By Drew D. / September 22nd, 2020
|Release Date||August 14, 2020 (Early Access)|
|Age Rating||N/A (Teen and up suggested)|
The 2D action genre is a particular favorite of mine, due to how the openness of this genre lends itself to creativity and innovation. My previous review of the 2D action game, The Vagrant, made a lasting impression on me through its success of differentiating itself through noteworthy, innovative gameplay and a deep lore. The developers of Eastern Exorcist seem to have a similar mindset, offering an intriguing contrast to the common fast-paced, hack-and slash style of the genre and achieving a unique experience all of its own.
This first act of Eastern Exorcist follows the journeys of Lu Yunchuan, a senior disciple of the Cangshan exorcism school who, alongside three junior disciples, are tasked to locate and eliminate the King Mandrill, a fierce demon slaughtering any and all and stealing their souls. As they search, his companions capture a female fox spirit which Lu has them let go. Soon after, however, the three junior disciples are ambushed by King Mandrill, resulting in the deaths of two and the remaining receiving serious injuries. Lu returns to the Cangshan school with the surviving junior and after explaining, is expelled from the school for releasing the fox spirit and having caused his juniors’ deaths. Lu then decides to return the remains of his fallen companions to their homes. What should be a straightforward task is anything but, for Lu will encounter a country full of people and spirits who bring to Lu’s world a wealth of turmoil, danger, glimmers of joy, and bitter sorrows.
The 2D action genre is defined by its gameplay and so I can understand when story and characters aren’t as fleshed out as one would see in other genres. Having said that, I do appreciate it when attention is lent to such aspects of a game, as it helps build that connection between us players and the events unfolding, as well as promoting emotional investment into the characters and empathy for their chosen actions. However, in Eastern Exorcist, after the prologue events, we simply follow Lu Yunchuan as he becomes entangled in other people’s problems. His ultimate goals are to honor his fallen comrades and seek the King Mandrill, yet much of the game involves the resolving of other threats only loosely connected, if at all, to those two points. And so, the story plays out as if Lu becomes an errand boy needing to hunt and defeat a list of side threats along the way. It comes off as a dry series of events that only barely keeps us strung along until we go full circle and meet the King Mandrill again. The only glimmer of a deeper story lies in the attempt at deception for a twist at the end. Unfortunately, I was too apathetic at that point for it to have any impact. A handful of plot points alone does not make a story and the result is an unengaging, easily forgettable set of shallow reasons offered as to why Lu does what he does.
As for the characters, they are equally shallow. Lu is your typical strong, silent type who helps when help is needed. He is bland and predictable and I sensed zero personality from him beyond the standard, “good guy doing good because it’s a video game.” The few other major cast members are forgettable, saying the predictable bare minimum needed to progress the plot. Their lines, like Lu’s, are hollow and there is zero emotion. Worse, there is zero differentiation, as in no unique voices or personalities, in any of the lines spoken. I think it would have been an improvement if dialogue were limited to minor characters and NPCs and leaving Lu silent. These characters are simply too difficult to care for and it hurts the overall immersion.
Now despite my dissatisfaction with its narrative attempts, Eastern Exorcist impresses with its gameplay. As I said, I’m always looking to see just how developers will differentiate themselves in this genre. While The Vagrant took the route of blinding speed, adrenaline pumping action with deeper gameplay elements, the developers of Eastern Exorcist implement similarly deep gameplay, yet take a starkly different approach. Although gameplay is combat based, in Eastern Exorcist, patience, observation, and strategy will be necessary to conquer the foes of this game. Trying to brute force your way through enemies is a quick way to die. And as this game has a higher than average challenge level, it forces caution. Enemies are tough with various attacks; bosses, even more so, yet with the added challenges of their regenerating shields and HP. It will take practice, but the charms of this combat style come out once you find your pace.
As for combat itself, it is a mix of familiar and unique. There is a charged heavy strike and a combo of light strikes. Then, there is also a parry and dodge, both of which allow for a quick follow-up counter strike with the strength of a heavy strike. And, after a single light swing, if your timing is perfect, it will allow for a quick follow-up heavy strike. For all of these special, strong strikes, timing is absolutely crucial. Once an enemy’s health is depleted, you must get close and Dispel the enemy within a certain amount of time, or else it will recover with greater strength and defense. Lastly, there is a stamina meter along with your HP. When in battle, every action will deplete your stamina, forcing you to find a rhythm between attacking and pausing, or taking advantage of an Art’s unlockable attributes, to keep the meter reasonably filled. Altogether, timing and pace will make or break your success.
