I’m not a huge fan of Souls-likes. In my experience, they tend to favor building muscle memory over in the moment decision making. But, every now and then, I take another chance on the genre. Sometimes, it works out. This time around, the game I took a chance on was Eastern Exorcist. The art is nice and we don’t get enough story-focused games with distinct cultural influences beyond the West and Japan, so I was more than happy to work my way through some frustrating battles to try it out.
On the surface, Eastern Exorcist is similar to many other side-scrolling hack-’n-slash titles. You move left and right, slash at enemies that will try to take you down, and progress through a world that is broken into distinct areas, some of which offer branching paths. Much of the world is designed around straight pathways through multiple areas and the game will send you on a number of quests that largely lead to dead ends, asking you to then return to a central point.
Despite the Souls-like nature of the game, combat is fairly simple. There is one dedicated attack button that is used for both light and heavy attacks. Repeated light attacks will trigger a three-strike combo, whereas pressing and holding the attack button will trigger a heavy attack. Oddly, due to the way that heavy attacks are implemented, you are forced to perform a light attack before the heavy attack is initiated, which can feel clumsy, especially considering how often timing is crucial.
A notable omission is that of air combos. There are quite a few enemies that float around and inflict status effects on you by either shooting homing projectiles at you or swooping in for a melee attack. These enemies can feel extremely painful to fight because you have to jump up and attack them one strike at a time. What’s even more bizarre about this is that you can jump and airdash, meaning that the potential for crazy air combos is there, but these features are instead relegated to a platforming role.
Putting a thematic spin on combat, once you do happen to take down an enemy, you’re forced to “dispel” them. As the game’s title would suggest, you play as an exorcist named Lu Yunchuan and, expanding upon that theme, all of your enemies are spirits that are causing problems in the region that the game is set in—as Lu says at one point, spirits and humans should not exist in the same realm. Interestingly, it’s not as simple as taking an enemy down and then dispelling them. If you fail to dispel an enemy within a specific amount of time, they come back stronger than they were before. The trade-off is that, if you defeat them again, they don’t have to be manually dispelled.
Oddly, I am left feeling that dispelling isn’t risky enough. The problem is that it is nearly instantaneous. You can simply attempt a dispel between attacks and go on with your life. There was rarely a case when I felt like I was punished for attempting to dispel an enemy at the wrong time and that is unfortunate because the mechanic is perfect for more precise gameplay. Having to time your dispels well as enemies’ down timers slowly whittle away would make encounters much, much more interesting. Instead, at present, you only really run the risk of not dispelling an enemy in time if you don’t position yourself well.
In addition to attacks, players can dodge, a feature that uses the same button as and is functionally similar to airdashing, only on the ground; block; and parry. The parry ability is particularly interesting because, as far as I can discern, it can only be used to deflect projectiles. The way that it’s implemented allows players to deflect a projectile back at the enemy that shot it at you, which then triggers a strong stabbing attack in the direction that you’re facing. While this does add an additional layer of depth to combat, in my experience, it’s not particularly useful. Depending on what order you decide to defeat enemies in, you often are either too far away from all remaining enemies for the additional strike to hit anything or you’re already staggering the enemy that shoots projectiles with every hit, rendering such a feature useless.
As with many games like it, there is one mechanic that makes this otherwise simple setup more complex: stamina. Everything you do—be it an attack, a dodge, a jump, or a block—costs stamina. This is fairly standard practice for Souls-likes, but I don’t think that Eastern Exorcist has balanced it quite right just yet. When attempting to play optimally, I often found that I ran out of stamina within an attack or two of killing an enemy. Sometimes, I would just deal with it and attack painfully slowly, one strike at a time, just to finish them off before they could attack again. Other times, I found that I had to back off and wait for my stamina to regenerate, which doesn’t feel great when you’re up against standard mobs.
