Exanima Review Early Access: Physics-Based Dark Souls
Imagine being dropped into a dark cold dungeon, surrounded by pitch darkness, waking up with no memory, and the only things you have to accompany you are the clothes you’re wearing, a nearby torch emitting a dim orange light, and the last page of a letter with a cryptic message. But with all of this mystery and uncertainty that you might face while looking at the large wooden door in the starting room, a door that may get you out of this nightmare, or lead you deeper into a dungeon filled with perils, only one question comes to mind: “how the heck do I open this door?”
Exanima by Bare Mettle Entertainment is a physics-based Isometric RPG set in a low fantasy setting and has one of the most brutal combat systems that I’ve ever encountered in a game. This game is unforgiving, and it will beat you down over and over again for a long time before you even get a decent fighting chance. It’s about taking the time to learn the controls and master them slowly and surely until you’re an excellent fighter, or raising your perception to notice every single special item or detail that a puzzle might hide. But even then, you’ve got a whole dangerous dungeon to explore, filled with undead fighters and traps, and some loot, as well as bits and pieces of story you need to gather and piece together on your own to understand how did you get there in the first place- and how to get out alive.
Let’s start with combat: the whole game is physics based, especially the combat. You have four attack directions: right swing, left swing, stab, and overhead. Sounds straightforward enough, but the button you click is only the beginning – because the rest of the blow relies on the physics engine. You actually attack by holding the mouse button down and swing your mouse across the screen to gather momentum and land a more powerful hit or execute a devastating overhead attack by double clicking and crouching at the same time, and you can also stab by holding down ALT and attacking. All of this could be mixed into a series of successful hits that could only be accomplished by incorporating footwork, timing the arm swing animation with the attack, and even the weight and balance of the weapon.
Until you can actually fight with confidence, there’s also the option of avoiding enemies. Not stealth, more like: “I don’t want any trouble” mentality. See, in this game, while you walk in a mysterious dungeon filled with zombies armed from candlesticks to actual weapons, they mostly mind their own business. Each enemy has a programmed set of AI behaviors that are unique to them. One zombie could attack you on sight or if you step too close to it, another might stare at you but remain docile until you run or lift your weapon. One could even take a single hit from you and attack only if you hit it again. Some zombies stay and fight you until the end, and some run away. I even got lucky one time when I fought a zombie, and it somehow hit another zombie from around the corner, and they both fought while I ran away.
The AI for the zombies in the main game is not randomly generated: after a few runs there are even some zombies I recognized and knew what to expect of them. Same for the dungeon itself- it’s not randomly generated. But there is one randomly generated element in play I noticed- the loot. Weapons, armor, and random not-plot-specific items could appear in every single container in the game. So every run you would search any container you know because it will not spawn somewhere else, while the contents will be different. (But I don’t guarantee better loot than your previous runs). This doesn’t include items on weapon racks or on the ground- they’re always in the same spot.
The stats of each equipable item are also quite important: each weapon has a specific type of damage it could cause. For instance, edged weapons, like swords or daggers, have lower impact damage but higher pierce and slash. Blunt weapons usually have higher impact and crush damage but really low balance (which affects the weapon’s speed and how well your character handles it). Even less conventional weapons like hooked polearms have unique stats, so every weapon you select will reflect your playstyle. You could go duel-wielding daggers and land quick slashes and jabs before your opponent could react, or walk around with a sledgehammer and crush some ribs. Or mix multiple playstyles. This damaged system makes armor stats equally important: just like the weapons, armors have the same stats only they defend against crush, pierce, etc.
Unlike weapons, you can stack layers armor over to neglect as much damage as possible and leave the least amount of limbs exposed with the coverage stat, while you may not want too many layers to not let Encumbrance hamper your overall speed and maneuverability. The health bar has two layers of color to represent damage. Yellow– you’re hurt but it will regenerate. If you are defeated in combat, you will simply faint, drop your weapons, and wake up in the same spot. Red- you’re severely injured and it will not regenerate without a health potion (which is probably the most scarce item in the game). If you are defeated in combat, you’ll die and start from scratch (unless you’ve reached a checkpoint).
Graphics and Sound
The graphics are quite good. Texture-work is ok, and the color pallet of the artstyle is pretty dull with gray and brown colors (but fitting the whole dungeon scenario). However what really stands out graphically is the fantastic lighting engine: It’s intense and adds to the atmosphere while you’re walking carefully through a dark and dreary dungeon with dim environment lights at best, and shadows dancing around your torch dramatically. The lighting is so detailed that I even dropped my torch one time to mess with the lighting, and I noticed for the first time that the cobblestone floor of the dungeon is uneven and little spots of shadows riddled the floor all around me. It’s very impressive.
As for the sound design, the weapons and armor have really impressive almost life-like sounds! Not just metallic clanks when two swords collide, or when you hit someone in a well-aimed crush to the shoulder with a blunt weapon and you almost wince in pain when you hear the meaty crunch, but also the really small, seemingly insignificant sounds that show how much attention to detail this game received. Like when your sword scratches the wall or floor and you hear the metal tip of it scraping the stone, hearing the small flaming swoosh when you swing a torch around, or when you slowly open a door in a large open room and you hear the creaking hinges echo from the stone walls just enough for you to hear it, but subtle enough to be delicate and not disturb the uneasy silence.
The soundtrack is also well made. It has that eerie ambience of the dungeon in place while it enforces the Low/Dark fantasy theme with subtle lutes and percussion. And when you’re fighting in the arena mode, you have an orchestral battle music playing and making the fighting much more intense. The only problem is that the soundtrack lacks variety, with very few music tracks for each dungeon/arena location…
Gameplay - 10/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 8.3/10
Though not perfect in any way and far from finished, Exanima is a fantastic experience. It makes you feel hopeless in the main game, trodding through a huge dark labyrinth of a mysterious dungeon, careful not to alert enemies most of the time and avoiding traps, with curiosity fueling your journey from the start and an excellent, unpredictable physics based combat system that will never get old as it allows you to be creative- besides the combat itself, you can manipulate objects in the world like putting a bucket on your head for extra protection or lining up a row of chairs as a trap you lure an enemy into, making them vulnerable to an attack as they trample over the objects.
The NPC's feel like human players who make human mistakes. But if the main game doesn't interest you, I say that the Arena mode that was added recently is also great if you want just the combat without the story. Arena mode lets you manage fighters, enter different types of matches, and acquire better weapons and armor along the way. The game will take time to master, but once you do, it will feel very satisfying. Exanima does not hold your hand, it's hard and frustrating with every mistake you do. Combat or a puzzle, you're on your own. It took me a few tries to get into the game, and I'm very glad I didn't give up. Because in the end, Exanima is a game I keep coming to back just to discover more of this peculiar world or feel like a badass combatant in the Arena.
Right now the game is in Beta stages in its Early Access development, and I'd love to see more features like multiplayer/coop. If all this didn't convince you to try a truly different game for $14.99, you might want to keep an eye out and watch for any developments or discounts, because I see great potential here. However if harsh games like Dark Souls make you cry at night, you might want to clear out of the way of this one...
Benny Gurov6 Posts
Pencil/Pen/Painter, Pixel Artist, Amateur Writer, Banjo player, and Game Reviewer (of course).