Xotic, the first-person shooter from indie developer WXP Games, is decidedly weird in every way, from its story and weapons to its surreal visuals. Sheer strangeness only gets you so far, though, as the odd elements of this $10 indie game come at the cost of approachability. Xotic's psychedelic aspects may lure you in but they can also push you away; the game's efforts to be unique often come at the cost of playability. This is one of those games you admire for its boldness but don't totally enjoy playing.
At first, Xotic is pleasantly surreal. The story is about as easy to follow as a French art flick from the '60s. Some ancient entity known as The Orb has gone nuts after an eternity of living as a non-corporeal energy being. So it does what all non-corporeal energy beings do when frustrated and goes on a galaxy-wide rampage, possessing creatures and destroying planets with attractive, red-glowing toxins called scabs. That's where you enter. You play some sort of stick-figure alien warrior genetically designed to fight The Orb, who comes complete with a "weaponized symbiotic creature" called the macroterra. This creature can be custom fitted with nifty, creepy devices, such as energy weapons, a virus gun, and homing insects. You can even rig up "hard holograms" that function as jumping platforms, which can help you reach high places. Experience points are gained for successfully clearing most levels in the single-player-only campaign (there are no multiplayer modes of play). These points can then be rolled into new weapons, extra damage effects, and buffed core stats that govern health, ammo, and armor. Everything you do goes into an arcade score that is tabulated for bragging rights in online leaderboards at the end of each successfully completed level.
It's immediately apparent that this isn't exactly a traditional run-and-gun shooter. Maps in the four-stage campaign are stocked with about two-dozen brief levels and are just as zany as the way-out weapons. Every scene is relatively small, featuring little more than handfuls of enemies dotted among surreal landscapes. Environments are packed with thorny spikes, glowing scab buttons that can be shot to power combos, power-ups that do things like increase health or weapon-fire rate, gems to increase your score, and alien fauna straight out of an episode of the original Star Trek. It's all combined to be rather stunning to look at, with a lot of bright colors and glow effects. Any action you take is accompanied by explosions of neon pyrotechnics. Gameplay is offbeat as well. There are just handfuls of enemies to kill in each stage, so you spend more time blasting scabs and collecting points than wasting foes. Even the bad guys are straight out of some twisted take on the creature cantina, with deformed Gollum-like aliens that yelp like wounded dogs when shot, gawky androids, and even creeps that look like robotic Zulu warriors. The art-house vibe is very strong with this one.
Maybe, it's a little too strong. So many extras have been loaded on top of Xotic's first-person shooter core that the whole experience comes off as somewhat jumbled and bewildering. Combat is hard to get to grips with because of the large number of weapon attachments and all of the junk littering the battlefields. This includes scabs, score-boosting Orb essence gems, batteries for the hologram emitter, and even pieces of Orb brain. Maps can be quite confusing and the terrain too densely packed. At first, exploring this strange new world is intriguing; later on, it can be a bit baffling and vaguely annoying. Jumping is also a big part of finding your way around, though leap power is so strong that you practically fly when you get into the air. This doesn't give you much in the way of fine control when you're soaring around. Holograms help somewhat, giving you mobile platforms to throw out anytime you need a boost.
Combat also doesn't quite mesh with the busy backgrounds. This is a smooth, fast-flowing game where you run and shoot with (mostly) reckless abandon as mindless techno music thumps away. Much of the game is a roller-coaster ride of blasting scabs and blowing away dumb bad guys who either openly shoot you or duck behind cover and crouch there until killed. It mostly works as pure dumb fun, but sometimes the scenery gets in the way. Enemies blend into the landscape like chameleons. Mobile foes tend to blast you numerous times before you lock into where they're shooting from, and the gun turrets on each level are often so well camouflaged that they are nearly impossible to spot (especially the red lanterns that look like scabs and the volcano-like thingies that launch explosive robot bugs). As a result, some levels have a puzzle vibe where the challenge is as much about finding all of the enemies as it is about killing them.
The PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game are nearly identical, although there are some differences when it comes to controls. The 360 edition has issues with imprecise movement and overly twitchy aiming. This makes it tougher than it should be to jump, especially when deploying holograms, and to accurately target enough scabs in sequence to build killer combos. A PC mouse-and-keyboard setup is a fair bit more precise when simply running around and shooting, although even here, you slide around far too much to make for smooth jumping. Still, buy the PC version of the game if you have a choice.
The distinctive look, alien level design, and hallucinogenic story and setting are the biggest pluses in Xotic. Gameplay is intriguing in fits and starts early on, but the gee-whiz factor wears off when the cluttered levels start getting in the way of running around shooting bad guys. What could have been an intense and unique surreal experience winds up feeling awfully average.