It's never too late for a good shoot-'em-up. Though the Xbox's numbers of new releases are thinning out as the newer Xbox 360 comes into its own, Microsoft's old console still is getting a few interesting titles, like Xyanide, a budget-priced space shooter from Amsterdam-based developer Playlogic. Filled with flashing lights, swirling backgrounds, and cool downtempo techno tracks, Xyanide is like a midnight-warehouse-rave version of a conventional arcade-style shooter. Also, it's surprisingly lengthy for this type of game and presents an oddly compelling story, in addition to a few distinctive features. Once the odd, almost unsettling first impression wears off, you'll find that Xyanide is a satisfying example of a modern throwback to a classic style of game.
Most shoot-'em-ups have little to no plot, presenting you with an intuitive scenario in which your little space ship must shoot down or avoid hundreds of enemy craft, including much bigger enemies, or else die trying. One of Xyanide's distinguishing features is that it goes out of its way to explain why this particular case of you-against-the-world is even happening. The game opens with a lengthy, deliberately paced cinematic in which a young girl is about to be put to death by an ominous group of machinelike creatures. As it turns out, though, she's the bad guy. She escapes her fate, gaining a bizarre ability to manifest her thoughts in reality. However, her executioner is tasked with finishing the job and now must navigate a treacherous series of biomechanical mazes while avoiding and gunning down various figments of the witch's imagination. It's a wild premise that, if nothing else, helps set Xyanide apart from most games of this sort.
Each of the game's six fairly long levels has you zooming through tunnellike environments as enemies swarm in from all directions. The widescreen letterboxed graphics are fully 3D, and your perspective frequently shifts all around your ship for dramatic effect. However, all this motion is mostly just for show, because Xyanide features a two-stick control scheme similar to games like Robotron 2084, Smash TV, and last year's Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. This means you use the left stick to fly around the screen, while the right stick makes you fire your main weapon in whichever direction you're aiming. This forces you to independently think about where you're shooting and where you're dodging, but there are other factors also constantly at play while you're navigating Xyanide's levels.
Your ship has two primary weapons, which you can switch between by pulling the right trigger. One is a spread attack that's good against smaller foes, while the other is a concentrated laser that's effective against bigger targets. Each weapon features an alternate firing mode; when you pull and hold the left trigger, a targeting cursor appears on the screen, letting you fire homing missiles at whatever target you paint with that cursor. This is a tricky mechanic at first, since your primary fire is disabled while you're using missiles. What's more, you can gradually power up both your primary weapons and their missiles and also use a variety of defensive and offensive special abilities that are mapped to the Xbox controller's face buttons. You'll need all this power, too, since the game is very difficult at the default setting. However, it's an appropriate level of challenge for a style of game known for being very tough, and there are easier difficulty settings available if you just want to get through to see how the story ends.
The main problem with Xyanide is that the game is relatively hard to get into. A dimly colored heads-up display shows your weapons' power-up level, which special attacks you have ready, and so on, but you won't really know what any of it means without reading the manual or playing the game a bunch of times. Likewise, the properties of your different weapons are unclear at first, and the weapons themselves seem anemic, like spurts of fireworks rather than like real firepower. The game's entire presentation is flashy but somewhat bewildering and prone to some unsightly drops in the frame rate. You'll certainly experience moments where your ship suddenly blows up for no apparent reason, when it must have been a stray bullet or pesky little enemy that ran into you. After about an hour, though, you'll be able to come to grips with Xyanide and really get a feel for it, but this is much longer than it takes to get into most such games.
Xyanide makes up for this by having a lot more meat to it than most shoot-'em-ups. Start to finish, the game is several hours long, and you're not going to get to the end without a good amount of practice. Granted, Xyanide's length does seem rather artificial, because most levels feel very repetitive as you fly through one same-looking corridor into another. In fact, only in the last stages of the game will you even begin to see some variety in the levels and enemies. The game's villainess apparently isn't too imaginative if all she can muster up with her thoughts-become-real powers are some generic-looking spaceships. Later on, you'll move through organic-looking environments instead, which include some unpleasantly squishy-looking foes that resemble sordid parts of the human anatomy. Maybe the censors didn't get that far before rating the game T for Teen.
Boss fights are a requirement of any shoot-'em-up, and Xyanide's are quite good. You'll go up against massive space-stationlike things, and later, huge creatures that must be shot apart bit by bit by bit. You'll automatically fly laps around these deadly opponents and get a good sense of just how much bigger they are than you, even as you try to shoot down their individual weapons and disable their fighter bays, slowly but surely impairing their ability to fight back. Xyanide also features two-player-simultaneous gameplay, which can be more fun than playing solo, though you and player two must share the same pool of credits, so it may be tougher to get through the game this way. Online leaderboards let you compare your high scores against those of other Xyanide players, and tougher difficulty settings are also available. For a budget-priced shoot-'em-up, Xyanide is a solid value.
Xyanide is easy to recommend to those who've enjoyed other shoot-'em-ups lately. It's not quite up to the level of games like Geometry Wars, Ikaruga, or Gradius V, but it's comparable in a lot of ways and decidedly different in others. It's got a trippy presentation that will draw you in once you get used to it, as well as a high level of challenge that you'd expect from this type of game.