At first glance, Exanima looks like virtually any other Diablo clone on the market. The dimly-lit dungeons and isometric perspective do little to combat that perception. You’ll spend a lot of your time poking through hallways and hidden rooms, slaying foul creatures, and looting the limp corpses of your adversaries — all trademarks of the dungeon crawling experience.
But Exanima, unlike Diablo and its many contemporaries, features a fully-utilized physics engine. The result is a game where ragdoll bodies go flying, improvised tactics are the norm, and combat is never fully predictable.
The Dance of Blades
The game is best experienced by starting in Arena mode. Players are able to generate a character quickly and from there dive right into combat. Acquainting yourself with the game’s modified tank controls starting on the “Novice” tier, you can soon move up to Exanima’s “Expert” tier to face down tougher opponents and an almost relentless barrage of enemy attacks.
And these encounters rarely play out the same way twice. You may find yourself staring down an opponent in full plate holding a large, steel hammer in both hands, who charges you while preparing a heavy overhead swing to crush my soul. Only, perhaps he trips over a stone on the floor, or you sidestep at the right moment, countering with a searing slash to his neck and killing him in a single swipe.
These moments of seemingly profound ineptitude, paired occasionally with unbelievable luck, are peppered throughout Exanima. The ragdoll physics may leave you with your arm unnaturally contorted behind your back or murdered after tripping on the edge of a table. This level of unpredictability turns the game a veritable Wild West of physics-based gameplay.
Lurking in the Shadows
While I could go on about the combat in Arena mode, that’s only a small fraction of what Exanima has to offer. There’s also an entire dungeon that’s ripe for the crawling, complete with dark corridors, hidden chests, and walking corpses waiting for their bloody demise.
You start each game with nothing but some clothes on your back and a torch by your side. Once you’re able to stumble your way around the room and figure out how to interact with the environment (hint: click and drag on things like doors) then you’re off on your quest to probably be murdered in a grotesque and absurd fashion.
The first enemy you encounter will probably pop up out of nowhere, perhaps from behind a door or barrelling into a hallway. And just like in real life, if a blood-thirsty axe-wielding zombie surprised me in a cold, dark, dungeon, I’d probably react the same way my character usually does: spastically spinning in circles before awkwardly tripping over myself and experiencing a painfully embarrassing death. Granted, after you die and restart from the beginning a few times — because of course Exanima has permadeath — it gets a bit less stressful
One interesting bit that’s worth mentioning is that Exanima isn’t even really planned to be a fully-fledged game. What’s actually going on here is that developer Bare Mettle ran a successful Kickstarter for their forth-coming open world RPG called Sui Generis, which utilizes the same highly-touted physics-based gameplay and Exanima is designed to be that game’s prequel. And by prequel, I mean more or less a tech demo, likely intended to garner additional funding for its main game.
Still, both Exanima and Sui Generis are decidedly ambitious projects combining two elements in a way we haven’t seen before. When things are clicking and working as intended, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more exhilarating. Even when the physics betray you or you run afoul of a weird glitch, the results are usually so hilarious you can’t help but enjoy it.
You can purchase and download the Early Access version of Exanima on Steam right now for $15.
David Jagneaux is a freelance writer and full-time nerd that has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter: @David_Jagneaux.