Eastern Exorcist is a side-scroller with a few early access kinks but lots of potential. It boasts gorgeous visuals, exhilarating combat, and great storytelling.
Eastern Exorcist is a side-scrolling action RPG that pits a sword-swinging demon slayer against the bizarre supernatural creatures that haunt the many realms of fantasy China. The setting alone distinguishes it from other challenging side-scrolling titles, such as Blasphemous or Dead Cells, though there is more to Eastern Exorcist than just the locale. Eastern Exorcist is brutally unforgiving to play, perhaps to its detriment, but there is a fascinating combat system to enjoy, with a focus on precise timing for virtually every action you take. What’s more, there is a shockingly engrossing story to watch unfold. It is currently in early access, but if you’re up for a tough action game you want to keep this PC game on your wish list.
Big Trouble in Fantasy China
Eastern Exorcist puts you in the shoes of Lu Yunchuan, a no-nonsense demon slayer on the hunt with his fellow exorcists. They target a fiend called King Mandrill, a being who is terrorizing the countryside leading an army of lesser demons. Things go south very quickly as a result of Lu’s mercy. His brothers are slain, and he is ultimately exiled from the academy due to his failures. Not one to take a loss lying down, Lu swears to find and kill the King Mandrill in spite of his exile.
Lu Yunchuan is a quiet, sensible protagonist. One can glean that he is vastly knowledgeable about the specters and demons he encounters by what he says to NPCs, though he is fairly straightforward and to-the-point in all of his interactions. He lacks the sarcasm and wit of Witcher’s Geralt and the zany antics of Dante or Nero from Devil May Cry, but his straight-edged attitude is a welcome pillar of sanity in the surprisingly bleak world of Eastern Exorcist.
Eastern Exorcist is not a pleasant fantasy RPG by any stretch of the imagination. The story is shockingly cruel, which is why it is also so fascinating. What starts off as a simple demon-slaying revenge romp quickly transforms into a series of mini stories, each of which tells the tale of greedy or stupid people perpetuating sins that eventually become their undoing. In one such chapter, Lu ventures to a miasma-riddled town, where he learns that people go missing periodically to the surprise or care of no one in the village. After venturing through the mist-drenched forests and slaying the demons haunting the region, Lu learns that the miasma is born from the hatred and malice of the elderly in the village, who were crippled and abandoned on the mountain to die during a particularly bad famine. Those elders, now ghostly wraiths, poison the village every year if they are not given a human sacrifice maimed and left to die in the same way they were. The side-stories in the Witcher games are some of my favorites in an RPG, and I find that unraveling the truth behind each of the stories in Eastern Exorcist just as engrossing. I hope there are many more of these chapters as the game continues to develop.
Action in Eastern Exorcist is beefy despite its simple controls and 2D presentation. You have a basic melee combo at all times, and a single-strike aerial attack. You can block incoming attacks and projectiles, or you can evade them with a dash. The first little wrinkle in the combat paradigm comes in the form of the parry. When you use it with good timing, you deflect the incoming attack and launch a potent riposte. You can also use it to reflect projectile attacks. As you experiment with the combat you come to learn that many actions utilize this parry-like timing window for added effects. Dodging just before an attack lands lets you perform a lunging counterattack. Tapping attack rhythmically before the final blow in a combo powers it up. Tapping attack after charging an attack, with good timing, performs a follow up finisher. All of these little flourishes have a radical impact on how you play the game, and Eastern Exorcist expects you to have a good grasp of these systems once you start the game proper.
The greatest hurdle players must overcome is stamina management. Those rhythmic attacks and follow-ups serve not only as combo extensions, but also as stamina-restoring abilities. Without stamina, you are left vulnerable, with no means of defending or attacking. Using techniques like the parry or counterattack restore stamina instantly, but they also severely punish mistimed inputs, so a fight can go from great to disastrous with only a few missed parries. There is some fairness to the system. When you’re out of stamina, you can still move or parry incoming attacks, but dodging, blocking, or attacking are unavailable until you regenerate a smidge of stamina. The stamina system feels a touch too restrictive during hectic fights, however. Perhaps a good compromise would be to weaken your attacks when stamina is depleted, rather than rendering you unable to attack at all.
