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Slave Zero X Review (PS5) – An Old-School Game In The Modern Age

Slave Zero X Review (PS5) – In a games industry landscape filled with games that are trying to be everything to everyone, it’s the ones that know exactly what they are that stand out.

Developed by Poppy Works and published by Ziggurat Interactive, Slave Zero X stands out because it is an action game, through-and-through, and everything around its action-core works to elevate that as far as it can.

It’s such a well-executed game for what it is that I get this, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ feeling when I start to critique it. Because the problems I have with Slave Zero X aren’t problems that come from what I think is poor design, just the game being what it is, without apology.

Slave Zero X is an old-school game in the modern age, and that’s why I ultimately find myself loving it, for better or for worse.

Slave Zero X Review (PS5) – An Old School Game In The Modern Age

Entering MegaCity

Slave Zero X puts you in the shoes of Shou, a highly-trained and deadly member of a group called Guardians, a rebel group training to fight against the tyrannical SovKhan and the five calamities.

In the opening, Shou steals a biomech suit called X, a sentient combination of flesh and science, this biomech suit enhances Shou’s abilities, making them even more deadly and destructible than they already were.

Which is about how you feel, when you first start playing. For as challenging as this game is (and I’ll get into that) I never felt a moment where Shou and X felt weaker against their enemies.

Over the course of the plot you learn more about Shou and X’s origins, why they’re fighting the SovKhan and see them learn how to work together to defeat this evil incarnate tyrant.

It’s a tried-and-true plot that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but some well-written and voice acted moments between characters do well to elevate the experience of the story.

I won’t spoil any deep details or how it ends, but overall the story works well enough to be a good vehicle to bring you from one combat encounter to the next.

That there were some moments which surprised me in a good way, was just a nice bonus the times it happened.

Striking, In More Ways Than One

When you first load up Slave Zero X, the character designs and the painted art do more than just ‘pop’ on their pixelated backgrounds. The intensity of the designs is evocative of how intense the game you’re about to play is.

The non-painted and pixelated versions of these designs don’t hit the same, but the painted designs stuck in my head so much I found myself filling in those details in my head.

Particularly for each of the bosses, I would imagine the details I loved in their painted designs were there on the in-game sprites.

The painted designs weren’t what you spend most of your time looking at however. The level design and the mix of the 2D sprites in front of a 3D background on a 2D plane in a 3D environment also had it’s own striking sense.

Sharp and hard feeling edges made up an environment that in a way further grounded what is at all times a hard journey for Shou and X.

These environments were then filled with enemies and designs that range from your standard trooper to things much more gruesome for late-game enemies in the best way.

Mixing dimensions also helped MegaCity feel very much like a real city, even if by the end of the game you’ve spent more time just deep within the SovKhan’s territory, and not out and about in MegaCity.

Not that you’re spending a lot of time looking at the background when in the middle of a fight. Whether you’re fighting with a standard button-mashing strategy or doing your best to execute precise attacks that keep your combo score climbing, combat looks incredible cool.

Further elevated by moments that slow or pause the action briefly, like when a lightning strike appears each time your attack deflects that of your enemies. It feels and looks amazing to pull off that despite it being sheer dumb luck if it happens, I could convince myself I meant to do that.

The look, sound and feeling of Slave Zero X constantly struck me in the same way I was constantly striking down my enemies with a sword.

“This Was Never Going To Be Easy, Shou”

The heading for this section is a line from about halfway through the game, when Shou and X are battling their way through to Uriel, calamity number three of five.

It’s repeated in my head several times while playing Slave Zero X partly because I had to replay the section where X says it quite a few times before I got past it, and because at no point is this game easy.

When I said I never felt under-powered or weaker compared the many enemies you’ll face, I meant that, but I never felt invincible. Slave Zero X is constantly challenging you, with skill checks that appear in almost every level, and any of them have the potential to gate your progression for hours.

Waves and waves of different enemies, often ending on a kind of mini-boss serve as the meat of the gameplay and the source of your frustrations. The bosses, frankly, are far easier than some of the toughest sections in Slave Zero X.

