T&R: Women of Xal ~Early Access~

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Thoughts & Rants are not dead! Take a seat, because this is long and not a very happy one. Here we go!

Women of Xal is a political, stat-raising visual novel that takes place in the universe “Xal”. You play as Xjena, a Xulian woman chosen to compete against five other women for the seat of Matriarch held by Xuna Xaovant, who has inexplicably decided to step down from her position. As Xjena, the choices you make will affect her personality, how others see her, her relationships with Xuna and her competitors, her relationships with the men who are forced to be there, and her own personal stats that include Strength, Wisdom, Kindness, and Ruthlessness among others.

Women of Xal was the fourth Kickstarter project I backed, having been drawn in by the premise, the art, and even the music presented on the campaign page. The premise itself was what stood out the most: Xjena lives in a matriarchal society where men are treated as property. Not only that, but part of the inheritance that she is competing for includes a brothel, wherein it’s suggested that your choices will affect whether Xjena will try to help the men or use them as she sees fit.

The game has been in development since 2014, was successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2017, and was projected to release at the end of 2018. The release was delayed and has since continued to be in development and was recently released as Early Access on Steam. And I played it as soon as I possibly could.

I. Was. HYPED.

At the time, my backing of projects was very selective but optimistic. Women of Xal, though not the typical kind of dating sim I would go for (politics? what’s that???), intrigued me from the moment I saw the main campaign image. Though I was very disappointed that it was constantly delayed, the amount of work that was going into it made me keep faith in the project. PlotTwist Studios (formerly ProjectTrinity) was adamant about not just getting this game out, but making it amazing. And I could see why: the amount of writing, branching, and story in this game was going to be huge. So much so that the game was eventually split into two, with the first game’s script apparently being over 1000 pages long. Let me just make a note here that Women of Xal II wasn’t announced until after the Early Access went live, so you only found out either by playing the Early Access and hitting an ending or following PT’s social media for the announcement.

Excited would have become my middle name… if not for a few things.

One thing that PT had always emphasized was that the actual game would be different than the Kickstarter demo. Basically, forget what happened in the demo. That is not canon, and won’t carry over to the actual game. This was rather jarring, to say the least. A visual novel demo is typically a snippet of the full game. Whatever the full game turns out to be, you can bet that the scenes and events in the demo will be included into the full game. I did not hear about the Kickstarter demo being different from the game until after the campaign ended. I was a little worried about that, but the story was to follow the same themes, so I figured hoped it would be alright.

And alright it was. The story was much more serious in the full release of Women of Xal. It was intriguing, held my attention, and I legitimately even considered missing a day of work to play the full thing. Yikes, because that wasn’t enough to save what I eventually came to see.

I am fully aware what it means for Women of Xal to be in Early Access, so things like missing scenes, missing background music, bugs, etc. are to be expected. Some things, however, I couldn’t overlook.

Spoilers ahead!

One thing that really disappointed me is how the romances are done, specifically the men. So far, at least. As of right now, I’ve managed to unlock the office events with Culiver and Xaris, and Valimer with Clanice (which focused more on Clanice, but I don’t see a way to get Valimer on his own). When I backed the Kickstarter, there were only six romanceable characters announced. As it is with visual novels, the ones announced prior to release typically means that those are the main ones and, sometimes, more are added later. With two women and four men, wherein I was only interested in the men, I figured the odds were with me and it was worth backing. At no point during the Kickstarter campaign, from what I recall, was there ever any mention that there would be polyamorous romances, so I had backed the project under the impression that the game would follow single-person routes, as they typically do. Poly romances were eventually brought up after the campaign had ended. I wasn’t bothered by this, but was rather pleasantly surprised. I’m not poly, so poly routes aren’t something I go for in games. But I know it’s something that a good amount of players have been looking for in visual novels. In the same vein as adult otome games: just because I don’t care for them doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for them, so why not? And besides, the few visual novels (aimed towards women) that I’ve heard about that featured poly routes all involved individual routes for said poly characters anyways, so Women of Xal is probably the same, right? If those games let you choose whether you wanted to have a monogamous or polyamorous relationship with the characters, why would Women of Xal be any different, right?

Oops.

Turns out, some characters are locked into a poly relationship, and there’s no getting them out of it. The one, main character that I backed the game for is Culiver. Yes, I know, that’s bad, but I couldn’t help it! I have a bias and have almost no self-control when it comes to it! So yes, while I backed the project for three of the five characters (sorry, Proxis) with the hope of one more guy eventually getting a route (Xaris), Culiver was the main reason for my backing. After my first playthrough with choosing to not be in a relationship with Culiver with the hope that he would change his mind later on in the game (since he said his other relationship wasn’t serious and I wanted his relationship with Xjena to “be the one”), one brave player asked the same question I had before I loaded a new game:

Ouch, my heart.

