If there's one thing I love about indie games it's a great name. From modern classics like Dredge to the enduring genius of Untitled Goose Game, there's something wonderful about a title that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the experience you're about to have. AK-xolotl is exactly that - a game where you're an angry axolotl with a gun, and a problem that you're about to make everyone else's.
Half of AK-xolotl is a bullet-hell roguelike that makes ample use of its excellent titular pun. With your choice of weapon, you'll take your friendly amphibian into battle against room after room of gun-toting critters. I've faced off against ornery, shotgun-toting raccoons, exploding bunny rabbits, and ultra-violent seagulls in my quest to bring my axolotl children up right. Each run starts off slow, a humble pea-shooter your tool for dispatching a mere handful of enemies, but things dial up fast.
Foes and firepower
Success hinges on your ability to manipulate the advancing horde of furry foes, using your trusty dodge roll to get around their shots and natural barriers like walls and water to create some space for yourself. There's a deliberate weight to your movement that means if you let yourself get backed into a corner, the likelihood that you'll escape unscathed is pretty low. Instead, draw advancing critters back and forth, ducking around their cartoonishly-signposted attacks as you hit them back. Relatively early in the game, I unlocked a laser pistol with a piercing effect that would hit any enemy in a line, and learning to corral opponents together as you kited around them was key to helping me advance.
As you conquer each room, you'll be given a reward. That might be a weapon that's more powerful but comes with limited ammo, or currency to spend at in-game shops. In an ideal scenario, it'll be an upgrade that'll last for the rest of the run, increasing your health or damage, or leaving a damaging trail following behind you. As with any roguelike, you're taking something of a gamble on the latter option - there's always a chance that your upgrades won't be quite as useful as you'd like them to be. AK-xolotl's upgrades are also not quite as impactful as some other games in the genre; the hope, instead, is that AK-xolotl's guns will do most of the heavy lifting.
As well as the collection of weapons you'll have access to at the start of each run, you can carry an additional gun, at least until it runs out of ammo. It's a smart little system, letting you decide whether the payoff of the extra firepower is worth it at any given moment - swapping from starter pistol to full assault rifle multiple times during a room does make me feel like more of a tactical genius than I thought I would in a game based around amphibian puns.
The decision of whether to make the swap or not would also be a lot easier to make if the weapons weren't so much fun to use; the Pew-pewer is a chaotic, rattling rifle that spews bullets over the whole room; the Sawed-off and the Katana are short-range weapons that can devastate your enemies, but also devastate you if you don't manage to dance around their attacks; a sniper and an assault rifle are better at holding enemies at long distance, but their slower attacks mean they might not be the best option for tougher fights.
There's more depth in AK-xolotl's gunplay than you might expect from a game hinging on a joke, but that's only the half of it. While you'll spend the majority of your time with those angry critters, you'll spend a substantial chunk of it in a more nurturing role. In a given run, you might stumble across a baby axolotl in need of protection. Gather them up, and you'll send them home, where you'll need to nurture them - feeding, changing, and burping them. It's a little 'Baby Anabelle' for my tastes, but a relatively light-touch approach that eventually sees your 'axolittles' turn into rowdy teens.
Those axoloteens need feeding, so you'll also need to collect ingredients on each of your runs. Different recipes grant different transformations to your metamorphising axolotls, and once each one is fully grown they'll have different starting abilities to affect each run. One might be able to occasionally heal some missing health, but my particularly-chunky amphibian of choice waltzes into the fight with a hefty shield instead. There's a whole range of axolittles to be found, and with multiple ways to turn them into big strong axolotls, you'll definitely be able to narrow in on a favorite.
As well as your creche and cooking pot, however, a bunch of other upgrade paths will gradually appear. From the pair of merchant dogs that run stores with varying degrees of friendliness to the bureau of baboons that documents your progress to the definitely-evil corvid that offers you bonuses at the cost of your axolittles' happiness, it's certainly an eclectic bunch, but it adds a nice depth to the range of ways you can enhance yourself ahead of each run.
The mark of some of the most inspirational roguelikes of all time are firmly felt in AK-xolotl; games like Nuclear Throne and Enter the Gungeon are clear inspirations. But on top of the adorable spin that this game puts on the genre, it adds a lot of depth through its lightly nurturing, sim-style creche of axolittles. It's not quite the Stardew Valley roguelike that still sits on my genre bucket list, but it's a funny and surprisingly effective way of making this enduring formula shine in a brand new way.