Roguelike shooters have never reeled me in.
I’ve dabbled in what many consider to be the best entries in the genre – including The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon – but those games were just missing… something. I love top-down shooters and they both have interesting worlds and presentations, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go through the meatgrinder to make any kind of progress in those games.
Until recently, I thought it was just me. Maybe those games aren’t missing anything, and they just aren’t for me. Well, it turns out those games are missing something that would have made them one hundred times better…
The Mexican amphibians make up the core of the new game AK-xolotl, which might be the first top-down roguelike shooter that steals both my free time and my heart. Let’s see what makes AK-xolotl so special in this review of the Steam version of the game.
A Studio That Lives Up to Its Name
AK-xolotl was developed by 2Awesome Studio and published by Playstack. 2Awesome is the same studio behind Dimension Drive and the upcoming Altered Alma, which is another game that should be on your radar.
The studio has been around for nearly a decade, and has either made, published, or helped to port some of the coolest indie games of the past ten years. If you happen to come across AK-xolotl and roll your eyes at the “top-down roguelike shooter” description, I wouldn’t blame you. However, 2Awesome has been around for a while, and they definitely know what they’re doing.
A Nap Gone Awry
AK-xolotl begins with a family of axolotls taking a cozy nap next to a campfire. In the midst of their slumber, evil creatures steal the children. More importantly, they steal all of their food, which is an unforgivable sin in the eyes of an axolotl.
This intro sequence provides your first impression of the game, and it’s a solid one. The lightly animated cutscenes are colorful and high-quality, and the game’s sense of humor comes through loud and clear.
Thankfully, AK-xolotl never comes across as “meme”-y for the sake of it. It’s a problem I’ve had with other indie games (Guacamelee and its sequel being the worst offenders despite also being awesome games), but it’s safely avoided here. Every joke landed without a cringe in sight.
Lizards, Locked and Loaded
Part of AK-xolotl’s humor is its core mechanic: The axolotl protagonists are gun-toting maniacs, as are seemingly all of the furry woodland creatures around them. It’s never addressed, never explained, and that fact never failed to make me chuckle.
If you’ve played Enter the Gungeon or a similar game in the past decade or so, you’ll know what AK-xolotl is all about. You start off with a basic gun, which you’ll use to blast away at enemies and clear sections. The reward for clearing those sections will typically be some kind of chest that will either contain a healing item, currency, or a new weapon for you to play with.
It’s a system that just works, and being combined with smooth keyboard and mouse controls makes for an addictive gameplay loop. Top-down shooters tend to play well with twin-stick controls, which are fully supported by the Steam version if you want to play that way. Regardless of which input method you pick, AK-xolotl’s gameplay is fast, frenetic, and tons of fun.
Something that other roguelike shooters either gloss over or ignore entirely is the method of “resurrection” that comes along with the live, die, repeat-style gameplay that roguelikes are known for. However, in AK-xolotl’s case, that concept is built right into the character! Axolotls are known for their ability to regenerate, so every time you fall in battle to a wacky boss or creature, you’ll “regenerate” back at your home base.
Speaking of wacky bosses, AK-xolotl has them in spades. I won’t spoil many of them since the shock-induced chuckle that accompanied many introductions were great, but I will tell you that the first boss fight is a crab. That attacks you with a knife.
Sure it’s silly, but the fight patterns are so well thought out and so well animated that you spend less time thinking about why a crab is in the forest and more about how cool it looks when it’s killed you for the fifth time.
Parent and Protector
AK-xolotl’s progression mechanic smartly ties into the intro sequence. Rather than regenerating as a new axolotl for every run, you will occasionally bring back axolotl hatchlings from your adventures. If you hatch and nurture these new members of the family, they will grow up to become playable characters who have special abilities and powers that will help you progress.
It might sound like a hassle, but “nurturing” the babies is typically a process that takes only a few seconds every time you return from a run. I would say it’s well-balanced in terms of time commitment, and getting up close and personal with adorable little axolotls is such a hilarious juxtaposition from the weaponized rampage you were carrying out a few moments before.
As you gain more babies/playable characters, your axolotl “pond” or community will grow and offer more features to help you get prepared in between runs. For insurance, you unlock a campfire where you can prepare meals that permanently increase certain stats.
Cheap and Cheerful Mayhem
Overall, AK-xolotl is a ton of fun.
It has a classic pixel art presentation that has become synonymous with this kind of game, plenty of procedurally generated zones, and gameplay that hits every single mark. Even better, AK-xolotl was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that crushed every single stretch goal, so there is a ton of content still on the way for anyone who picks the game up. The game’s roadmap as of this writing goes through Summer 2024, which is great value considering the game’s meager $18.99 asking price.
You can play AK-xolotl on PC via Steam, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch now.