‘Exanima’ Offers One Of The Deepest And Most Unintentionally Hilarious Combat Systems YetFiled inside: Games
Get familiar with the cold, unforgiving taste of the stone floor as you attempt to play through Exanima, a physics-based dungeon crawler by Bare Mettle Studios.
Dungeon crawling roguelikes are becoming more and more ubiquitous, and a cursory glance at a simple screenshot wouldn’t offer much to separate Exanima from the rest of the herd—once you get a taste of the game in motion, however, you’ll find the game offers an intriguingly “deep” combat system, driven almost entirely by physics.
I put “deep” in quotes because the combat will—for many players—likely not progress past some wild flailing and inevitable doom. I was able to speak to the developers before I started playing the game, and they warned me that I should spend several hours familiarizing myself with the controls and combat systems before I even attempted to make progress through the game at all, the mechanics are that intense.
I guffawed to myself quietly after reading that email. As the game installed, I prepared myself for my inevitable initial stumbles, followed by my rampaging through my foes in an unending cacophony of violence and entrails. Unsurprisingly, my hubris was punished with relish, as I spent twenty minutes stumbling around the first room, pulled open the door wielding a large 2×4 and a bucket lid as a shield, found another denizen of the dark, and was unceremoniously put down as I worthlessly slapped my foe with a block of wood.
So instead, I did my research, determined to become the embodiment of death I had originally set out to be. As it turns out, it takes a phenomenal amount of not only skill, but practice to even consider yourself viable in the world of Exanima. The game is a surprisingly complicated machine—a marriage of threatening combat, dark exploration, and intentionally vague storytelling, all of which necessitates true dedication and effort for successful use. As such, take fair warning: the game is hard. Really, really hard.
I mean that in many ways, and keep in mind, the game is still evolving (still in Early Access), and in the end is only meant as a precursor to Bare Mettle’s Kickstarted title Sui Generis. The game does have a tutorial, and while it does help you to learn how to manage your inventory, manipulate your environment, and conduct basic combat maneuvers, you will be unprepared for what comes at you.
It’s hard to say whether this is a fault or a virtue of the game. I relish the challenge of really learning how to navigate a unique system like Exanima‘s, but from the outside, the systems can seem janky and poorly designed—high barriers of entry for players that are unprepared. The game has two distinct modes of interaction: exploration and combat. While exploring, movement is generally handled by mouse: clicking and holding will shuffle your avatar in the chosen direction, the further the cursor, the faster you move. Clicking and holding on various objects in your surroundings will allow you to shift the items around, clearing paths of treacherous terrain, removing barricades on doors, or revealing hidden items.
While this is often relegated to non-threatened moments, skilled players can actually use the environment to their advantage in combat—creating obstacles for enemies to navigate on-the-fly, limiting their range of motion, or attempting to trip them as you inevitably flee form encounters beyond your depth.
Somewhat problematically, however, these elements can be confusing. There aren’t many indicators as to whether or not an object can actually be manipulated, and it feels like the detection on the click and hold is spotty—the game has some trouble actually identifying what object you’re actually trying to interact with, for instance. The game’s insistence on using these physics for even basic interactions is admirable, however: there’s a nice weight to pulling open large doors, or finding a decent piece of equipment beneath an overturned table.
But that also finds some issues within the game’s controls, which is another area of contention—the game’s mechanics demand a very specific kind of control system, and the game’s theme suit the somewhat awkward key layouts. Exploration uses the cursor for movement, but the game would do fine with a basic WASD setup. This becomes particularly pronounced when you hit TAB and enter combat mode.
In combat mode, your character focuses exclusively on your cursor, and movement becomes relegated to the WASD keys, but is relative to your facing, not to the camera. Add to that that your cursor becomes a necessary part of how you conduct your attacks, and it becomes easy to lose track of your facing and accidentally shift closer to your enemy, rather than dance out of range. One could argue that this emulates the chaotic nature of combat, but it can become frustrating rather quickly.
The salvation is in the bread and butter of combat. Much like the way that For Honor managed to make combat feel personal, Exanima manages to make every encounter focused and dangerous—underestimating any enemy can, and will, result in your demise. Lots of games expound on their physics engines, but few leverage those systems so intensely for their combat—here, Exanima stands out.
The system has evolved far beyond pressing a button to swing a weapon, in order to deal X amount of damage to your enemy. Rather, each weapon has a variety of characteristics that affect the type of damage dealt (edged, blunt, piercing), weapons might be very heavy (swing slowly, more impact, higher knockdown), have different weight distributions or lethal hitzones (an axe vs. a sword, for instance). More than that, you need to manage the physics of your swings by using yours and your enemy’s momentum to deal as much damage as possible.
Pressing and holding the left mouse button will initiate a series of back and forth swings, but you can enhance your effectiveness by swinging your cursor over your character’s shoulder to widen the swing (longer recovery, difficult to maintain your facing, more damage, faster swing), or swing over the opposite shoulder to dictate swing around a foe’s defenses. Double-clicking and holding will unleash a powerful but slow overhead swing, good for executing downed enemies or attempting to crumple them with a heavy weapon.
It’s a recipe for disaster to swing your weapon needlessly. So long as your character isn’t actively engaged in an animation, they’ll defend themselves automatically, making combat a dramatic exchange of clashing blades and shields. The key to success is managing your distance from your enemy, dancing out of their range and capitalizing on openings. Your foes aren’t slouches, and don’t suffer from Footsoldier Syndrome either. One enemy is dangerous, two is practically impossible—three is a swift and guaranteed death.
This also means that mitigating damage becomes an art. Can’t get out of range? Cancel the force of an enemy’s swing by stepping close so they hit you with the base of their weapon. Step in the same direction of the swing and it’s more likely to glance. There’s an insane amount of nuance in the combat that can take hours to reach any sort of basic proficiency in. My best performance resulted in three kills before I was unceremoniously murdered by a pipe-wielding rival. It’s a system that should be experienced by any action game aficionado. Thought Dark Souls was tough? This is a whole new level of difficulty.
There is a story to be found in the game, but it must be actively sought and remains extensively vague. The game’s difficulty similarly has prevented me from making significant progress in this regard, so I can’t really tell you if it’s good or not, nor can I give you many details at all. Due to this, the game does feel like a super-fancy tech demo to showcase the systems and let players get familiar before Sui Generis hits.
The devs have talked at length about the game’s animation system and how the characters are driven by a realistic set of muscle contractions. While that is all admirable, the game does tend to feel as though the characters are just a bunch of drunk vagrants trying to kill each other with improvised weapons. The most recent update did add some stability to the process, reducing character lean and making it more difficult to fall over random objects on the ground—but I’ve still gotten my weapons stuck inside doors and rendered myself unable to stand, and my shuffles and dodges in combat look more like my character had a few shots of whiskey before trying to kill someone with an iron stake.
Still, the game’s use of dynamic lighting and cumbersome, but not completely janked interface complement the lack of context and horrifyingly difficult combat to create a dark atmosphere that is surprisingly effective. It’s a difficult game to marathon, but is intriguing enough that it might merit your attention. These are developers that are offering something that others would often shy away from, something that should be supported.
The game is still in Early Access on Steam for $14.99, My biggest worry is that the game hasn’t seen an update since late May, but seeing as Sui Generis was successfully funded on Kickstarter, it’s entirely possible that the devs are more focused on that than furthering the cause of their precursor chapter. Have a look below and see if it tickles you.