God created the world; the rest was made in China. In itself, this is only an exaggerated take on how much China produces but it’s slowly becoming a reality. The Chinese superpower is heavily involved in each and every industry anyone can dream of – and game development is slowly becoming bigger as well.
Eastern Exorcist, a game developed by Chinese studio Wildfire Games and published by Chinese Giants bili bili, is a gorgeous, hand-drawn 2D sidescrolling platformer set in an oriental background. You take control of Lu Yunchuan, a very capable swordsman and part of the Cangshan Sect, a group of exorcist whose task is to eliminate the demons from their homeland. The game puts you in the middle of a forest, in which you find your two sect brothers dead. These deaths are traced back to Lu Yunchuan not executing a Fox Spirit earlier, which comes back to haunt the protagonists’ brothers. Following this, Yunchuan is expelled from his sect and sent off on his way. Lu Yunchuan makes it his mission to visit the hometown of his two fallen brothers and honour them as best he can. He is also seeking to avenge his brothers by killing the one for their deaths.
Game progression is quite straightforward in Eastern Exorcist – you progress towards the right, and you have to kill all the enemies in the frame to be able to progress to the next one. You can move forwards and backwards, jump, dash and block. Perfectly timed blocks result in a parry, which nullifies the opposing attack and can result in a devastating counterattack slash. Commands are pretty basic when it comes to attacking as well as you only have one button – square, when playing with a PS4 controller. This gives you access to a 3 hit combo when pressing square, you guessed it, three times, which can then be finished with a slash, a 4th hit which can be accessed when pressing the attack button again when Yunchuan’s blade shines. Slash is available after a 3 hit combo, after a perfectly timed parry, after an aerial downward strike or after a charged strike, which only involves holding the attack button and releasing at the right time. One must time the slash accurately, as although the timing window is forgiving enough, you cannot spam to obtain it. I feel it is a neat mechanic as it rewards composed attacks instead of just spamming the attack button and expecting the game to do everything for you. Upon killing an enemy then, you need to dispel the corpse quickly, otherwise, they will turn into a tougher version of the same enemy. The undead enemies will have a bigger health bar, more defence and more attack damage too, so dispelling goons you have defeated is of utmost importance.
The game also features a stamina bar, which is consumed when doing anything in battle, except for running or jumping once. A double jump consumes a very tiny amount of stamina but when the bar is empty, it will not recover fast enough to jump twice. Stamina is restored moderately fast, but given all the actions in battle consume chunks of stamina at a time, including blocking attacks, it often feels as if the bar is just too damn small. There have been countless times where I spammed dash or attack uselessly, so stamina management must be kept in mind at all times during battle.
Eastern Exorcist also features a skill tree, where you will gradually learn 7 skills, each with their own separate skill tree. Out of these 7, I only levelled two in full as they were all I found useful in my playthrough, but depending on different play styles one may opt to level each skill slowly. You can allocate up to 4 skills to a quick-access shortcut with the right analogue stick, which can be vital when needing to switch skills in a life-or-death situation. There is no direct tutorial for skills upon unlocking these, but the skill tree will often show what the upgrade is along with how to trigger it, so there are no real worries there.
Upgrades are done by spending aura – earned by killing enemies or finding some orbs laying around the map. Aura can be used at shrines, found throughout each stage and acting as a checkpoint, to upgrade your character – a minor increase in max hp and attack damage – or from the main menu to upgrade the Exorcism arts, the skills mentioned previously. As you progress further along with the skill trees you will find that some upgrades will require some units of Aura Essence along with Aura. Aura Essence is a more concentrated form of Aura and can be found as well throughout the map. Aura Essence can also be earned in Challenge Stages, which are basically amped up boss fights. Challenge stages can also be accessed from shrines and give rewards based on completion and on the quickness of completion too.
As mentioned above, bosses can be faced again in order to earn better rewards, but one should also mention that the game has already its fair share of bosses without needing to face them again. You will find boss fights quite frequently compared to other games, and each boss fight has to be approached just like old school games; learn the attack patterns, find out what works out best and then join everything together to defeat the enemy. It may take several tries in order to figure out attack patterns, but defeating a boss feels quite rewarding, when not frustrated over the excessive amount of deaths that is. Initially, you will die quite a lot, but as you get a hang of mechanics, stamina management and skill usage, you will become a force to be reckoned with.
The user interface of the game is quite user-friendly; you have aura on the bottom right, and the current Exorcism Art is sat bottom centre. To its left is the health bar, and to the right is the stamina gauge. Eastern Exorcist uses an interesting mechanic for HP. You have a relatively small health bar, but you always have 5 health potions which heal a good chunk. These health potions are replenished at shrines, so their usage in combat is very much encouraged when HP is running low. These potions also have a few seconds of cooldown, meaning one cannot spam potions to recover 100% HP. This is important also so that pressing the hotkey twice will not result in consuming a potion twice.
As mentioned before, the game art is hand-drawn. This resulted in a gorgeous game from start to finish, and although stages and scenery are in 2D, you will still stop and admire the detail with which these were created. Although a little on the dark side, the colours of the game still bring out to life all the different characters encountered throughout, making for quite the experience when playing the story. The preview build of the game, provided generously by Renaissance PR, featured a good translation of the game, as it has been built in Chinese for obvious reasons. There were some shortcomings but we were assured that much more work was to be done in the translation department, so I am pretty confident that language will not be a problem. That said, the lore and story are perfectly understandable as is, meaning any eventual improvements will only do good to the game.
While Eastern Exorcist is incredibly fun and has A LOT going for it, there will always be some shortcomings to be noted. One such defect is that platforming is not always smooth. You fall through ledges which you should not, and aiming some jumps can be quite frustrating when you need to land on a short piece of land and keep falling through it. The skills in the game are quite good, but most of these require you to dash after activation for the skill to actually land. While a dash will not consume all of the stamina, it could result in a situation where dashing in to activate the skill might take away the ability to dash away or block, leaving yourself open to your opponent’s attacks. This is why the stamina bar feels way too small, as it is used in practically everything; attacking, blocking, dodging and activating arts. One could also consider the lack of a proper tutorial or explanation as a shortcoming of the game. While it is true that the game does not force upon the player to learn the ins and outs and potentially leaving some key information out, there is a handy tutorial section in the pause menu which is very helpful in figuring out the basics of the game.
My total gameplay time was around 17 hours, during which I amassed the beauty of 635 deaths, 91 of which were against one boss alone. These stats can be checked out from the pause menu within the game, even before completion, and it will also tell you how many times each enemy has killed you. To anyone who likes 2D platformers or hack and slash games, I sincerely cannot recommend it enough as I am sure you will love it just as much as I did. Eastern Exorcist launches on Steam today, August 14th, in early access, with an additional 20% launch discount on top, and there is also a free demo which you can download on the game’s steam page HERE.
That said, I will conclude by saying that Eastern Exorcist is one of my favourite games this year, and it has stolen time even from Ghost of Tsushima just to finish it. It is extremely addicting, and with the beautiful art to boot, this is definitely a contender for 2D game of the year. If you like 2D games, also check out the review for Dead Cells – another masterpiece of the platforming genre.