Eastern Exorcist does very little hand-holding after the tutorial, and even there it doesn’t pull any punches. Everything, from the insignificant Rat-Fiend to the hulking Snow Ape hits like a truck, and there are no crutches to lean on while you master the combat system. Fortunately, the demons you face have relatively limited move sets with only two or three attacks to recognize, so using your tools to turn the tables is not too difficult. Bosses have larger move lists, but they also fight in patterns, so learning what move to counter and when is generally the key to victory, assuming your timing is good enough.
The system does have its share of flaws, however, particularly when it comes to projectile attacks. All too often, Eastern Exorcist over uses missile-lobbing foes to ramp up the challenge, which cheapens some fights. The four-armed Green Wraith for example, rushes you down with punches and geyser attacks. It’s tough but manageable on its own, but your first encounter with it sees the beast paired with two weeping ghosts, who pelt you with magical fireballs throughout the fight unless dispatched quickly. Focusing on one threat leaves you open to the other, leading to some frustrating failures until you work out a game plan. There are a handful of bosses and arena fights like this, which are harder than they need to be. The balance of the game needs some fine-tuning as a result. Some bosses, like the projectile heavy ghost of Chu, or the Three-faced Rakshasa, are brutally difficult. Others, like the Hundred-armed Demon or the Dragon God, can be cleared in a single try despite appearing later in the game.
Eastern Exorcist has light RPG elements, including a leveling system that grants minuscule stat gains with earned XP and a spell-leveling system. You unlock spells as you interact with NPCs and make progress in the story, and these all have unique effects that can enhance your play style. One lets you summon phantom swords that fire at the nearest target. Another lowers your HP to critical but radically boost your attack in exchange. Yet another powers up your combos when the mana gauge is at max for a limited time. All spells have fascinating effects that give you passive boosts when not directly active as well. For example, the phantom sword spell accumulates energy stacks as you attack, letting you automatically fire weaker swords whenever you dodge or parry. The system compliments the melee combat extremely well by not offering too strong a spell effect on its own, and offering bonuses that encourage efficient play.
Stylish and Artsy
Eastern Exorcist uses a painterly art style that is very unique as far as side-scrollers go. The visuals lack the clean, anime-esque look of Vanillaware’s beat-em ups, instead opting for something exaggerated yet gritty, which better suits the grim atmosphere of the game. Character animations are extremely fluid for the most part, with Lu’s attacks transitioning smoothly into one another. Enemies are a touch stiffer, however, with many enemies and bosses seemingly canceling into attacks or movement in a way that looks choppy at times. It’s not too egregious, but it can look cheap whenever you notice it. The soundtrack is very atmospheric, but it lacks any memorable tunes. The boss fight music in particular gets very repetitive. Some catchier music won’t go amiss in future updates.
Can My PC Play Eastern Exorcist?
Eastern Exorcist performs fantastically well on a desktop computer with an Nvidia GTX 970 GPU and Ryzen 5 3600 CPU at 1080p, hitting a solid 120 FPS during gameplay, with dips only during loading screens. To play the game requires at least 64bit Windows, 4GB of RAM, an Intel i3 or better CPU, and an Nvidia GTX 750. For a more optimal experience, you should have an Intel i5 or better CPU, 8GB or RAM, and an Nvidia GTX 950 GPU. Despite its early access status, Eastern Exorcist features full controller support, Steam Achievements, and Steam Cloud support.
Keep an Eye on This Side-Scrolling Slayer
Eastern Exorcist is a great side-scrolling romp with a surprisingly high skill ceiling and some fantastic visuals to boot. There are a few kinks and balance issues that need to be addressed, but it’s clear that there is still a lot to come as developer Wildfire continues to support the game going forward. For those who love side-scrollers and old-school challenge, Eastern Exorcist should definitely be on your radar in the coming months.
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