As far as "classic video game genres" go, top-down space shooters are a bread-and-butter staple of the medium. While gems of the genre once ruled arcades and home-consoles alike, in modern times they've become dime-a-dozen, mostly relegated to portable devices and mobile phones.
Within that landscape, any game of that type will have to do something special to stand out. While the graphical fidelity, sound design, and rogue-like elements of Xenoraid help it to stand out enough to get releases on multiple platforms – including this PS4 and Vita cross-buy release – its loose shooting mechanics and questionable design decisions hold it back from becoming a top-tier title of its kind.
Developer 10tons has built the game around a fairly rudimentary story – an attacking alien force must be thwarted in order to defend the planet – presented through bland dialogue, placing an understandable focus on action instead of narrative. Each planet acts as its own separate chapter of the story, with each chapter spanning multiple levels that involve clearing incoming waves of enemies while weaving your ship between their bullets. The graphics are sharp, even if a lot of the levels do look somewhat samey, and the fast-tempo electronic score will keep you focused and immersed in the action.
While this is all fairly boilerplate stuff for a space shooter, Xenoraid adds a unique spin by giving you not one but a squadron of four ships to control, each with its own unique weapons and manoeuvrability. The ships are tied to your face buttons, and switching between them also provides momentary invulnerability from your attackers. This mechanic is actually a really welcome addition, forcing you to make strategic decisions on the fly about which ships to use when – and even sometimes which ships are worth sacrificing. The game also sprinkles in a pinch of rogue-like design, as the pilots of each ship level up the longer they survive, and the weapons, armour, and movement of each ship can be upgraded using in-game currency.
The shooting itself, however, isn't as smooth as it needs to be to take full advantage of the level of strategy and variety Xenoraid offers. We found that the ships often vacillate between feeling a little too floaty or too weighty to dodge bullets with precision, and because we were switching between ships multiple times – especially in the more challenging levels – we never got a chance to gain a sense of mastery over any one ship type. This is exacerbated by the fact that each new chapter offers new types of ships.
That leads to the larger problem we had with Xenoraid: while upgrading the ships does help the difficulty curve of each chapter, those upgrades are lost as soon as the chapter ends. Even if you want to replay the levels, your ships, pilots, and upgrades all reset, making all of your hard work seem somewhat worthless. After a while, it felt more important to just get through a level than to complete as skilfully as possible, because the power of your ships don't matter.
Xenoraid does do a lot to try and stand apart from the deluge of similar games out there, and it should be commended for that effort. But with its lack of refinement, progression resetting, and fairly bland overall presentation, it's unlikely we'll be looking back on this one a year from now.