By Mike O’Brien | ★★★✰✰
Disclaimer: Fire Hose Games provided a free copy of 20XX to Quench for review purposes.
We all have vices. I, for instance, can’t say no to sambuca. In the AAA games industry, no one can seem to put down the bottle labelled ‘Battle Royale’. And, just like the rest of us, indie games have picked their poison: roguelikes. With games like Enter the Gungeon, Moonlighter and Dead Cells kicking around, this is a market bursting at the seams with competition; the question is, where does 20XX fit in? The good news is that, in its own way, it doesn’t. As the only Mega Man-inspired roguelike of its calibre, 20XX brings a dynamic new enough to carve itself a unique place in the genre.
Just like Mega Man, 20XX is a game in which your robot character must traverse a series of stages with a mixture of bullet hell and action platformer gameplay. And just like most roguelikes, the loop is simple – blast your way to the end of a procedurally generated stage, fight a boss, blast your way through a harder stage, and so forth until you either win or perish, unlocking different bits and pieces for your next run. The combination of these two genres would have been enough to cement itself as an anomaly in the market, but 20XX goes a step further with some interesting mechanics at play when it comes to run progression.
Each time you advance to a new level, the difficulty increases (more turrets may appear, more powerful incarnations of standard enemies spawn, platforming segments become less forgiving, and so on). Nothing new there – but after defeating the stage boss, you’re able to choose which boss (and by extension which level) you want to take on next. Not only does this facilitate a less repetitive experience by affording the player the choice of having a sequentially different path each run, but it also allows for strategic decision-making. Find the Vile Visage to be a difficult boss? Maybe you should consider taking it down earlier to avoid facing its more difficult incarnation later on instead. Interestingly, since bosses are paired with specific stages, it seems that difficult bosses are paired with easier stages in general, meaning that players can determine a balance between stage difficulty and boss difficulty in their run via the routes they take.
Similarly, the game rewards both aggressive and more cautious approaches to progress. Every level embodies the basic principle of ‘left = backwards, right = forwards’; simply put, keep pushing right and you will inexorably arrive at the boss gate. However, there are little areas tucked away that implore you to explore the map vertically or take a few steps back, and you’ll almost always be rewarded with an upgrade chest. Cautious players are rewarded for their perception and curiosity – but each level also has a ‘speed bonus’ countdown which, if the level is completed before it reaches zero, will also reward the player with a chest. As far as roguelikes go, it’s quite a generous and accommodating game when it comes to player choice. Oh, and the game is fully playable in local or online co-op too, though it will make for a trivially easy experience.
In terms of fundamental mechanics, this game is buttery smooth from the get-go. Movement is fluid and responsive, offering players a huge amount of directional influence mid-jump, infinite walljumps, and a variety of movement options in general. The same can be said for the game’s combat as well, which marks a welcome departure from the roguelike convention of having to suffer a boring and rubbish starter weapon before finding something worthwhile. All in all, the fundamental gameplay is excellent and precise. I daresay it controls better than its spiritual source material.
That’s why it hurts so much to confront 20XX’s shortcomings. There are a series of gameplay systems and mechanics here that serve as an ideal infrastructure for a truly exceptional roguelike, but there’s just not enough content diversity here to support it. The vast majority of upgrades you’ll encounter in the game are minor stat buffs which do little to alter the experience. Some augs, like the XCALBER and the Glass Cannon, create interesting balance choices by offering attack power at the expense of energy or health. The Quantum Spook allows the player’s shots to travel through walls and shields, which opens up a litany of alternative (and confessedly very cheesy) tactics. But more often than not, these interesting gems are drowned beneath a sea of fairly uninteresting augs that do nothing but slightly buff stats, which is a real shame.
20XX’s biggest issue however is its level and progress design. In order to beat the game, you must defeat all nine regular bosses to reach the final boss, with one boss per level. Since there are only four levels in the game (excluding the unique final boss stage), the player is forced to play each of the game’s four levels twice over, which gets stale very quickly. They’re fun to traverse, but despite being procedurally generated, you’ll encounter many of the same platforming hazards with the exact same layout on each run. It didn’t take long for me to feel a little exhausted by 20XX’s routine.
On that note, the game’s procedural generation is for the most part serviceable, but in the late-game it can be dubious. I’ve encountered a variety of situations wherein the only route to progress was jumping into a pitfall I couldn’t see the bottom of, for instance. Enemies spawn on the player – sometimes multiple enemies – with minimal warning, usually in boss fights. Portals sometimes drop the player straight to their deaths. In some areas, particularly the Skytemple, the game’s algorithms speed up platforms, turrets, and create overall chaos to such an extent that without certain movement cores – such as the hover or fly abilities – these sections can feel extremely frustrating and nigh-on impossible.
20XX is so close to being the perfect game of its kind. The satisfying gameplay fundamentals are clearly there, and excluding the various ‘+1 health find’ upgrades, there’s certainly enough interesting content here to substantiate its dream. But between the lacking variation in both level design and player upgrades, I can’t say 20XX is quite there yet. When compared to a game like Enter the Gungeon, in which there’s a good chance you’ll encounter something new each run for hundreds of hours, 20XX is just too repetitive, and its procedural elements are more of a hindrance than a help. All of the cornerstones of a fantastic game are present in 20XX – they just need to be fleshed out a bit.
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