After a brief step back in time to cover Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, we are back on track with our timeline for this series. Sort of. Exile is technically a remake of a game called XZR II by Telenet Japan which released for Japanese home computer systems in August 1988, about two months after Lord of the Sword, but the remake (which is the only version localized in English) arrived three years later in 1991, for both the Sega Genesis and the PC Engine CD/Turbografx-CD. Having been impressed by the Turbografx-CD hardware when playing Ys I & II for this series, I opted for that version of Exile.
XZR II is, naturally, the sequel to XZR, which was never localized in English. I read a synopsis of its story and can see why: it’s set in our world, starring a Syrian Assassin named Sadler in the 12th century. And I don’t mean “assassin” in the general sense, I mean a member of the semi-mythical sect which gave that term its name. Sorry Assassin’s Creed, the XZR games went there first. During his first adventure [SPOILER ALERT], Sadler allegedly stops an oil magnate from polluting the Euphrates river, looks for unicorns in the Tower of Babel, gets baptized in a Jewish village and searches for Ouroboros. Then he somehow travels to the present day to assassinate the Russian General Secretary and American president. What? It sounded totally crazy, and I was curious to see where the sequel would go.
It turns out that a lot of things where cut or changed for the Exile remake, because the heavy religious themes and drug references were controversial at the time. The Genesis version had more cuts than the Turbografx-CD version, but both changed names to avoid controversy. You see, this time Sadler and his friends find themselves back in their own time, having stopped the wicked Caliph from subjugating the land, only to find themselves at the mercy of Christian crusaders (called “Klispins” to appease the censors) who are killing “infidels” in the name of their God. From the opening cutscene — which, like those in Ys I & II, is a fully voiced anime-style sequence, showing off the capabilities of the CD-ROM format — it’s clear that religious conflict is at the core of the story, with the main cast hoping to bring peace to the world by uniting everyone under a single god. Sadler and his friends soon find themselves teaming up with Yuug D’Payne of the Templars (clearly meant to be Hugues De Payens, the leader of the Knights Templar) who is disillusioned with his former allies the Klispins because their God has brought violence and death instead of peace. Together, they embark on a globe-spanning journey that incorporates many civilizations, religions, and myths, and even a spot of time travel.
Since I’d read the synopsis of the first XZR before playing, I knew a little of what to expect from the story, but I didn’t really know much about how Exile actually plays. It turns out it’s an action role-playing platformer, although it’s structured a bit differently from those that have come up in this series so far. Perhaps the best comparison is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, because both games combine top-down exploration with side-on action. But in Zelda II, the top-down segments cover the entire explorable world, whereas in Exile they are more like town areas from Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Traveling to new locations is done by choosing them from a menu on a map screen, kind of like changing locations in Cleopatra no Mahou. All the top-down exploring is completely peaceful, letting Sadler and his party talk to people and visit shops. When it’s time for battle, Sadler enters a platforming section where he can run, jump, slice enemies with his sword, and (eventually) cast magic spells. He can even perform a downward thrust while mid-air, much like Link learns to do in Zelda II.
But that’s about where the similarities with Zelda II end. The platforming action in Exile feels completely different. Sadler and his opponents are rendered as big, colorful sprites, movement and attacks are fast, and there are no defensive tactics whatsoever, even though Sadler is shown with a shield. It reminded me of arcade action games more than anything else. It’s also clearly the part of the game that got spiffed up the most compared to the original XZR II. There are foreground and background layers that scroll past as Sadler moves through the platforming areas, some of which are even animated to show flowing sand or cascading water. Every platforming area has its own art, color palette, and cast of enemies. Sadler is lovingly animated as he moves through these places, and each enemy has a unique death animation when Sadler slices them up. It looks great, and really shows off the capabilities of the 16-bit graphics in the Turbografx console.
And of course, as a CD-ROM game, the sound is also impressive. The Red Book Audio music is not as memorable as the score for the Ys games, sadly, but it’s still far beyond what any non-CD games could muster, especially in terms of realistic percussion and vocal parts. Much of the rest of the music is synthesized and shows its age with relatively low fidelity, but the drums and voices stand out compared to other games at the time. Music tracks are fairly short loops, but they do bring in instruments and motifs from the different parts of the world Sadler travels through, which is a nice touch. The main use of the huge storage space on the CD, however, is the voice acting. In-game dialog during top-down exploration is shown as text, but there are many fully voiced cutscenes and even the occasional friendly face during a platforming section who will speak their lines. The acting isn’t great, but just having actual voices in a game in 1991 would have been mind-blowing, and the developers reveled in it by putting voices everywhere they could.
