When Xenoshyft Onslaught spits you out – because that's what this game does – you're left scratching your head and wondering what on earth you can possibly do to win at this game. You're also full of questions. You're confused about the way certain cards work. Some of the rules in the rulebook are so unclear that you've just had to make a call about what the designers actually meant. Okay, so I think that this Quill Monster thing attacks your first guy then does an additional one damage to the first three guys in front of it. I think. I think. It niggles you. You've just been battered hard and you're not sure if you were battered exactly right.
And yet. And yet. There's something about this game that just gets its teeth and claws deep into you.
When I first heard about this game, I was concerned that it sounded too similar to Legendary Encounters: Alien – my favourite game of last year. It's a co-operative game with 1-4 players dealing with an alien threat, and it features “deckbuilding”. You spend resources to buy new troops, and aliens move towards you in waves and are revealed. It all sounded too familiar.
But this game is really nothing like Legendary Encounters. There's no sense of story, for one thing. Xenoshyft is just a firefight. And it barely even feels like a deckbuilding game, because when you buy units or items in this game they come straight into your hand – they don't get slowly processed through your deck like in most other deckbuilders. If they did, you might very well be dead before you ever see the cards you've bought. The cards in this game feel more like a representation of a pool of stuff you have, and you can make sure you get some of what you need NOW NOW NOW.
Every player is defending the same base. If there's just one player then the base has 15 hit points. If there's more than one player the hit points scale up, because there will be more aliens rushing in on more fronts. A player has an area in front of them – a battle lane – where their troops will be placed, readied for a wave of enemy cards. When combat begins, these enemy cards get turned face up one by one, and all hell breaks loose.
Seriously. All hell.
Okay, first of all – right from the get-go you're going to feel the onslaught of the game's title. There are only nine rounds in the game, and you win if you survive through them. And you probably won't do that often. Your troops are systematically dismantled by a procession of utter bastards every single round, and it's a weirdly beautiful thing to watch.
- As you spend your materials cards to buy more troops and items.
- As you fill your personal “lane” with new hidden enemies from the current wave.
- As you deploy your troops, equipping them with weapons and armour.
- As you move into combat, unveiling the first enemy in the lane.
- As all your plans go to shit, when an alien infects one of your own troops, turning him into a zombie who charges back into battle against his own friends, and then this massive shield monster thing burrows up at the back of the battlefield, protecting all the baddies with its horrible big shell thing and then this plague fly thing kills the first gunner in your line and infects him with a disease that spreads back through your line and hits your base HARD.
Yeah, we'll come back to that Plague Fly.
Combat is simple. Cards meet cards on the battle lane, and they deal damage according to their power and can take damage up to their defence. When troops or enemies fall, the next ones in line move up, and battle continues. It only ends when the lane is empty of either troops or enemies. If any enemies are left over, they attack the team's base and then leave. It has a very strong tower defence feel.
And remember that every player has one of these lanes full of troops and enemies. As combat plays out it's essential that none of these lanes get overwhelmed, so often you're lobbing one of your grenade cards over into a friend's lane to make sure things don't go all to shit. You have to play like a team, equipping your friends' troops with cards and sending help wherever it's needed. It's a very clever co-op game, and a really difficult nut to crack.
(In a single player game, Xenoshyft Onslaught feels like trying to solve a very difficult puzzle – and one with a fair amount of randomness. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the game in this solitaire mode. It feels like you're really up against it. You have no help coming from anywhere, and you have to focus in on trying to get the strongest lines into your lane at every opportunity. It's weirdly relaxing to watch yourself slowly get smashed into a fine dust.)
I hate this shield guy, by the way.
The cards, those damn cards, are where the game's strengths really shine through and where the game's weaknesses kick you hard on your shins.
The enemies come in waves. The first three rounds of the game are Wave 1, the next three are Wave 2 and the last three are Wave 3. And each of these waves has a big boss monster shuffled in – you can start hoping not to meet those guys right now. The enemies are – honestly – fantastic. They are beautifully illustrated and horrific. They just do terrible things. That Plague Fly I mentioned before is a nightmare. If it gets one of your troops, your base takes damage equal to the amount of troops you have in your lane. That representation of disease spreading back to your base is a fine example of how well the game's setting is integrated into the game's mechanics. This is a fast, furious battle against some terrible, terrible monsters and horrible things just keep happening. There's an enemy that heals itself by eating your dead troops. And a centipede thing that comes back to life. And this fly thing that is pretty much just a bomb with wings.
And your own cards are great too. There are medics and stormtroopers, who can use abilities to heal and attack. There are paratroopers that can be dropped into lanes when needed. There are big mechs that can be deployed if you reach Wave 3, and these things are strong. And then there are the random items that get stacked in the shop for every game. Medkits, armour, weaponry – you shuffle them up and lay them out so that it's different every time.
Great, right? Beautiful cards, clever powers and effects. Thrilling.
But then there's that niggling feeling of the game being under-developed. Let me state this simply – if you are going to buy this game, you're going to need to hit the internet for some rule clarifications. From the very first play you'll be looking at stuff and asking “What exactly does this mean?” And while you might have a vague notion of what must be intended, it's never satisfying to plough ahead with that doubt – particularly in a game where one point of damage can be the difference between victory and defeat.
I wish this game could have stayed in the cooker for a little while longer. It's a compelling, exciting, thrilling game with a lot of clever ideas. It looks beautiful. But it could have used a little bit more time in developing that rulebook and ensuring that the wording on the cards is just right. I think the game deserved that treatment.
It's nearly a home run.