Each week Marsh Davies lurches drunkenly through the dank cloisters of Early Access and brings back any stories he can find and/or spasms like a misfiring physics object caught in a doorway. This week he wobbles and flails in the low-fantasy RPG Exanima, a smaller standalone “prelude” to the Kickstarted open world game Sui Generis.
Exanima isn’t like other RPGs, the Steam store page tells you with some insistence. It’s true for several reasons, but the most obvious is its fully physics-modelled combat which renders close quarters engagements as tense, tactical affairs conducted between two or more appallingly drunk people. Every collision has a physical effect, as subtle or extreme as the speed with which it occurs, and so combat is about caution and timing, dodging incoming swings and finding the time to wind up, directing your weapon in a sweep to connect with your opponent’s most vital areas with the most momentum possible. At least, it’s about these things inasmuch as these things are even possible while piloting someone with a near-lethal blood-alcohol level.
Don’t misunderstand - I like the combat a lot. I like the exact match between the observable impact of a blow and the damage that it does, and I love the circumspection that the sluggish control brings. This said, it isn’t always a good a match for the player’s intent, no more than Gang Beasts’ physics-modelled brawls between jelly-baby-men is an exact martial art. In articulating this cumbersome form you feel like a puppeteer rather than a protagonist, and there are kinks and contradictions to the control scheme which can easily and abruptly end your life without much feeling of culpability in that failure. This, combined with the fact that there is no save system whatsoever, makes for a tough game, something for which the devs are unapologetic and which has encouraged a good deal of cock-waving among early adopting Steam reviewers. (That’s figurative cock-waving, by the way, not physics-enabled - though given that the character creator is unabashed about the existence of female nipples, maybe we can hope to see windmilling in a later patch.)
Anyway, given that the game is so uncompromising, I confess that I’ve barely made a dent in it. There are currently three large levels to explore, according to the dev, which will eventually serve as an introduction to another much larger, more open area, as yet unreleased, containing the majority of the game’s content. There’s already a separate arena mode, too, in which players can hone their half-cut combat skills. I should probably spend more time there; my woeful attempts at the main game haven’t seen me get much further than the selection of gloomy corridors in which my character awakes. There is a story here, seeded in the environment, but few more elaborate interactions with the world than permitted by the capricious combat system. Character progression is still a feature in development, along with dialogue. What I’ve experienced feels like the bare bones, but even so, Exanima has got its hooks in me, its austere setting and formidable fighting system creating scenes of farce and fear in equal measure.
My unnamed character awakes facedown in a grim stone room, lit only by a single burning torch which lies feet from her body. I have chosen an avatar who is a short-arse like myself, but, as I stagger upright, it occurs to me that this is possibly a non-trivial nerf in a physics simulation - just as it is in real life (excepting the field of plane travel, in which I and my burrow-dwelling kind remain distinctly advantaged). Can I run as fast as the big boys? My individual footfalls appear to have significant repercussions to my movement, as I discover when I snag an upturned cart with my ankle and fold over myself like a broken Slinky. Will I be able to swing as far in combat with my tiny, feeble arms? I guess I’ll find out. But, given that it’s easy to scrape an elbow along a wall and stumble to a stand-still, perhaps having a sleek form factor does have its advantages in dungeoneering. Score one for the little folk!
Movement is primarily controlled by the mouse. You click and hold; depending how far away you cursor is, the faster your character will move in a line towards that point, which you can then drag around to modify the speed or direction (or hold shift to sprint permanently). This is a surprisingly tricky system to manipulate under pressure, wobbling boozily through physics-enabled detritus, even more so because the camera will begin to slew of its own volition as you move.
You can click and drag nearby objects too, manipulating them. I discover a good first use of this is opening the door to the chamber in which I’ve awoken. I poke around the adjoining corridors and boxy store-rooms, but find no weapons - which is why, when I open one door to a long, brightly backlit corridor and see a shadow loom larger and larger, I immediately slam it closed. The corridor blinks out of sight and whatever thing was marching down it remains sealed within. It seems these enemies don’t do door handles, luckily. I try a different route, ending in a room with a number of workbenches, and find a weapon only when I bump right into it, or rather the bench it is on, sending myself and the machete tumbling to the floor. The game doesn’t give you any help spotting stuff within the environment - you just have to be eagle-eyed, which I rather like, even if it’s not always clear which objects have interactive purpose and which don’t.
Now equipped for battle, I begin to explore more boldly, encountering a gormless looking fellow stalking back and forth across a room of heavy pillars. He doesn’t seem immediately aggressive, so I don’t push my luck, instead choosing to shut him in a store room. Others aren’t quite as amiably stupid: there’s a duo in the adjacent room, one holding a footlong bit of piping and the other a carpentry hammer. Pipe-dude stands inert by a wall, but hammer-lady gives me the stink-eye, turning to face me as I enter the room. We remain still for a moment while I wonder if I can make friends with her. She screams and launches toward me, thrashing at the air with her hammer. I guess not. I back away and hastily drag-dash my way around her, pulling my character in a stumbling arc down to an open space near the bottom of the screen, where I have enough time to engage combat mode.
In combat mode the controls reconfigure so that you can click and swing your weapon - your cursor movement aiding the direction of your blow, the length of the click dictating your commitment to the motion. You can also use WASD to move relative to your cursor point, which is vital for dodging incoming attacks. These two systems seem to me in direct contradiction. You want to be able to keep your cursor fixed, so that the directions WASD references aren’t in constant flux. And yet, combat requires you to swing your cursor back and forth. This may recreate some of the probable disorientation I would feel if I were actually attacked by a hammer-wielding maniac in a dungeon, but the specific confusion feels weird. I’ve never forgotten which way was left because I wanted to punch someone.
