Preview: Eastern Exorcist

You know what’s kind of a shame about Demon’s Souls? For all the influence that it has had on the game industry in a positive way, a lot of that influence seems to have learned entirely the wrong lessons from its existence. Instead of learning that there’s a place for games that take a difficult and idiosyncratic approach to a genre, a lot of developers seem to have just learned that you could make a Souls game but in/with X and that was cruise control for awesome.

I am admittedly being a little snarky here, but in the years since the game’s release we have seen a lot of games copy its stamina mechanics and general combat cadence in basically every genre, doubly so since Dark Souls became an even bigger hit. Souls but it’s anime now. Souls but science fiction. Souls but pornography. And so on and so forth.

Why do I bring this up? Well, Eastern Exorcist is definitely going for that Souls energy. Specifically, it’s trying to be a Souls game, but Chinese and also in the whole 2D field. And if you’ve seen some of the other games going for those mechanics in a side-scrolling game, you might be able to guess that problems can arrive.

Eastern Exorcist arrives in early access on August 14th on PC via Steam, which was (obviously) the version played for this review.

Exorcise Plan

The biggest problem Eastern Exorcist’s story suffers from is one that a lot of localized games run into. Specifically, the plot is difficult to follow not because it’s trying to be vague, but because a combination of poor translation and unfamiliar cultural touchstones make it more opaque than it means to be.

At the start of the game, you’re informed that there is a plague of evil stuff across the land, which has resulted in a whole lot of exorcists all over. “Exorcist” in this case appears to be a chosen synonym for general-purpose monster slayer, which describes the main character Lu Yunchuan who’s hunting for a demon lord with his three fellow exorcists. They capture a fox spirit in the guise of a woman, but he insists that she should be allowed to go free and that she’s no threat to them.

His three fellows are then caught by the forces of the aforementioned demon lord, with two killed and one nearly lost, the survivor claiming that the fox spirit was working for the demon lord in question. Disgraced, Lu Yunchuan is thrown out of his school and takes the remains of his two fellows to their hometowns, but along the way he continues to work as a freelance exorcist uncovering more details (and still hunting for his original adversary).

That’s not a bad plot to start out with, as stories go. Unfortunately, the localization is… well, it’s not great. A lot of the localization choices are just odd or lacking in much context, because while these sorts of stories and the obviously archetypal figures are familiar to the source audience, they’re not necessarily going to translate to others.

And archetypes are the order of the day here; this is meant to be a story that at least seems to be going for the feel of old Chinese legends rather than being a story replete with deep character growth. That’s a fine and fun tone to go for, and as a fan of these particular legends I could appreciate it. But it is going to turn some people off.

Still, these are minor quibbles. If you have a similar affection for the source stories or you just like seeing alternate takes on mythology, this has good places to go and feels vibrant enough. It’s not deep and the translation is a bit light on providing meaningful dialogue, but it all does work well enough.

Keep those translation issues in mind, though. They’ll come up again.

Your Exorcise Machine

As mentioned in the introduction, Eastern Exorcist is a game that’s going for the Dark Souls formula, but with a sidescroller and a general more Chinese feel. It is not the first game to try for that sort of combat in a 2D environment. And this is an experiment that – when tried elsewhere – generally seems to not quite work.

The reason for this is subtle and has a lot to do with the differences of navigating space. After all, the aforementioned series doesn’t make jumping a thing, so you’re still basically navigating a fixed plane all the same. But I think a combination of more limited weapon selections and a more fixed plane of movement generally (you can’t sidestep very well on a fixed platform) means that these games generally don’t quite hit the mark of their 3D cousins.

Unfortunately, Eastern Exorcist is among those entries, and part of the problem is just that the controls don’t feel like they’re honed to quite the edge of the series that is clearly inspiring all of the game’s mechanics.

On paper, Eastern Exorcist follows the same basic trappings of the aforementioned subgenre. You have a dodge button, a parry button, an attack button, and a jump button. Jumping, dodging, and attacking all cost stamina. When you run out of stamina, you can’t do anything but run back and forth. The key is thus timing your parries and attacks for maximum impact.

