We have followed Xing: The Land Beyond for some time now. I lived in the same dorm as one of the developers my first year of college. Now he, and the other two members of White Lotus Interactive, is taking the VR world to school with the team’s first game. In Top Shelf Gaming’s first ever video review, learn exactly why Xing: The Land Beyond and White Lotus Interactive should be on your watch list from here on out.
Read the full review below…
Xing: The Land Beyond, is a first-person puzzle adventure game, most comparable to last year’s The Witness, in which you play as a spirit caught in purgatory, albeit one that already looks like paradise, tasked with setting free the souls of four other restless spirits who are also in limbo. By entering into recreations of spaces they’ve once inhabited and solving environmental puzzles, you help each soul come to terms with the conditions surrounding their deaths.
A Land Above and Beyond
Each story is told through poetry in the deceased character’s own voice.The writing varies from rich and thought-provoking prose to the simplistic nature of a children’s nursery rhyme, with a couple rhymes repeated across the four stories. Despite the inconsistency, each character is fully-fleshed out and gives the player a reason to invest in all of their stories. From the woman who washes up on the shore of a mysterious beach to the Shaman who leaves his tribe to save a loved one, every story is lovingly-crafted and surprisingly relatable. A deep storyline isn’t necessary for a puzzle game, but it is undeniable that the writing, both the dialogue and the environmental storytelling, elevate the game so much so that new story elements become the rewards for completing puzzles.
This is no truer than with the optional golden collectibles littered through each course. These floating symbols are rewards for exploration and solving extra difficult puzzles. Word to the wise, if you see the symbol in plain sight, chances are the process of obtaining it will be a doozy. For those who rise to the challenge, their prize is access to a Secret Garden with new locales to visit and smaller stories to encounter. Considering that the storytelling is so great, unlocking these additional stories is plenty of incentive to travel back through each beautiful level after your initial playthrough. The developers take care to respectfully represent each of the cultures featured in the game, from the musical compositions to the names of the characters.
It still amazes me that a triple-member team has managed to create a triple-A-looking game. Xing feels like a tech demo showcasing the different kinds of particle and lighting effects that can be pulled off with the Unreal engine. The developers made frequent and elegant use of every graphical flourish they could conceive. There is no shortage of Disney magic here. After the pixie dust settles, you’re left with beautiful photoreal environments, distinguishable from similar style games through its art direction. It’s not the only game with breezy grass or swaying palm trees. It’s the way the skies are painted and the scenes are lit to evoke a constant dreamlike wonder. It’s the way the boulders glisten where the translucent waters kiss them and how the water itself dances and reflects sunlight. Xing is a game that rarely cracks visually, barring the occasional texture pop-in.
Xing’s musical accompaniment is confident: unapologetically bombastic during important moments and soft and serene during normal exploration. The music seems largely inspired by the Legend of Zelda and each track has a rich texture and spans at least a half dozen musical styles from around the world. Equally as powerful, are the occasional moments when the music fades away and the player is left with the sounds of the natural land from crickets chirping to the ocean breeze. Oh, and did I mention there’s also a game in here too?
A Challenging Journey
Most puzzles in Xing involve hitting a switch, collecting and delivering an object, pushing blocks, and some light platforming. Each level also introduces elemental switches that must be toggled on and off to complete puzzles. For instance, the first world has you swapping between day and night while the second uses rain to modify the water levels in the environment. As the game progresses, these gameplay mechanics are combined in some truly inventive ways that require you to call upon every lesson learned from previous puzzles.
I was immediately taken aback by my movement speed which feels entirely too slow. This is likely a concession made for virtual reality players or perhaps it’s the developer’s way of making you stop and appreciate the breathtaking environments. Either way, with the inclusion of a sprint button, this is hardly an issue.
You can tell a lot about a game from its tutorial level. Barring a couple graphic overlays during the first few minutes of the game that teach you the controls, Xing organically demonstrates how you navigate through the worlds entirely through gameplay. By the end of the tutorial section, I realized I learned all the core rules of the game without feeling I learned much at all. Xing succeeds in seamlessly equipping the player for the challenges ahead.
Part of this has to do with the strong UI. Xing’s visual language is loud, clear, and colorful, and reassures the player what they can and can’t do, while constantly updating them on their progress. The designers were meticulous about letting the player know when a block or switch can be pushed and if they missed any collectible or story slate along the way. Xing communicates to players largely through symbols and colors. By the end of the game you’ll learn to associate purple with nighttime, yellow with day, and strangely enough, frogs with rain.
All of these visual cues aid in the game’s clever level design. Worlds are broken up into contained “rooms” that contain a handful puzzles. Upon entering a new area, the doorway to the next section is often visible but inaccessible. As you solve puzzles, you are often required to backtrack to an area you’ve already visited, but with new pathways unlocked and additional objects to interact with. You get to know each section really well while you’re in it and feel an ownership of the space before you move onto the next.
Earlier sections are the most successful at this, as they are the perfect size to allow you to explore off the beaten path while providing passages that lead you back to core areas quickly. Conversely, later levels are so grand that it becomes a chore to travel back and forth. Some puzzles in the last level are extra tedious as they require you to backtrack considerable distances while you’re still working out the solution.
One puzzle, in particular, incorporates 3 different elemental mechanics but only allows you to interact with one of the at a time. To switch between them, you must first make one of the elements active by hitting a button in one area, travel to another area and activate that elemental mechanic by standing on a platform just a tad longer than what feels necessary, and finally advance to an area where you can interact with the puzzle directly. This puzzle required so much trial-and-error, that backtracking so frequently to change one or two things made me want to stop playing. In fact, I quit the game at that point and came back only when I felt I could be patient enough to work through it.
A couple of the other puzzles felt aimless or overly difficult. I was only able to complete one of them by exploiting the checkpoint system. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’ll just blame my dumb brain for getting stuck instead of the level design itself. Nonetheless, missteps like these were the exception to an otherwise masterfully designed game.
The only persistent issue I had with Xing is its platforming. Jumping in the game is stiff and doesn’t propel you upward or forward in any significant way. At its most forgivable, I struggled to climb on a rock every so often. But at its most troublesome, my progress was impeded by continually missing short jumps that should have been easy to clear. It is frustrating that in a puzzle game, my biggest obstacle wasn’t actually solving puzzles, but trying to simply move through the world. Once you’re required to climb vertically a la cyclones instead of stairs, fuhgeddaboudit. Luckily, checkpoints are generous and put you back into the action in about a second, but the inconsistent platforming did significantly impact my enjoyment of the game. Again, this could very well be a concession made for VR users, but it is disappointing that a game with such attention to detail failed to acceptably implement one if its three analog actions.
Clumsily leaping your way through the 8-10 hour campaign is worth it for a satisfying ending topped off by one of the most memorable credit sequences I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Perhaps Xing: The Land Beyond’s biggest accomplishment is how the three people who make up White Lotus Interactive were able to make a game that feels grander and more polished than what studios with 10x the money and manpower can produce. Xing’s biggest problems are forgivable, if not forgettable, in light of all that it does right. The swelling music, the breathtaking art direction, the thoughtful story, and of course, the challenging puzzles, are woven together beautifully in a compact experience that offers plenty more beyond the initial playthrough.