Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Whiskey Reviews: Eisenhorn: XENOS

Platform: PC
Release Date: 10 August, 2016
Developer: Pixel Hero Games
Publisher: Pixel Hero Games
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £14.99 (Steam)

Brief foreword here: There's been a huge delay in anything getting posted due to my losing all of my files. Thankfully some reviews were saved on Dropbox but that's only the text, the screenshots have been lost to the angry HDD gods. Please enjoy the review and hopefully I'll have more regular posts coming up in the future.

I can't profess to have read the books by Dan Abnett that Eisenhorn: Xenos is based on but the game borrows very heavily from that old bound paper tome narrative device – the narrator. You see, Eisenhorn himself narrates the story from some point in the future, I like to imagine he's having a nice romantic dinner with the Emperor and several members of a Genestealer cult. This narration affects the game in two distinct ways: firstly, Mark Strong (probably most easily recognised as the villain Frank D'Amico from Kick-Ass) provides a strong performance throughout and is genuinely compelling to listen to as he retells the story. Secondly, the screen is constantly overlaid with a kind of fuzzy, smudged overlay that's not quite film grain and not quite blur. It's like watching the game through a thin sheet of translucent cloth overlaid on an old CRT screen.

Eisenhorn is one for one so far, and that's a theme that tends to repeat as we look at other aspects of the game. Visuals are constantly marred by the not quite ugly but definitely distracting overlay but can be beautiful or imposing depending on the location. The sense of scale on display can be astounding, especially in the opening level where you're told there's thousands of cryostasis pods and get a chance to look up and down a huge skyscraper like structure and can see them stretching away into the misty distance. A later area, called the Sun Dome is spectacular in scale and use of light and light shafts in particular. Occasionally the visuals are comparable to other sci-fi classics like Blade Runner or The Matrix – huge megastructures convey magnificence and strip away individualism by the sheer scale.

That's why it's such a shame that the level design is very hit and miss. Areas are blocky, sometimes disguised by the trimmings, such as tombs or huge machinery, but ultimately a large part of the game consists of three basic components – rooms, corridors, and walkways. In the game's opening it works well to convey the grimdark nature of the setting. It's industrial and oppressive. By the second level things open up more and you're allowed to explore limited outdoor segments but once inside you're back to the corridors and rooms.

The game's mobile roots have necessitated fairly simple mechanics, with gameplay being split into three distinct modes: exploration, where you'll wander around with Eisenhorn providing exposition. Combat, where you'll use a simple melee/ranged/dodge mechanic to deal with foes. And Stealth, which is a middle ground between both where you can crouch around, distract guards and lure them into positions where you can duck walk up behind them and brutally dispose of them. Being basic isn't a bad thing however, it means the moves at your disposal are always obvious and combat flows fairly smoothly as you slip from melee to ranged and back again while rolling between enemy blows.

What does feel a little too basic however are the animations – combat animations are fairly straightforward with nothing fancy save for the brutal finishing moves (hacking a chainsword into someone's back, revving and pulling it at the same time to spin them around doesn't get old) but out of combat animations suffer from feeling floaty and rigid at the same time. Nowhere is this more apparent than the climbing animation where the speed of Eisenhorn's movements are out of sync with the speed at which he moves (an effect sometimes called skating or foot sliding) and it produces a comedic effect in an otherwise serious game. His walk animations are also rigid though better disguised by the fancy long coats Eisenhorn wears but they still feel unnatural, especially when turning the camera at the same time.

Facial animations suffer from rigidity and a lack of details on things like teeth. Uber Aemos is particularly egregious in this regard with his teeth being a solid white horseshoe shape in his weirdly flapping mouth that makes him look like a malfunctioning rubber animatronic. These facial animations can be partially forgiven thanks to the excellent narration providing some distraction. Additional relief is also provided via the narration often taking the place of actual conversations, glossing over the minutiae of the conversations and getting to the point.

This is all for the best, as the other voice actors aside from Mr Strong seem to have phoned in their performances to varying degrees. The actor behind the first mission villain Eyclone seems to have literally phoned it in and used an answering machine to record his dialogue. Other characters like Midas, your ship's pilot, provide an decent performance but they're definitely several points over par. Most of the voice actors seem to be from around the United Kingdom, which makes their performances somewhat of a novelty and it's nice to see our little island's accents getting some representation as something other than villains.

The supporting cast of characters aren't just voices though, their in game presence takes the form of a few different characters that can accompany you on missions but despite the developers best attempts to make them unique and memorable they all come across as a bit bland. The first companion, Godwyn Fischig Chastener of the Adeptus Arbites, is your typical knowledgable but dimwitted cop. Your Astropath, Lowink is similarly dimwitted but manages to stand out by being a kind of lovable simpleton. Helped along by the fact that he looks like a half melted clay potato.

Overall it's a game of yin and yang. You can't have the good without an equal amount of bad. It all balances out into an experience that's middling at the best and, at worst off-putting due to the high demands for excellence from the gaming community. There's commendation to be had for the developers attempting to convert a book into an action game, I can't say how close the conversion is to the source material but without the game I'd have never learned what a compelling badass Eisenhorn is. Coming from a developer that only has two games to their name, and the concessions made for mobile gaming, Eisenhorn: Xenos isn't terrible. I could easily see myself being far more impressed with the game if playing on a phone or tablet. It's not an easy recommendation but if you can look past the superficial flaws and get into the story then it's an enjoyable several hours of being an interplanetary space badass.

Score: Eisenhorn gets 5 pompous aristocrats out of 10.

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