In a way, the stamina system feels at odds with the rest of the game’s design. Combat is fast-paced. Dodges sometimes need to happen in fractions of seconds. But, even beyond that, the optimal strategy in many cases is to simply rush down opponents. There are a number of combinations of enemies where status effect-inducing projectiles come into play and taking down as many enemies as soon as possible is practically essential. The arenas that you’re fighting in aren’t that big. Dodging costs quite a bit, jumping isn’t always the answer, and the space you have to dodge on a 2D plane is not always optimal—something that the developers seem to be fairly aware of, as all boss fights take place in larger, flatter arenas. Being forced to rush down opponents, only to then be asked to wait for your stamina to regenerate, breaks up the flow of combat significantly, leaving many encounters feeling much longer than they should.
You have skills called “Exorcism Arts” that help with that somewhat, but the circumstances in which they help are somewhat specific. There are a variety of Exorcism Arts that you slowly unlock throughout the game, including one called “Swordplay Spell” that summons swords that automatically attack the nearest enemy when you dodge and one called “Shadow Spell” that sends out a shadow clone of yourself that attacks the first enemy that it comes in contact with after you use the dispel ability. Only one can be active at a time, but up to four can be placed on a hotbar, allowing you to easily swap between them. Of note is the fact that, weirdly, the skills that are triggered by using the dispel ability are triggered whenever you hit the dispel button, not just when you successfully dispel an enemy.
Before I go into Exorcism Arts in more detail, I need to discuss progression. As you defeat enemies and explore the world, you acquire a resource called “Power.” This can then be spent on leveling up your character at a set rate per level, but only at shrines. Eventually, you unlock skill trees for your Exorcism Arts and you can spend it on perks for them, such as a perk for Swordplay Spell that allows you to summon a larger sword that deals more damage when you use the dispel ability.
While perks give Exorcism Arts different effects that can make them more usable, an issue that I encountered is that, early on, at least, I felt that, if I wasn’t using Swordplay Spell, I wasn’t playing optimally. In general, Swordplay Spell offers an additional hit per hit that you successfully land, but it is also immensely useful in boss fights, as bosses have shields that regenerate if you don’t hit them for so long. The additional hits when dodging keep their shields from regenerating, often just long enough to land another attack on them. Even just generating charges takes far less effort than other Exorcism Arts, generating one sword charge per hit that you successfully land, up to a total of 10 charges, rather than requiring you to generate between 20 and 100 mana at a rate of 1 mana per hit. Most importantly, these hits don’t cost stamina, meaning that you can get hits in during a dodge without expending stamina and keep a boss’ shield from regenerating. Its usefulness simply can’t be matched by other Exorcism Arts.
The way that Exorcism Arts are implemented casts a weird light on the leveling system. It would be easy to overspend on leveling early on, hoping to be able to keep up with increasingly difficult enemies—I did. However, whether or not leveling is necessary, each individual level doesn’t feel like all that much of an increase. You’re going to be killing enemies—and dying—at marginally the same rates. It’s hard to tell when you’re leveled enough for a particular challenge and harder still to tell how many more levels you might need to overcome a challenge you’re stuck on. I saw more visible results when I started pouring resources into upgrading Swordplay Spell than when I was spending all of my money on leveling, but I also know that, at some point, I will have to level again. The problem is that, due to the fact that the same resource is used for both forms of progression, a certain balance needs to be struck. Finding that balance isn’t easy and that the game does little to ease that burden.
In a more general sense, those who are familiar with Souls-likes will find the game’s overall progression familiar. You proceed through fairly linear zones one at a time, coming across a shrine that acts as a checkpoint that heals you every few zones. You can carry up to five health potions, your stock of which is replenished at shrines that are lit—you can pay to increase your stock to 10 potions, but it comes at the cost of affecting achievements. There is always a checkpoint before a boss and, fortunately, if you die after a boss, but before a checkpoint, the game does not require you to beat the boss again to progress. Additionally, there are some side-quests, but most of them seem to just sort of happen, only requiring you to manually turn them in.
More importantly, however, the general philosophy behind enemy design is familiar. Each enemy, including bosses, has a small set of predictable attacks. The problem is that most enemies are boring. Basic close-ranged mobs that you find out in the wild have exactly one attack, as do flying enemies. In the case of rat spirits that you fight early on, you could even classify their attacks as awkward, as they simply perform the same overhead strike over and over again in a way that feels completely mechanical.
