Going into Exile with Evercade’s Renovation cart

Evercade Renovation Collection 1 banner

The Mega Drive was many wonderful things, but one thing it has never been especially known for is its catalogue of role-playing games. That’s not to say that there aren’t any, nor that there aren’t any good ones — it’s just that you might have to dig a little deeper to find games of this type once you go beyond well-known titles like the Phantasy Star and Shining series from Sega. And Exile from Renovation Products, newly resurrected as part of the Renovation Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade, is a good example of this.

Exile is one of those games that, despite standing by itself, has an oddly complicated history. Originally released in 1988 by Telenet Japan as a pair of games known as XZR and XZR II for PC-88, PC-98, MSX2 and Sharp X1 Turbo, the second game in the series was subsequently ported to PC Engine and Mega Drive in 1991 and localised for English audiences by two completely different outfits — Working Designs handled the North American TurboGrafx-CD version, while Renovation Products, Telenet Japan’s western arm, handled the Mega Drive version.

Exile

The first game in the series was passed over for porting and localisation due to its controversial subject matter; the series has you playing the role of a 12th century Syrian assassin named Sadler, and through a convoluted and complicated series of events, the first game concluded with you murdering both Russia’s General Secretary and the President of the United States of America in the 20th Century. Since the Cold War was still fresh in everyone’s minds in 1991, chances are that it was decided that this might not be the best material to release to English-speaking audiences at the time.

Since Exile’s PC Engine and Mega Drive port was thus released as a standalone game — with no reference to it being a “Part II” or anything like that — it was remade from scratch, including rewriting a lot of the story. Both the Mega Drive and PC Engine versions had scenes cut compared to the original Japanese home computer releases, also; the Mega Drive version removed a scene featuring a burning village (instead only making reference to it) and the appearance of naked women in some areas, while NEC’s western branch specifically asked Working Designs to remove direct references to religion and drugs in the western TurboGrafx-CD release.

Exile

Anyway, enough of all the things that the Mega Drive version of Exile isn’t; let’s take a look at what it actually is. Taking on the role of the aforementioned Sadler, the game opens with news of an impending invasion of the desert land our hero calls home. Hearing rumours of a suspicious man poking around in the desert, Sadler and several companions set out to investigate — and from there a peculiarly disjointed but nonetheless enjoyable adventure follows, with the main aim being for Sadler to locate a holy artefact known as the Holimax.

Exile unfolds in two main components: simple top-down RPG-style segments, in which you can talk to characters by bumping into them Ys-style, shop for weapons and consumables and advance the plot; and side-scrolling platform action RPG dungeons in which you fight enemies, explore labyrinths, discover important key items and battle bosses to move things along.

The top-down segments are simplistic and a little clunky. The collision detection on the “bump” mechanic for talking to NPCs is a little troublesome at times — and the shopping interface suffers from a common problem seen in RPGs of the era: the fact that the game simply doesn’t give you all the information you need.

Exile

When shopping for weapons and armour, you have no way of seeing their effect on your stats; when shopping for consumables, you have no way of knowing what each of the items does. And it certainly doesn’t help that Exile makes the peculiar decision of having exceedingly unintuitive item names. Would you expect an item called “HEARTPOISONS” to be a healing item, for example? Well, it is — though note that “SPIDERPOISON” is an item that buffs the attack power of your weapon, because who needs any sort of consistency?

This is a little annoying initially, yes, but it’s not too much trouble to learn what each of the items do — or indeed to look them up. What the top-down segments do handle quite nicely is the delivery of plot: there’s some surprisingly elaborate dialogue in Exile, plus some excellent anime-style pixel art portraits of the characters speaking. And while Renovation’s translation of the original Japanese script is perhaps best described as “functional” more than anything else, it’s clear that this is a very ambitious narrative, taking influences from a variety of world cultures, spiritual traditions and real-life history — albeit with somewhat bastardised names from their real-life counterparts.

The side-on components, meanwhile, are where most people today will likely draw comparisons to the third installment in Falcom’s classic Ys series — though it’s worth noting that the original home computer releases of XZR and XZR II actually predated Ys III by a year, and Ys III’s PC Engine, Famicom, Super NES and Mega Drive ports came out the same year as Exile.

