Great. So far I’ve survived by being careful. The dungeons, infested as they are with shambling undead, are hardly likely to make their way onto any travel brochure. Despite their fearsome appearance, most of them, provided I avoided eye-contact, sudden movements, or any threatening behaviour, ignored me. True, some of them did their best to get me to join their ranks, but I’ve managed to survive (though sometimes just barely). I’ve carefully searched each room I’ve been in for clues, a key, and all important equipment: that padded vest, moth eaten and worn, may be the only thing that separates you from an early grave. I survived, I built up my courage and confidence, and now this: trapped in a corner between two stone cabinets and about to be flattened by a hulking monstrosity. I ended up in this predicament after rounding the corner and coming face-to-belly with the monster. Terrifying and fast, a paw the size of my torso caught me a blow that lifted me off the ground and flung me several meters. Battered, but not out thanks to some trusty plate armour I had found earlier, I managed to regain my feet and flee before the beast could pound me into oblivion. Catching up with me, another glancing blow sent me careering into the wall between the furniture with a wince-inducing clunk (specifically, the metal of my helmet meeting the stone-work). Lifting its huge, claw-tipped paws, the monster brought them down in a vicious hammering motion, pounding the life out of the poor fool before it. Or at least that’s what would have happened, had not the stone cabinets been in the way. Instead, it drew back its hands, and brought them down, only to find the sturdy furniture blocking it’s attack. Drawing back, it lashed out with a side-swipe that had prove so effective before. Except this time the stone walls are in the way. “I might just win this,” I thought as my dazed and bruised character regained his feet. Thus begun the strangest fight I have ever experienced in a videogame: a hulking monster trying (and occasionally succeeding) to dislodge and a hit small target wedged into a corner, and me (said target) trying to jab the beast with my sword – not the most effective move, but with the monster so close there was literally no room for anything else. Some games are light-hearted and fun. Some are grim and dark. And some like to punish people: welcome to Exanima.
Exanima is, by far, the most original isometric action-RPG/dungeon-crawler I’ve ever played. This is due in large part to its novel, physics-based combat and movement systems. More than merely cosmetic (as it is in most games), this actually has huge, and I mean huge gameplay implications. If you’re expecting to simply hit the attack button, and watch the animation play out, think again. Weapon damage is determined not only be weapon type, but where the weapon hits, what it hits, and how much force is behind the swing. Get your distance wrong, get too far away, and your blow my glance off your opponent’s armour. On the other hand, get too close, and you’ll suddenly find that wonderful two-handed axe is next to useless, as you literally have no room to build any momentum – not to mention the fact that the only part of the weapon you can hit them with is the haft. On the other hand, if you get your distance right and turn into your attack, you can land a blow which can send your foe staggering into the walls, or knock them clean off their feet. The physics behind this gives your blows true weight, and the procedural animations tied to this make for some of the most visceral combat around.
Not only is combat visceral, it’s deep. You’ve four types of basic strike, feints, counters, shields, the ability to wield two weapons simultaneously, timing, footwork, and environmental awareness. These last are vitally important. Just as backing yourself into a corner can be a life-saver if your foe has no room to maneuver, it can also be a death sentence, as can not paying attention to the clutter on the floor, which can easily trip you up. Also, be sure to pick the right weapon for the job: while it is possible to bludgeon the skeletons to death with the flat of your blade, I’d definitely recommend a mace or something similar. Then there’s a host of different armour, which not only protects against different types of attacks to varying degrees of effectiveness, but also have different coverage. A breastplate may protect on from a slash of a sword, but not if that slash is aimed just under where the metal is, or at your legs, arms or hands. That said, you’ll want to get whatever armour you can, as it is often the difference between merely getting battered instead of seriously injured, or knocked-out instead of killed.
While much has been made of how hard games like Dark Souls and Sekiro are, the best description for Exanima would be unforgiving. Combat is very definitely a skill that needs to be learned (that is, the player literally needs to learn – you either become very good, or very dead). Equipment is scarce, healing salves nearly none-existent. Unlike most action-RPG games, such as Diablo 3 where loot flies in hard and fast and often represents a small increase in stats, I found my self obsessively checking every crate, box, desk, cupboard and chest for that extra bit of padding I could wear beneath my plate armour, that better pair of gloves, a weapon which was better balanced and could be moved about with more speed.
It’s engaging, enthralling, and as hard as nails, and the physics simulation definitely changes how you approach the game (like, for instance, figuring out that if you can get the tip of your sword between the bars of the iron gate, you can stab away at the ghoul behind it with impunity), There’s quite a dedicated online following sharing tips, tricks and advice, which is a good thing as you’re likely to need every bit of help you can get, simply because the logic on which the game works is so different. Even opening a door for the first time is an interesting challenge (you click and drag in the direction it opens). Also, this is the first game I’ve ever played, where I had to get my character to strip down to his underwear in order to be able to simply run fast enough to get through a gate before the timer ran out.
Which leads me neatly to the environment. Whether dark dungeons, abandoned underground marketplaces, or dank sewers, the maze-like setting is detailed and incredibly atmospheric. Abundant furnishings litter the rooms, telling stories as to what each room’s function was, as well as the occasional insight into the previous inhabitants. Laundries, taverns, barracks, kitchens, sinister council rooms and even cobblers (complete with leather-working tools and lasts for making boots) are evident. Adding to the atmosphere is the impressive use of lighting and striking visuals, the fantastic sound effects – whether it’s your feet on paving stones or the clang a slamming door makes – and the tense, anxiety inducing music.
While there’s a lot of good here, as with anything new, there are some elements that don’t work so well. The maze-like nature of the environments can be occasionally maddening, and it’s a relief when you finally find a compass. (I have come across one map, but it’s written on paper and you have to figure out where you are using the shape of the rooms and your compass – this game doesn’t give anything away.) In particular, the camera can be difficult to control, especially during fights. Also, there’s the fact that movement, if using the WASD keys and not the mouse, is not relative to the camera. These do sometimes substantially increase the difficulty, and is quite likely to be a deal breaker for some people (getting beaten by a foe is frustrating, getting beaten because you were fighting the camera feel plain unfair). Also, very little is explained, and as a result I created several new characters (after each ignominious defeat) before realising that I could continue with my pre-existing characters, albeit from an earlier point.
The good news is that Exanima is in early access, and each update brings more improvements and content. Yes there are the occasional glitches, some points feel unfair and the controls can be a bit clunky, but even with all this I found I had sunk hours into the game without even realising. Personally, I’m looking forward to its completion, and the completion of Bare Mettle’s other game – the aptly named vast RPG Sui Generis – which employs many of the same systems (and to which Exanima forms a small prelude). Exanima is the kind of game which people will either love, or hate and if what I’ve describe sounds intriguing, then it’s probably for you. ■