Lords of Exile review

Late last year the world was presented with Prison City, a NES homage that fused together the little-known gems Shatterhand and Power Blade. Just a few months later, we’re now on the receiving end of another 8-bit mash-up, with Lords of Exile playing like an amalgamation of Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden. With so many Castlevania alikes on the market, it certainly helps to have an extra kick.   

Here, we’re introduced to Gabriel, a cursed knight seeking revenge while travelling a fantasy rendition of ancient Japan where samurai, demons, and beasts of the night co-exist. Gabriel attacks not with a whip, but rather with a wide-ranging sword slash that can additionally be thrust downwards, much like a ground pound. While his walk is slow, giving the experience a rather methodical feel, they can slide speedily – a technique mostly reserved for boss fights. The number of throwable items is a little low (scythes, knives, bombs, etc) yet they are all beneficial in different instances, and to add more would only result in needless bloat. It’s generous with the amount granted too, doling out 20-30 at a time, even before a boss fight.

From the outset, it’s clear the developers have a deep understanding of what makes a linear side-scrolling adventure hard but fair. Lords of Exile presents a challenge, but it’s one that’s manageable, rarely frustrating – aside from vertically scrolling sections where a single hit plunges Gabriel into the depths below. The eight stages are split into small, almost bite sized, segments littered with just the right number of hazards and obstacles to overcome, never overwhelming. You’ll never have to tackle more than three enemies at once, for instance, and no absurd feats of platforming are ever called for.

If you die, you’re cast back to the start of the section. This isn’t as problematic as it may sound, as after you’ve mastered overcoming an obstacle once, it’s often easy to replicate the manoeuvres required, whether it’s pixel perfect jumping or throwing a few projectiles to rid far away foes.

Both mini-bosses and end of stage boss battles feature. The differences between these are night and day, with mini-bosses lacking a health bar and usually beatable after a couple of attempts – or even on the first try, should you reach their domain with full health. Stage bosses always see Gabriel’s health and throwables replenished, and at first glance seem quite tough. By learning their attack patterns, some of which have audio cues, they can be dealt with within 10-15 minutes. Later bosses are appropriately more troublesome than earlier examples, while the final boss will test your mettle, able to take away a chunk of your health with a single blow. There’s good variety here too, ranging from a screen filling cybernetic boar, to an alien hive-mind that remains in the centre of the screen.

Upon defeat, each boss grants Gabriel a new ability. A few of these are mere upgrades, such as a longer sword swing, while others such as the double-jump help to shake things up more significantly. It isn’t long until two summonable ghostly beings join Gabirel, with these being a samurai that can clear solid blocks – resulting in instances where block formations must be chiselled out – and a pale skinned demon who can latch onto poles and propel our hero forward. These have their own gauge, and can harm enemies too, although the amount of damage caused is less than a knife throw. Even so, their presence does allow for more flexibility to approach certain situations.  

Visually, it’s similar to Prison City – hence the comparison early on. That’s in the sense that it resembles a NES game on steroids, with more detailed backdrops and bigger bosses than what the NES could handle. It’s the sprite artwork that gives it the unmistakable look of a NES game, with Gabriel using a four colour palette – four shades of crimson, in this case – and most enemies also highlighted using a small assortment of colours. This in turn makes the action easy to read, never distracting with flamboyant animation or similar. For its musical score, developer Squidbit looked beyond the humble NES and instead employed the Mega Drive’s sound chip. While not every BGM is memorable, the boss music is suitably energetic.

To reiterate, Lords of Exile offers an experience that always feels fair, suggesting time was invested in balancing the difficulty. It also helps that the developers stayed away from things that wouldn’t be tolerable nowadays like leaps of faith, constantly respawning foes, and off-screen enemies lobbing projectiles. It isn’t perfect – the slot machine mini-game feels surplus, and there are a few too many climbing sections – but most retro purists will likely find that there’s just enough bite, as well as a very good reason to schedule a second playthrough.

Squidbit Works’ Lords of Exile is out now on all formats. Published by PID Games and PixelHeart.