There are also specific moves, too: a powerful overhead swing is articulated through double-click and hold, and the development schedule says short sharp thrusts will also be jimmied into the combat system at a later date. I’m not sure all these things work neatly together in concert, but it nonetheless produces a deep system which can be mastered to produce actions of subtle expression - dodging past an enemy while delivering a sweeping blow to their back feels all the more triumphant for being wrought from a complex interplay of separate nuanced inputs, rather than a single button press. I’m not reliably at that stage yet, though: here I use A and D to strafe around hammer-woman as she tires herself out, before dodging in with a doubletap of W and hacking about her neck and shoulders. Each hit sends the hapless creature pivoting about, unable to regain her balance to counter-attack. Eventually, she slumps to the ground. Booyah! Who’s got a low centre of gravity now, dickhead?
Pumped by my victory, I have a pop at pipe-dude. This is a mistake. Forgetting to click and hold, I take a pitiful swing at him and end up gently stroking his thigh with my blade. As he hits me in the face with his pipe, I realise I’ve given myself no room to flee, and collapse back into a table. Somehow, I manage to clamber over the scenery while he clubs me in the spine and make haste for the door. If I can just slam it behind me… Alas, I forget that with combat mode engaged environmental interactions now require me to hold CTRL too, and by the time I’ve stabbed the right button on the keyboard he’s over the threshold, swinging at me again. I flee down the corridor, but see little opportunity to shake him, so turn to fight. It’s dismaying and brutal: I swing but do nothing but partially deflect his first blow. The second comes in too quick for me to parry, and then a third.
And then I’m back to the start. This time, somewhat ashamed at how quickly my bravado was proven unwarranted, I try to avoid combat altogether, scuttling past enemies as best I can and blocking their pursuit with closed doors. In this warren of samey tunnels however, this makes it very hard to tell where I’ve been, and my exploration quickly exceeds my ability to mentally map the space - something I’m normally pretty good at in games. However, I do find more stuff: a sledgehammer, a meat cleaver and a long iron pipe - though none offer the speed and heft of my machete without compromising my ability to carry a torch at the same time. I also find a few snippets of plot - a note lying beside a dead man alludes to abductions; could this be why I’m here? But to what end? I ponder this as I strip the man naked and fling his body into scenery like a gangly meat yo-yo.
Now rather dapperly dressed in stolen garments, I continue my search. In a store room (though they all appear to be store rooms, and largely empty store rooms at that) I find a heavily barricaded door and, in a neat use of the physics system, enjoy a few moments disassembling the obstructions before realising they might have had a good reason for being there. But faint heart never won fair lady, as they say. In this instance, however, my boldness only wins me a near-naked man wielding a crude weapon. He lurches forward and though I try to close the door again, I only succeed in repeatedly slapping him in the face. He is undeterred, so I have no choice but to back away and ready myself for combat. Having made his grand entrance, he now gets distracted and wanders over to the corner of the room leaving his back exposed. But as I close for the kill a woman holding a terrifyingly ugly axe dives into the room bellowing. Her first swing buries itself in her friend, but she doesn’t seem to care, advancing in ferocious bursts. Somehow I manage to kite her away from the entrance before scarpering back through it, throwing the door closed just in time. A series of heavy bangs and thuds continue from the other side.
My heart is racing: the entire sequence was scary largely because of its very physicality; a man bursting through a door as I tried to close it, the stumbling ineptitude of my evasion and last second save. But things take an absurd turn moments later for almost the exact same reason, as I get my torch-holding hand caught on a barrel. My arm stretches out as I try to pull away, then snaps me back like an elastic band. Oh, physics! She is a fickle mistress.
Some intense negotiation with the controls later and I manage to free myself to explore the rooms ahead. I find a couple more bodies, one of which has a fancy red tunic that I purloin. I leave the bodies in the recovery position, just in case they were sleeping something off, and swipe a key from a nearby table - though it’s not immediately clear how I use it. As I’m fumbling away, a man holding a small hand-axe wanders up. He seems uninterested, but I don’t want to chance it, so scurry off as his back is turned - straight into a woman holding a much larger axe, concealed from me by a doorframe and an unfortunate camera angle. She is an unhappy lady and expresses this by chopping me up. I manage to stagger away with a sliver of health, turn and flee, belting down corridors blindly, cursing as my character stops dead because she brushed a wall. The need to scrape the camera back and forth as well as drag to indicate speed and direction of flight is annoying, but it at least enforces a profound sense of panic.
Somehow I end up back at the starting area, now pursued by seemingly every inhabitant of the dungeon. I can’t close doors in time to stop their pursuit, and even if I did, I’d have to open them again at some point. I kite my aggressors into the room in which I first woke up, Benny Hill round and round a few times before succumbing to the inevitable and brutal slaughter.
The promise of a dialogue system, “complex NPC interactions”, ranged combat, thaumaturgic powers and co-op suggests at much larger plans for this game than are currently evident. Evident to me, that is - there’s already much more to see, if you can face starting from scratch each time you make the fatal error of tripping over a table during pitched battle. I do like that about the combat, though: how entirely shit it can make me feel; how its moments of terror can hinge on a single inopportune footfall; how the fear of it then modifies my behaviour. But I don’t think that Exanima’s physics simulation enables transparent, reactive embodiment, despite its evident sense of corporeal weight, despite its evident breadth of expression. Does that matter? There remains something pleasurable, and occasionally very funny, in the calamity that its physics system frequently visits upon the player. That might not be the aesthetic the devs are going for, but perhaps it should be embraced - with drunken flailing arms.