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April 2024

Slave Zero X

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Ziggurat Interactive
Developer: Poppy Works
Release Date: Feb. 21, 2024


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PC Review - 'Slave Zero X'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Feb. 19, 2024 @ 6:00 a.m. PST

Slave Zero X is a stylish 2.5D character action game set in the biopunk world of 1999's Slave Zero.

Slave Zero X is actually a prequel to the semi-obscure but incredibly fun 1990s-era mech game, Slave Zero, which was a shameless love letter to the '90s-era Japanese anime OVAs of the time. Coming back to it over 20 years later might be a strange choice, but it's really cool to revisit a cult classic. This time, the scale is a touch smaller, shifting from 3D mech shooter to 2D beat-'em-up, but it still captures the same gritty cheesy '90s feel of the original.

Slave Zero X is set in the distant future, in a decaying megacity where a fascist government rules with an iron fist. You control Shou, who's a member of a rebel group called the Guardians dedicated to taking down the cruel rulers. Frustrated with what seems like an unwillingness from his allies to act, Shou steals a experimental biomechanical power armor called a Slave and sets out to bring his one-man reign of terror to the very top.

Slave Zero X is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a side-scrolling beat-'em-up. You have a strong and weak attack and can use them together in various combos, which you use to brutalize the seemingly endless hordes of mooks. There's some complexity with different combos opening up different moves, allowing you to chain together combos or use a jump-cancel to interrupt a combo with another combo, but for the most part, it's easy to pick up and play. You can, however, use a Metal Gear Revengence-style "push toward the enemy" parry to block attacks, giving you additional options to stay in the fight. The entire game is presented in a 2.5D style, where you follow a preset path between fights.

Things get more complex when you bring in your special meter. Hitting or being hit fills up the meter, which you can spend on various things. This includes EX Moves, which allow you to do more powerful versions of various attacks; Dashing, which allows you to avoid an attack with generous I-Frames; or a super-powerful mode you can only activate when you have a full bar. The super-powerful mode also offers health regeneration and activates EX moves for free.

Thus, a major part of combat is monitoring the meter to use it most effectively. You almost always want to be using it in super mode, since that is one of the only ways to heal yourself mid-stage. Being able to chain together multiple EX moves is almost always better than using a single one. However, being able to avoid or dodge attacks or cancel out of dangerous situations is key to surviving long enough to fill the meter. Your bar fills up quickly enough that you're usually able to activate at least one super mode per fight — often multiple times during anything more complex than a single enemy.

You also have a Burst mechanic, which builds up as you inflict and take damage. Once the meter is full, you can trigger it to instantly refill your super bar to max or to cancel out of the hit-stun from an enemy attack, so you can instantly counter. While it might sound like the super bar is always the best option, hit-stun in Slave Zero X is pretty serious and can often leave you open to taking a lot more damage.

My biggest problem with Slave Zero X is that everything ends up feeling too stiff. I get the idea of what it was going for, with combat that is supposed to be rather deliberate, but it doesn't flow smoothly. The more crowded the screen is, the less it feels like a deliberate and focused beat-'em-up — and the more it feels like awkwardly smashing buttons to tear through a crowd. If you take the time to work with that, you can pull off lengthy air combos and swift movements, but for a game so heavily inspired by something like Devil May Cry and its ilk, it doesn't feel cool. Instead, it ends up feeling like a lot of work for relatively little payoff.

The boss fights also suffer a bit from this stiffness. Movement feels too imprecise to get the sense that you're dashing in and out from the fights. I spent most of my time parrying attacks — not because it felt like the best option but because I felt like I was struggling with controls for basic movement. The hit-stun on enemy attacks can be absolutely insane, which is where the Burst mechanic comes into play. It makes Burst feel less like a cool technique and more like a solution in search of a problem.

It doesn't help that the mechanics feel bad for anything that isn't fighting in a relatively open area. When the game starts getting into platforming, it highlights the general roughness of movement, with simple jumps feeling needlessly difficult because of the awkward movements of your biomechanical suit. The 2.5D visual style can also make it tough to tell when something is a secret path or just a background detail. I really like the idea, and visually, it looks great, but it was difficult to eke out much fun from anything that wasn't being a superhuman cyber samurai.

All of this leads to a beat-'em-up that has moments of feeling good — and an equal number of moments where it doesn't feel fun at all. It's difficult to not compare it to something like Streets of Rage 4, which took the concept of fighting game-style mechanics in a beat-'em-up and executed it with precision and made you feel rewarded for mastering the combat. On the other hand, Slave Zero X makes mastery feel like a requirement. While overcoming challenges was fun, I didn't enjoy the moment-to-moment combat that much.

Visually, Slave Zero X looks great. The cyberpunk aesthetic combines nice, large and well-animated sprites with an intentional throwback to the look of the original game. It makes good use of "dated" visuals to capture the feel of an older game while still looking modern and vivid. I feel that the sprites take up too much real estate on-screen, and I'd rather have things zoomed out a little and with more space. The music is excellent, and the voice acting revels in its cheesiness, with characters who are so ridiculously over the top that it's easy to enjoy it.

Slave Zero X has a few too many rough spots to make it an easy recommendation, but it isn't a terrible game. When you get into the groove of combos, cancels and bursts, it can be incredibly satisfying to leave the forces of fascism in bloody chunks on the ground, but the effort it takes to reach that point feels like too much to be worth it. If you're in the mood for a bloody, execution-intensive beat-'em-up, then Slave Zero X might be for you, but it might be tough if you're used to playing modern beat-'em-ups.

Score: 7.0/10

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