Spirits Of Xanadu Review: In Space, No One Can Hear You Go Insane In This Solid Successor To System Shock 2

By Steve Buja , Updated Mar 24, 2015 03:51 PM EDT
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As I wandered through darkened halls, gazing into the lifeless eyes of maniac robots aboard a derelict space ship, I could not shake the feeling that something profound - and terrible - was waiting patiently outside the airlock. Worse still: I think it was already inside. 

Such was my experience with Spirts of Xanadu, a new sci-fi mystery/horror FPS game from Night Dive Studios, the team responsible for bringing back several similar titles like System Shock 2, The 7th Guest and Strife. In it, you arrive on a seemingly abandoned spaceship orbiting a distant planet. The crew is missing, the robots are hostile, and ever so slowly you begin to lose your own mind.

There is something unnerving and timeless about the abandoned spaceship trope in science fiction. The dark is just a little darker, the corridors just a bit narrower, and the unknown is as vast and as infinite as the emptiness that surrounds you. The game plays on your primal fears of darkness and the eternal, unshakeable unknown to unnerve you to the core. What starts out as a simple repair job quickly becomes something far more dangerous and sinister, and whose stakes - as previously mentioned - are never higher.

You have been dispatched to the E.R.A research vessel Xanadu to aid in its repairs and voyage back to earth. The ship is crewed by a three man team - a captain, an engineer and a science officer - along with a contingent of robot helpers who were sent to the planet Demhe (a reference to the King in Yellow play by Robert Chambers) to investigate.

Never have you felt so alone in a game before, and yet you cannot help but notice the presence of...someone, or something, else. Creators Allen Trivette and Lee Williams, taking inspiration from horror and scifi films and games, have crafted an intimate look into madness. You never meet another person - though their spirits remain...sort of - yet you manage to learn so much about them through their scribblings and diary entries.

Commander Zhao is a longtime captain who once loved a girl very much and has a nephew who hopes she has 'zaped' aliens. Solomon Agnew, the science officer, misses his wife very much, while Cornell Johns the engineer is all business. Naturally, he's the first to break.

Both the joy and frustration of Spirits of Xanadu is its lack of handholding. The game tosses you almost immediately into the darkness and never lets you back into the light. There are no cut-scenes to tell the story; it is as if you are actually there and you know only as much as you learn along the way. This gives the game a great sense of achievement when you figure out something - finally opening a door, adjusting the numbers on a switch - but also had me wandering around for over an hour just trying to figure out what to do next.

Helpful hint: brush up on your digits of Pi. Took me a while to figure that one out.

You will soon discover that the crew found something on the surface of the planet and, since they never saw the movie Supernova, Event Horizon, several episodes of Doctor Who, or read a book before (the game takes place in an alt-history 1983), decided to bring it back. Hell followed with it; and through various audiologs, we are treated to the first hand accounts of the crew's descent into madness and murder. 

The gameplay of Spirits of Xanadu is primarily clicking on things. Like Deus Ex and the old adventure games, you have to literally comb through the entire derelict ship - cabinets, drawers, panels - to discover not only the means to fix everything, but uncover the greater mystery.

Not helping you in any single way are the robots that roam the halls. They come in three forms; flying patrol bots; humanoid bots who really, really want to play basketball; and some Dalek looking sonsofbitches, automated defense droids have been set to destroy pretty much everything else. That mostly means you, and you will spend a lot of time dying in this game. Unfortunately, the shooting controls are not the best and feel more like an afterthought to keep players occupied while uncovering clues. The flying bots are particularly a nuisance, as their way of darting to and fro and electrocuting you is hellish for trying to get a good shot off.

You can find three weapons during your travels: a pulse pistol, shotgun and pulse rifle. I did not find the latter two during my initial run, and only stumbled across the shotgun in playthrough #2 by sheer dumb luck.

Thankfully, if you're feeling harried and flustered, you can switch the game mode to peaceful which will disable the bots' 'kill on sight' programming. This allows for much easier exploring, which is especially great because having to shoot or maneuver your way around robots only to get to a room where there's no new information to be gleaned would be beyond aggravating.

The graphics are nothing to write home about and yet are absolutely perfect for the atmosphere and story. As I stepped into the main corridor that runs the length of the ship, I was greeted with a quick flash of... something, or someone. It was so brief and I thought it was perhaps a glitch. But no. Figures flicker in and out of existence, rain begins to pour inside the ship, strange kabuki masks smile passively at you and then vanish. Along the way you find ripped pages of The Book of Veils, an original story crafted like the Mad Prophet Abdul Alhazred tales from Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. I have yet to find every page, but it's a startling and wonderfully unnerving tale that shares parallels to the events of the Xanadu.

But the real horror comes from the scant audiologs you pick up along the way. The dark and random thoughts each member begins to ramble, the cold confessions of murder...the cries for help and the messages home. Whatever happened to them is never fully explained - a virus, an alien, a demon - and perhaps it is best left to the imagination. A chill ran up my spine whenever I played an audio log as if I were hearing words not from distant friends, but ghosts themselves.

SPOILER ALERT- Skip this next paragraph if you're spoiler-phobic. 

The game has three endings. On my initial playthrough, I fixed the ship, set coordinates home and was treated to a huge 'MISSION ACCOMPLISHED' sign, followed quickly by a casualty count that numbered in the BILLIONS (the entire population of Earth in 1983). My helpful advice to people who are stuck: you need the coordinates to a star. But you have to piece it together...somehow. It's the only way to destroy whatever is infesting the ship.

---END SPOILERS

I've spent a lot of time with Spirits of Xanadu, hours upon hours, but have not fully unlocked everything. For those wishing to simply complete the story, you can run through the game in roughly fifteen minutes - if not less - gathering up the necessary items to fix the ship. But this is an experience to be savored, even if at times it is a frustrating one. The game is proof that you don't need Unreal Engine 4 visuals or graphic violence to be scary and immersive, all you need is a character, a ship and the endless void where all your dreams - and all your nightmares - can exist.

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Spirits of Xanadu was reviewed using a Steam code provided by the publisher. The full game releases on March 26 for PC, Mac, and Linux. Check spiritsofxanadu.com for more.

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