Developer: Allen Trivette & Lee Williams
Publisher: Night Dive Studios
Release Date: Mar 26, 2015
Since the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, viewers have been entranced with the premise of being lost in space on a massive, dark, malfunctioning vessel. Furthermore, gamers sought to experience this as well in interactive form. After many unsuccessful tries, some would say that Alien: Isolation (2014) was the first game to nail this theme. If you aren’t up for spending the money for that premium title, however, I have a game for you by Lee Williams and Allen Trivette, published by Night Dive Studios (System Shock 2), that will give you most of what you’re looking for. It’s called Spirits of Xanadu.
Welcome to the Xanadu–a spaceship designed to take you around the solar system in mere days. It seems the vessel is past her prime, though, because when you climb aboard, it is dark, gloomy, and falling apart. Your job is to find out what went wrong aboard the now-abandoned ship and guide it back to Earth safely. While you try to restore her systems, you can find audiologs, as well as pages of a book that one of the crew members was writing. Spirits of Xanadu is rich in its lore, and a testament to the indie game scene in general.
The game revolves around three deceased main characters by the names of Solomon Agnew, Cornell Johns, and Lucy Zhao. All were members of authority aboard the Xanadu, and you soon find that each person had a special quirk to them. It’s up to you to discover the truth behind what really happened aboard the ship and who did what to whom. The game is filled with mystery and even attempts psychological thrills at times. For example, certain landmark items seemingly re-appear by “teleporting” to various parts of the ship, possibly revealing a supernatural force aboard.
You will find violence in the vein of killer robots, explosions, guns, and lasers, but no blood is spilled. Unfortunately, there is one artistic portrait showing nudity, and just a couple spots where vulgarity is present (two or three uses of the f-word). You can also smoke cigarettes to death and drink alcohol to the point of drunkenness. The game is quite spooky, as it takes place in total darkness (lit only by your flashlight) and is engulfed in the ship’s eerie mechanical sounds, so if these things make your skin crawl, take warning.
You navigate the Xanadu using the simple WASD control scheme. The shooting uses the very familiar Call of Duty mechanic of right clicking to “aim-down-sights (ADS)” and left clicking to shoot, and also interacting with the “F” key when appropriate. You can run using the Shift key, which is vital, as certain robots can be fatal and swift. As you navigate the vessel, there are terminals where you can save progress, look at cameras around the ship, and more. I was surprised by how seamless the terminals are, as you just have to walk up to them and your crosshairs automatically turn into the mouse cursor on the computer system, enabling you to save your progress or look around. You use maps found on walls quite frequently because the Xanadu is vast with many hallways and rooms. It doesn’t take long to learn the layout of the ship, though, because, when you become incapacitated by the robots, you are taken to the ship’s Brig, forcing you to backtrack to where you were previously.
In addition to exploring and surviving, there are also practical, puzzle-type situations in which you repair the Xanadu for its flight back to Earth. I appreciated the addition of these segments, as I’m sure you would realistically need to know a bit of engineering in order to take over a lost spaceship and set it back on its proper course.
Keeping with the Call of Duty shooting mechanic, you never need to find health, as you just flee from combat, allowing your health (and red-flashing screen) to return to normal. A heartbeat sound effect warns you if you’re being harmed.
There is something to be said about game developers who make their environments almost fully interactive; it shows the passion and care they radiate for their creation. In Spirits of Xanadu, when you encounter a box of food, can of pop, or box of cigarettes, you can eat, drink, and smoke them accordingly. This adds a priceless value to an experience in which you can essentially do as you wish. I’m not joking when I say you can literally smoke yourself until you pass out aboard the Xanadu. You will also become flatulent if you eat in excess, among other surprises, but I will leave you to find those on your own (hint: there’s a fully-developed arcade game on the ship somewhere…)
The presentation of Spirits of Xanadu is both the best and weakest parts of the game. You won’t find a spookier indie title than this one. The Xanadu is dark, empty, void of all life forms, and filled with robots just looking to harm you. You have to use a flashlight throughout the entire game, in fact. The actual physical assets of the game, however, are primitive, as every object looks polygonal (made by pieced-together shapes). This takes away from the immersion, but the gloomy vibe remains nonetheless. As you explore the ship, weird noises creek around you, giving the impression that not only is the ship falling apart, but also that something may be lurking inside its walls.
Lore is plentiful in this game, as you find audiologs and book pages along the haunted hallways and rooms. They don’t feel unnecessary or “thrown-in” either, as is the case in other games driven by over-abundant writing. Quite the contrary, every bit of story you find in Spirits of Xanadu enhances the game’s immersion and feel.
Enemies make characteristic sounds that identify them before you even see them, which helps you to interact more quickly and prepare yourself for the coming threat. Along with enemy sounds, the ship has its own Artificial Intelligence (AI) that you can turn on or off in the settings; this AI can vaguely guide you if you become lost or don’t know what to do.
Spirits of Xanadu is a must-play if you enjoyed the original Ridley Scott-directed Alien movie, or if you just enjoy spooky games filled with mystery, story, and exploration. The Xanadu is a dark, gloomy, decrepit space ship that went through a dramatic falling-out between its authority figures, and it’s up to you to conquer it, repair it, and bring it home. Get passed the harmful robots, uncover the truth, repair the ship, and complete your mission in this immersive indie title.
The Bottom Line
If you're looking for a video game experience modeled after Ridley Scott's Alien, look no further. The creepy vibe will keep you at the edge of your seat while your eyes stay glued to the screen.