Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Spirits of Xanadu (PC) - Guest Post

This week on Super Adventures, guest poster mecha-neko has gone to the trouble of redefining the word 'Friday' in order to write about a spooky first person shooter on a Wednesday without changing his old banner image. This is the level of commitment we both have to providing you with words about video games.

Feels like it's been a while since I've done an FPS Friday. Ray told me about a 'short' game that he'd recently finished, and if a game is so short and so good that Ray can finish it, it's gotta be worth having a look at.

So I'm going to play one of's Featured 'Action' games, Spirits of Xanadu.

Spirits Of Xanadu PC title screen
Developer:Good Morning, Commander|Release Date:2015|Systems:Windows, Mac, Linux

See, told ya!

The very first thing we see is the very expensive-looking intro of publisher Nightdive, of 're-releasing System Shock' fame (and 'driving around in circles with the handbrake on tyres squealing and spewing smoke everywhere instead of remaking System Shock' fame).

By the way, click on these little JPGs to view them in full mega-vision.

A spooky space ship hovers about in spooky space, escorted by deep rumbles and slow synths. Is it a good ship, or is it a bad ship?

Well, I'm not being musically informed™ that this situation is amiss by tactical deployment of bowel-liquefying bass notes or cymbal scrapings, so perhaps everything is okay over there.

The date is June 6, 1983, and it is the era of The Smurfs, Magnum P.I., and Cheers. Sadly, I'm trapped way up in space on some cockamamie mission to repair some stranded spacecraft. I could be back on Earth watching the premiere of Octopussy (external link), but nooooo.

Well, here I am. Might as well make the most of it. There's no voice telling me what to do, reading out current weather conditions or whatever (I suspect it's dark out, though). All I can do is wander around and snoop at stuff. Everything around me is flat shades of platinum and gold, and the walls are lined with plush, royal blue carpeting. It's like it's part of a kids' foam play castle, or perhaps I've skyjacked my ride from that fancy plane Zenlil from Consortium.


Fair enough. I like to know what I'm supposed to be doing. My tiny ship seems to have everything in hand for the time being, allowing me to inspect the contents of my briefcase. To accompany me on my mission, my character has chosen a hot pink lotus flower, a flashlight, one of the audio disks from System Shock 2 and a single piece of paper.

Well that's nice. You know you're working for the good guys when they use phrases like 'to take precedence over all other concerns, including crew welfare'. But is 375 working for the E.R.A., or against them? Who knows! There are multiple endings, after all!

The disk is a (well-produced!) recording from my good friend Briefing Officer, saying that I'm a really nice guy and everybody's really looking forward to meeting me. I'm more than happy to assist! If there's any small-to-moderate areas of darkness on that ship, I'm perfectly equipped to illuminate them briefly.

While I was listening to the message, I could watch my Operative-mobile gliding in to dock with the Xanadu. A nice announcer voice greets me - "Welcome to the Xanadu. Please remain in your vessel until the docking light turns green."

Everything's gone a bit dark out there, so I'll grab my flashlight and head on over to do some Totally Ordinary And Safe Spaceship Maintenance.


Okay. I give up. I have no idea how to leave the danged ship.


I got distracted and confused by the screen in the distance showing various groups of letters. I thought this might be a little Myst-y and I had to press one of them that matched up with the enthusiastic OMG that's flashing on my pilot console, but it was just a red herring.


I had to activate the flat grey rectangle in my ship composed of flat grey rectangles. Of course.

Poor 375 stood up a bit too fast it seems, because the moment his spaceboots touch the deck of the Xanadu he's hit with a migraine and some awful audible hiss.

Nobody's here to greet me and the lights are all off. Typically creepy, but also eminently sensible for a long-term space mission. On the flashlight goes.

A search of the table in front of me reveals a bunch of screwdrivers and a little white gun.

I have a look around for any foes hiding around, but hear nothing but the satisfying rumble of the ship. Since 375 forgot to pack his own, I decide to Ⓧ Take gun.


He exploded. I died.

Thank you for playing Spirits of Xanadu, I guess.

Or is it?

I awaken in a cell that looks an awful lot like the one in Deus Ex...

And that's it.

Nobody's here to talk at me, or tell me to do something special to avoid the death robots, or slide a knowing snicker in my direction for being so foolish as to think I could be of any use to their desperate situation. I am... By Myself In A Murky Place.

Who kidnapped me? Looks like robots did. Or somebody with robot lackeys. There's a blue skinny robot in the cell opposite me, and a great big ol' trashcan robot patrolling immediately outside. But wait, the damned fools forgot to take Take Gun away from me. That'll be the last mistake they ever make!

Beooo! Beooo! Beooo! Beooo...

...Beooo! Beooo!

- deep breath -

...Beooo! Beooo! Beooo! Beooo! Beooo!