Boss design, on the other hand, is all over the place. Early bosses have between one and three attacks, with some offering variations where different attacks are sometimes combined into one attack and sometimes not. For the most part, they are predictable to a fault, only presenting any level of challenge due to the speed of their attacks and the flat nature of the arenas that you fight them in.
This starts to change when you encounter the Green Wraith. While the Green Wraith only has three attacks and is similarly boring throughout the first half of the fight, especially since the adds that spawn at the beginning of the fight do not respawn later, the second half of the fight adds a welcome bit of nuance. One of his attacks is a projectile attack. The first half of the fight is spent baiting him into attacking you at just the right distance that he chooses to use the projectile attack, but is also close enough that, when you parry the projectile, you can stab him, staggering him in the process. During the second half of the fight, he sends out two projectiles in a row and then uses another attack where he jumps into the air and slams down on the location you were at when he jumped. While you will be inclined to attempt to parry both projectiles, the second one comes too soon after the first to do so, but you also don’t have enough time to jump over the first and then parry the second. It’s actually a trap wherein, if you parry the first projectile, you will get hit by the second projectile and, if you get hit by either projectile, you’re staggered just long enough to get hit by his slam attack, dealing tons of damage. To successfully walk away unscathed, you have to block the first projectile and then parry the second, which will then allow you to hit him with the stabbing attack as he slams down on you, staggering him. It’s a nice change of pace, even if only in one limited scenario.
The next boss after that, Shura, is absolutely insane, being almost entirely projectile-focused. Shura is actually where I left off for the purpose of this critique, as it took the game in a direction that I was not prepared to go. That was the moment that the game went full Souls-like, asking me to solve a disproportionate challenge, inching mere pixels of the boss’ health bar closer to victory with every attempt.
Interestingly, in addition to the challenges presented by the main story, the game offers an ever expanding set of “challenge levels” as you progress. These are exactly what they sound like: isolated levels that ask you to complete specific, more challenging encounters in exchange for varying rewards. While this isn’t unheard of on its own, the feature feels somewhat out of place due to the fact that you can access them from literally any shrine. This means that you can casually stop off at a shrine that’s placed right before a boss and play through a challenge level. I’m sure that the intention was that, if you fail a boss a few times, you can complete challenge levels to farm resources before trying again, but it doesn’t make it feel any less odd.
As it is an Early Access title, Eastern Exorcist is not the most polished game. While gameplay generally feels good, there are times when hitboxes don’t feel entirely accurate, as both the player character and enemies can be behind whoever is attacking them and still get caught up in attacks—including combos. Menus stand in stark contrast to the overall look of the game, coming off as amateurish, with various elements feeling at odds with each other. When using a gamepad, many menus, including the teleport location selection menu and the Exorcism Arts menu, only allow you to use one axis to change your selection, which makes their use incredibly awkward. It also doesn’t support 21:9 resolutions, but there has been mention of that being available at a later time.
However, the most frustrating aspect of the game right now is the English translation. Most of the translation is serviceable, but there are certain parts that are not well-translated, which is a shame because, although the story isn’t all that involved, the worldbuilding that is done through a variety of dialogue is quite good. Worse still, certain banners are simply not translated at all. This will almost certainly change with time, but it may potentially affect your enjoyment for the time being.
Despite a few shortcomings, Eastern Exorcist is already a solid 2D entry in the Souls-like subgenre. It is fast-paced, fun to play, and has an interesting world that I genuinely want to learn more about. There are some issues—including enemies feeling predictable to a fault, progression feeling a bit odd, and Exorcism Arts feeling less than balanced—but they don’t affect overall enjoyment of the game that much. Boss fights are still tense affairs that will almost certainly require multiple attempts to get through. Unfortunately, I can already tell that it isn’t going to be my thing, but those who enjoy Souls-likes should find it to be a challenge worth taking on.
|Playtime||Did we receive a press copy?||Price||Platform(s)|
|2.7 hours||Yes, from Renaissance PR||$16.99||Steam Early Access|