I love plenty of games, and plenty of game series, but none as much as Fallout. In fact, I’ve always had a soft spot for post-apocalyptic fiction, and I’d put that series above just about any of the books, movies, and games that I’ve played in the genre. Given that, you can probably imagine how quickly I headed to the App Store when I heard about Xenome, an iOS game described to me as “like Fallout for your iPod.” Having finished Episode 1, I might call it one part Fallout and one part Borderlands, and I can tell you that it’s a pretty good foundation for Episodes 2 and beyond.
Xenome is set several hundred years in Earth’s future. At the game’s beginning, you are hit by the classic gaming trope: amnesia. You’re being unthawed from cryosleep, and “it’s going to take a while” before your memory returns. As things progress, though, you come across fragments of a diary that fill you in on the world’s history, as well as your own. In Xenome, at some point still in our future, much of humanity died off, and the remnants hid underground to escape an irradiated surface. Hundreds of years later, you find yourself emerging from your cryosleep to a surface that two factions are fighting to control, and you are thrust directly into their conflict.
As you progress through this Episode’s story, most of your story knowledge comes from locating and reading the diary fragments I mentioned. They come too far apart to be entirely remembered as you play (unless you play in much longer sessions than I did), but the developers’ website includes the full text of all of the fragments, which I found very helpful. I’d prefer an in-game journal, but the website is still nice to have. Of course, the “Episode 1” part of the title gives away the fact that you’re not going to resolve the whole conflict in just this game. You will reach the end of this character’s story arc, though, and although the pseudo-cliffhanger ending is fairly cliché, it’s far from the worst I’ve ever seen. According to the developers, there will be multiple Episodes after this, leading to the release of an iOS MMORPG, currently titled “Xenome Online.” They say that playing the Episodes will give players the full backstory for the MMO, but that playing them won’t be required.
Knowing that Xenome is designed to become an MMO likely tells you a lot about how it plays – real-time combat, lots of loot, and most quests are of the “kill 7 scorpions” variety. In this Episode, you have no choice but to play as the Scientist class. The title screen shows two other characters, who I assume represent the eventual MMO’s other classes, although I have no speculation on what those classes will be like. The Scientist wields both a melee weapon and a gun, and automatically switches between them based on the distance you’re standing from your targeted enemy. As you level up, you learn a set of class-based skills, and certain enemies have a chance to drop items that allow you to learn additional skills that you can’t get by leveling. You can only have four skills at a time assigned to on-screen buttons, but that always seemed to be enough for me.
Xenome’s terrain is one big open-world map – the website claims that it’s five square miles, and that sounds about right. Fortunately, there are portals scattered around the map that allow you to quickly jump from one area to another at no cost. Incidentally, if you’re killed, you reappear at the last portal you jumped to. As you wander the world, you’ll find a variety of enemies (including mutated cacti and crabs that are 8 feet tall), grouped by level. You’re free to wander anywhere you want, but you’ll likely get slaughtered if you wander into the wrong area too early in your development. If you do get attacked by an enemy, running away long enough will cause your foe to turn around and leave you alone, which I appreciated both when it helped me avoid combat with enemies who were too strong and with enemies who were too weak to bother killing (exp gain drops to nothing if you are too far above your enemy’s level).
This may be a strange thing to say, but although Xenome: Episode 1 is not the prettiest game I’ve played on the iOS, it is still the most visually impressive. Sand blows constantly in many areas of the map, and large things like buildings and rock formations can be seen from very far away. I didn’t run into framerate issues on my 3rd generation iPod Touch, but if you have an older device, you will be happy to know that the options menu allows you to turn off the sand effects and use a slider to reduce the draw distance. The human character models are a little blocky, although they’re not terrible. I’m guessing that they’re designed to be less detailed than they could be because of the eventual MMO’s need to include a large number of characters on-screen.
I also really liked the game’s artistic design – the enemies look pretty cool, particularly the aforementioned giant crabs. The environments are nicely detailed, and do a great job of putting across the idea that you’re running around an area that used to be civilized. A long stretch of now-broken highway runs through the map; there are collapsing highway signs announcing the exits to cities that used to be; there are a number of collections of buildings with sand piled high along their sides. I could go on, but hopefully, the screenshots I’ve chosen to accompany this review will properly demonstrate what I’m talking about.
There are, sadly, a few graphical bugs that crop up from time to time. For example, I liked a skill that stunned my enemies, and after using it, they generally had a strange white line off to their left that was clearly not intended to be there. Also, I occasionally ran across NPCs who were floating above the ground or sunk into it up to their knees. None of these bugs are game breakers, but they are present. It will be interesting to see if they’re taken care of in future Episodes (assuming they get released).
Xenome’s sound is probably the most difficult thing for me to score. The sound effects are fairly standard, and the only complaint I could offer about them is that every gun sounds the same, as does every melee weapon. At the end of the day, I don’t really mind that much if my pistol sounds just like a shotgun, but if future Episodes add more variety to the sound, it would be cool. There is background music, but I couldn’t hear it well enough to give it a score – it’s just too quiet. Fortunately, you can listen to your own music as you play, which I always appreciate. It was especially fun in this game, because I could cue up The Ink Spots and crank the Fallout vibe up to 11.
The controls are a bit of a mixed bag. Arranging them from best to worst, walking around works well, and the attack/skill buttons are all very responsive. There’s also a jump button, and it works well, although I have no idea why it was necessary. On the equipment screen, you tap on an equipment slot, and all of the available equipment for that slot appears in a panel to the right. To equip something, you drag it to the slot, and that usually works, but I did run into trouble from time to time. The bigger issue comes when you get more items than will fit on the screen – on both the equipment screen and the main inventory screen, you can only scroll using small arrow buttons, and they’re not very responsive.
The worst control element, however, is the camera. There are two virtual joysticks on the screen, and the stick on the right controls the camera. The problem is that it’s very jerky, and there’s no way to adjust its sensitivity. I was occasionally able to use it well enough to strafe around enemies or buildings, but when I tried, I was far more likely to end up looking straight at the ground. After trying for a while to make the camera controls work for me, I gave up and simply tapped it when I needed to move the camera, hoping it would move where I wanted it to. Having complained, I should say that this issue didn’t seriously hamper my fun – I learned to adjust to the way it worked without too much pain – I just wish that it worked better than it did.
As a game that’s planned ahead of time to be the first installment in a series, Xenome: Episode 1 may sound like a risky proposition. After all, one never knows if any further Episodes will ever be released, or if they’ll be worth playing. However, in my book this is a gamble worth taking, especially at the game’s current $2.99 price point. Episode 1 builds an excellent base for the rest of the series, and my impression from the developers’ website is that they’re using the feedback from players to improve the already fairly solid game engine. I enjoyed my time with Xenome, both while I was fighting baddies and while I was simply wandering the world, checking out the interesting sights. It’s not perfect, but it’s absolutely worth playing.