There is something to be said for nostalgia. It’s comforting, reassuring and in many ways humbling, but the reach for warm fuzzies falls flat if the target audience never had a chance to appreciate the original production. PlayMagic’s cel-shaded FPS, XIII, is a perfect example of a game relying too heavily on past laurels while neglecting core mechanics and replayability. It plays on sentimentality without providing much else to work with.
XIII, a remake of the 2003 FPS by the same name, is based on a Belgian graphic novel of an identical sobriquet originally published in 1984. Following the aptly named amnesic “13”, who sports the physique of a breakroom vending machine, the plot twists and turns through all the familiar tropes, running the gamut from presidential assassinations, prison breaks, sinister cabals (whose uniforms are severely questionable), to a boss fight surrounded by nuclear warheads. There’s something to be said for the sheer insanity of the story, not because it’s coherent or overly engaging, but because it allowed the developers to construct levels in just about every biome known to man (sans space, unfortunately). One day I’m in New York, the next some remote ice fortress high in the mountains, the next some beautiful seaside pier. It provided a great deal of much needed variety.
The gameplay itself could have used a similar infusion of diversity. It is admittedly a first-person shooter, I just wish there were a few other things to actually do. Enemies boil down to three types, with the majority falling into the grunt category, alongside a spattering of heavies and bosses (whose only differentiation is that of a beefier health bar and a costume change). The cache of weapons available to Mr. 13 are somewhat pedestrian up until you get your hands on the harpoon gun, and the forced-use gadgets like the grappling hook and zipline are shoehorned in as expected. The impact each weapon had felt largely like a roll of the dice. The grenades were about as effective as a sharp rock, whereas the crossbow could probably take down the one helicopter boss, given enough time.
Level layouts are similarly linear with only a few places to actually go and explore, and there was a noticeable amount of required backtracking (looking at you, jungle camp). Gameplay varies slightly per level, with some portions requiring stealth while others demand a more violent approach. The definition of stealth in this case is largely up for debate. You can either sneak around and incapacitate people with karate chops, or you can run up to them flinging your fists like a madman and bludgeon them into sweet unconsciousness. There’s an option to move bodies around and take hostages, but similar to the zipline or grappling hook these mechanics are largely pointless outside the developer-designated areas.
Apart from the bugs discussed below, XIII‘s greatest pitfall is the lack of excitement, and it’s difficult to put my finger on the exact moment I realized the developers were using nostalgia not as a crutch, but as the crutch. The one thin scaffold holding the entire game up is premised on players having enjoyed the 2003 version, because there’s really nothing else for us to look to in awestruck appreciation. Once you figure out the hitboxes for headshots, the game boils down to a clunky, 8-hour chore (some people call that a job).
This isn’t a baseless assertion. The game, for all intents and purposes, was either rushed or neglected based simply on the number of glitches found throughout the entire experience. Day 1 updates notwithstanding, I had audio barf during cutscenes, bodies duplicate or glitch through the floor, enemy AI that was about as smart and responsive as a blind Doberman, and hovering weapons. Each of these on their own were not gamebreaking in the slightest (albeit they were extremely annoying), but the problem lies with how often I saw all of them combined on a single playthrough. It screams to me of either a rush job or lack of interest in the actual mechanics, which is also reflected in the dearth of replayability (multiplayer mode aside). There is not a single mission I’d like to go back and run through, simply because I could pick almost any level and get the same experience.
Now, I wholly understand that remakes demand a certain level of sticking to the script. You can’t reinvent the wheel and still pay homage to it if you’ve fundamentally changed the game. Even that being the case, XIII feels like it lacks even a cursory attempt to improve on the original while still honoring its legacy. I got through the entire campaign without a crash and I truly did enjoy the cel-shading aesthetic, but the gameplay is bland, the surface-level bugs are numerous, and I am not a sucker for the good ol’ days.