Coming from the amazingly named Cowcat Games, Xenon Valkyrie + is a hardcore, rogue-lite 2d platformer that takes inspiration from old school 16-bit games in more than just visuals, not always for the better. Now, hardcore is right. I’ll not claim to be the greatest player who ever did live, but the amount of times I failed the opening level is too many to mention. It doesn’t so much throw you in the deep end as much as tie lead boots to your feet, covered in cannonballs and drop a cruise liner on you for good measure. You start each randomly generated level at the top of a decent sized square map, with the aim to reach a teleporter somewhere near the bottom.
Throughout, you’ll find various enemies capable of wiping you out in 1 or 2 hits, and it’s here where my first issue arose. Hit detection seems to err on the side of unpredictable, as just glancing an enemy will sometimes cause you to take damage, whereas on other occasions you can run right into them swinging your sword and be fine. With melee being your main weapon of choice, you often find yourself too close for comfort, though this is somewhat allayed by the more powerful variants you will find hidden around in white chests. To open these, you’ll need a gold key which are randomly dropped from random defeated enemies.
It’s well worth the hunt though, as these upgraded weapons often proved to be the difference between progressing or being sent straight back to the start, again and again, at which point you lose any power-ups and collectibles found. Standard fare for this genre, but it has never been one on my radar so I perhaps found it a bit too frustrating. You also have access to limited grenades and a blaster, which too can be powered up via collectibles. Strangely though, the blaster seems to be disabled in the end of level boss fights, making the hit detection issue even more profound. The core loop to the gameplay, however, I found to be very addictive.
The frustration of dying over and over soon gave way to a gritted determination to proceed. As you defeat enemies and pick up items around the stage you gain levels spent at the end of each stage, giving you stronger attacks, more health and shields which protect you from a single blow. You definitely need to get a few levels in before the difference is noticeable but once you do you’ll find getting through the stages that much easier. Successfully reach the end of a stage and you have the option to continue or return to the top to mop up any extra XP or items you may have missed. The levels are designed so that you are always on a downward trajectory, rarely will you be able to manually climb back up despite having a wall jump as it is all but useless so teleporting back to the top is generally the only way to get these sometimes vital extras.
Choose to continue and you are treated to a brief respite, a shop with 3 randomly selected items, a stone tablet to allow you to use your leveling up points and some characters with plot exposition. The main item you want to look out for though is Teamerite, this allows you to purchase upgrades before your run that are way more powerful than your starting stuff to give you an extra edge. It doesn’t always show, which is another frustrating random element, but should you defeat a boss you will collect a chunk of them. Fighting these bosses are just as challenging as everything else though, and upon meeting a new one failure is almost guaranteed, their attack patterns and hit boxes not easily readable. Thus, a restart from base is needed.
There are a few different characters to choose from to go through your runs, but other than a minor difference in health/attack power (which soon disappears once you spend your upgrade points) there’s not really any difference to the gameplay. There are apparently multiple endings, but I’ll be if I could even manage one. Hardcore, indeed. Visually it looks like an old 16-bit game, with small but chunky sprites making up the scenes. Some neat visual filters (usual pixel art fare, crt scanlines and all) don’t really add to the experience, mostly just making it even more difficult. I do like some of the character designs however, especially the giant knight in the opening shop. Audio follows suit too; loud, hash chiptune music that repeats just a tad too much. After a few runs I found popping on a podcast and muting the game mad things much more bearable.
If you like a challenge, you will certainly find your fill here, but the best types of hard games put the failures on you. Here, too often it feels as though your failure was as random as the level design / item placement / enemies / everything else. Fun in short bursts, but not one to spend hour after hour, trying to perfect.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.