The cuteness potential of axolotls remain woefully underutilized in modern gaming, an issue which new action-roguelite AK-xolotl seeks to resolve. It’s a firearm-filled cute’em up about everyone’s favorite critically endangered neotenic amphibian, mixing the shooter mechanics of formative classic roguelite Nuclear Throne with some light cooking and baby maintenance mechanics. From its origins as a successful Kickstarter project to its full release, the final result feels a little like a game jam entry or a test case for a more expansive project, but AK-xolotl remains a nice way to scratch the itch between more substantive action-roguelite pursuits.
An adorable intro sequence brings a Sir David Attenborough-soundalike commentating on a family of axolotls in the wild. The adorable creatures are utterly fascinating IRL, though their cartoon counterparts in AK-xolotl are more concerned with a stolen locker of meat than the family members murdered by an unseen predator off-camera, but this act of violence sends off on a quest to avenge their losses, fully locked and loaded with their namesake.
Yes, the premise of the game’s armed amphibians never ventures far past its titular pun, but it’s a serviceable shorthand that gets the game right into the action with minimal fuss. The feel and essence here is mostly drawn from Vlambeer’s now-ten-year-old title Nuclear Throne, an early warning shot for the action-roguelite genre which combined challenging top-down run’n’gunning with randomized levels and pick-three mutations. That’s not a dealbreaker, though, and countless other games have cribbed this same framework. Here, it allows AK-xolotl‘s gameplay to feel instantly recognizable and responsive, with players able to fire, swap weapons, dodge-dash, and caper around each small procedurally generated arena.
Much of AK-xolotl’s novelty comes through in the hub area where players are abruptly returned after each failed run. Here, eventual options appear to interact with any baby “axolittles” found during a playthrough, who can then be nurtured, matured, and fed special cooked meals and desserts to add different modifiers to how they play. Once of age, they become a new optional character to use, one who might have a simple active ability or slight alteration on their beginner stats.
Other hub features include vendors, like a vulture creature who non-lethally absorbs the happiness from axolittles to provide permanent buffs, summoning direct reference to The Dark Crystal. It’s not the only such callout in AK-xolotl, which gets pretty sloppy with its memes, pop culture hat-tips, and even direct references to other action-roguelites like The Binding of Isaac or the lesser-known Blazing Beaks.
Simplistic Gameplay & Limited Content
It’s concerning, then, that any of the games referenced in AK-xolotl tend to have more gameplay diversity, mutations, and unpredictability. The five primary levels/biomes mostly amount to simple reskins of each other, and individual combat arenas tend to be simple and small. Enemies mostly amount to a variety of anthropomorphic animals with guns, and the pool of random weapon drops can be increased by spending gems back at camp. Blue treasure chests offer one selectable perk out of three but, aside from a few drastic damage increases, most are not particularly affecting, nor do they inject creative inspiration towards a unique build.
Each level contains one to three alternating routes with no backtracking, and they all end in the same boss every time, with no minibosses, corruption effects, or elite enemies to tangle with. There are barely any environmental hazards, no challenge loop system, no multiplayer, or seemingly anything else to help extend the game’s longevity in any way. It’s a shame, because AK-xolotl’s gunplay remains simple but effective, and it would be better utilized if the game gave players more interesting things to shoot at or offered better tests of ability. Even the axolittles baby-raising mechanic is functionally wasted after harvesting enough happiness, since building multiple avatars is one-and-done in practice; find a preferred combination of buffs and abilities and there’s little reason to ever try out another.
There are also a few small issues and bugs in AK-xolotl which will hopefully be stamped out in the near future. Any enemies who lob projectiles will also push the player around with them, as it seems that a system of depth was not programmed into these types of weapon effects. Shops have a bug that make every item free to purchase after resetting the table, and explosions and fire effects have an irritating tendency to damage the player even after the visual effect is over. The soundtrack includes a nice energetic mix of tracks, but most are focused around a single motif that may grow tiresome after the initial hours.
Final Thoughts & Review Score
Maybe AK-xolotl was rushed to market, or maybe its developer is already moving onward to the next game. What’s left is a fun but underweight action-roguelite that could have used slightly more polish and a lot more content for the asking price. Start to credits should run most players five hours or so, which is a low number for a generally challenging genre which all but requires a set of meaningful post-game mechanics. These are the lacking fundamentals which leave AK-xolotl looking like a hungry creature in search of a better habitat.
AK-xolotl releases on September 14 for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. A digital PC code was provided to Screen Rant for the purpose of this review.
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