The fascination with all things retro is not a new phenomenon – it could even be argued that it’s becoming retro in itself and creating a nostalgia paradox in which everything is endlessly self-referential and derivative. That being said, it is refreshing to see a title like Exile’s End that so completely seeks to recreate the look and feel of its inspirations.
The backstory to the game is eerily similar to that of Prometheus, that eternally disappointing Alien spinoff. An intergalactic expedition has uncovered a strange artifact and a team is sent to investigate. Upon arrival, electronic interference prevents them from leaving the planet and you are left to explore the hostile world to try and uncover the mystery. So far, so generic, but such familiarity is in keeping with the old-school intentions of the game.
What is more original, however, is that your character is a grizzled old veteran who is too old for this s**t, a characterisation that is interestingly developed as the game progresses. Ultimately, this portrayal works extremely well in the eventual choice of ending to the game. I was particularly taken by the fact that the two alternative endings felt appropriate to different facets of the character rather than sticking to the predictable good/bad options.
The game itself is essentially a Metroidvania title, despite its odd claim that it’s no such a thing. Your initial vulnerability to the dangers around you are gradually overturned as you find items and abilities that enable you to explore and fight off the threats. The early stages of the game work really well to highlight how dangerous the world is. Falling from platforms hurts, and the first alien creature encounter has much in common with the lethal opening of the classic Another World.
In true Metroid style, this vulnerability is short-lived. I felt that the balance was too heavily weighted on the player’s side as the alien creatures quickly become an annoyance rather than a threat. This was further exacerbated by their respawning, meaning that exploration became repetitive and at times a chore.
Exile’s End controls well enough, with jumping and shooting being the main activities. It doesn’t feature many moments of pixel-perfect expectations and it’s generally quite easy to get around. Where the difficulty comes in, however, is in some of the obscure signposting and general lack of explanation. Items are collected with no real idea of where and how they should be used and one particular puzzle involves the only use of explosives and detonators in the game with no prompts or indications.
The backtracking that is so central to the Metroidvania formula is relatively painless and the map is perfectly functional in indicating the dead-ends and unexplored areas. The inevitable secret areas are infuriating to find however, with no graphical indication or ‘tell’, meaning that you must throw your limited stock of grenades at every wall if you want to find the upgrades that you will need to make your way past the bosses. Some kind of visual or audio feedback from shooting breakable walls would have made this process less arduous, especially since there is a trophy for finding everything in the game. Your grenades can be replenished by defeating enemies but the whole process is a reminder of the worst aspects of retro gaming.
The aforementioned bosses are somewhat underwhelming, lacking the scale and complexity of many Metroidvanias. With no visual indication of their health battling them feels somewhat random and in at least two cases, I resorted to spamming grenades rather than learning and responding to their attack patterns. In this case, it is the opposite to Slain: Back From Hell, which has similar retro leanings.
The game captures the look and feel of its C64/early Amiga influences well. The sprites are well designed and the various graphic filters emulate that classic CRT look, complete with scanlines. The music is functional, but the forest theme in particular began to grate and I was expecting more from this side of the game, given the focus on and status of its composer, Keiji Yamagishi. Granted, this may be more because of the quality of some of the chiptunes available elsewhere and the rose-tinted effect they have had on my memories of true old-school soundtracks.
Exile’s End is not a bad game by any means, but it never really reaches the heady heights of its influences. In what is so obviously a labour of love, this is a shame, but such is the risk with such blatant nostalgia. Often, going back is not a good idea.
Version tested: PlayStation 4