One of the best aspects of the Metroidvania genre is the fact that it can work in a variety of settings. Castlevania and Metroid bare little resemblance, but they both have excellent similar designs. Advances in tech, and the rise of clever independent developers have led the genre to continue to flourish. For all of the new and innovative titles released on a yearly basis, plenty of developers are still intent on delivering classic experiences to a modern audience. Such is the case with Exile’s End, which is the product of indie developer Matt Fielding and Japanese composer Keiji Yamagishi.
For the record, developer Magnetic Realms bills Exile’s End as a throwback to the days of the Commodore 64 and Amiga era. Despite that designation, it’s hard to ignore how similar the title is to most Metroidvania games. For this outing, protagonist Jameson must explore several different locations, including a derelict mining facility and a weird extraterrestrial temple. Along the way, he’ll acquire different upgrades to his suit (radiation shielding, underwater breathing) and weapons, both of human and alien varieties. This is a very straight forward explanation, but this is more or less what the title entails.
Since this is trying to be a “retro” experience, Exile’s End doesn’t bother with modern conveniences. There’s no fast travel, no way to mark points of interest on the map and an almost complete lack of direction for where to go. And for the first chunk of the game, I was actually kind of okay with this approach. Jameson is stuck on this planet he’s completely unfamiliar with, so it makes sense that he doesn’t know exactly where to go. The lack of direction gives the planet a sense of mystery and danger that can sometimes be hard to effectively depict.
The downside of this, though, is that the lack of actual content becomes apparent the longer you play. The campaign would probably take around two hours to complete if more modern trappings were included. Without them, though, you spend a vast majority of your time aimlessly searching for where to go, or worse, looking for the one upgrade necessary in order to advance. The lack of fast travel means you get used to seeing specific locations, and in turn, fighting the same enemies over and over again. Oh yes, also part of the old-school appeal is the fact that enemies respawn once you return to a room. Which is great, and certainly not very, very annoying.
The old-school approach also extends to the “difficulty” Exile’s End possesses. It’s not difficult in the traditional sense, where enemies are smart and require tactical knowledge to defeat. No, it’s difficult in the bullshit cheap sense. The aforementioned respawning enemies make up most of my frustration, but there’s also a good amount of platforming sections where you’re undermined by not being able to see everything. Sometimes you’ll hit your head on some spikes, other times you’ll plummet into an instadeath spike pit. These design choices are not interesting or challenging, they’re just obnoxious.
I haven’t really touched upon it, but Exile’s End does feature a decent-ish story. As mentioned before, players step into the space shoes of Jameson, a mercenary who harbors a grudge with his peers. After the ship he was on crash lands onto the mining post he was sent to investigate, our grizzled hero must get to the bottom of why the crew on the post dropped communications. Not the most original story, but I did appreciate the odd places it goes. Going into the game I wasn’t expecting to get the chance to explore religious alien temples, but there I was. It’s a mystery that kept me hooked, despite the frustrating gameplay.
For those uninterested in the story, Exile’s End also features a survival mode. The fairly basic mode has players battling wave after wave of enemies while utilizing a reloadable batch of supplies. The quicker you clear out each level, the more points you’ll get at the end. Said points can then be used to purchase ammo, new weapons and upgrades to Jameson’s suit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, and it is fun, at first. But after a few rounds, you begin to realize there’s not much that changes between each level besides location and layout. Eventually, you’ll just want to give in to the mindless alien menace.
While there are certain aspects of the retro background of Exile’s End that I don’t like, I do dig the aesthetics of the game. The large sprites hearken back to the colorful 16-bit era, and each of the seven different locations has its own design. Whether you’re fighting aliens in a dank cave, or climbing the vines of a jungle, the levels felt appropriately mysterious. I also liked the design of Jameson, who kind of resembles a mirror version of The Witcher hero Geralt. Even better is the electronic soundtrack composed by Keiji Yamagishi. Pulse pumping synths are mixed with ominous background music that manages to always fit the mood of the scenario Jameson happens to be in.
Besides being a perfect demonstration of the basic of the Metroidvania, Exile’s End is also the textbook definition of mediocre. Almost every aspect of the game is competent, but the annoying reliance on tired retro design tropes prevent it from equaling similar titles. There’s room in this world for throwback experiences, but merely recreating awful design quirks from years past is not the way to do so. Even with an excellent soundtrack and a low cost of entry, this wannabe sci-fi epic is hard to recommend.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
The combination of tired "retro" design choices and brief length make Exile's End a tough game to recommend, even before recognizing that the Metroidvania genre is full of better options.