Suffice to say, I was deeply disappointed. I even questioned if I would have still backed the Kickstarter if I had known that Culiver or any of the guys weren’t going to be singularly available. I had gone into the game knowing that poly routes were a thing, but I had done so with the idea that it was 100% optional. That you could choose whether you wanted Xjena to be in a poly relationship and which of those characters would be a part of it. Instead, my favorite romanceable character is put in front of me and, when it’s time to make the relationship official, I’m told “he’s not available unless you’re okay with him already having another relationship”. That doesn’t fly with me. That hurts. Now I’m concerned if this is something to be expected of for all the guys, which I am very much not looking forward to.

Inconsistencies. My gosh, the inconsistencies. I’m not sure if this is a bug or if the writing didn’t take things like this into account, but frick if it wasn’t jarring as heck.

The problem I always hit when it comes to “your choices matter” as far as character goes is that I’m always trying to get combinations that, to me, would seem like something anyone would want to try. For instance, I tried to see if it would amount to anything by making Xjena appear cold and ruthless in regards to her position while also showing some kindness and understanding towards other characters. And yet regardless of what combination I made, I was still met with Velvet and Culiver attacking Xjena. I could be cold and ruthless (again, not too ruthless), be understanding of the men and their situations, not be outright mean or rude to anyone, have a friendship with Velvet and Culiver, even have Culiver as a lover, and the same event would happen. The only difference I could get was which one of the two being the first to tell Xjena off when she asks about Xaris. It was like none of my choices mattered so long as I had any part of the Ruthlessness bar filled.

What stuck out to me about this playthrough as well was that while I could make choices to raise the Ruthlessness bar, no one’s reactions or responses to many of the choices ever gave any indication that what Xjena said or did was unwelcome. Yeah sure, when Xjena makes comments treating the men like crap, of course there would be blow-back. But for everything else? Nothing. So in cases where I would purposely raise the Ruthlessness bar without, again, being outright mean or rude, there would still be characters calling Xjena a “monster” or “the shit” in other conversations even when none of those ruthless choices were directed to them. For all that the characters will call Xjena out on that, they all seem to be very accepting of the fact that Leanixa is her best/girlfriend. If anything, I would have expected some kind of comment about their differing personalities, like “I can’t imagine how someone like Xjena, of all people, ended up with a sweetie like you.”

Not only that, but in the same playthrough where I raised the Ruthlessness bar while still not being outright mean or rude, I would still make choices wherein Xjena wants to make things better for the men. Each time a choice was brought up in favor of the men and their freedoms, I picked those choices. Xjena then, who even went as far as to declare in an outburst that she would kill Gamara more than once for what she did to Culiver, was still greeted with the “monster/shit” comments from Velvet and Culiver. Xjena was even accepting of “having a bit more in common (with Yexa) than I thought if she endures the muling of men as well,” even despite her hate for Gamara’s actions, never buying a man’s time, and never having shown anything but respect towards the men. The scene, for all it is, makes it sound as if there had been complete hate between Velvet and Xjena, which was never a thing in this playthrough. It literally came out of nowhere! And just like it was mentioned before, it was like none of my other choices mattered so long as I had something in the Ruthlessness bar.

Oh, and immediately after all this, Xjena wakes up in bed to find Xaris there, who tells her that “Yexa did a number on ya.” Yes, the same scene as if Xaris went looking for Xjena after what Yexa did, and Xjena lost the fight she started with Yexa. Even though Xjena never went to see Yexa. I’m really hoping this was a bug and not actually coded into the script, because this was not to be expected nor do I believe it was supposed to happen. Or, if the event were to happen, Xaris would have been talking about Velvet instead of Yexa, and what he says to be relevant to the kitchen fight than implying that he’s not worth fighting or losing a life over. Because yeah, that was Xjena’s fight with Yexa. The fight with Velvet had nothing to do with him.

