Developer: NINE POUND STUDIOS
Price: $7.99
Version Reviewed: 1.0.6790
Device Reviewed On: iPod Touch

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★☆
Game Controls Rating: ★★★☆☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Replay Value Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

Ever since people first recognized the iPhone as a legitimate gaming platform, players have dreamed of a fully realized portable MMORPG in the style of World of Warcraft. So far, technological limitations have seemed to bar such a game, but developers keep getting closer and closer to realizing it, especially as the iPhone itself gets more and more powerful.

Enter into the ring Xenome Episode 1, the first part of an ambitious RPG game that seeks to successfully create that MMORPG-style game play and open environment game world. It’s an interesting proof-of-concept exercise that impresses on a technical level, but is less impressive in terms of engaging play.

Wide, Wild World

In Xenome, you play the Scientist, a man without an identity awoken from cryogenic slumber only to find the world has fallen into post-apocalyptic hell. In this toxic biological wasteland, you are quickly pressed into service, diving headlong into a fight between warring factions for control over the Silica Flats and the secrets scattered across it.

It’s an interesting premise, and as you go through the world you find scattered bits of explanation for what exactly happened to the world. Finding these bits is a central part of the plot; the various factions fight not only for power, but also to control knowledge of what came before.

The game world looks good. And it does, indeed, feel like a world. Nine Pound Studios has pulled off an MMORPG kind of open world, with vast stretches (they boast “five miles” of playable terrain) that you can run freely across without load screens or cut scenes. You control the Scientist via a virtual dual-stick that is fast becoming the touch game standard: left for movement, right for turning and aiming. The character runs kind of goofy, and the controls are not very fine-tuned, but it’s still great to be able to run him over a fully rendered and constantly unrolling landscape.

It’s this aspect of Xenome that is a big success. The first few levels you play the game, you’ll be drawn in by how well they’ve created an MMORPG look and feel. It is graphically well-executed and a successful proof of concept. Yes, you CAN pull off an open world on the iPhone. But though it may be a successful proof of concept, it’s not an entirely successful game.

Nothin’ But Grind

For those of you who haven’t played World of Warcraft before, bear with me a moment.

For those of you that know WoW, close your eyes and imagine Azeroth. Got the image? Good. Now, limit yourself to the Barrens — there’s no other zones. Okay, now take out all the other players and everything they bring to the experience: no guilds, no parties, no chat, no PvP; it’s just you and the non-player characters (NPCs). Next, take out dungeons, daily quests, and instances; the only quests available to you are the standard collection quests given out by incidental NPCs hanging out in Ratchet or Camp Taurajo.

What do you have left? Grinding, basically. That is what Xenome Episode 1 is. It’s grinding levels in the Barrens with some interesting plot bits thrown in.

What this means, for those of you not MMORPG savvy, is that there’s no peaks and valleys in this game, no exciting cutscenes or boss fights or points of peril. You run or teleport from location to location, get a quest, complete it, and then return to the quest-giver for some XPs and occasionally an item (a gun, some armor, etc.). 95% of the quests involve killing a certain number of named enemies, and the other 5% generally involve finding a new NPC to talk to.

This can be compelling up to a point, but it gets dull after awhile. The enemies are spaced out so that you almost never fight more than one at a time, and they don’t persist for long if you run away. There’s no real strategy, no pulling enemies or avoiding aggro. Run up to something, kill it, collect treasure, rinse, repeat. That’s Xenome in a nutshell. There are some “bosses” in that there are slightly tougher enemies with names; but they don’t take any special strategy to kill and your healing power will be perfectly fine for surviving the extra few blows it takes to kill them.

Also, tanks, healers, and DPS mean little here. Your character, the Scientist, is a jack-of-all-trades; he can fire a gun, fight in melee, and heal himself just fine. The game has a genetic powers system (the “xenome” of the title) based on taking on the aspects of the game’s monsters, but these aren’t terribly vital to the game; I played through nearly 15 levels without changing out the first two I earned, and there were no enemies that required the use of one particular power or resisted another. There’s a potential here for a great amount of character customization, but it’s not realized in this episode.

Because of the repetitive nature of the quests and the generic class of the main character, replay value here is low. A more robust RPG, and even some third-person shooters, would offer multiple character options, but Xenome has only the one. Once you make it to the end of the plotline, there’s going to be little to draw you on or make you want to play the story over.

The Verdict

With some more effort and inventiveness, Xenome Episode 1 could have been a great game. I hope that future chapters bear out the promise of its premise and its technical charms. For now, I can only give it a tepid recommendation, as its impressive graphics and expansive environment are dampened by a dull, plodding play experience.

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