Alright, we got him. At last. The blast was pleasant, but the explosion was as quiet as a mouse.

My fancy future-past-gun seems to have infinite ammo. The caption at the start said I could charge it up, but the effectiveness of said charge up shot has yet to be proven.

Exploring the gangly robot's cell, and...

There's a reassuring sight. You can be trapped in deep space with only your gun and your flashlight, but if the facilities are present and clean, everything is surely going to be A-OK.

Let's move on.

So we're leaving the flashlight on, are we? I see how it is.

Seems like the man in charge of the brig has been leaving audio diaries about the place.

You know, I have to wonder if the crew of a ship like this would trust each other a little more if they didn't leave messages lying about the place saying how little they trusted each other. I'd be more surprised and intrigued by a game that set me out to collect a set of audio logs from a crew that were all perfectly satisfied with their mission and their relationships to one another.

More trashbots. They've got a big red 'front' eye box, but as far as I can tell they can see an infinite distance and in every direction and in the dark. Which means that if I can see them, they can see me, and I'm in a great deal of trouble since there's no way to lose them.

Naff off out of it, fools! I'm tryn'-a listen to the audio logs here!

Hmm, I can't search the defeated robots. That's unusual. Not sure why you'd not want to search the killer laser robots to take their killer robot lasers. I don't need ammo for my weedy li'l zappo, but it'd be nice to have something to show for my victories. If I'm repairing a ship, batteries would definitely be a good start.

Yes, let's save. Good idea.

There's no manual saves in the menu, and no save slots. There's just yer progress. Which is a real ball-ache for anybody who'd like to replay sections to take better screenshots or correctly transcribe spoken dialogue, grumble grumble.

None of the other options seem to be of any use. There's three crew members to be found, somewhere, that's all I can gather.

And they're somewhere around... uh... well, I don't know where I am now. The corridors are really, really dark. That arrow could be me. And what's that sound?

Is that a robot-


Meanwhile, after leaping out of the cells once more...

It's becoming apparent that I have infinite lives as long as I don't mind having to regain my bearings each time I miraculously reappear in the cell. I really wish I'd copied that map down onto paper now.

Hey there, little UNATCO cleaning robot!

There's sparkly particles floating through the air and every time I move it looks like robot eyes gliding all around me.

These robots really need to glow or buzz or something. They make sounds, but they're very, very quiet. This could be a headphones game, but I wouldn't dare for fear of getting a super loud BLOOP or ZAP down my earhole. And that annoying fake migraine hiss can sod off too.

So many robots! Every corner, every corridor, every room is just filled with them. And there's no outrunning them.

Leave me be! I didn't do anything to you! I was nowhere near you, I just wanted to look around the restrooms to see if there was any secret stuff! Yeesh!

There are lots of shelves in this room.

If the ignition keys to the Xanadu are lying about in here, I'm going to have to search each and everyone one of these shelves, and that sure sounds like fun.

I'm not even joking, I'd enjoy doing that if it felt like I was getting something from it. But so far I haven't found a single battery, ammo clip, weapon upgrade, key, remote mine, suspicious syringe or candy bar. Exploration games since the dawn of time, whether text adventures, dungeon crawlers or shooters, have had the player acquiring ungodly amounts of stuff. I'm finding lots of places where stuff could conceivably be, but no actual stuff stuff. At least let me pick up some random, plausible-but-eventually-useless tools to make it seem like I'm getting somewhere.

This must be the conference room... there's a printout of a machine transcription of a crew meeting on the table.

A strange moment of humour in a pitch-black, instant death scarygame.

Since there's no music in the background, just the sounds of the ship, I thought the game was going for a more serious tone. It's hard to tell.

Aha! A creepy, sneaky vent. This is definitely going to lead to somewhere good, and not be filled with menacing miniature mechas.

Throughout most of Spirits of Xanadu, this is what you can expect to see.

The charge-up glow doesn't even light up the corridor! How'd they overlook that?

Oooh, this room is fancy. I have a sneaking suspicion that it might not be real though, with all of those panels and all this empty space. It's giving me heavy-handed 'you're supposed to think this is weird' vibes. But there's got to be something interesting to steal here, imaginary or not.

Nope. All I can seem to imagine are more of these postbox robots, together with a cadre of vicious, floating blade-helicopter orbs that really don't like me hanging around their secret base.


Well, that's new. Now everything's gone black and white and there's a floating painted mask floating through the corridors leading me somewhere. Honestly, I'll take it. If it means the robots aren't appearing and I have a clear objective with an end-point, yes, I'll follow this mask wherever it would like me to go.

Ⓧ Touch artifact

Not once in the history of everything has that ever been a good idea. Let's do it.

Beeeeeeeep. And I'm in another room again. That was exciting.