One other event that really stood out to me was the whole thing that Xjena couldn’t reveal that she is a Seer, and this is something that all Seers go by. Seers are hunted down and experimented on, so they all have a reason to keep this a secret. This is stated at the very beginning of the story, so we know it’s serious. You can choose for Xjena to tell her secret to the characters, whether it’s only one or more, and some even admit to having already figured it out. That being said, as Xjena, we don’t know who is aware of her being a Seer and who is unless they tell her. In all my playtime, only two characters told Xjena that they knew, which is unavoidable. Depending on how you start the game, one of two other characters will figure it out, and also tell her. Only two other characters will give you the option to tell them Xjena’s secret, but these are avoidable. There was a playthrough in which I was able to get through with only those first instances happening. So, in that same playthrough when Marra’s trial comes up and Xjena stands up to testify, it’s implied which characters were either already aware of Xjena being a Seer or are more worried about her than having just found out. This is not questioned. At no point do any of the characters bring this up afterward. No “Wow, who would have thought Xjena was a Seer?”, “Well that explains a lot,” “I already knew/suspected, but for Xjena to out herself like that…,” “Has Xjena been going through that this whole time?”… nothing. There’s not even an atmosphere on the ride back to Xuna’s to give away any kind of confusion, acceptance, or hostility in regards to Xjena’s reveal or the situation in which it came about. In a Ruthless Xjena playthrough, I would have expected this to be a tense moment for Xjena, considering she’d have more enemies than friends in the group and her biggest secret has just been outed. It is made a huge deal when Xjena reveals this to individual characters, with her always asking if she or her secret are safe. There is no concern over it on the ride back, as if Xjena didn’t just put her own life at risk the way we were suggested it would be the moment anyone found out that she’s a Seer.

Why does something like this matter to me? Because when I hear “your choices matter” and “your choice affect the character’s personality”, I take it and run. I want to see just how complex a character can become through the choices I make, because I adore complex characters. By the time I got to the ending, I was practically praying to see, with the very specific choices I made, a cutscene where Xjena uses the revival spell on Doctor Jot, because I would have loved to see how my choices of a cold but caring Xjena would see that what happened to him was awful and tragic, how it shouldn’t have happened, and how he is worth so much more in that world than outsiders would think simply because of their position. I would have loved to later see the other characters, fully believing that “cold and ruthless Xjena” would have made such a sacrifice for someone who they probably wouldn’t have expected even if romance wasn’t involved. And to hear Xjena’s response along the lines of “he didn’t deserve that” or “this world needs him”? chef’s kiss I know this would contradict what is most likely going to happen in Women of Xal II in regards to Naxia or even Xuna, but come on! It was practically a perfect set-up for something that would absolutely have followed through with “your choices matter”! Or heck, have that scene of Xjena using the spell but not showing who she’s using it on, only for us to find out in Part II! I would have hated the cliffhanger, but it would have given me something to look forward to!

That also brings me to… how boring Women of Xal quickly became. I don’t play stat-raisers so I’m unaware if this is a thing, but a large chunk of my playtime was eaten up with the chore of having Xjena spend the day training, studying, sleeping, or having not-always riveting conversations (Culiver) or spending time with a character of interest (some of which didn’t even work closer to the end, but I’m just going to assume they are bugs or just missing). You are literally unable to do anything else once one of the above choices were made. Even with the “sleep/nap” options being said to let Xjena do more in the cycle than when not taking the break, the cycle would still end after choosing the option. Is this a bug? I have no idea! It’s Early Access, so I can only hope that it is.

Yaxata’s exam was the only time it felt like any of these choices had an effect on Xjena’s growth, as training at every chance possible allowed Xjena to land one of Yaxata and pass the exam. As for studying and the like? Nothing. You don’t even get the results of Hilde’s exams, so you have no idea if what you chose were even correct unless you attended all of Hilde’s classes. And as mentioned before, you only get one choice. Missing out on Hilde’s classes means you don’t know the answers to some of her exam questions, and missing out on any of Yaxata’s training means you fail her exam. I really felt like this was where the sleep/nap choices would benefit us in getting Xjena to grow, but nope. Don’t get me started on the library books. As interesting as some of them were, none of the available ones were of any significance other than to raise Xjena’s stats, so having to click through them to get the stat point (just in case) was tiring. A small thing that did annoy me through this was that the “rewind time” thing required an actual computer mouse to do since it relied on the scroll wheel. I haven’t used a mouse in years and I only have a laptop, so this was a feature that was completely incapable of using with a trackpad when, say, the book note from Daj came up. That screen would make the “Back” button disappear, making it impossible to rewind without a mouse. That aside, the whole “what to do” portion of the game would have felt like a massive skip-a-thon if the skipping didn’t stop every few seconds for a new “what to do now” choice. That’s how quickly the cycle would go: choose what to do, skip, hit the next “what to do” choice within the next three seconds.

