I’m no connoisseur of early 90s action-adventure games; I was too busy learning to read at the time. My experience of gaming during that period is limited to dying repeatedly in Sonic The Hedgehog. So when I booted up Exile’s End on the PS4, a self-proclaimed homage to that era of gaming, I was excited to sneak a glimpse into the past. The developer Magnetic Realms draws inspiration from other side-scrolling titles of the time such as Metroid and Castlevania, earning it classification into the ‘Metroidvania’ subgenre. The tribute to these classics is obvious, and though this re-imagining brings with it a similar collection of gripes to those experienced in days of old, Exile’s End is a tasty slice of retro goodness.
The game starts with a mercenary team being sent on a mission to a mining planet to rescue the son of the president of the galactic hyper-corporation, Ravenwood. Got that? Even before landing, the mission goes up in smoke when the ship carrying our protagonist, Jameson, crashes to the surface of the planet. Everyone apart from Jameson dies, who is now stranded — excellent rescue mission so far. The first hour is spent wandering around a forest locale lobbing rocks at worms/snakes, which, oddly, are the enemy that enraged me the most during my playthrough. They appear mostly in caves with spiked ceilings, so jumping too high over them is the fastest way of trepanning yourself. You’re forced to stop moving and time your rock throws every ten steps in order to get rid of them. It’s a very stuttering start considering Magnetic Realms has compared Exile’s End to Flashback, a game renowned for smooth platforming.
It’s not very difficult at the beginning either. I know I’ve just moaned about those worms, but that was more of a frustration than a challenge. The next enemies you encounter are humanoid, shooting at you periodically, knocking off a mere droplet of health. They are easily dispatched with your gun, when you eventually get it. Even when you do die, you’re not really punished. All that happens is you’re put back to the beginning of the current area, perhaps losing 30 seconds of progress. I remember having to spend vast periods of my life in the 90s replaying entire games because I ran out of lives, or more simply because I didn’t write the code down to get back to a particular level. I’m not saying I wanted Exile’s End to be as harsh as it’s forefathers, but to at least point and laugh a little bit when I step on a worm for the nine hundredth time.
What kept me interested in the beginning was that it did actually give me some feelgood retro vibes. The aesthetic of the art was spot on. The Japanese-style cutscenes in particular, along with the soundtrack by Keiji Yamagishi (composer for such titles as Ninja Gaiden and Dynasty Warriors), gave Exile’s End an excellent dose of nostalgia. As I progressed through another hour or so, the fun crept up on me like a worm slithering through the grass. Your array of weapons and abilities build, and the enemies become genuinely difficult and enjoyable to tango with (especially when they start breathing fire). The labyrinthine dungeons require skill to navigate, but at times, Exile’s End is rather frugal with what the next objective is. You can spend a good chunk of time wandering around hazardous terrain, searching and dying in an effort to progress, while the worms watch and chuckle as you pass by repeatedly (that’s the last worm joke, I promise). Aside from this, each location offers sprawling puzzles that require the kind innovative thinking most modern games have done away with.
After a while, instead of booting up Exile’s End with dread, I began to look forward to the next level. I even stayed up until 2am just to finish it, which is way past my bedtime. While I’m on the subject of finishing the game, there were some issues with the ending that marred what was an otherwise enjoyable retro romp. Firstly, the final platforming section is insanely difficult. You’re tasked with climbing up a chamber, while lava rises beneath you, and legions of flying aliens swarm and thwart your every attempt at reaching the top. This section is so totally unexpected because such intense platforming isn’t required anywhere else in Exile’s End. It was a shame because it casts everything that’s gone before in a dull light. I would have liked more sections like this throughout the rest of the game.
Secondly, Jameson is given a totally arbitrary choice in the final scenes, a choice I do not think he would ever take too long to contemplate, considering his personality. Up until that point I was immersed in the story, but that last little blip pulled me away from fully experiencing the ending. The story on the whole was interesting, but hardly ground-breaking.
Unfortunately Exile’s End draws too heavily on what’s gone before, no matter the appropriateness. Some may like the effect, warts and all. For most of us, it somewhat spoils what could have been a much better retro title. Even so, it was an enjoyable 5-6 hours of gaming, and I recommend giving it a go.
Initially released on Steam last November, Exile’s End is now available to play on the PS4, PS Vita and Wii U.