Editor's Note: This review of Xenobloom was written using a review copy of the game provided free of charge by the developer.
Xenobloom is a simulator sort of game developed and published by IBOL. I have to admit I had a lot of hand-wringing about how to categorise this, both in terms of "what kind of game would we call this" and in terms of whether or not I should recommend it and why. I would call Xenobloom more of a toy than a game per se, it's essentially a version of "the game of life" with some significant depth and game elements added on top of it. I had a lot of fun with it myself and it'll probably actually be a fun little time-waster for me in the future, but the appeal is going to be something of a niche thing.
Expanding on the mechanics of 'the game of life',
Xenobloom offers a game take on the not-quite game of antiquity
For those whom are unaware, the 'game of life', also known as 'Conway's Game of Life' is a simulation of cellular automation named after it's inventor. It's less of a game and more of a simulation, whereby the operator defines the initial running conditions and then the simulation runs unattended from thereupon out. It is simulated on a grid, whereby each cell lives or dies by a simple set of rules - a cell with less than two neighbour dies (simulating under-crowding), a cell with more than three neighbours dies (simulating over-crowding), and dead cell with exactly three neighbours will become live, simulating reproduction.
Xenobloom's twist on that is to assemble game mechanics on top of that ruleset, and allow you to intervene in that simulation. You have a set of rules - eight this time now, but essentially just an extension of the original - which can raise and lower with events in the environment, or by a direct expenditure of "power", which is accumulated slowly over time, or much less slowly, by using the 'scythe' tool you are provided to harvest the different full-grown organisms to give you "power" and "DNA" points. DNA points go towards one of your current living organisms evolving into a more complex form of life, and forms the progression of the game. The other two tools, other than tweaking the ruleset, are a shovel tool that allows you to reshape the ground to your pleasure, and a "breath of life" power that can stimulate cell growth in the targeted area.
There's a lot of depth on offer in the simulation
As the simulation progresses, provided you tend to things well, you'll find there's a deceptively deep simulation at play. The rule-set can be tweaked, or will evolve on its own in response to certain lifeforms evolving in certain ways, as well as random events. The evolution system is yet another level of complexity on top of it - you can open up a display to go through your various life-forms to adjust many properties about them, such as the altitude they prefer, how hardy they are, and so forth, and that kind of depth really is where the game comes into its own.
The thing I really love about this though is you can choose your level of engagement. Don't want to micro everything? You don't really have to - you can let life take it's course and just ensure that life continues to be paltiple on the planet, or, if you prefer certain types of life or them in certain places, for instance, you can roll up your sleeves and get dirty. This is further strengthened by three different play modes, as well - the normal game mode with full-on game mechanics, a "scientist" mode that gives you infinite resources to experiment with the game freely, and an "observer" mode that's essentially the pure simulation that was the original "game of life" as it were. It's something the developer has obviously paid a lot of mind to and for my part, I really appreciate any game that allows such leeway in how you experience it . That's the strength of the interactive medium, after all, that kind of agency.
Trial-and-error characterises the game if you miss the external resources
When I was given the review copy of the game, it came with a a link to a very helpful YouTube video explaining the basics, and a readme file that does the same, though not as well. While these external resources do help you on your way, if you're looking at the game as just itself (as you are likely to be doing if you get it on steam, seeing as it's been greenlit), there isn't much direction to help you find your way in terms of what to do to get things started. Wanting to see how a player going into it blind would fare, my first "play" of Xenobloom was done without that aim, and it was probably a good 45 minutes or so of experimentation before I felt I really "got the hang of things" - hardly the kind of length that's going to turn off someone interested in the experimentation aspect of such a system, but far more than many may be willing to stomach.
It seems a kind of easy thing to fix, which is why it vexes me a bit, I must admit; the game could easily be much stronger for what it is, given even a short tutorial in the game that takes you through the simple steps with some visuals. It's not an unintuitive game by any means, but it would help it a great deal; I know people who would be very much on the fence about whether to give this kind of a game a spin that would be somewhat turned off by not really knowing what to do to affect things.
Theming is very nicely done in Xenobloom
The thing that really elevates the game beyond simply a neat little toy in my mind is the themeing. Done as a collaboration between IBOL and an artist and composer, both seem to have been very sound additions to the game, terrible pun not really intended. The graphics work very well in context and the pixel art is fairly well-done, although the cellular automation layer display can make things a bit busy sometimes - no doubt why it is something you are given the option to disable. The soundtrack meanwhile, is something I'd genuinely listen to outside of the game - rather mellow and very "zen" with that hint of something sci-fi or spacey to it. That evocation of the exploration of the unknown, I'd say, if I wanted to feel pretentious about my critique. Either way, they both mesh well with the game, and the design and implementation there are a lot of what makes the game work so well for me, I think.