Despite the less memorable music, Exile reminded me a lot of the Ys games. Like those games, Exile’s action takes place in a window (complete with ornate border) in the upper part of the screen, with the bottom reserved for status bars showing Sadler’s health, magic points, and attack and defense ratings. This seems to have been a common practice for games on the PC-88 or MSX computers, which was passed along to their Turbografx remakes. More importantly, Exile’s narrative structure is in a similar style to the Ys games. While Sadler always fights alone, he gathers a rotating roster of colorful characters who tag along behind him during the peaceful exploration segments, and often pipe up in conversations to move the story forward. That story is a linear affair, taking the party to a string of locations with action sections that feel like the sequence of stages that would grace a traditional action game, but it’s full of weird twists, new characters, and other details that had yet to find their way into other console role-playing games at the time. Linear stories with pre-set casts of characters would become standard for the Japanese style of role-playing design, but it seems it was the home computer games like Ys and XZR that were paving the way.
I was surprised to find that Exile is a pretty easy game. The hardest part, in fact, is right at the start, when Sadler enters his first platforming area and is unable to leave without conquering it. It’s a sandy pit in the desert full of giant insects, and I ran into trouble quickly even though I’d been able to purchase all the best equipment on offer befor entering (Sadler can wield a sword, a shield, a turban, and a suit of clothing). I could deal with the giant ants, but the huge dragonflies that dive-bombed me were fast and took two sword strikes to dispatch, so they almost always took a bit of Sadler’s health before falling. Eventually I just lingered in the first section, which only has ants, killing them over and over until Sadler leveled up (each enemy killed earns experience and money). This raised his attack score enough to kill the dragonflies with a single slash, which made things much easier. After that, I was almost always able to kill everything in a single hit, and never had to grind for experience again. Except once.
That came midway through the game, when one of the bosses proved pretty tough. So I fought creatures in the forest until I’d gained a couple of levels and unlocked the next level of magic. Since the Turbografx gamepad only had two face buttons, magic must be selected from a menu (which, thankfully, pauses the action) and is then cast every time Sadler swings his sword. There are three main spells: a fire spell which launches a fire blast from Sadler’s sword, an ice spell which is a slower projectile with an explosion, and a healing spell that converts magic points into health. Each stays active until Sadler’s magic points are depleted, or the player turns it off in the menu. The fire and ice spells come in three levels, all of which are displayed in the menu as soon as magic becomes available, but the higher levels are locked until Sadler gains enough experience. They offer more efficient damage for magic points spent, and are very useful against the bosses, but generally not needed for regular fights.
Higher level magic took care of that tricky boss, and I never really had any trouble anywhere else. The bosses look great but generally aren’t too complicated to fight, and I rarely needed to use any of the “tonics” which replace the drugs from the original XZR II, letting Sadler replenish health and magic power among other bonuses. The relative simplicity of the combat betrays the game’s origins on less powerful home computers. Each location has just two or three enemy types, each of which is straightforward to deal with, and most of the platforming areas boil down to mazes of doors leading to different sections. Everything is so fast paced that I didn’t mind blundering through these to find my objectives, and there are occasional treasure chests full of money or tonics that I didn’t need. But these places aren’t as interesting as those in other games.
I did enjoy the globe-trotting, though. It was fun to sort out the real places which inspired locations in Exile. At one point Sadler visits “Grunoble” (Grenoble, France) in search of druids. He finds one of their stone circles, and, strangely, a huge gothic cathedral right next to it. Full of druids. That’s not where I’d expect to find druids, but whatever. Sadler later faces a mythical beast on Lanker Island (Sri Lanka) and ventures into East Asia as well. There’s even some direct references to Freemason mythology in the game. As a follow-up to the crazy story I’d read about for the first XZR, Exile does not disappoint, even in its censored form. The Turbografx version actually doesn’t cut that much story, leaving in a village being burned by the Klispins that was cut from the Genesis version, but it does remove an ending section set in the present day because it referred back to the ending of the first XZR. As a result, Exile’s ending is a little abrupt, but not jarringly so. Exile also seems to have reworked a lot of the platforming areas and bosses compared to XZR II, but the core feel of the action seems to have been retained.
I had fun with Exile. It’s not too long, moves along quickly, and doesn’t impede progress with high difficulty like many of its peers. And its story about religion and myth is unlike anything I’ve seen in console games from this era. It’s interesting how the Turbografx started porting over Japanese home computer games like Ys and Exile in order to compete with Nintendo’s exclusivity policies for games on its Famicom/NES. With a much smaller market share than Nintendo, especially for the Turbografx-CD, I doubt many players outside of Japan actually encountered Exile, but there were a few people out there who got to try this weird and crazy game. It even got a sequel, exclusive to the Turbografx-CD, called Exile: Wicked Phenomenon, in 1992. I plan to play that when my timeline reaches that point. In the meantime, if you want to try Exile, you will probably need to use emulation as I did. I used the Retroarch frontend with the Beetle PCE core, but emulating CD games is a little tricky; refer to my post about Ys I for details on that.
As for me, I’ll be continuing with my timeline, as we approach the end of 1988. Stay tuned!