Played on Xbox Series X
A wind stronger than any wind ever before experienced howls ahead of you. You are stuck in place at the bottom of a steep featureless valley. Unable to move forwards you are slowly but surely being pushed back in the direction you came from. Totally out of energy the only option left is to jump repeatedly to try and gain forward motion or hope that you get hit by a bolt of lightning. Walking to the shops was never meant to be this difficult. If only the governments of the world had taken climate change seriously at COP26….
Let’s put this premonition of a future Earth to the back of our minds and soar over alien planets in the XboxEra review of EXO ONE.
Dedicated in the end credits to ‘All of the Astronauts and Explorers who risked everything’ Expletive from Adelaide, South Australia and publisher Future Friends Games have finally unleashed EXO ONE after five years in development. Jay Weston has created the game pretty much solo with assistance from Rhys Lindsay and Dave Kazi. This is quite a feat in itself, but even more impressive is the fact that it is available to play from day one on Xbox Game Pass.
The story is not clear cut and is hinted at in a series of flashbacks, memories and half remembered conversations as the game progresses. It is suggested that disaster befell a team of Astronauts on the first manned mission to Jupiter. Plans for an alien ship design are discovered and a journey begins with players guiding what appears to be the only surviving astronaut across the landscapes of numerous unknown planets in this strange ship. It is not immediately clear why, but he needs to traverse each wildly different environment until he gets to and can make use of massive structures known as Transport Monoliths. These allow him to hop from planet to planet towards his unknown destination and a strangely satisfying conclusion.
Each Planet has a completely different geographical make up and environmental conditions. One may have a hot volcanic surface while the next is almost completely made up of ocean. Deep valleys of smooth rock exist in one environment, yet another takes the form of endless sand dunes. The only constant that all these places have in common is that they are littered with alien structures that are not only very large but are made of the same black and obviously manufactured material.
The ship that players are piloting looks (while in standard form) like a bouncing bomb or one of those large stone boulders that Icelandic Strongmen lift onto pedestals in ‘World’s strongest man’ competitions.
Using a simple yet unique control system, Right Trigger increases gravity on the ship and causes it to drop to the surface of whichever planet is being explored. The rolling of this spherical version of the ship allows it to pick up momentum and using the left trigger (which makes the craft change into a disc shaped flying form) can be used to take off. Double jump using the A button allows the ship to gain height and from there you can glide through the air.
Different planetary conditions have different effects on the ship. Low gravity allows it to fly incredibly high and using the ability to dive means that you can skim water like a pebble. Very high gravity conditions can make it very hard to move, especially combined with a very strong headwind. At times it is not possible to fly or glide at all and you are forced to bounce the craft higher and higher using jump until you can get over the ridge ahead of you and progress towards your next goal.
The funny thing is, apart from the control scheme which takes ten minutes to get used to and then becomes second nature, very little is explained to the player. The game design is based around intuition. Moving the camera around to study your surroundings is the only way of working out where you are meant to be headed and where the next objective lies. There is very little signposting here and it is a case of finding a point on the horizon and working your way towards it. Wind, rain and gravity will do their best to turn you around and cause you to lose your bearings, but you must work out angles of flight and how to use your controls to manipulate the craft over, under or through whatever obstacles each planet throws at you.
The craft glows when it is full of energy and can glide easily towards the horizon, as the energy depletes the craft looks more like granite and will plummet from the sky. This is the cue to apply more gravity until you hit the surface of the planet, even if it is the seabed under an ocean. After rolling and building up speed the craft will glow again and you are able to take off in disc form, gain height and glide.
At one point a technical malfunction occurred that prevented all flying and at another I was only prevented from falling from high in the clouds by a handy bolt of lightning which surprisingly restored my energy levels. This journey never gets boring as the developers constantly introduce different challenges to keep you interested. A favourite level of mine was made up of high energy clouds which when entered not only gave me an energy boost but once inside them it was possible to pick up pink charged particles. Aiming the ship and then releasing this energy resulted in a massive sonic boom and catapulted the craft forwards at an incredible speed.
There are upgrades for the craft hidden around the maps that can be picked up if you are a skilful enough pilot and orange boost gates can be used to get across the map faster.
Using the Transport Monoliths at the end of each level is a very satisfying experience. Each interplanetary jump takes the form of a psychedelic sequence that I can only assume took heavy inspiration from the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you are a fan of the ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ section of that film you are going to love experiencing this part of the game.
A haunting electric guitar soundtrack transported me away to these strange places as I did my best to overcome everything that the location physics threw at me. Along with the extremely realistic environmental soundscape it was very easy to lose myself in the simulation. The wind from nowhere is particularly terrifying and stops you dead as it howls around a planet’s surface.
Visually, the game is stunning and I had no issues with frame rates. Each planet has been meticulously designed and you never know what type of topography or weather system you are going to experience next. The whole game is viewed through a camera with small crosses covering it like the ones you usually see space walks through. This is a nice touch, but it is even cooler when raindrops frequently cover its surface.
The craft movement is exceptional once you get it off the ground and it is worth noting that when rolling along the floor you can easily be pushed back in the wrong direction. I am personally prone to motion sickness and after a period where I could not tell where my next objective was, I began to feel sick. I think this was because I was going back and forth and up and down in an area that I should have just passed by, for a long time. If you suffer from Video game induced motion sickness it is probably worth playing a planet or two at a time to see if it affects you. But do not let this put you off playing the game.
This is certainly an unusual gaming experience with no enemies to fight, no time limits and no lives to lose. You can enjoy it in your own time without having to rush. I completed the game in three hours eighteen minutes, but I can see speed runners taking on the challenge of getting to the final planet as quickly as possible. It is also worth sticking around after the end credits.
My only complaint would be that the lack of signposting can make it hard to see where you are meant to go at certain points, but this is a tiny issue and is not worth worrying about.
Accessibility settings are not really to be expected from a one-man development team, but the control system is simple so hopefully most people can enjoy the game.
In conclusion, Exo One is not only a visually impressive achievement. It also uses haunting music and realistic environmental sounds to transport the player into its strange worlds. Handling of the craft is unusual but works very well once you get the hang of it. The story is not blatantly spelled out to the player but that adds to the mystery and allure of what you are trying to do and the ending ties everything up nicely.
In my view this must be hands down the best game to come out of Australia this year. Another triumph for Xbox Game Pass day one availability. Do not miss out on this gem of a game.