In 2012, British indie studio Bare Mettle Entertainment took to Kickstarter with a pitch for an open-world isometric RPG, one that featured a dynamic story and emphasized physics in its gameplay. £160,000 was raised to bring Sui Generis to life, but as most crowdfunding tales go, they missed the projected delivery date.
They didn’t rename the project, though. Exanima is a self-contained prelude set entirely underground, serving as both a technical beta and a final fundraiser. Other than sharing the same core systems and world setting, Exanima and Sui Generis allegedly have nothing in common. It’s an unusual proposition, yet so is their game.
The learning curve in Exanima is unlike Bloodborne or the Souls games, where one has to learn timing and attack patterns. Here it’s about getting the character to do what you want them to do (I can now empathize with how someone feels using a controller for the first time).
Movement is tied to the WASD keys relative to where the character is facing, sort of like a twin-stick shooter. The mouse handles aiming and attacks, which takes the weapon’s length and weight into consideration—too close and I’m clubbing with my forearm like a drunken brawler, too far and I’m exposing myself to counterattack. Hit stray furniture and the swing pulls up short. Land that mace cleanly into the opponent’s flank, however, and suddenly all is right with the world again. Imagine playing Mount & Blade or Chivalry from an isometric perspective and what that entails.
Taking the time to understand the game’s combat mechanics does pay off, rather than swing-and-wing (I deem that the melee counterpart to spray-and-pray). It’s mentally exhausting having to focus on the fight and environment while wrangling the controls, but get past those initial challenges and more options present themselves. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for a strong backswing, which I can initiate by placing the cursor over my character’s left shoulder. Or maybe an overhead chop would fare better, as long as I’m certain than nothing is gore my torso.. Attempting to do either attack blindly has left me with more dead heroes than I care to remember, which makes pulling it off successfully a small cause for celebration.
That said, the combat isn’t perfect and it definitely isn’t for everyone. I expect more fine-tuning to go towards the controls, as well as greater attack variety such as thrusts or feints. It’s evident that a lot of what Bare Mettle is planning isn’t found in Exanima, but I consider it to be, above all else, a combat showcase. And that’s fine, as their approach is unlike anything I’ve come across in recent memory.
For a beta I must mention the fantastic atmosphere. The lighting lends a foreboding mood to the littered hallways, dark enough to make me fear what lies ahead. Each door never fails to raise anxiety, and the whole thing truly feels like a harrowing bid for survival rather than some brash adventure. Other than the “campaign” there’s an Arena Mode for those who want to put their skills to the test—I never got past the sword-and-shield fellow.
Exanima is already Greenlit on Steam but those interested can play the game right now by participating in the late backer program. For £10 (about SG$20) you will get DRM-free copies of both Exanima and Sui Generis, with a soundtrack tossed in at higher tiers. Personally I’m more interested in seeing how they tackle the dynamic story for the latter, but if a challenging roguelike is what you’re after then seriously give this some consideration. It’s a great reminder how crowdfunding enables studios like Bare Mettle to brave new and different gameplay territories.
A copy of the beta was provided for this preview.