Slave Zero X Review – A Violent Love Letter

You may not have heard of Slave Zero—a 1999 mecha corridor third-person shooter from the creators of Bubsy, featuring some nifty terrain destruction and slick retro-futuristic audiovisuals—and neither had I before playing the excellent Slave Zero X demo a year ago. Yet, thanks to the passion of a few individuals and some circumstances surrounding the rights to the property, this unlikely prequel managed to see the light of day.

I love stories like this, so I could not pass up the opportunity to check out what seemed like an insane reimagining of the original’s giant biomecha. Turns out, it is not quite that simple. The original Slave Zero was always intended to look similar to Slave Zero X, with creepier, more intense designs. That vision could not be realized due to development constraints, but when a team ready to create something fresh was looking through the concept art of games available at Ziggurat (the current owners of the IP looking to create new titles for their catalog), an idea was born.

Some of the biomecha designs, the red devil-like X and Shou on the left, their master Kurikara an elderly looking robot with lots of tubes on the right
Some of the art seen during dialogue is mind-boggling

Talk about finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. Slave Zero X’s greatest and most eye-catching strength is undoubtedly the awe-inspiring style that started from Ken Capelli’s (Lead Artist on Slave Zero) drawings. It is simply raw. The inherent insanity and horror of a half-human, half-machine hybrid running loose with its exaggerated movements inside a 2.5D spectacle fighter, juggling around soldiers and monsters around and blowing them to pieces through the sheer power of their sword strikes, is brought to absolute perfection by the team at Poppy Works.

But its inspirations stretch further. A sizable chunk of the development team are fans of Quake (so much so that they created a free Quake total conversion called Episode Enyo, with one of Slave Zero X‘s antagonists as the playable character) and that also comes through in a major way. The rapid, captivating changes to environments (though industrial for the most part) and complete 180s in visual style at certain points feel like an homage to the unabashed visual freedom of similar generation-defining shooters, just with a tinge of anime. A violent love letter, if you will.

A golden temple with cultists in the back praising a golden statue
Sure, a golden temple in the middle of this dark industrial city, I can roll with

Not stopping there, Slave Zero X story art is out of this world. To perfectly accentuate the plot—which begins with a vitriolic revenge plot only to turn into something incredibly sincere, reaching surprisingly emotional heights—the art never abandons its evil presentation, instead finding a way to morph it into something truly touching. Not just that, as the game progresses, seeing red becomes a non-viable combat strategy, and a more methodical approach is required. It all clicks together to create one of the best-looking and best-feeling titles of 2024.

This brings me to the meat of the game: ripping evil things into minced meat. Similarly amazing to their still brethren are the animations, which all flare up the rowdy yet overwhelmingly powerful movements of Shou, the protagonist seeking revenge against the rulers of this world, and X, his biomecha with a conscience. From upward-launching strikes to grounding slashes, everything feels crunchy and stylish, no matter whether you are executing a simple attack or dashing across the screen in all directions trying to preserve a combo.

A meat spike attack from the ground

It is great to see this focus on animations as Slave Zero X is all about spacing. Feeling out the timings of the attacks, all available to the player right from the start is never much of a problem. The one caveat here is a select few enemies, which sometimes reach out for a grab too quickly or without a good tell. This is especially frustrating with mini-bosses, which cannot be staggered until their stance is broken with a few hits. They deal tremendous damage with all attacks and can hit the player from off-screen. A stronger audio or visual indicator is sorely missing from the game and led to several frustrating deaths during some later levels with scarce checkpoints.

Most of Slave Zero X can be beaten with a simple juggling combo, which although powerful never felt easy. New kinds of hitboxes provided opportunities for learning new juggling and parry timings, and I eventually found ways of incorporating other moves, gadgets, and power-up abilities at my disposal. Skill expression is always encouraged, after all, thanks to three different kinds of leaderboards: time, points, and combo. If you just want to squeeze through to see more of the spectacle, it is a strategy that feels perfectly viable. Mostly.

A single enemy to the right
Wanna skip an enemy or two? Go ahead, going for time is a perfectly viable playstyle

Difficulty takes a massive upturn in some parts, and it is then that smaller issues begin to truly take their toll. Only once did I ever feel truly hopeless, as around four of my 10 hours with Slave Zero X were spent on a single stage. Enemies would juggle me around like a pinball while my breakout ability took its sweet time regenerating. When you get caught without it, there is little else to do if enemies decide to perfectly juggle you, for once. Goodbye, half of your health!

That soured me on the experience a bit, especially coupled with the upgrade and ammo shop system, which feels a bit tacked on. Money (which I would much rather spend on all the cosmetics) is gained in select encounters, requiring me to grind a bit on earlier stages just to go into later ones with a full stock should I quit during an attempt where I used up some of my ammo. The aforementioned level required me to fully clear another stage two times. Suffice it to say, the final boss, who I beat on my first attempt, is a chump compared to what comes before him. Thankfully, his designs and final bits of art brought me back in.

An elderly, balding man inside a biomecha suit, held together by it, pleading for mercy
The reward for beating a boss is always a crazy art piece, making the victory oh-so-sweet

What certainly helped was the phenomenal voice acting, by the entire cast no less. No matter what situation they are put in, they never fail to be the most charming version of their character, with unique inflections, unbridled intensity, and an occasional touch of tactful, charming over-exaggeration befitting such a violent, anime-inspired game. They all give memorable performances in a short amount of time, No notes, absolutely stellar stuff.

There are, however, other areas for improvement, some of which I already mentioned. Another would be the rather unwieldy wall-jumping and exploration. There exist some hidden collectibles in the form of golden soldiers, but reaching them often feels a bit antithetical to the rest of the game. At best they are carefully hidden using cool perspective tricks, at worst they spawn behind you in a place you already checked. Turning back just does not feel great when Slave Zero X‘s motto is pushing forward. The level formula still has a ways to go, both due to this and the scarce checkpoints.

A dimly lit corridor, the protagonist is running through it in a pose reminiscent to that of the Evangelion run
Nothing’s perfect, but Slave Zero X is certainly gunning for glory

Even without any future improvements, however, Poppy Works has created an absolute beast of a game. As mentioned before, its greatest strength is the eye-catching style, but the best thing once you pick it up is that even the simplest combo feels fantastic, from beginning to end. With fantastic basics, a variety of playstyles, and a perfectly voiced, captivating, and beautifully presented storyline, Slave Zero X is an absolute indie powerhouse of early 2024.

Mateusz played Slave Zero X on PC with a review code. 

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