Along with combat are a set of skills, called Arts, that Lu learns early in his campaign. Most improve your offense by providing added means of damage, such as stronger strikes or additional strikes like the floating energy sword Art. Others may provide elemental effects, improve your defense, or even help mobility. Some may even provide a weakness against a particular boss. Each Art has its own tree in which new perks are added, from costing less Mana, to increasing duration, removing stamina costs, or adding additional strikes and/ or damage. While the number of Arts is impressive, I found some not nearly as helpful as others. Since up to four can be assigned for quick switching, I simply chose my favorites, and stuck to those after trying them all.
For its overall execution, gameplay is solid. The developers’ success in implementing this need for strategy within combat is noteworthy. It fits well with the higher challenge level, making one quick to realize that this is not your typical hack and slash. The stamina meter definitely adds additional challenge, as I couldn’t just tear through enemies or wail on a stunned boss. All of the challenge factors combined may cross into frustrating territory, particularly with bosses given their ability to regenerate their shield and HP meters, but practice and patience will win out. Also, if difficulty is too much of an issue, you can always lower the difficulty setting at any time. Finally, the general ability to level up is simple and fair and the Arts and their trees adequately enable Lu to become a force to be reckoned with if planned accordingly. Regarding Arts, I do wish the usefulness of each were better balanced, as I heavily favored the flying sword Art throughout my playthroughs, finding it the easiest and most devastating in most situations. Again, overall, gameplay is strong, if a bit slower for the genre, for its implementation and its innovation.
Outside of gameplay, I did experience a few build quality issues. For one, the game is full of instances in which the text is cut off. This is mostly seen in the text boxes that will appear during play. Within the menus, you can scroll the text, but you cannot with these in-game captions. It’s a notable issue, perhaps overlooked during the game’s translation from Chinese to English. Another, more problematic, issue I had was with the tutorial/ hint system. Text boxes will appear to help teach the aspects of play, many times as you first experience them, such as a prompt informing you of a newly acquired Art or how to use a potion when your health is low. My complaint is that these boxes would appear again, in certain instances, and would appear at the worst moments, such as during a boss fight. Prompts for using potions or for Arts that I had already been using and enhancing for some time would be triggered, interrupting a battle and worse, ruining my pacing and play flow. Other than these two issues, however, I found the build quality to be satisfactory.
Lastly, along with solid gameplay, Eastern Exorcist features some excellent aesthetics. The visuals alone are what make the game its grim, tough trek through a historic world of bleakness and danger, and the tones of this setting are achieved through its art direction. Based on Chinese ink paintings, this art style gives characters and locales their historic quality. Through the generous use of a cooler color palette, shadows, and weather effects, the in-game visuals very much instill this cold, harsh atmosphere, further enhancing the overall tones of sorrow and struggle. The cutscenes are fast and striking, invoking a Chinese drama style to make maximum impact in a short time. This is an unforgiving world in which conscience and compassion are rare and the visuals are outstanding in their conveying of this mood. My one complaint I would voice regarding the visuals is that I thought the use of 3D models, though sparing, was unnecessary. I would have preferred seeing those bosses and few other elements that were rendered in 3D drawn in the 2D style instead, as it is so impressive.
As for the audio, this I found to be a mixed bag. Although the soundtrack is a fitting one, matching with the atmosphere the visuals evoke, I didn’t find the music all too memorable. It does a satisfactory job of serving its purpose in-game, yet I found it rather unremarkable. What I am glad to have is the addition of voice acting. As the narrative fails to bring any life or individuality to its characters, the voice acting helps, if only a little. And it may not be any kind of replacement for proper character depth, but the voice acting brings some much needed life to the characters, which at this point, I’ll just take what I can get.
Eastern Exorcist thus far is equal parts impressive and flawed. I appreciate the innovation in gameplay and how solidly it’s implemented. I also praise its beautiful 2D visual aesthetics with its hand painted style. This act’s story and characters seem like an afterthought, however, and leave too much to be desired. The game so far only taked about 5-7 hours to complete, however, paired with the current price tag of 16.99USD is a tough purchase to justify. The developer’s comment that the price may increase as development continues only hurts, especially those on the fence. So as the game stands as of this publication, I would rate this a 3 out 5. Since this is an early access title with supposed new characters, new adventures, and new combat Arts to look forward to, then I would be willing to reexamine. However, the second act and any further additions must pull off much needed improvements across the board; story, characters, improvements to Arts; if I were to consider a higher score in the future. For now, Eastern Exorcist is a bundle of potential facing an uphill battle and in desperate need to prove itself.
2DActionbilibiliEarly AccessEastern Exorcisthack and slashWildfire Game无锡野火数字科技有限公司