Exile’s End is a ‘Metroidvania’ style game that has been out on Steam for over a year, but has just finally made the jump over to the PlayStation 4 and Vita in October. This is pretty much a straight port across with no new features so if you already own the PC version there’s no reason to make the jump to the PlayStation, but for PS4 or PS Vita owners this is a nice, low-cost game to give a try. This is a solid entry into the Metroidvania genre of games most of the time, but is held back by annoyances which make it difficult to recommend to people who aren’t fans of the genre.
The story of Exile’s End revolves around the survivor of a crashed ship who slowly repairs his space marine armor and acquires weapons to fight the mutated creatures on the planet’s surface. The game starts off dreadfully slow, and if this review was based solely on the first hour of the game it would be a hard pass, but it does thankfully get better. The main reason behind this slow start is the lack of any suit abilities available to you, and no weapons. You may find a rock early on that you can use to clumsily fend off the slithering snake enemies that plague the early levels, but it is also exceptionally easy to miss entirely. You will slowly gain back suit powers, starting with the ability to survive a fall from any height, but the lack of even basic abilities early on is a severe hindrance and causes early gameplay to be slow and repetitive (and deadly). Compared to Samus and other popular Metroidvania heroes Jameson, your space marine, is a rather fragile protagonist in the early going. This is also compounded by controls that don’t seem quite as responsive as I would like (this seems to be by design), which I felt resulted in numerous unnecessary deaths.
Dying often and repeatedly is one of the hallmarks of Metroidvania games, and Exile’s End certainly upholds that tradition as best it can. The good news is that death only comes with a light penalty that resets you back to the beginning of the room you most recently entered. Sometimes that means it is only a minor annoyance, and other times it can result in having to redo entire sections of difficult fights and platforming multiple times. Fortunately the former is more common than the latter. Although you will die a lot in Exile’s End it never gets to the point where you want to throw your controller through your television (unless you are utterly terrible at side-scrollers, which I am).
The game recovers momentum once you get a pistol and are able to properly defend yourself from most enemies. I say ‘most’ not because you will face bullet proof enemies (though many are bullet sponges, at least), but because there are some enemies you will be unable to hit at all with the pistol. In truly old-school Metroidvania fashion you can only fire the gun left or right from either a standing or crouched position. That means any enemies that are below or above these flat planes (such as the snakes I mentioned above) are completely impossible to target by the pistol. Fortunately you do still have your rock (no, I’m not kidding… that’s your best weapon against snakes for most of the game). Being able to fight back gives you back some of that feeling of being in control of the situation, and the game is all the better for it. However, even with that there are more issues than just the targeting. The main one is that the gun freezes your character in place for a second after firing, and you can neither duck nor jump at that time, which makes dodging more difficult than it needs to be.
On the plus side of things the art style and direction is fantastic, assuming you are a fan of Super Nintendo throwback graphics. There is a surprisingly deep range of colors used in the game, and animation is relatively fluid given the artificial constraints that the designers put on themselves. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but most fans of the Metroidvania genre will appreciate the aesthetics, I think. The downside is that many of the levels can feel rather barren with not much going on in the way of background details. This is more of an issue in the early game where empty hallways and caves are more common, but it never truly gets past its tendency towards this either.
The music follows suit with an appropriately retro-inspired soundtrack, but I have to admit my tolerance for that is much lower than it is for retro graphics. I ended up turning the music off after less than an hour as I couldn’t stomach the apparent five-second loop of someone strumming a chord on an electric guitar right into the speakers. I could not say if it gets better from there, but this was definitely not to my taste. I did turn the music back on for the gameplay video we uploaded to the Youtube channel, so you can get a feel of it there to see if it is something you’re into.
Lastly, this is one of an increasing number of games that does not want to offer much direction to the player on what they need to do. Certain items, including the all-important pistol, are actually completely missable if you are not careful or if you do something wrong. You do get a computer that you can talk to after a bit of play, and it will give a small amount of guidance, but for the most part you are left to your own devices. I feel like this was meant to encourage player creativity in problem-solving efforts, but more often than not it just means running back and forth for a while looking for that one thing that you missed which will let you advance to the next area.
Exile’s End is a tough game to recommend. It is certainly a competent entry into the Metroidvania genre, but it is marred by its frustrating early levels and some questionable decisions with the controls. Fans of the genre who are itching for something new to play will no doubt find plenty to enjoy here, but more casual players will be put off by the game’s desire to force you to replay areas over and over before finally overcoming them. There’s frustration to be had in spades in this game, and most of it is intentional. For a certain subset of gamers that will appeal to them and they will eat this game up (unless they already did so on the PC a year ago), but for most modern gamers I think there are better things to spend their time on. Still, at a low base price of $10 it isn’t a particularly risky purchase. If you enjoy Metroidvania games it is worth a shot, but if you haven’t been properly introduced to the genre yet then this is not the best one to make the jump with.