Eastern Exorcist reminds me of a 2-D, side-scrolling Sekiro (except rooted in Chinese folklore). The game is defined by intuitive, fluid controls and an absurdly steep difficulty curve. Actually, at first, I was rather disappointed by how easy the game was, until I hit about the 3rd or 4th boss and was repeatedly humbled. This is where the comparison to Sekiro becomes most apt. Both of these games are characterized by more or less playing on cruise control until you hit a boss, where you then wish you had three hands rather than two.
You begin the game as Lu Yunchuan, an exorcist tasked with destroying and dispelling evil spirits. After a few battles meant to introduce the controls of Eastern Exorcist, you come across a band of your disciples. Predictably, they are killed, and you begin to seek out revenge on the evil spirits who committed this atrocity. The story flows forth from there (with bold twists and turns). You travel from place to place and encounter scores of interesting characters and quests along the way. The overarching narrative is nothing to write home about, but the people you meet feel quirky and alive. The usual suspects are all there: the typical hero-turned-town-drunk, the wise old council member, and many more tried and true archetypes.
But, really, the story plays second fiddle to the combat in Eastern Exorcist. The developers clearly put in work to keep the game feeling tight and responsive the entire time. They managed to strike a beautiful balance between the mechanics and the difficulty. If the game was too easy, a player could simply hack his way through with basic attacks and minimal effort. Here, though, you better cuddle up close to those parry and dodge buttons, or else you’re in for a world of hurt. They could have given us a brainless hack-and-slash, but they didn’t. You truly have to stay engaged in this game, especially during boss fights. You won’t get far by simply mashing your way through the game; you’ll eventually hit a wall where you will be forced to brush up on your skills.
Speaking of skills, the game presents a skill tree in the form of Exorcism Arts. These are abilities that you slowly accrue throughout the game. Within each of these arts, is a skill tree that offers upgrades. For example, under the Shadow Spell ability, which summons a clone to fight alongside you, the skill tree offers bonuses such as an attack boost while the clone is active. It’s a fairly simplistic system that most gamers will be familiar with, but it’s also integral to progressing through the game. You’re going to want to carefully invest every skill point you can find. These arts are your only reprieve against the difficulty of the boss fights.
The soundtrack is an oft overlooked aspect of a game, but Eastern Exorcist does it right. The main theme—which accompanies most of the downtime in the game—is a simple, plodding, piece that is beautifully done. It’s encapsulates the mysterious, spooky vibe of the setting. In addition, the combat music is perfectly engaging without being over the top. It’s a true testament to the sound designer’s skill when you barely notice the music, but when you do, you enjoy it. Here, it’s unobtrusive yet oh so enjoyable.
If there is one member on the team who receives even less praise than the sound designer, it is the translator. But it has to be said for Eastern Exorcist, that whoever translated this game did a tremendous job. The writing is tight. Though you see it occasionally—especially in the skills and menu navigation—there are very few mistakes. I know this seems almost ridiculous to throw so much praise at, but it was key to keeping me immersed in the narrative.
By way of improvement, I’d like to see a greater diversity in the enemies you encounter. I’ve actually pulled up the in-game log, and there appears to be 47 different types of monsters (including bosses), but I’ve only encountered maybe a third of that and I’m fairly deep in. There are lots of repetitive encounters early on. It’s a shame because the monsters are so interesting and distinctive. There are plenty of concepts here that I’ve never seen in another game. A particular favourite of mine is the “Hair Feeder,” which is a horrifying blueish ghoul that apparently prefers to feed on human hair. It’s not necessarily that Eastern Exorcist lacks a diversity in their enemies, but they take too long to introduce them to you. It would be nice to see them spread throughout your playthrough.
Eastern Exorcist is a game that continues to surprise you. When I thought it was easy, it humbled me. When I felt the story was growing stale, I was thrown for a loop. I was constantly changing my perception of the game. But, be warned before you buy: this game is hard. And, in that regard, it makes no apologies. You will constantly be challenged. The reward is that you get to progress through a game that is fun, imaginative, and couched in a setting that has not already been done to death.