Tag Archives: Gristmill Studios

REVIEW: Xenominer Swarm

Though some would classify the original Xenominer as a ‘sci-fi Minecraft‘ and nothing more on sight alone, it’s heavy emphasis on survival on a harsh planet made it much more than a simple clone. It’s one of the few games I’ve played on XBLIG where I was actively brainstorming ideas for a potential sequel, so sure of its fun and success. For its second game, developer Gristmill Studios took a step back, to put out a multiplayer FPS set in the same universe. DownGate Deathmatch tried, but it was not a very good game. Now, the team is back with another attempt, hoping to expand the universe yet again.

Enter Xenominer Swarm ($1.00), which keeps a lot of the same gameplay systems and options from DownGate Deathmatch intact, and seems no less ambitious. The big change to the format this time around is the game is now a four-player cooperative FPS, having you battle aliens in a semi-wave format across a variety of modes and maps. You essentially play as a mercenary for hire, completing contracts to earn enough money to buy new weapons / gear, and unlock access to additional planets and missions, with the difficulty and rewards scaling upwards accordingly.

Mission types include ‘Mining Contract’, which sees engineers digging for minerals / crafting supply crates to send back home, a self-explanatory ‘Base Defense’1 setting, and a kill-everything mode called ‘Bug Hunt’. Regardless of the blocky planet, the contracts typically have you guarding a ‘base’, which serves as your spawn point and shipping station. You can swap characters here, and place assembled crates to be beamed off-world.

The class-based solider system returns as well, with the standard ‘Marine’, the workhorse ‘Engineer’2, and the sniper-ready ‘Recon’ types. While the first and last units haven’t changed greatly, the always-vital engineer class has been given an armament upgrade, allowing you to craft defensive turrets and guns to guard your base / fellow marines. All of the classes come with numerous ways to customize your ‘ExoDrone’, changing armor / helmet types, weapons, ammo types, and even a handful of perks.

Xenominer Swarm - Screen

In theory, this range of options and the mission variety should equate to an evolving, entertaining game. It doesn’t quite get there, though, for the same reasons that DownGate Deathmatch failed to deliver on its grand promise; all the parts are here, but everything lacks punch and a sense of urgency. The so-so online play doesn’t help (there were a few framerate stutters I noticed, and I was dropped from some matches), and it still has the clunky, unsatisfying combat that can be found in the previous game. Ammo, too, is once again sparse, forcing you to rely on engineer teammates to re-up, or expend energy to slowly regenerate bullets. Neither option suits the quicker style of game the developer is going for.

The result is another uneven experience. In a lot of ways, Xenominer Swarm remains ahead of its time on XBLIG, granting you an awesome amount of content and adaptable gameplay, all for a single dollar. Despite the ideas and that freedom, it remains tied down by underwhelming combat, some initial confusion as to how it all works, and a snail’s pace in terms of progress and gameplay. It’s still worth a look, especially if you have three friends to play with, but I sincerely hope that Gristmill can work out the kinks in this side series. It really could be something great.

 


  1. A game type that goes on for twenty-plus minutes, the equivalent of one day / night cycle in-game. Take my advice: pack a lunch if you’re heading out on this mission. 
  2. The only class that can equip the P.I.C.K., the game’s version of the Minecraft pick axe that lets you dig up and place blocks in the environment, or create power sources and build up your base. 
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REVIEW: DownGate Deathmatch

One of the better games to come out of the last Indie Uprising was XenoMiner. Undoubtedly, new takes on Minecraft have been done to death, but in giving the game an extraterrestrial base and a heavy survival aspect, it managed to eek out a niche. Though it was successful on its own, and plenty of updates / add-ons have been released, developer Gristmill Studios is taking a stab at something different for its latest, DownGate Deathmatch ($1.00).

DownGate Deathmatch - Screen

And what better way to broaden your audience (and earn a little extra revenue) than with a first-person shooter set in that same universe, right? Right? Well, that is the plan. You see, combining FPS and Crafting is old hat, too, leaving DownGate Deathmatch in the precarious position of having to prove itself equal to (or better than) existing examples, or risk looking like a cheap, me-too knock-off.