Waking up from a hallucination to find yourself standing in a giant blood puddle. There's happy times.

Believe it or not, and I know this might come as a shock to some readers who weren't expecting this kind of content in this game, but something attacked the crew.

I don't leave bloody footprints, so I'm fairly sure it wasn't me. Though I could just be drifting around this spaceship like a cartoon character floating around after smelling a delicious pie.

If it was me, what did I do? Disintegrate them but leave the blood? Eat them whole? Or did I just have the worst case of fear diarrhoea in history?

I'm listening to the audio diary of a murderer. At least it wasn't me!

On the plus side it means I only have two crew members to locate, but on the minus side one of them probably isn't going to be too happy to see me.

Maybe he's hiding... in this desk drawer!

Aw, nope. But I have found a pretty little model spaceship that looks right out of Stardust or Warblade or something!

I also found another map of the ship on the wall, but I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed, as the layout hadn't changed any after my misadventure with the mask.

On top of a filing cabinet, in a room whose name I can't remember, lies a little metal box labelled 'nav-server data drive 1'.

Easily missable. Doesn't blink. Didn't make a sound. Just a tiny coloured box, hiding, like some rare cereal. No hint as to it being there or if it was important. (It may very well be.)

I now have a goal! Unless there's only one of these.

Could the other missing nav drives be in this drawer? Or this drawer? Or any of the other ten? Or perhaps it's in the other cabinet?

Or it could be in any of the half-dozen crew desks I passed? They all seemed to have a few drawers of their own, possibly even hidden drawers inside those drawers!

The healthy golden glow of engine radiation, I assume.

I'm more or less exploring by just sliding myself along the walls, feeling my way from one area of light to the next, following or ignoring each illuminated room sign on a whim as they randomly bob about in front of my vision, like a drunk exploring the nightlife by taking random subway trains.

Crew's Quarters! This is good. If somebody sabotaged the navigational computer and swiped some bits of it, they might've hidden them in their quarters. Let's venture down these System Shock gravshafts and have a snoop.


Oh no!

The Crew's Quarters shaft led to a giant open room filled with trashbots, flying things, and two postboxes with invulnerable shields around them. When I stepped out, an alarm went off and everything rushed right at my face.

I managed to dash around a corner, but there's simply nowhere to hide. There's no lockers or dumpsters. No doors you can temporarily force shut by shooting the controls. No traps you can lay on the ground to paralyse the robots. I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that if I see a robot, I'm dead.

I'm dying and reappearing so often that my cell in the brig must look like a damn clown car, what with all my clones jumping out of it.

Hey, it's my ride!

It has the name P0R-10CK, which I'm sure like 'Xanadu' means something to somebody, but it just means to me that Operative 375 has terrible taste in names. It must run in the family.

Seeing the shuttle from the outside reminds me of 3D Construction Kit / Freescape engine games, like Castle Master (Ray's review), but with less, well, game stuff happening: I've got no HP (we've got red borders and regenerating health), no MP (I have no special skills whatsoever other than running and a very feeble jump), and no inventory limit (I get a very dull page listing all the notes and disks I've found so far).

I liked Castle Master. If there was a Castle Master that had less flying biscuits, and more exploring and finding cool stuff and figuring things out, I'd be on board with that.

Spirits of Xanadu so far is just serving me up darkness upon darkness with a side order of darkness. The flashlight is giving the game a very narrow FOV and I'm having to lean in real close to the monitor to even make out what I'm illuminating. Also, there's no switches. One of the things I liked about the System Shock 2 demo was messing about with the items and platforms in the training area, climbing over stuff, messing with hacking. There's no platforms in Xanadu! There's no hacking!

I've found a power room! There's giant arcade machines providing me access to Life Support! Power! LIGHTS! Not quites.

I need more kVs. Somebody's been stealing them and there's none left to light up the place. I had a quick look around the room, to see if there were any kVs in here to steal, but it's no good. I think I need to turn on the engine itself to make some more kVs so I can turn on the lights.

These guys are a right pain. Floating robots equipped with cutting helicopter blades and undodgeable, deadly Impossible Mission-style jagged lightning beams.

If you get killed, the current audio log stops and you have to manually restart it. You can't look at a transcription like in System Shock 2, or manually skip to a point to resume it. Little things that make the very few interactible parts of the game just that bit more frustrating.

I started the game over a few times to see if I'd accidentally done anything wrong, and a few changes did occur:

The skinny robot that blew me up and put me in the cells? That guy wasn't there any more. What's supposed to happen is I first Take Gun, and enter the Xanadu willingly. The first robot I encounter is one of the trashcan types, but malfunctioning and harmless, and has a switch on his back to let me turn him off safely. Perhaps there is a way to turn off the other trashcan robots like this? It feels like a tutorial. But the bots always seem to appear in pairs covering one another, and see me regardless of how I approach. And that doesn't help against invulnerable shield turrets, or skinny run-at-your-face self-destructing robots, or these flying sons-of-guns.

