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  • Writer's pictureOle Gamer Joe

Slave Zero X Review - The Prequel to a Forgotten Dreamcast Game!?

Slave Zero X

2/21/24

PC/XBOX/PS/SWITCH

Poppy Works/Ziggurat




1999 was a long time ago, but that’s when the original Slave Zero released to little fanfare and mixed to negative reviews. This third-person mech shooter didn’t do all that much to stand out back then, however since then it has gained a small cult following. Slave Zero did get a Steam port and I messed around a bit playing that version of the game just to have some historical perspective before diving head-first into Slave Zero X. 


Turns out, Slave Zero is a pretty straightforward mech shooter with decent visuals (at least considering when it was released) and solid, though not revolutionary, gameplay. Slave Zero didn’t feel offensively bad to play even today, but better mech games existed back then such as the Armored Core franchise, so it's easy to see how it may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. Coupled with the fact that it was on the Dreamcast, a system that would be discontinued just 2 years later in 2001, along with having PC compatibility issues, the picture becomes clearer as to why this title remained a one off instead of becoming a full franchise. 


History lesson aside, Slave Zero is back in the form of a 2.5D action brawler called Slave Zero X. Taking place 5 years before the original release, you play as Shou who becomes bound to an alien-like armor with a personality of its own called X. You battle through a variety of soldiers and monstrous creatures, which the game refers to as “slaves” on a quest to topple the evil Sovereign Khan. Your newly found armor seems to feed off of killing enemies and has begun to take control of Shou to a degree. 




Shou will also have very strange conversations between levels with another character called Isamu who he seems to be completely infatuated with. Things tend to get rather flirtatious between the two, with the rest of the story going entirely off the rails the further you progress. There is a whole lot of anime craziness to unravel in Slave Zero X, though I can’t say I found the overall narrative all that compelling, or even mildly interesting. Flat voice performances don’t add much to the muddy script, but thankfully players that likely won’t care can easily skip through the numerous cut-scenes littered across this 6–8-hour campaign and get back to the action.


As far as gameplay is concerned Slave Zero X feels like a classic Neo-Geo fighting game that had a baby with a 90’s arcade brawler. What presents itself as a complex combat engine that features timed parries, slides, and special attacks quickly can and will become a button mashing fest. Players can perform both light and heavy attacks while also pushing the d-pad in different directions for different styles and directions for those attacks. For example, holding up will unsurprisingly cause Shou, or X, to strike upward. This can lead to performing some pretty great combos that might even have your foes begging for mercy as you juggle them endlessly. Unfortunately, they can do the same to you and often will.


You can run in Slave Zero X allowing you to even bypass entire sections of enemies if you wish, while other encounters will be forced in order to progress. Doing so will mean less currency earned, which I will touch on a bit more later. Just as you would expect you’ll also have the ability to jump and double jump, which is fine in combat situations most times, but clumsy and awkward throughout the game's horrendous platforming sections. These segments of the game feel about as good as my belly after eating a pound of cookie dough with 3 raw eggs cracked into it.


Slave Zero X also features a jump cancel, but good luck pulling it off. The same goes for the parry system, which requires a level of precision that either went beyond my skill level or was downright poorly implemented. You’ll need to press the directional pad towards your foe at just the right moment if you hope to pull a parry off. This was so frustrating that at some point I simply gave up on using the feature as intended entirely, though I parried plenty of times by simply mashing and getting lucky. Slave Zero X also has three main meters to be concerned with. Run out of health and of course you’ll lose your life. This means going back to the start of the level, or if you are lucky, one of the game's random checkpoints. The placement of checkpoints is frustrating to say the least. 



Outside of your health, two other meters exist including one that allows you to “empower” your moves and another that represents “burst.” Bursting when the meter is full can potentially help you to escape enemies and blow them backwards. Another form of attack is the ability to throw items at your foes though you do have limited ammo. On top of all of these features the game also has more powerful EX moves, and another option called Fatal Sync. Fatal Sync is limited in how long it lasts but allows you to regain some of your health as you dish out damage. It also means there will be no cost for EX attacks during its duration. 