Firstly I should say the combat system is excellent. It’s complicated enough that you can continue to play around with it while easy enough to pick up and execute in a way that makes you feel amazing when playing.

But the challenge of it all never seems to go deeper than the game throwing more enemies at you. Yes, the enemy types are varied in clever ways that force you to think on your feet while playing, but those challenges only escalate by having two enemies thrown your way instead of one, then three instead of two, so on and so forth.

Which makes the game within the game of Slave Zero X to be don’t get overwhelmed and you’ll dominate. The difference between being overwhelmed and not however, is often just getting hit once.

Shou takes a long time to recover from a hit, and if you’re surrounded, being hit on one side means someone on the other side has had time to wind up a strike of their own, and so begins a chain-reaction of hits you can’t do anything about.

This feels a lot worse when you enter a part in a level where you need to clear the room to progress, and while your back is to one side of the room, an enemy spawns off-screen behind you, never giving you the chance to react.

So when a little damage quickly becomes a lot of damage, and there wasn’t anything you could do to stop it, the frustration around that builds up.

This is how Slave Zero X falls off the tightrope into the pit of being challenging just for the sake of it, like I’m playing a game in an arcade where it’s built to be obscenely tough so it eats up all my quarters.

My PS5 doesn’t take quarters, so the amount of times I died and had to repeat most of a level because checkpoints were not generous in their placement got frustrating very fast.

This also meant that overcoming a level that had become a block in my progression felt like a relief, instead of a triumph. Even with endgame upgrades and the familiarity and skill that came with multiple hours of play, I always felt like I was just getting by.

It’s here that Slave Zero X lost me in many ways. I love executing the combat, I love looking at this game, I love hearing it because the soundtrack and sound effects all hit the right notes. But I don’t think the difficulty scales in interesting or rewarding ways, and the frustrations it causes only push me to put the controller down, instead of hitting ‘Continue’.

Also, just to make it clear, there is no difficulty slider or three ‘Easy’ ‘Medium’ or ‘Hard’ options, Slave Zero X is just as tough as it is.

Old School At Heart, Whether You Like It Or Not

All those things that make Slave Zero X frustrating stem from what we’d look at now as an old-school style of game design and difficulty. Which is where I come to the crossroads of liking Slave Zero X a lot for being such a well-executed game for what the developers were trying to make, and also really not liking major aspects of that.

I think what I struggle with the most is the lack of avenues you can take as a player to re-balance the playing field. You can upgrade your health and a few other aspects of your abilities but that’s more of a grind than it’s worth, especially when those upgrades aren’t entirely felt in actually making the game easier or at least more interesting in its challenge.

All you can do is try and be better the next time, which still doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually overcome the thing gating your progression, because like I said before, one mistake can lead to all of your health being wiped within seconds.

I believe that a good way to measure if a game has taken its difficulty too far is when your wins stop feeling good, and you’re just thankful you don’t have to do that again.

That was unfortunately the feeling I had whenever I cleared a level, particularly any level in chapter 4 and onwards. It wore me down, and while I think there are so many things to love about Slave Zero X, I can’t wholly say I love this game.

If the challenge described here however doesn’t dissuade you, and seems like the kind of thing you’d play, I can’t recommend you buy Slave Zero X enough. I still believe it to be a special and unique game, and one that I’m happy to see exist in the current landscape of games available.

Slave Zero X is now available on PS5 and PS4.

Review code generously provided by PR.



The Final Word

Slave Zero X is an old school game that is great to look at, thrilling to play at times with excellent animations and a feedback loop to the combat that makes smashing enemies into a bloody mess amazingly fun, but it's difficulty spikes and how those spikes are escalated only work to wear you down. By the end of the game those things you might've enjoyed about Slave Zero X are being crushed under a pile of frustrations as high as the body count you'll rack up across a full playthrough. When the wins no longer provide any feeling of satisfaction, it's easy to be left wondering what you continue for. But all the things that are so well executed in Slave Zero X still make it worth checking out, especially if you're already intrigued by the difficulty barrier-to-entry to cross the line into 'enjoying Slave Zero X, even if it makes you want to throw something.'