**Review copy provided by the publisher**
Not every indie game needs to be on the Nintendo Switch. As controversial as this may sound, developers may be better off avoiding the popular platform if it is simply not possible to get the game running on it. And if they absolutely must release a broken Switch port, they certainly shouldn’t charge a premium price for what is clearly an inferior product.
Developed by 3D Clouds, Xenon Racer isn’t technically an indie game, because it’s published by Dutch company SOEDESCO, however, it’s an indie in spirit and certainly not one worthy of a $50 price tag.
Xenon Racer is an arcade racer with a focus on drifting around corners and maintaining speed at all times. It’s a throwback to the early days of 3D racing games like the Ridge Racer series which ignored the trendy accuracy of racing sims like Gran Turismo and most Codemasters games of the era. You drift around corners, turning unrealistically on a pin, and the only notable items are speed boosts which you earn either by running over pads on the track or by drifting. Even though you race against seven opponents, much of the time it feels like you versus the track as you try to perfect drifts and use your speed boost at exactly the right time.
Xenon Racer is simple and I don’t mean that as a criticism. I’ve enjoyed games like this a lot over the years and still get a kick out of throwing cars around corners without worrying about technical stuff like suspension and weight shifting, while also not looking out for blue shells. What’s more, arcade racers should be an excellent fit for handheld devices and short pick up and play sessions. I’ve spent a fair few hours with Fast RMX, for example, and love that I can boot it up and knock out a tournament in less than fifteen minutes.
The big difference between Xenon Racer and the likes of Fast RMX and Redout, is that those games didn’t make me feel nauseous when I played. Fast arcade racers like Xenon Racer need to run at high and consistent frame rates. Ideally, this would be at least a locked sixty frames per second. Any severe drops from there are a problem due to the pace of the game and the quick reaction times required. In some cases, lowering the framerate to a locked thirty frames per second might be preferable because at least then it is consistent. Well, Xenon Racer doesn’t even reach the giddy highs of thirty frames per second. It spends the entire time wavering between the low- to mid-twenties and, while it’s not unplayable, it is an incredibly uncomfortable experience.
To make matters worse there is also considerable input delay so regardless of which of the three options you use to drift—being a tap of the brakes or the handbrake, or letting go of the accelerator briefly—there is always a delay before the drift actually starts. I don’t think this is deliberate because there’s a similar amount of lag with regular turning, although the cars are so slow and heavy that it’s difficult to say exactly what level of responsiveness is intended and what is lag. If it’s not input lag, it certainly feels like it.
And then there’s the atrocious amount of pop in and the limited draw distance, that not only affects the background, but also the walls and arrows that are supposed to guide you around the track. I did my best to memorize tracks, but with such a limited draw distance and so much pop in, it’s tricky to recognize the relevant markers in time. Draw distance is even worse in handheld mode where the whole thing becomes a blurry mess.
There’s also next to no lighting effects and pools of water pop in at the last second. Those are minor problems in the grand scheme of things. The variable frame rate, poor quality visuals, and all the pop in, meant I couldn’t play for more than half an hour without feeling nauseous and needing to take a break.
The developer has assured me that a patch is coming in April, but I’m not convinced a patch is going to fix all these issues. At the very least, we need a locked thirty frames per second, reduction in input lag or more responsiveness, less pop in, and a better draw distance. It’s going to have to be one hell of a patch.
Xenon Racer is designed to be challenging. I’m sure even running smoothly, it’s not an easy game to beat. On Switch, it feels nigh on impossible and I’m not sure how much of that is the game versus the performance. I ended up turning the difficulty down to easy and still couldn’t beat the main campaign, which is a lengthy tournament called Xenon Racing Championship. The set up for this tournament is that in the year 2030 we live in the time of flying cars. Except we’re not racing flying cars. Apparently, this is a one-off tournament using high-powered electricity and xenon gas vehicles, with the goal being to get people used to racing flying cars. I’m not sure how racing on wheels gets anyone used to racing flying cars. My driver’s license doesn’t qualify me to pilot planes. It doesn’t matter obviously. Arcade racers don’t need a story or premise, I just thought it was odd. I’m not sure why the description mentions flying cars at all. Just say it’s a futuristic racer and leave it at that.
