No matter how dramatic and exciting real exorcisms are, they're almost certainly never as thrilling as popular culture paints them up to be. There's never a climactic scene of combat between the warrior priest and the demon as it fights to keep control over its host. Instead, the priest says a few words, sprinkles some holy water on the erstwhile victim, and the process is complete. If only exorcisms could be as cool as those portrayed in Eastern Exorcist, the Church might find itself with a steady stream of new adherents. Sadly, 'tis not to be, but at least developer Wildfire Game's new 2D hack-and-slash platformer gives us a glimpse into what that world might be like.
Eastern Exorcist plays like a cross between Salt and Sanctuary and underrated Wii/Vita actioner Muramasa: The Demon Blade. At its core is a combat system based around dodging, parrying, and stamina management. You might think that sounds familiar, and indeed, there's more than a whiff of the Souls series about Eastern Exorcist. However, it does manage to carve out its own identity too, largely thanks to its unique Chinese opera-influenced aesthetics and smooth, slick animation. I took a look at the Early Access build of Exorcist to see if it can hold its own in a crowded market.
Eastern Exorcist Mirrors Classical Chinese Opera
In Eastern Exorcist, you play as Lu Yunchuan, an exorcist exiled in shame after allowing a malevolent spirit to evade capture. There is an overarching narrative involving Lu seeking revenge and closure for the events that caused his exile, but Exorcist's story feels more picaresque. It's more of a collection of individual scenarios than a cohesive through-line of storytelling. This method mirrors classical Chinese opera, but it's also influenced by Western operas like La Boheme. Eastern Exorcist manages to make the approach work; Lu is an exorcist for hire, so it stands to reason his story focuses on his day-to-day working life.
This juxtaposition between the operatic and the mundane is aided by Eastern Exorcist's gorgeous visuals. It takes inspiration from Chinese ink paintings, so landscapes are drawn with a painterly flourish. Characters, too, are expressive and colorful. The animation is a little stilted and choppy, but that gives the visuals an almost papercraft-like feel. Exorcist gives the sense that its characters are puppets in a play rather than living, breathing beings. In some ways, that works to its advantage. Lu's tale is one of classical mythology, taking in demons from Eastern folklore like shura and vengeful ghosts. Presenting it as an almost self-conscious tale feels right.
Combat Is Sharp And Skilful In Eastern Exorcist
Eastern Exorcist's combat is sharp, crisp, and skilful. Lu has an arsenal of blocks, dodges, and parries with which he must battle an army of varied demonic enemies. It's in the combat that Eastern Exorcist most resembles Dark Souls, or perhaps its samurai-themed cousin Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Bosses even have "shield meters" that must be depleted if you want to deal actual damage to them, in a system which mirrors Sekiro's deathblow mechanic. The overall swordfighting feel is closer to Sekiro's, too, in that it's quick and based largely on parrying and dodging rather than shields or blocking.
Moment-to-moment grunt encounters are enjoyable and well-crafted, but the bosses are where Eastern Exorcist truly shines. The shield meter is an ingenious twist on the formula, forcing you to push your advantage if you want to prevail. Some bosses recover shield meters quickly, encouraging you to play aggressively. Others will sustain shield damage but attack from a distance, resulting in a more careful, tactical style of play. In this way, it feels like Exorcist is squeezing every drop of potential from its combat in each boss encounter. The major boss encounters are varied, interesting, and immensely rewarding. It'll be exciting to see how Eastern Exorcist manages to iterate on this combat as time goes on.
Eastern Exorcist Is A Little Too Linear
Not every Souls-like 2D platformer has to be a Metroidvania. There's something to be said for a game focusing on its core strengths rather than trying to cater to all tastes. If you view Eastern Exorcist as a disconnected series of combat arenas rather than a holistic game, it works. Unfortunately, the hand on the reins is just a little too strong right now. Every single objective is spelled out in no uncertain terms, with "helpful" minimap markers and in-game icons showing you exactly where to go. Linearity is not a dirty word, but there's linearity and then there's the feeling of being dragged along a track without any agency.
Tutorials, too, are just a touch too intrusive. I had the same parry, dodge, and counter tutorials appear multiple times in different locations. Eastern Exorcist needn't be so afraid its players won't grasp the fundamentals of its combat. The engine Wildfire has built is responsive and energetic. It encourages experimentation and rewards careful swordsmanship. There's just no need to explain it so overenthusiastically. Eastern Exorcist needs to stop helicopter parenting its players and let them figure things out for themselves, because the deep, well-crafted combat has plenty to discover. If Wildfire can trust its players a little more, Eastern Exorcist will benefit from feeling that much more organic.
Eastern Exorcist Is Bursting With Promise
Although the Early Access build feels a little rough around the edges, Eastern Exorcist is absolutely bursting with promise. Its visuals are inspired and sumptuous, ranging from moody Chinese villages through to wind-blasted mountain peaks and deep, dark forests. The enemies that populate these areas are varied and interesting, and a lot of thought has been put into how to team them up for maximum devastating impact. Even late into Exorcist's running time, I was still encountering new enemies and new combinations of enemies. It's not a long game right now, but it squeezes a lot of enjoyment out of its relative brevity.
At the moment, the lack of polish does detract from the experience somewhat. Some dialogue flat-out hasn't been translated from Chinese, and nor have some cutscenes, which can lead to crucial holes in the narrative. Eastern Exorcist is a pretty linear game, as we've established, so it doesn't matter too much if you miss something. Your next direction is always clear. Still, when there are gaps that big in the story, it can be hard to identify with Lu's quest. If Wildfire can clean up some of the loose ends here and improve the rather plain heads-up display, Eastern Exorcist will be special indeed.
TechRaptor previewed Eastern Exorcist on PC via Steam Early Access using a code provided by the publisher.