Sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough games about being stranded on a derelict spaceship and forced to solve the mystery of what happened to the crew, all while being tormented by forces beyond human understanding. Fortunately for those of us still wondering where SHODAN and Isaac Clarke have gotten off to, Spirits of Xanadu has graciously stepped in to fill the gaping void in our hearts.
In Spirits of Xanadu, you play a humble space pencil-pusher assigned to investigate the eponymous research ship, figure out why it failed to return home, and secure its precious cargo. Of course, as soon as you into run into pitch-black corridors, murderous robots, mysterious disappearing masks, and a trail of blood leading to one of the airlocks, it becomes clear that the situation is well above your pay grade.
Armed with only a flashlight, a pistol, your instructions, and a letter of stern reprimand, it’s easy to feel lost aboard the Xanadu: there are helpful maps on every corner, but the only real direction is given in the form of audio logs and documents which gradually paint a picture of the crew’s fate as well as your goals. While death is only a temporary setback, there are enough killer robots stalking the halls to make exploration a suitably nerve-wracking prospect early on.
Spirits of Xanadu is presented in a stylized, low-polygon style with minimal texturing, hearkening back to the early days of 3D gaming, but the Xanadu itself is anything but low-detail: the ship has a full complement of facilities, including restrooms, offices and living quarters for each of the crew members, and a rec room complete with basketball hoop and arcade game. The game also has its share of hidden secrets, including better weapons and alternate endings.
Unfortunately, the game fails to keep up its initial tension level. Enemies don’t respawn, so once you’ve killed all the robots aboard the ship, you’ll never have to worry about being shot at or blown up again. The game has some nice hallucination sequences, but most of what you’ll experience is deliberately out-of-place ambient effects like rain or swimming noises, which are generally more pleasant than disturbing.
Spirits of Xanadu also comes up short on length: getting the basic ending on a blind run takes only around two hours, while finding all the game’s secrets takes around five. The ship manages to be just big enough to be both a joy to explore and a chore to backtrack through. Also, all of the puzzles are static between playthroughs, so you can literally see everything the game has to offer on a single run: the only reason to start over from scratch is to obtain certain missable achievements.
Despite its brevity and the issues with its difficulty curve, Spirits of Xanadu is a can’t-miss experience for fans of both sci-fi and horror. While the lack of surprise after the first playthrough is a bit of a letdown, the game nonetheless delivers a unique atmospheric experience.