I don’t usually claim to be especially good at any type of game, but it would also be a bit disingenuous to say that I’m terrible at arcade racers. I’ve been playing them for over twenty-five years in some form or another. I’m halfway decent. So with that in mind… Xenon Racer is insanely hard on Switch, mainly because you can’t see what’s coming and the frame rate can make you ill. The difficulty level seems to be a common complaint and the developers have said they are adjusting the AI, so expect this to get changed, however, the Switch version is going to need extra attention given that you aren’t just racing against opponents, but against the poor performance of the game itself.
Even if you ignore performance issues, there are still underlying niggles that I recommend you research further if you’re considering picking this up on another platform. The handling feels incredibly stiff to me, regardless of how many changes you make to the vehicle and that is presumably consistent across platforms, although it’s possible the poor frame rate exasperates the issue on Switch. The damage system also feels a little unfair, especially on the medium and hard difficulties where even small knocks take off huge chunks of the car’s health. Crashing has its own built-in punishment namely you slow down, so I’m not sure this is even necessary. If your car gets destroyed you get put further back on the track and lose a bunch of time. I lost at least four places per crash; it’s a strict punishment. On medium difficulty, if you crash, you almost certainly won’t win the race and many races require you to come in first to proceed.
There’s little chance of you catching up because the AI doesn’t take damage. As far as I can tell, they never crash unless you knock into them and they don’t have a health bar. There’s also a fair bit of rubber-banding and while this doesn’t have to be a huge problem, it does seem to help your opponents more than you. It was common for me to completely lose touch with first place and never catch up, no matter how well I raced, whereas my opponents would come out of nowhere to overtake me after the slightest error. And that’s on easy difficulty.
Xenon Racer does have a few things going for it. One of its best features is the lengthy load screens which last for just under a minute and kick in even if you only want to restart a race. The load screens are much needed because they give you time to take a sip of water and walk around a bit to reduce nausea before the next bout of inconsistent twenty-five frames per second action.
More genuinely, there’s technically a lot of tracks, with I believe twenty in total, and double that if you include the mirrored versions. That said, there are only seven regions, so many of the tracks look much the same, especially given the low-quality visuals. At a glance, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the Boston Port and Boston Downtown tracks, for example. You can opt to race all the tracks at night, although, given the poor quality lighting and already limited draw distance, I wouldn’t recommend it. Unfortunately, there aren’t any weather conditions beyond sunny and cloudy, so the track condition is always the same.
There are a lot of cars and car customization options, both for cosmetics and performance. You can tweak all the colors, and change major parts like the wheels, rims, and windows. You can even alter how your turbo boost works, so it can recharge faster but last for less time and vice versa. I appreciate the flexibility offered by all the upgrades, but I only noticed differences in the extremes so making little tweaks here and there didn’t hold much value for me. Again, this might come down to me playing the Switch version. If the game had been faster and more responsive, I might have noticed differences in speed and handling, but as it stands, I didn’t.
Credit should also be given to the inclusion of a two-player split screen mode which surprisingly doesn’t seem to affect the performance at all. I expected it to be borderline unplayable but was pleasantly surprised. I couldn’t test the online mode because there were never any races to join. That’s no one’s fault, as such, it’s just worth noting.
I can’t comment on the other platforms, but I definitely don’t recommend the Switch version of Xenon Racer. Some of the problems I’ve listed may seem superficial, but these graphical glitches all combine to make the game uncomfortable to play throughout. The draw distance and pop in means you can’t spot corners until late, the poor frame rate means you can’t respond promptly once they have popped in, and even if you do respond promptly, you have to contend with the input lag and stiff movement.
Maybe there’s a fun game in here somewhere, however, Xenon Racer is simply not ready for release on Switch and certainly shouldn’t be $50. Fast RMX is available for $20. Buy that instead. It looks a hell of a lot better, both in docked and handheld, and runs at 60 frames per second. Plus it doesn’t make me ill.