[su_highlight background=”#3b88ff” color=”#ffffff”]Platforms: PC/Mac/Linux, Steam | Developer: Allen Trivette & Lee Williams | Publisher: Night Dive Studios | ESRB: Unrated[/su_highlight]

Set during 1983, in an alternate history where space exploration became much more advanced, Spirits of Xanadu is a hybrid of adventure, first person shooter and horror games. It was developed by a small team and published by Night Dive Studios, which gave us other titles like System Shock 2 – one source of inspiration for the game.

In Spirits of Xanadu you are Operative 375, tasked by a research organisation to board The Xanadu and bring the spaceship back to Earth using any means necessary. At first glance the story seems cliché and going into the game it’s easy to have assumptions that it’ll just be a copy of something that’s already been done before. To avoid spoiling anything, Spirits of Xanadu’s story is the best part of the game and makes the most of the limited assets without breaking immersion.

There are, of course, audio logs scattered around along with pages and emails to help you piece together what happened on The Xanadu – which is traditional for science fiction horror games. Each voice actor does a decent job with the delivery of their lines, although a greater range of emotions in the script would have been appreciated since each character seems to feel the same way at all times.

The starting shuttle bay area onboard The Xanadu is ominously dark

The starting shuttle bay area onboard The Xanadu is ominously dark

However the more impressive way that Spirits of Xanadu portrays its backstory is through the use of environmental storytelling, something that harks back to Half Life. The environment of The Xanadu is surprisingly interactive, allowing you to: flush toilets, make toast and even play video games on an arcade machine. It makes the ship feel very lived-in and further encourages exploration for fear of missing some secret if you don’t flip every toilet seat up.

But regarding the storytelling part, pieces of the plot may be noticed by the perceptive gamer from the placement of certain objects. One such example is a trail of blood. Initially you may come to the decision that someone, or something, was killed there. If you follow the trail to where it leads to and consider where it begins, the blood trail takes on a new significance, helping to clarify what a particular audiolog meant. Although the blood trail is ultimately explained by an audiolog further in the game, by thinking deductively you can figure out the plot earlier or even if missing audiologs.

There are numerous other easter eggs and references, some insignificant while others clearly having some sort of symbolism. Xanadu (ignoring the film of the same name) is the estate in Citizen Kane and the summer palace in the poem Kubla Khan, synonymous with opulence and grandeur. Meanwhile the planet over which The Xanadu orbits is Demhe, a name taken from the Lovecraftian King in Yellow – if you know anything about Lovecraft you already know that nothing good ever comes from the Elder Gods. Even the random masks from Japanese theatre make more sense (although it may seem a little pretentious) when you link the lotus at the end with the hanamichi (flower path) used for entrances and exits in Kabuki theatre.

These fuel canisters may seem familiar to you

These fuel canisters may seem familiar to you

The game concludes with one of three endings. It should be noted however that this does not mean that Spirits of Xanadu is replayable. Provided that you explored the ship instead of rushing through it, the endings are determined by the conclusion instead of the journey to the end. As a result, if you want to see a different ending you only need to load your last save and pick a different option. This is problematic because even after obtaining all the items to achieve the two other endings, the game takes around three or four hours to complete. The story, although for the most part not leaving any loose ends, does leave you wanting more and it could have done with an extra level, or simply a larger ship.

The gameplay on the other hand is not as compelling, although there is a ‘peaceful’ difficulty setting to remove the shooting segments if you only want to explore the story. There are three enemies: a security bot that looks like a Henry vacuum cleaner, a flying drone that you won’t be able to hit once it spots you and a final robot that really wants to play basketball with you.

Ironically the security robot is the least lethal of the three due to its slow lasers which can be dodged by crouching. That being said, combat overall is remarkably easy – in part due to the bad AI which won’t be able to handle the player standing on furniture. Most of the challenge in the shooting comes from overwhelming numbers and trying to aim with your gun which will always feel a little too floaty.

The Henry Hoover Security Bot

The Henry Hoover Security Bot

There are three possible guns that you may find aboard the Xanadu. The plasma pistol is obtained at the start of the game, with an ability to charge up an attack to easily kill unsuspecting enemies. The shotgun is somewhat hidden but makes up for a lack of burst damage by its spread, which will let you hit enemies easier – particularly the aforementioned flying drones. The submachine gun may be found late in the game by which point most of the enemies will probably be dead. Regardless of which gun you use, the sounds will be unimpressive and maybe a little jarring before you get used to them.

Despite the disappointing gunplay, the other parts of the gameplay are well done. In the classic style of past adventure games there is no objective presented to you besides bringing the ship back to Earth, so it’s up to your own wits and ingenuity to figure out how to do so. Occasionally a helpful system notice over the speakers will direct you to which room on the ship needs your attention, which can be navigated to by using maps found on the walls of the ship to help orientate yourself. Getting the ship’s systems running is satisfying and my only gripe with the puzzles is that there isn’t more to fix.

There were only two glitches that were significantly glaring while playing Spirits of Xanadu. The first is that, upon accessing the inventory from the escape menu, the player character will stand up. If you’re in a grate while accessing the inventory in this way you will continue to stand regardless, resulting in clipping and seeing through walls until you crouch again. The second glitch arises from the flying drones. If killed while firing their weapon, the lightning sprite remains on the screen where it was last standing.

Even in death the flying drones annoy us with glitches

Even in death the flying drones annoy us with glitches

However even without the glitches, Spirits of Xanadu is an ugly game. There are minimalist games that look good even with limited graphics – Spirits of Xanadu is not one of them. Everything in the game (ranging from your guns to the enemies) is untextured, making the game look like an alpha rather than a finished project. Although the game’s budget was undoubtedly small, it would have been much more appealing in a different style instead of being a 3D shooter.

While I enjoyed the story of Spirits of Xanadu and the exploration of the spaceship, it’s something that belongs to a niche group. If the aesthetics don’t put you off then it might be the clunky gameplay that does so instead. Especially considering the short amount of time in which Spirits of Xanadu can be completed it’s hard to recommend the game unless you can appreciate its references to other media, or if you can see past its flaws.

Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the developer.


Krzysztof Wiewiorski
Krzysztof has been playing strategy games for 20 years, first starting with Dune 2 on DOS. When he's not sending wave after wave of men to their deaths, he enjoys exploring gripping stories and colourful characters - his favourite being the Ace Attorney series.

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