I was even more disappointed to see that raising Xjena’s stats seemed to do nothing to the gameplay outside of the Kindness and Ruthlessness stats. Back when I played Guenevere by Jean Townsend, a Choice Of text-based game that is in stalled development (and I highly recommend anyways!), each choice I made in regards to Guenevere’s skills and abilities were reflected in later choices. One example being Guenevere being able to talk war tactics on the battlefield if you had her previously show interest in learning from her father or taking part in war council. I was expecting something similar in Women of Xal where, say, the constant studying would allow Xjena to have different conversation options. It kind of feels useless to see the text always say “You feel smarter,” but then the story text not changing from there on to reflect that. I have no idea if this is a thing since I really don’t want to do another playthrough to end up with nothing, but another example for something like this to be applied to Women of Xal would be having Xjena not do training with Yaxata or Yexa, or doing very little of it. So then, when Xaris goes to her after what Yexa did, having Xjena have a weak Xala and a low Confidence bar eliminate the option of confronting Yexa at all. Xjena, with little Confidence and with maybe Wisdom also being an effect, would know for a fact that she’d lose a fight against Yexa, therefore leaving out any chance of confronting Yexa and/or picking a fight. At least, in that moment.

It was also disappointing to see so little bonding between Xjena and the other characters outside of their respective office events. As stated earlier, making a “what to do” choice in any cycle would lead to the end of the cycle. If you want to get to know all the characters more, you’d have to choose the office choice every single time to get those office events with the separate characters (sans Clanice and Valimer, since they’re basically stuck with each other). There is otherwise really not many chances to get to know the other characters. Even going to the Garden when they are there will have them leave without speaking to Xjena. For all the cycles that are spent doing nothing but the aforementioned “choose what to do, skip, choose what to do, skip, etc.” like clockwork, at no point is there a chance to have Xjena spend time with other characters outside of the office events. If there is, I have no idea how to get there. Again, I put over 20 hours into this Early Access and I have probably not even scratched 1/4th of this game. Without a guide, I have no idea what exactly I need to do to get something different to happen!

Which then brings me to… This game is in dire need of a Branching Tree. I have no idea what exactly my choices are affecting or if they’re even affecting anything. I don’t like making certain choices unless I know there’s an outcome for it, especially if the choices go out of their way to be mean or the choice doesn’t seem significant. Why would I willingly make those choices at all? And since I spent the majority of my 20-hour playtime trying to get a different outcome and failing miserably, well… that’s 20 hours of my time spent with nothing to gain from it. The Branching Tree feature in The Letter by Yangyang Mobile was practically a lifesaver not just in regards to seeing how your choices affected the story, but in keeping track of what exactly you’ve already gone through.

A very small portion of only one chapter. Courtesy of Gaymer Lady.

I know it’s not a fair comparison to make considering it was made with a different engine, but I can’t help but think that Women of Xal would have been one of the few games that would have benefited from such a feature. I put in 148 hours in The Letter, and not once did I ever feel like I was running around trying to get outcomes that I was hoping were there only to ultimately find out that such outcomes didn’t exist. I was made aware of what romances were available very quickly, and your choices even early on in the game affected what kind of ending you’d get and whether or not you unlocked an event. And yes, that Branching Tree got crazy. 148 hours and I still haven’t fully completed the game. But at least I know where I need to make different choices to get there.

The death of me.

All in all, as much as I wanted to love Women of Xal, there just wasn’t enough. I like the story and the characters, but the execution wasn’t to what I was hoping or expecting, and I honestly don’t feel like opening the game again unless there is a major content update or the final release is out.

If I went back in time, knowing what I know now, would I have backed the Kickstarter? No. When I backed the Kickstarter, I absolutely believed the demo on the campaign page was what the full release would be, not a non-canon demo. And the locked poly routes for characters that were essentially the reason I backed in the first place isn’t what I wanted. I backed the project believing they would have individual routes, at least as far as the romance went. That didn’t happen, so no.

If I knew then what I knew now after the campaign ended, would I have asked for a refund? Honestly, no. As disappointed as I am with the current outcome, I saw how much work and sacrifice went into this project. Even if I never played the game, I wouldn’t have cancelled my pledge after the fact, nor would I have asked for my money back. It wasn’t a large amount, so thankfully there’s that, but at no point did I feel like PT was screwing around or trying to scam their backers. I truly believed, and still do, that PT wants Women of Xal to be amazing and worth the time, effort, and funds that went into it. And just because I’m not happy with it doesn’t mean more people won’t be happy. Most reviews I see are good ones, so regardless of my personal wants and opinions, I hope that Women of Xal and Part II are nothing but complete successes. The staff at PlotTwist Studios 100% deserve it.

September 3, 2021
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