Xenome: Episode 1 is a fully immersive post-apocalyptic RPG on your iPhone
As I kid I burned up an entire summer playing Wasteland on my Apple II. I spent countless hours playing Fallout many years later. Xenome is clearly inspired by these two games, and promises to chew up yet more of my time. You play a lone wanderer in the desert, searching for something and having a few nasty encounters with mutated animals and people along the way. Xenome: Episode 1 is also the first sliver in a much larger story, with an MMORPG to follow after other episodes (which will be single-player RPGs) have been released.
I had become pretty jaded with iPhone games in general, and words like "immersive" are trotted out so often I rarely believe the claims. But the first thing that struck me about Xenome's in-game world was the large, open landscape. There is a fantastic sense of scale in the game, with beat up old buildings jutting out of the desert landscape, looming over your character. You can go anywhere and do nearly anything, although your character is quite weak at first. The graphics are as good as you can get on the iPhone whilst providing ample geometry, although the game isn't yet tuned for Retina displays. This didn't matter so much to me, however, as the overall polish of the game is impeccable. The 3rd-person camera, for example, floats perfectly. It's clear Nine Pound Studios spent a lot of time on the artwork, music, sounds and in-game graphics because they're as good as anything I've experienced in mobile gaming.
The control scheme is your typical FPS scheme: one virtual analog stick on the left controls your movement, the analog stick on the right controls the direction you are facing. There's a compass at the top of the screen. This works pretty well most of the time, but you have to face an opponent to attack which leads to some awkward shootouts and frequent dying. The weapons system is OK, as I was able to carry a melee weapon (hammer) and a ranged weapon (pistol) at the same time, and the game uses the appropriate weapon when you're close up or far away. Unfortunately you have to get pretty close to start shooting at things, which winds up with you running backwards frequently. Plus, the button to fire seems small, although I wasn't sure if I was out of ammo or if I wasn't hitting the button at times.
Moving around in general is fine, and conversing with NPCs is not a problem. Again, conversation is reminiscent of older games like Fallout where you read from a scrolling window of text as you see a painting of whom you are talking to. While I would argue this reduces the immersion factor, I also understand that this game is probably so big that voice actors (and the requisite audio files) would have been too much for the developers. It works, although I'd like to see some in-game response when you try to talk to NPCs who don't really want to talk.
There is a rather large setup for abilities and equipment, clearly setting you up for more detail later. For example, equipping your character involves more than just "armor and two hands" -- there is shoulder armor, chest armor, gloves and the like, each with various protective levels. Abilities are special add-ons that fit into those slots on the right of the screen, with special attacks and power-ups available over time. Your stats include the usual strength, health, dexterity, etc. There's an experience point system as well. There's an "XNA Manager" which allows yet more special abilities, but I haven't progressed far enough to unlock any. This ties into an XNA system within the game which is obviously part of the DNA/chemistry theme. I haven't figured out the XNA portions, which also tie into items somehow. Again, this is Episode 1 of what the developers are touting as a huge storyline, so stay tuned.
The sound, graphics and gameplay for Xenome: Episode 1 add up to one of the best games I've played on the iPhone. Yes, the combat system needs some tweaking. But I'm also a lousy FPS player, so those elements within an RPG are bound to frustrate me. No, it doesn't yet take advantage of the Retina Display, but the experience of playing this huge game world is fantastic. I have only begun to scratch the surface of the world Nine Pound Studios has created and I'm already eager to see the next installment. If you are any fan of RPGs whatsoever, or if you misspent your youth playing Wasteland or Fallout as I did, you will find welcome relief in the harsh salt flats of Xenome.
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