Exile

Exile’s side-on sections are effectively “dungeons”, in which Sadler must explore, fight enemies, find treasures, collect plot-advancing key items and defeat bosses. Different dungeons are themed in different ways; some feature a lot more platforming, while others are heavily combat-centric. Either way, enemies respawn constantly, making for easy grinding — very helpful in the game’s early hours, where Sadler is extremely weak — and you’ll quickly discover that a key component of making it through the game is timing.

To defeat enemies, you need to attack them with proper timing, because if they get on top of you they can sometimes be difficult or impossible to hit. To make it through the platforming segments, you need to jump with proper timing, because the respawning enemies can mess up your efforts with the knockback mechanics. And if you really want to optimise your playthrough, you should both attack and get hit with proper timing, since a “heartbeat” mechanic causes both your attack and defense power to “pulse” at a regular rate, allowing for slightly increased damage or defensive power at regular intervals.

Okay, the last element is pretty much pointless given that the amount both stats “pulse” is fairly negligible, but it’s an interesting inclusion nonetheless — and it’s certainly in keeping with the other timing-centric aspects of the game. As you might expect, boss fights also have a key timing component, too, as you recognise their attack patterns and strike them during suitable openings — though if you end up slightly overlevelled, the fact that you can take most bosses down in two or three hits makes their challenge factor almost non-existent.

Exile

While the game’s narrative is strictly linear — once the story demands that you move on from one area to another, there’s no going back — many of the dungeons feature an interesting non-linear labyrinth component. Rather than simply being single side-scrolling stages for you to get through, a lot of dungeons feature doors that you can proceed through, taking you to different rooms. There’s typically one “correct” route to proceed through, which you’ll have to determine through either trial and error or making a map, but thorough exploration is often rewarded with consumable items, which can save you some money.

Not that money is ever really much of an issue, since you get it for every kill, and by the time you clear a dungeon you’ll probably have more than enough coins in your pocket to clear out the next town’s weapon shop and fill your bag with consumables, but sometimes you might find yourself without a healing item or low on magic points, so acquiring a suitable item from a chest can be useful.

Ah yes, magic points — Exile does indeed have a magic system, though like many other parts of the game it can easily be rendered largely irrelevant by levelling up. While there are some attack spells, by far the most useful is the Restoration spell, which remains constantly in effect and effectively allows your MP bar to act as an extension of your HP bar, near-doubling the amount of damage you can take. While you’ll have to rely on healing items for the first part of the game, once Sadler gains the ability to cast magic, the Restoration spell will likely make you more than self-sufficient.

Exile

And this, I think, sums up Exile; it’s a game that has great intentions and considerable ambition, but questionable execution, primarily when it comes to balance. The game’s opening dungeon is monstrously difficult without taking time to grind a few levels, but once you gain access to magic and beef Sadler’s stats up a bit, the challenge factor of the game as a whole becomes pretty much non-existent outside of the tricky navigation puzzles in the dungeons.

The game also, at times, feels like it wanted to be more of a traditional RPG than it is; for much of the game’s top-down segments, Sadler is followed by at least one companion who is clearly capable of taking care of themselves, and yet when he goes into a dungeon they inevitably find an excuse to be elsewhere, or go and get themselves kidnapped or injured or something. It’s not a huge problem in terms of gameplay, of course, but it does feel a little strange, particularly given that the opening scene of the game won’t let you do anything until you’ve gathered a full party of companions to accompany you.

Is Exile worth playing? Absolutely. It’s a fascinating game worth experiencing for the sheer ambition of its narrative alone. While its mechanical aspects sometimes (all right, frequently) fall short compared to many modern expectations, it’s still an enjoyable game worth engaging with — and a great example of Telenet Japan and Renovation Products doing what they do best, with all the polished audio-visual presentation you’d expect.

Exile

So far as the context of the Renovation Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade goes, Exile likely won’t be the primary reason anyone picks this cart up — but don’t sleep on it, either. While I recognise and acknowledge its many, many flaws, I have had a really fun time exploring Exile — and I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Evercade’s Renovation Collection 1 cartridge is available to order now. Screenshots from the Evercade version running on Evercade VS.

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Pete Davison
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