Slave Zero X Header
Screenshot by Destructoid

Review – Slave Zero X

She's still hungry.

This is certainly a unique way to revive an old license. Slave Zero was a 1999 Infogrames title for Dreamcast and PC. Infogrames became Atari, which has links to Ziggurat Games, which works with publisher Tommo. So, the rights have been swirling around this big bucket.

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That’s maybe not important. What is important is that someone at Ziggurat or Poppy Works identified it as fertile ground for a revival, even though the original wasn’t entirely acclaimed. Then, Poppy Works discarded basically everything about Slave Zero and somehow created something that pays respect to the original but is a completely original concept.

The result is fascinating. At a glance, you wouldn’t link Slave Zero X with its supposed progenitor. It’s an entirely new thing. And yet, somehow, it still adds value to the original like a good prequel should.

Slave Zero X Shou fighting Atavaka
Screenshot by Destructoid

Slave Zero X (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox SeriesX|S, Switch)
Developer: Poppy Works
Publisher: Ziggurat

Released: February 21, 2024, Spring 2024 (Switch)
MSRP: $24.99

Slave Zero was a game about a big stompy robot that trudged around a megacity, blowing up other giants and disinterested motorists. Slave Zero X is entirely not about that. It takes place four years before the Dreamcast title and involves Shou, a member of a resistance faction called The Guardians. They stand in opposition to the SovKahn, a relentless tyrant whose name sounds to me like a lactose-free coffee-based beverage.

Shou takes command of a biomecha, which is essentially a sentient suit of armor. With it, he’s gone rogue from his organization to wage a one-man-one-armor war against the SoyKoff. This means that he’s going to cut through the worthless armored goons in his way, slice up the Four Calamities who protect the tyrant, and then kill the man himself. It’s a tall order, but he might just be crazy enough to do it.

The game consists of a large assortment of levels flanked by dialogue and flashback cutscenes with incredible gay sexual tension. Being entirely motivated by revenge, it’s not the most unique plot, aside from the art, the characters, and the gay sexual tension.

I think it’s pretty genius to create a prequel to a Dreamcast game by creating what looks like a lost Sega Saturn title. Specifically, it resembles a biopunk Strider 2 with pixelated 2D sprites over lo-fi backdrops. On top of that is a terrific art style and an aesthetic that seems like something Suda51 would put together. If nothing else, Slave Zero X is candy to the eyes.

It’s stage dressing for a brutal mix of hack-and-slash and fighting games. Shou has a wide arsenal of moves, enemies are surprisingly robust, and they like to bring a lot of friends to the party. It’s a remarkably difficult game to come to grips with, and the skill ceiling is deceptively high. Even during the final battles of the game, I needed to learn more strategies to counter the more complicated bosses. I never stopped learning new things.

Part of this is because it’s terrible at explaining things. There’s a tutorial at the very beginning that consists of a few slides telling you everything. However, without the context of a few battles under your belt, the more advanced stuff doesn’t have much hope of sticking. Unless you’re a better student than me, I guess.

There’s a training mode, but it doesn’t provide you with different moves and combos to try out. You just smack away at a dummy and wiggle the directional buttons hoping that something new happens. This is quality-of-life stuff, but it feels like it would help immensely.

On the other hand, it did feel great to learn new things organically, but this may come at the end of a long string of humiliating defeats.

Slave Zero X Battle on the rooftop
Screenshot by Destructoid

Much of the strategy here comes down to crowd control and air juggling. Those skills will get you furthest, with dodging, clashing, and parrying all secondary. Enemies arrive in masses, and you don’t want to get stuck between groups. If you leave an enemy behind you, they’ll just smack you, end your combo, and set off a chain of stun locking.

Instead, you need to corral everyone to one side, then pop them in the air and keep them elevated. This means learning the moves that will push you ahead and the timing to keep the enemies in the air.

This goes with bosses, as well, which are a bit different. The heaviest enemies and the lightest bosses require you to “break their focus” before they’ll start getting stunned by your hits. It’s actually kind of lame that they just no-sell your sword slice until they’ve taken enough damage, but I’ll admit that it keeps you strategizing. Once you break their focus, you then have a window of time to do as much damage as possible. Best way to do this? Get them in the air and start juggling.

At times, this led me to lean hard on holding forward and hitting the heavy attack. That only got me so far. Enemies will inevitably get you in a combo, and when that happens, you may find an entire group beating you down while you’re stuck hopelessly stunlocked. You can then use a pulse to push them back, allowing you to get to a better position and turn the tables. Likewise, there’s Fatal Sync which allows you to pull off heavier attacks at greater speed while slowly refilling your health gauge.

If I’m illustrating anything here, I hope it’s that there’s a lot going on in Slave Zero X.

Slave Zero X Shou clashes swords with The Iron General
Screenshot by Destructoid

Anyone who simply bounces off Slave Zero X’s unfriendly exterior is right in doing so. It is one steep learning curve for an otherwise short game. I can’t even claim that the narrative makes it worth it.

Where it does feel worth it is when things finally click into place. The penultimate boss battle really tested the lifespan of my controller. The numerous attempts it took me to finally take them down caused my thumbs to ache as I parried, made careful use of my Fatal Sync, and carefully learned to read their movements. It’s a very brutal finale, but I got into a flow that I feel I most recently felt with Doom Eternal.

A challenge tower unlocks after beating the last boss, but I haven’t attempted it yet. I need to give my thumbs some rest.

Slave Zero X Shou fights gross zombie things in an opulent room.
Screenshot by Destructoid

I don’t think Slave Zero X will click with everything, but for the most part, I think it’s exactly what it wants to be. I think some quality-of-life improvements would make it easier to get into, but other small tweaks would be appreciated as well. In particular, there were a few areas where foreground objects would completely block my view of battle. Beyond that, I ran into technical issues, like the graphics blurring in one particular spot and a few crashes.

But even if those issues were addressed, the demands it makes from the player in regards to learning its systems will be too much for some. It does, however, feel like a welcome reprieve from a lot of modern games that signpost everything and ensure that nothing can possibly be missed.

Despite the pixelated exterior of Slave Zero X and its unforgiving temperament, it doesn’t necessarily feel like an old game from a bygone generation. Rather, it feels like the work of a passionate team that knew what they wanted and unapologetically went for it. It took an obscure license and ignited a new spark in it without compromising its own vision. It’s a rare thing, and I truly hope it finds its audience.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

Impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.

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Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.