Taking stylistic inspiration from classic run-and-gun types like Unreal and Quake, the game certainly doesn’t want for options, granting you complete customization over your choice of ExoDrone (that’s fancyspeak for ‘Space Marine’). You really can be a beautiful, unique snowflake in space. From class designation to outer appearance, to weapons, equipment, perks, and even ammo type, the total number of possible outfit combinations is impressive.

Ditto for the traversal options once you’re in-game. DGD supports up to sixteen players online, and the maps are at once intimidatingly-large and expansive enough to accommodate the number of players. You can remove and / or add blocks to create defenses. Jet-packs can get you both vertical and around the level in a hurry, while gravity boots can literally change your perspective of the world on the fly, with the floor becoming the ceiling and vice-versa. All of which introduces several different ways to play.

DownGate Deathmatch - Screen2

…but not the first-person shooter you need.

Unfortunately, all the front-end work and thrilling bits sound better on paper. In practice, it plays average at best, with the crafting and gravity features reduced to novelty tricks. Combat lacks oomph!, and hit detection is non-existent, making it impossible to tell if you’re doing damage to other players. When you can find them, that is. The transient nature of online lobbies means you likely won’t find more than two or three players at a time (thus making the maps too big), while the terrible single-player AI guarantees you won’t have much fun solo either.

If you could judge a game purely by its possibilities and eagerness to please, DownGate Deathmatch would rank highly. To do so would be ignoring some pretty serious faults, though, and the fact that the game simply pales in comparison to other titles like it. It looks the part, but feels like a clunky, bland-playing FPS that does little to help or expand the universe it is set in.

REVIEW: XenoMiner

To date, I have not played Minecraft. Yep. Go ahead, ridicule me in secret. I had my reasons, some of them were even valid, but when the Uprising games were announced, I knew I’d be getting my first taste of the voxel crafters with XenoMiner (80 MSP), Gristmill Studios‘ take on the genre that transfers the setting to space.

The tutorial, in the form of a female AI known as DAI-SE (Daisy), is with you for the first five to ten minutes, explaining, albeit oh-so-briefly, a little bit about your situation (only survivor of a crash, loss of memory), that you need to survive on this hostile planetoid, and gather components to eventually make an escape attempt. It’s not simply a matter of digging or crafting. You really do start out with nothing, having to monitor your battery and oxygen levels constantly. Instead of hunger or the physical threat of an enemy, such as the ever-popular zombies or ‘creepers’ (as in Minecraft), you’re fighting a more realistic adversary here; the daily bombardment of radiation due to a rising and falling star, leaving the surface off-limits to you during its ascent. Parts of this review, including this sentence (ha!), were written as I waited between star-rise and star-set.

It is essential that you find or carve out a shielded refuge straight away, and build a centriforge. This is what will allow you to craft, using a combination of the copious terrain and the invaluable (but far less-prevalent) ores. You’re going to be digging. A lot. Don’t expect much help. Outside of the alien structure where you find your first AI bot, the land is untouched. As an experiment, I went for a walk, four game-days long, taking shelter under ‘ice trees’ when the radiation hit, finding massive, carved canyons and stretches of jagged mountains, some floating islands, but no sign of other alien tech or anything remarkable to report back on. Which sort of leads into my main beef with the game.

XenoMiner requires a huge commitment of time and resources to put together any kind of existence. Two hours in, I had crafted reserve oxygen tanks and hoarded plenty of ice, built an extensive base in the side of a mountain with a network of caves and precious ore, and found my first alien bot, which was gladly doing the digging / prospecting during the days (thanks to my modified programming) on my behalf. I wasn’t really ‘getting anywhere’, but I was surviving and learning.