If all of this sounds needlessly complicated, that’s because it is. Even worse, all of these systems are thrown at you right at the beginning of the game as opposed to being slowly introduced. Instead of focusing on being a fun, tight-knit combo-based brawler, it felt like the developers of Slave Zero X wanted the game to play like a classic fighter. This combination didn’t always mix well together, and led to me ultimately mashing my way through just about every encounter I came across with great success. I’m sure you COULD ultimately nail down the fundamentals better, but I couldn’t be bothered because it never felt necessary. There is a training room for you to mess around with, further adding to my theory that the developers had fighting games on the brain.


The only times during my playthrough of Slave Zero X where mashing on buttons failed me were when I was trapped into cheap enemy hit combinations. You’ll encounter legitimate moments throughout the campaign where you may as well just sit the controller down and watch as you are hopelessly destroyed. I said to myself at least 20 times, “I can do absolutely nothing right now” only to run my way back to the same area upon dying and easily mash my way through. While I am not opposed to a good turn your brain off brawler, the problem here is that the core gameplay loop feels tedious, long, and boring. The best brawlers are balanced, have interesting levels, and a co-op element that brings friends together. Slave Zero X lacks all of these crucial components. 


Levels go on seemingly forever at times, with barely a secret to be found outside of random yellow painted soldiers that offer up nonsensical lore if you can defeat them before they escape. For the most part, your path is a straightforward slog through groups of enemies and the inevitable boss encounters. Bosses can be pretty cheap, though much like the enemies can sometimes be manipulated into basic patterns and even spammed out in corners. 


The brawling genre is not exactly notorious for being long-winded. Slave Zero X is probably 2-3 hours longer than it needs to be, especially when the game runs out of unique enemies and level designs relatively quickly. The only thing that really breaks up the monotony are shops randomly strewn about each level, also accessible upon death or the completion of an area. Here you can upgrade your character, however none of the upgrades felt all that meaningful. I learned the majority of the moves and abilities instantly, so it never felt like I was getting all that much stronger or becoming an ultimate warrior. That said, players can also spend currency to unlock different shaders and palates, with some of the names calling back to the good old Sega days. 


The best reason I can recommend checking out Slave Zero X is its wonderful visual design. The mix of 2D sprites over 3D backgrounds works effectively, calling back to the 5th generation of consoles. I think the lighting is rather impressive in this title. Animations are wonderful, character designs look awesome, and while yes, the backgrounds and enemies do become repetitive, it’s obvious a great deal of love and effort went into the look of Slave Zero X. And for what it’s worth, the game sounds pretty decent too despite the rather bland and unnecessary voice performances. The soundtrack does have a bit of a 90’s electronic vibe to it that may not be something I would listen to outside of the game world but fits the overall setting quite well. The visual and audio design throughout Slave Zero X impressed me more than any of its gameplay elements.



As far as frame rates and performance were concerned, Slave Zero X ran well on PC without any drops or slowdowns on my 4070. This was despite sometimes having numerous enemies on screen at once. Unfortunately, I hit one major bug very late game where I would enter an elevator and the game would break entirely. Hopefully this will be patched out in time for release. I tested a few levels on Steam Deck and the game looks quite nice on the handheld, mostly holding down a smooth 60fps. There were a few instances of slow down when compared to playing on my PC, but nothing all that glaring. 


Slave Zero X is a highly unusual product. What you ultimately get is a prequel that has very little in common with a 25-year-old game. There are things to like here when it comes to visuals and audio, but it often feels like a boring chore to play. The combat never quite worked for me, it’s far too long, and Slave Zero X ends up feeling unremarkable and forgettable. I’m just not exactly sure who this product was for as it won’t satisfy brawler OR fighting game fans.


Pros

+Great lighting/visuals/animations

      + Solid 90s inspired soundtrack

      + Decent unlockable and bonus content 


Cons

  • Too long and becomes boring

  • Gameplay feels messy and works better as a button masher

  • Elevator bug/glitch

  • Story is poorly written and presented

  • Mediocre voice acting forced in

  • No co-op


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