Don't let the adorable characters fool you, AK-xolotl is a tough Rogue-lite shmup that'll have you coming back for one run after another!
- Title: AK-xolotl
- Release Date: Sep-14 2023
- Price: $18.99 (USD)
- Suggested Audience Age: Teen (ESRB)
- Availability: Steam (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, Xbox One & Series X|S, PlayStation 4|5
- Recommended for fans of: Action Roguelikes (e.g. 30XX), Twin-stick shooters (e.g. Trigger Witch)
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
For my second game of Shmuptember 2023, I decided I needed something a little off the wall. When I heard about AK-xolotl, a game featuring heavily armed amphibians, via the This Nintendo Life podcast, I knew I had found what I was looking for.
AK-xolotl is a Rogue-lite twin-stick shooter with a 16-bit aesthetic. The game stars a cute cartoony axolotl on a quest to recover its stolen food and kidnapped babies; a quest that involves frequent use of deadly force! As the axolotl battles through 5 unique biomes, it can gather power-ups for temporary enhancements as well as resources that can be used for permanent upgrades to make subsequent runs easier.
Something to note up-front: This game mixes a cutesy cartoon art style with gory violence. I know this is a juxtaposition that makes some people very uncomfortable. You can disable the blood effects in the options menu, but be aware that the blood is enabled by default.
This game is cute and knows it. The axolotls are adorable as are most of the enemies they mow down with machine gun fire. While the combination of cute characters and violent gameplay might not work for everyone, I got a kick out of it. During my playthrough, I switched the blood effects off and on and found that the overall aesthetic worked either way.
Another visual thing I appreciated about this game was the visually distinct biomes. In a Roguelike, you end up playing through the same areas many times, so making it to a new area should feel like an accomplishment.
Going from a bright green forest, to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, to a Sakura tree grove might not make a lot of sense geographically, but it helps provide a sense of progression. This is a nice contrast from many other Roguelikes that are intent just on giving you dozens of floors of generic-looking dungeons.
AK-xolotl is by no means a story-driven game. However, whenever you interact with an NPC (usually a shopkeeper) , they generally have something funny to say. Some of the game's humor leans a bit too heavily into memes, which will probably make this game feel dated in a few years, but overall it worked for me.
While not as memorable as the music in some other shmups, this game's metal-inspired jams certainly got the job done. They were effective at accentuating the chaos but probably not something I'll be listening to outside of the game. Aurally, the thing that stood out to me was the sound effects. Each enemy creature makes unique sounds… and as you'd expect the fox says “gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!” as it fires in your direction.
Similar to games like Hades, AK-xolotl is a series of kill rooms that offer randomly generated perks upon completion. Each room has multiple exits with different perk options (weapons, stat boosts, etc.).
Enemy variety is one of this game's strong suits. Each biome features a pretty diverse range of hostile creatures with distinct behaviors to learn. While there are some repeats between biomes, combat in each one generally feels distinct.
At the end of each biome, the axolotl faces a boss that is usually based on some sort of meme. Of course, the first boss is a giant enemy crab. I found these bosses to be a lot of fun to take on. They are challenging, but fair, so even on your first time facing them, it feels like you can make a dent in them and start learning their patterns. The boss's animations exude personality, so they are as fun to look at as they are to fight.
As a Rogue-lite, AK-xolotl offers lots of options for upgrading and customizing your character and loadout. Many of these options are persistent between runs. Doing these upgrades involves accumulating a myriad of resources on each run. When I first started playing this game, this process seemed quite grindy: upgrades were costly, and accumulating took many runs. However, shortly after launch, a balance patch was released to smooth out the early game grind.
Occasionally, during a run, you have the opportunity to rescue a baby axolotl (which the game calls “axolittles”) and send them back to your home base. Between runs, you can care for and raise your axolittles, which adds a virtual pet component to the gameplay. Raising the axolittles to adulthood gives you alternate characters to play as so you can experiment with different builds. The juvenile axolotls also provide you with resources you can use to upgrade your current player character.
Shmups and Roguelikes are known for being two of gaming's most unforgiving genres. Thankfully, AK-xolotl provides.some.options to take the edge off. You can change between Normal and Easy difficulty between runs while otherwise keeping your progression. You can also switch between manual aiming and various degrees of aim assist.
One area where AK-xolotl will not cut you slack is with the Roguelike structure. There are no unlockable shortcuts or checkpoints during your runs. If you want to beat this game, you have to get through all 5 biomes with a single life. While I've spent several hours with this game, I have not been able to pull off this feat yet. On normal mode, I was able to make it about 50% through; on easy, I made it about 80% of the way to the end. That being said, I still felt like I saw more than enough of this game to understand what it had to offer.
While I love shmups, I have mixed feelings about Roguelikes. However, AK-xolotl‘s combination of these genres is infused with cuteness and humor on top of solid gameplay. This was enough to have me coming back for extra runs long beyond the point I'd burn out on most other Rogue-lites/likes.