Herein, though, is where the problems begin. For starters? Everything is parry-based… and everything is just too dang fast.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at Bloodborne. That was a game that sure as heck wanted you to parry things with well-timed gunshots, obviously. You had to learn the timing for parries and learn how to capitalize upon it. But – and I think this is the key – there were a lot of other combat options if you weren’t very good at that part of the game. Attacks themselves were slow enough and had enough obvious telegraphing that the right way to play was to wait until you had that right opening and then bust out a gunshot.

By contrast, attacks in Eastern Exorcist are fast. Very fast. And if you miss with your parry, rather than still doing damage and possibly still stopping what you were hoping to avoid, you just get hit by it. The timing is achingly precise and never quite feels right.

It’s this way with a lot of the game’s mechanics. There is, for example, a “perfect dodge” mechanic… but you have to precisely time not just when you dodge but when you hit the button to counterattack, otherwise it completely whiffs. You occasionally get random little “bursts” of energy along the way, but it felt like it required frame-perfect execution to actually capitalize on it.

None of this would be a problem, however, if it had taken another lesson from the formula it was copying. See, in a game like Bloodborne, you may learn that you suck at learning the parry timing or capitalizing upon it. And that’s fine… because then you pick a build that doesn’t rely upon that. Even early on you can choose to pick up a slow and heavy weapon and focus on getting in a couple of solid hits, then dancing back out of range. That’s a valid playstyle.

Not so here. You have exactly one playstyle, and the controls never feel quite responsive enough to be up to the task. I kept feeling like attacks hit me when I didn’t think they would, or I missed the timings where it seemed perfect. I’m sure that some of this could be fixed with practice and better tutorials would probably help, but…

Look Better with Exorcise

Eastern Exorcist has a terrible translation. I’m not even sure it should get to localization at this point, because there are places where things still haven’t been translated, much less adapted for an English-speaking audience. But several of the tutorials are written in such a strange fashion that it’s almost impossible to understand what is actually happening, what timing is supposed to look like, and so forth.

Wrestling with bad translations is not unfamiliar to anyone who likes a lot of non-Western games, of course. But when you combine spotty translation with imprecise controls, you get a soup of frustrations. And it’s here that the problems with translation cause serious problems, obscuring what you need to do and how to actually play the game correctly.

To the game’s credit, it looks gorgeous in terms of art. The sprites are expressive and well-animated, backgrounds are lavishly painted, and every animation has clearly had a ton of work put into it and just looks outstanding. Unfortunately, basically all of it has had a heavy filter placed over it that winds up rendering character sprites and background equally obscure, with the clearest things on screen being the orange-white spark effects from attacks connecting and the like.

Indeed, the filter over everything and the general detail actually works against the game because it means that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between elements and what you can and can’t interact with. The art is gorgeous, but it doesn’t have that clear and straightforward look that lets you know what on the screen needs to be attacked and what is just superfluous.

Music, meanwhile, is… present. It’s mostly mood pieces that don’t stick out, but they do at least contribute to the atmosphere. I don’t mean that to be seen as a mark against the game, as it’s a very good mood piece, but when combined with other frustrations it actually makes the game feel even more ponderous than it needs to.

Exor-sighs

I don’t feel like Eastern Exorcist is truly a dire case. If you want a side-scrolling Souls-style game and you’ve played the other options out there, this one is going to offer a steep learning curve but it is still playable. You’re going to have to work through an awkward translation and the existing weirdness, but it’s not undoable.

At the same time, though, it also doesn’t feel like it’s going to be all that rewarding to do unless, well… you really want that side-scrolling Souls-style game and you’ve played the other options out there. It doesn’t have a lot to recommend it aside from that fact. The things it does well are good, but they don’t balance out the more tedious aspects and I never felt that very familiar element of satisfaction at taking down a difficult and titanic foe.

There is, of course, space to improve. The game could get notably better during early access, and I hope it does. But as for right now, it’s really only worth a look for die-hard aficionados. Everyone else will probably bounce off.


Game provided by Wildfire Games for preview purposes. All screenshots courtesy of Wildfire Games.