Four hours on, I started building processing cores to boost DAI-SE’s creativity and build options. I was gaining some flexibility, making slow but actual progress. The ore I needed to craft certain items was finite, though, and even with the bot digging and collecting it for me (a clever program I spotted here), I rarely came across more than a handful of the blocks I needed, forcing me to prospect every night and in every direction, mostly in vain. Then, completely by chance, I discovered a cache of gold ore, and the doors, as the saying goes, opened wide to accept me. Six hours in, I had upgraded my P.I.C.K., allowing me to mine much faster and gather the tougher ores. I could also make upgrades to my suit, and build stronger / larger versions of all the equipment. Thanks to that gold and titanium, I was morphing into a badass.

Though again I was coming up against finite amounts of ore, with XenoMiner stringing me along with its classic carrot-on-a-stick gameplay, dropping the small rewards in my lap while moving the goal posts further and further down the field, demanding more ore for anything worthwhile. Gravity Boots are only a dream. Same with the mightier processors. Escape from this rock? Ha. Good joke, pal. The bots too, while cool and infinitely helpful, are a bit of puzzle currently. With most of the commands locked away by the developer (or held by the random person that’s able to decipher alien language and use it at will), you’ll be stuck with the standard orders and whatever snippets you find elsewhere.

The lack of a quick or auto-save hurts, forcing you back to the menu if you want to record any big changes. The threat of death erasing your progress (losing your possessions) of an hour or more is reason enough to save often. There’s also the possibility of an engine performance flaw. It may just be limited to me, but I suffered horrible pauses and hiccups as soon as my world had loaded (lasting about a minute and a half), and any time I moved from one area to the next. The more I altered the world, the worse it seemed to get, going from an annoyance to a real problem. I can’t hold it against the game based on one case, but it is worth mentioning if anyone else should have the same issue.

Approaching eight hours in play time, I’m nowhere near where the game wants me to be, but I’m still digging. I can understand the attraction of these games now. If you like what Minecraft represents, but love a greater challenge and have a ton of disposable free time, XenoMiner is a hell of a deal at 80 MSP, compared to other indie voxel-types. The emphasis on survival, the potential of the programmable bots to lessen the strain, and a general sense of purpose that’s missing from the more casual clones, gives the game a leg up at the final tally.

Need help? Keep up with the game’s Wiki page.

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Review on Clearance Bin Review

Review on Indie Gamer Chick

Review on The Indie Mine

Prelude to the Uprising: XenoMiner

I decided to go with the more recent gameplay trailer here, rather than the one being used for the Uprising, as it was two months old. This one (from early August) shows off the new and improved (and possibly final form) HUD, as well as a little more of the minute to minute gameplay and crafting in action. On to the particulars!

XenoMiner  is the latest addition to the growing voxel-based sandbox genre. The adventure begins as you wake up after having crash-landed on Xenos, the largest moon orbiting a gas giant. With only a little oxygen in your spacesuit and a bit of salvage from the remains of your ship, you must find a way to survive alone in the harsh lunar environment. XenoMiner  brings several new concepts to the genre, such as futuristic technology, anti-gravity pads and gravity-bending boots, solar-powered drilling equipment with matter-to-energy storage, and programmable bots of alien origin. The bots can be programmed to dig and build through a scripting interface which allows players to program immense and amazing structures that are then built when the bot is deployed. If you’re done scratching around in the dirt with torches and stone age tools, then grab your plasma-drilling P.I.C.K., throw on your space suit, boot up the local copy of your constant AI companion DAI-SE (“Daisy”), craft a few spare Oxygen tanks in your Centriforge and then head out to find the real adventure amongst the stars.

I agree it’s tough to gauge exactly how XenoMiner will play from a two minute video, but from the description and what was shown, it’s clearly pushing for much more than the other Minecraft-ian clones currently available on the indie channel. While the open world and creative aspects will undoubtedly smack of Notch’s opus, the space setting and programmable bots do change up the visuals. The game itself places a greater emphasis on survival, and on building yourself back up; think Pikmin there. I’m very interested.

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XenoMiner will be released on September 19th.

Interview on The Indie Mine

Preview on Clearance Bin Review