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Indie Games Uprising III: Xenominer

Gristmill studios are named after the grinding mechanism for turning grain into flour. This is fitting considering the voxel-based survival sandbox they’ve created with Xenominer. Shunning the easy route of undeniably ripping off Minecraft and throwing in zombies yet again, this sandbox takes places on an alien world where survival is as relevant as mining.

Having crash landed and forgotten the events previous, you’re stranded on an unknown planet. Thankfully, an AI system remains intact and provides guidance. The priority is obtaining oxygen as the planet’s atmosphere is not suitable for human life. By melting down ice you’re able to release and process O2 for consumption.

Mining is accomplished via the use of a plasma drill that survived the crash. By squeezing the trigger a line of plasma is ejected which deconstructs blocks of material into resource. This move from conventional tools does disconnect the feeling of interaction with the world, as your hands are no longer getting dirty and there’s minimal animation.

One benefit of the technological gear is the plasma beam has a longer range, allowing deeper tunnels to be mined from distance. However, the drill is battery powered and must be charged by building and returning to solar panels. This concept becomes a chore when combined with the dangers of radiation.

Passing stars bring with them a wave of radiation that scorches the planet’s surface. To avoid a painful death, shelter must be sought during their overhead travel. This should be a good idea, used sparingly to cause panic in the absence of monsters.

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Instead it’s a pain in the arse, forcing you underground with only a silent radiation meter acting as a guide. Forget about it, step into the open and you could be fatally poisoned. As you seek shelter you’ll be mining away to pass the time; however, should your battery run low you’ll be sat about counting the pixels.

Once you do collect the appropriate resources you’re able to expand the basic Centiforge. Constructing a stationary one allows more tools and technology to be built, including increased battery and oxygen capacity, and allowing more time underground as radiation hits. You’re also equipped from the start with the M.U.L.E backpack acting as a lightweight and portable external storage unit to carry mined supplies.

A neat idea that helps give some life to world, no matter how artificial, is artefacts of xenomorphic origin that can be discovered. These are actually bots that can be programmed to perform manual tasks such as mining or building. However, in my case, attempting to manually input instructions for the first time caused the game to crash and my complete progress to be erased. The error never repeated itself and on subsequent worlds they became a handy companion, though they lacked personaility.

Apart from the bots, there’s little to connect the audience with the world. There’s no ambient sound, and most of the time’s spent listening to your mining tool. Short bursts of event based music do occur but aren’t as thematically powerfully as they need to be. The sound effect design in general is of a low quality, with the noise of walking on ice being particularly painful. Sound is just – if not more – important when the world is visually simplistic.

This resulted in no moments of awe. I never stopped to look up at the stars or was taken aback by small, charming moments of design. The core ideas are here – those looking for a different spin on the flurry of voxel-based worlds would do well to check it out – but comparable to the game world itself it’s dry and lacking atmosphere, leaving me distanced and apathetic to the daily grind.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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