as it sounds. There is a red line that telegraphs the trajectory the attack will take. Oh, but that red line only appears once the attack has already been blasted toward you at the speed of, and this is the scientific term, hella fast.
As you go on, sure, more enemies will come at you than before to lend the game that bullet-hell feeling, but if you boost away just a little bit then the enemy AI has an incredibly hard time following you. Sometimes, in the later levels, an enemy that splits into units so small you might mistake them for a broken pixel on your screen will run away across the seemingly infinite map while you fight everything else. Then, when the wave can’t finish because the screen says, “Enemies Remaining: 1,” you’ll have to hunt down that microscopic pest for, on average, two solid minutes of zero gameplay. Two whole minutes without something to shoot in a twin-stick bullet-hell shooter is absolutely abysmal.
Then, because of your extended voyage to slay the cowardly flea that doesn’t value your time, you’ll come to realize two different things: the first being the background for each level doesn’t move or shift at all. If not for the occasional asteroid passing by, it creates a disorienting feeling that you aren’t actually moving anywhere. The second thing you realize is that the little stockpile of repair kits and coolants that keep your weapons from overheating is now lightyears away. The next wave of enemies isn’t though. Cue three lasers from off-screen, and *KABLAMO*! “Aw, better luck next time, champ,” I could hear the game chuckle. “You’d better exit out to the main menu and customize your ship because there isn’t a more convenient or speedy way for you to do that while you’re playing the game.”
In addition to the campaign, there are endless and splitscreen modes. Endless is exactly what you think it is. Horrible. It sucks up just as much time as the campaign levels but, at least in my attempts of the endless mode, it doesn’t reward you with any new weapons or upgrades. It exists solely to determine how long you can last and how big your score can become. I know that’s a big draw for a lot of players, but if I’m not progressing toward a finishing point or even earning anything for my hard work, why am I here?
As much as I don’t understand the appeal of an endless mode, the splitscreen mode is even more baffling. Normally, the game has a radar that pings enemy locations as they come onto the screen. There is also a display of how many ships remain. In splitscreen mode neither of those things exist. If you and your splitscreen partner get separated, it is next to impossible to find each other again. Completing a single wave becomes a monumental challenge due to the enemies effectively becoming invisible. Not to mention the audio takes a severe nosedive in splitscreen mode as it comes through the TV speakers like tin foil in a kitchen sink disposal.
I was excited to start playing XenoRaptor on Xbox One. Unfortunately, that excitement faded quickly once the game started. The game has some great guts in it, don’t get me wrong. The controls are superb, and enemies explode pleasantly. If things were a bit more streamlined and a bit of polish was used here or there, then XenoRaptor could be a great little time killer. However, the shallow gameplay, painful visuals, the insane amount of time it takes to accomplish anything and the abominable splitscreen mode make it very difficult to recommend to even the most enthusiastic fans of the genre.