Miraculously I survive this encounter this once, and I'm free to see if I can't turn on this ship from the Bridge at last.

Alright! Turns out this room was real after all, and it's the bridge! If you scroll all the way back up to the top of this post, you can see this strange glass dome on the far left of the ship. I haven't the foggiest as to why it has to be a huge fragile-looking glass dome, or why the nav computers are just sitting around in the open like they've just been delivered but the crew had to wait for da union to come and install them in the correct room.

Hey, wait! I've got nav computer bits!

I have successfully inserted drives 1 and 3 in the appropriate, completely-obscured-in-shadow bays... and nothing happened. Nothing for a pair - I need the set.

There's no clues in here, no guns, ammo, and so on and so on. Just a big empty dome. Marvellous.

Let's explore the Engine Room!

Let's not explore the Engine Room!


Good grief.

I'll give it to you straight. This game ain't so good.

The worst thing about it is that it conceptually and visibly resembles a ton of things that I do like, but it's nowhere near as approachable or exciting or tense or interesting as any of them.

Searching rooms, finding items, outwitting robots, opening doors? I love outwitting robots. Impossible Mission and Zillion are in my Top 5 games on their respective systems. In Impossible Mission you must use your dextrous game skills and your patience to avoid damage. I simply can't figure out how to do that in this game. Robots mean death. Robots are everywhere. Death is everywhere. That's all I know.

The game gives you a super-charge-up laser gun and a sprint button, but then makes you spend all of the game rummaging through filing cabinets and manually centering the cursor on each item very slowly and carefully in case they're the one specific, unfamiliar thing you need to progress. Because it's all sci-fi, you don't have any prior context or understanding to help you. Finding nav drives in random places is, but worse it feels, arbitrary. You've got no guidance, ever.

This game is like System Shock 2 with all the fun taken out. If you laid Spirits of Xanadu and System Shock 2 side by side and made a list of the missing elements, you'd have a list of everything that I like to have in a game: a tile-based inventory, a selection of weapons, character progression, enemy health bars, absurd amounts of maaaaagic, lots of light, and a general sense of knowing what the heck I'm supposed to do. Which, all together, is a pretty accurate description of Arkane's Prey, of which I'm rather fond.

Getting turned around and following the mask started to remind me of Antichamber, where things deliberately didn't make sense and the level spontaneously reorganised itself to put the most interesting, incomplete thing in front of you constantly. Spirits of Xanadu just rings in your ears.

Ultimately, Spirits of Xanadu strikes me as something closer to Waxworks, but without as much effort. Dying isn't fun. Exploring isn't fun. Being lost isn't fun. And not being able to do anything about those damned robots definitely isn't fun.

I'm sure somebody probably found a way to align themselves with this game's way of thinking and build up a good resonating satisfaction with its bland, boring rooms and endless darkness. In the options menu, there's settings for a 'Peaceful' mode, where the robots do nothing, or a 'Hardcore' mode where there's no respawning. I like options, and it's very truly great that they're there. But if the game was any good, it'd be fun in the middle too.

Ray Hardgrit: I was lucky enough to stumble across a shotgun and the light switch early on so I had a much less frustrating time than mecha-neko had. Especially once I learned I could destroy those apparently invulnerable turrets. But my experience of the game was a lot of opening drawers and looking for bits to use on things. It's less of a shooter, more of a 'Where did I put my car keys?' simulator, wrapped in a fairly familiar sci-fi horror story about an empty ship and a mysterious artefact that's revealed through the notes the crew left behind. It's also a very short game, though I eventually resorted to using a walkthrough as a low tech alternative to having a quest arrow pointing me to the last few things I needed to get. I'd stopped caring about the story or getting the good ending at that point, but to be honest the ending I got almost made it all worth it. It's about as simple as they come, but I appreciated how blunt it is about an outcome the player really should've seen coming.

Thanks for dropping by and reading all those words, it's always appreciated. Comments are also appreciated, and you're welcome to share your own thoughts about Spirits of Xanadu or have a guess at what the next game will be.

Also mecha-neko can be found on Twitter as @mecha_neko if you're after bite-sized game criticism and updates about whatever he's doing.


  1. The next game is the often-forgotten MSX adaptation of the Pixar film Wall-E.

    Or StarTropics.

    1. You're 100% right, it is definitely one of those two things.

  2. It's funny, I played this game years ago, and I really enjoyed it.
    I don't remember ever being frustated or lost, and I found the writing nice and realistic.
    It's quite weird to see how different our experience was.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! It's good to know the design of SoX all lines up for some folks.


Semi-Random Game Box