Developer: Ben Hickling, MNKY
Publisher: PixelJAM Games
Release Date: July 21, 2022
Platforms: PC/Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed on: Steam Deck
Price: $9.99 (USD)
A group called the Zodiac are terrorizing the Sanzaru Solar System. You play as a monkey named Kyuu, blasting your way through each planet, saving them from utter destruction. This rail shooter done in a typical 90s low-poly design is reminiscent of the SNES and N64 Star Fox games.
ExZodiac is currently at early access stage, with six playable planets (levels). Each level ends with a big bad boss, taunting you and even asking you to join the ranks in Zodiac. The game does a great job keeping Zodiac’s MO under wraps, and I’m waiting patiently to see how this ends.
Firstly, I want to address the graphics as ExZodiac is a clear love letter to the old school space shooter. You operate what looks just like an arwing, and you wave to and fro simplistic obstacles, whether it be buildings or icicles. The amazing thing that Ben does with ExZodiac is that he makes low-poly pleasing to the eye. The minimalist environmental detail hones greater focus on the color palette–with lots of pinks and purples–and action. Everything is so bright and simple, that I don’t mind the low-poly at all. It’s an older art direction that doesn’t feel old.
The graphics pair well with the 16-bit style soundtrack that blends well into the fact pace shooter. It never pulled me from the immersion–if anything–it added to it.
The controls are also very familiar. There is a thrust and break with limitations, missiles (aka. bombs), lasers (the pew-pew), and…BARREL ROLL. Most button placement is intuitive and for the most part, the game controls well. The flight control was slightly floaty; however, it was something I got used to over time.
Each level is incredibly fast paced, which ramps up the difficulty. In many ways that is good, and in other ways, it hinders my ability to catch up with dialogue between characters. Odds are, I overlooked some key lore.
I did appreciate the diverse landscapes of each planet. You have one that looks similar to Earth, a barren desert, frozen wasteland, and even a bustling city where you cruise on a bad-ass motorcycle-like vehicle. At present, ExZodiac follows a linear path. It does make the game predictable, unlike Starfox 64, where if you fly a certain path or save a friend, you could alter your course in the game. Because ExZodiac is still in Early Access, I hope the dev creates split pathways.
Enemies are almost carbon copies of ones you’d see in a Star Fox game, and the lasers and sound effects are also similar. I’ve also noted that it doesn’t take much to crash and burn as enemy fire takes large chunks of your health.
There are a few power ups in each level, such an enhanced lasers, extra missiles, and “repair”. On occasion, there are bonuses you receive if you maneuver the environmental obstacles. The rewards are nothing special, but it incentivized me to challenge myself and not just charge straight through the level. The levels themselves are relatively quick, and the boss fights are a lot of fun. They, too, are similar in game play to the bosses in Star Fox 64. Your ability to target up to four things at once make most relatively easy…as long as you can avoid their attacks!
Finally, you accumulate points at the end of each level and receive a grade. Sadly, my run consisted of Ds and one B. However, because each level is easy to digest, I am looking forward to retrying them to get to S rank!
ExZodiac thus far is a familiar and welcomed indie title for those that enjoyed the SNES and N64 Star Fox games and others of the same ilk. Though at times it seems too similar, the cast of characters and bosses make it just different enough to elicit a sense of curiosity in me.
The low poly pixel art is absolutely gorgeous and pairs well with the16-bit music. The worlds are vibrant, the courses are challenging, and the bosses are enjoyable. While there is little I recommend for improvement, I hope the dev considers several pathways to reach the end. This will encourage multiple playthroughs. I also hope for a way to balance the heart-racing pace of the action with the conversations that may be going on–for as a love letter to the classics, its story is what will set it apart. However, it’s got the style aspect down perfectly.
I hope this game continues through Early Access to full completion! Highly recommend!
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Featured Image Source: Ben Hickling via Steam