Xenon Valkyrie+: 16-Bit Procedural Platforming

You might think the “roguelike” subgenre is oversaturated (it is). You might think the term “roguelike” is widely misused (it is). But that’s not to say there aren’t still good examples of games with roguelike elements being released.

One such example is Xenon Valkyrie+, a game originally developed by Spanish coder Daniel Fernandez Chavez (aka “Diabolical Mind”) and enhanced for its PlayStation 4 and Vita release by solo French developer Fabrice Breton of Cowcat Games. If that pairing sounds familiar, you may recall we looked at their previous collaboration Riddled Corpses EX a while back.

Riddled Corpses EX impressed me a great deal, so when Limited Run Games offered a physical release of Xenon Valkyrie+ a few months ago, I thought I’d jump on it and see what else this dream team could come up with.

Xenon Valkyrie+ is what tends to get described as a “roguelite” these days, in that it’s a game that doesn’t strictly follow the original definition of “roguelike” (top-down, turn-based, combat-heavy dungeon crawling in procedurally generated maps, preferably with ASCII art) but instead incorporates elements of its “host” subgenre while combining them with other influences.

Specifically, Xenon Valkyrie+ is a platform game with both melee and ranged combat that unfolds in a sequence of two procedurally generated levels, then one of two fixed boss fights, then onwards to two more procedurally generated levels with a different visual theme, then another one of two possible boss fights… and so on until you either die (likely) or beat the game (less likely).

Interestingly, unlike many other games of this type such as the recent Dead Cells and the much-loved Rogue Legacy, the game isn’t attempting to tap into the core appeal elements of the Metroid-style “open world” platformer. Rather, this is a game where you have a simple objective on each square-shaped level: start at the top, get to the bottom. You have a full minimap of the terrain right from the start, allowing you to plan your rough route, and nearby enemies are marked on this as you approach, allowing you to make suitable detours for a bit of killing along the way.

This latter aspect is important, and one way in which Xenon Valkyrie+ channels the spirit of more traditional roguelikes. Unlike other games that take a similar approach to their platforming gameplay — Spelunky is probably the most well-known example — it’s inadvisable to simply try and race through the game as quickly as possible. Instead, the game’s experience and levels system encourages you to hunt down as many enemies as possible before heading for the exit, because enemies mean experience, experience means levels, levels mean talent points, and talent points mean upgrades to your maximum HP, your attack power, your maximum ammunition or your defensive power.

The twist is that gaining levels and talent points by themselves doesn’t do anything for you; you can only expend those talent points upon actually clearing a level and interacting with a special stone in the “intermission” area between challenges. Here, you can also spend currency you’ve collected on items such as ammo refills, healing and keys to open treasure chests as well as interacting with characters to get an idea of the game’s understated narrative.

There are three different characters to play when you start Xenon Valkyrie+. Each has their own basic loadout of a melee weapon and a gun along with a unique special ability: one can jump much higher, one can send out a scanning wave to see where enemies and treasures are from a much greater range than usual, and one can set sticky time bombs to defeat enemies or destroy walls and floors — another callback to traditional roguelikes, in which digging through walls was often an important part of the experience!

When combining their different innate abilities with the “custom build” system the talent points system offers, there’s actually a variety of different ways to play according to how you enjoy engaging with the game. Do you prefer getting up close and using risky melee attacks, or do you favour rapid ranged attacks, even with their limited ammo and lower base damage? Do you trust yourself to be able to avoid taking hits, or do you want to buff up your defenses and maximum HP to be able to soak a few good smacks in the teeth?

In each of the game’s “worlds”, you’ll come across a number of different types of enemies, and as you progress you’ll notice that each new world tends to reskin the same enemies you’ve seen before while maybe adding one or two new ones into the mix. This means that learning to spot behaviours rather than appearances is the most important way to improve your own skills in the game — for example, understanding that enemies that move in one particular way will fire shots every few seconds helps you be ready to dodge when it happens, while knowing that some larger enemies are likely to explode and hurt you when you defeat them gives you ideal circumstances for which to save a few ranged shots.

Variety is provided in each playthrough not just through the randomised level layouts, but also through the large white treasure chests that contain new melee or ranged weapons. Initially, there’s a relatively small pool of possible items you might find in these chests, but “purchasing” new items using the game’s special currency “Teamerite” — most reliably acquired by defeating bosses — allows you to add more powerful pieces of equipment to the mix. These don’t get as outlandish as the items in something like Enter the Gungeon, but they do each have their own unique appearance and performance rather than just making bigger numbers pop out of enemies.

The whole experience is wrapped in an absolutely gorgeous aesthetic evocative of the best 16-bit games. Deliberately limited colour palettes give each zone a very distinct feel and sense of “temperature”, the small but detailed sprites are somewhat reminiscent of Cave Story, the parallax backgrounds are rich with detail… and the visuals are complemented by some excellent chiptune music and authentically old-school sound effects. Much like Riddled Corpses EX, Xenon Valkyrie+ boasts a “retro” aesthetic that truly demonstrates an understanding the enduring appeal of old-school games: something that runs much deeper than just everything being 2D and low resolution.

It is, in short, a Good Thing, and highly enjoyable even for those among us who — like myself — have found themselves growing increasingly tired of the seemingly never-ending torrent of small-scale independently developed pixel-art roguelike-inspired games we get these days. Yes, Xenon Valkyrie+ is all of those things… but it also has a certain magic about it — a delightful combination of simple, solid and speedy gameplay, beautiful visuals, varied progression and catchy music — that keeps me coming back for more.

Also the girl on the cover is cute. And the importance of that should not be underestimated.

More about Xenon Valkyrie+

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