An early look at an in-development title.
If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood… who ya gonna call…? A sword-wielding Chinese fighter with the power to exorcise spirits! Doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Nevertheless, our titular hero dispatches demons from the netherworld with an efficiency that Egon, Ray and the rest of the New York crew would admire.
Although bustin’ makes both parties feel good, the setting of EE couldn’t be further from Ghostbusters’ metropolitan landscape. Our exorcist plies his trade against an historical, folklorish Chinese backdrop. The 2D environments are rendered in atmospheric watercolours and combat is a mix of Vanillaware-style brawler — think Muramasa and Odin Sphere — and Soulsborne side scrollers like Blasphemous or Salt and Sanctuary.
Your avatar deals in lightning-fast sword attacks, and deploys some devastating blows based around this weapon: charge attacks, jumping strikes, aerials and more. Defensively you can block, parry and dodge and, in the case of the latter two, executing them perfectly rewards you with enhanced counter attack opportunities.
The creatures you face are a chimeric mix. You’ll be battling humanoid rhinos one minute, then aggressive little hedgehog-looking things the next. Some more classical Chinese ghouls are sprinkled in there, but the wild animal spirit mofos you’ll have seen in classic fairytale Journey to the West and its interpretations (like Monkey…remember that one?) are the standouts.
Back to the game and it’s a graphical standout. Eastern Exorcist’s shallow depth of field and layered parallax backgrounds are atmospheric and lavishly presented, and the Dark Souls-style stamina bar, and secondary weapons based on a mana upgrade system couldn’t be more in vogue. Throw in some roguelike elements and you’ve got indie game bingo.
Does that work in the game’s favour, or against it? Well, it can’t be avoided that EE is very much a product of its time, but does have some cool features that elevate it above the morass. For a start, selecting exorcist abilities is mapped to the right stick and can be switched mid-fight. Each one — the likes of a shadow duplicate, phantom swords and typhoons you can teleport through (it makes sense when you see it!) — feel like classic Castlevania. And that’s a good thing.
There’s also a neat feature where a defeated enemy’s corpse must be exorcised (with a tap of the R trigger) before a timer runs out, otherwise they come back to shambling life…and stronger. This isn’t one hundred percent unique, as it’s a little similar to Resident Evil Remake’s terrifying Crimson Head zombies, but it’s a clever wrinkle that adds a great deal of tension.
Things are still fluid in terms of the game’s design. Developer bilibili have released the game to Steam Early Access and, as proof that work’s ongoing, a significant patch addressing balance issues, difficulty and glitches dropped not long before I completed it. Before this update, the game would have had a significantly different appraisal, I won’t deny it. Thankfully, things are being progressed and bilibili seem to be listening to the beta test userbase.
I’d still like to see the parry timing window tightened up, and the characters highlighted more clearly against the background so you can better follow the action, but the feedback so far gives me confidence it’s all in-hand.
For an early access title, though, this is shaping up very well. It’s kinetic, frantic, wonderful to look at and a choice fusion of many successful ideas. Keep your eye on this mythic Eastern fantasy action game; with the right tweaks it may yet turn out to be a highlight of the genre.
N.B. If you want a couple more examples of the Journey to the West folklore being used in gaming (and aren’t sick of me referencing old stuff yet!) check out Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Capcom’s SonSon.