Exanima: First Impressions

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As I mentioned yesterday Bare Mettle just announced their Sui Generis prelude on Greenlight. Kickstarter backers have access to early builds of Exanima, so I took a quick look.

What’s it like? I’ll charitably say ‘needs work’. For an alpha I wouldn’t be worried. For a beta it’s a cause for concern. For a beta of a prelude of the actual game that itself has no release date yet? Buggered if I know.

Getting Started

I was delighted that on clicking “new game” I was dropped into the character creator. Whether on paper or on screen I can spend more time in character creation than in the game itself, and Sui Generis’ is something that the development videos have managed to make look very interesting so getting my hands on it was exciting.

Shame the reality didn’t live up to that. First impression? It’s brown. Actually it’s more grey, but there’s no escaping the dark, dreary, Quake-era palette. On the plus side, the physique slider is something more games should adopt and is the single greatest part of this screen. Slide it vertically for soft/muscled, and horizontally for thin/fat. And unlike, ooh, let’s see, all games ever thin means emaciated rather than “elfin sexy” and fat is more than “a little bulky”. Unfortunately, once you’ve chosen build, voice, hair (with colour choices ranging from Quake brown to Quake orange), age and name, off you go.

Exanima's character creation screen.  Click for bigger

A grim and perilous world of not enough pies.

In a break with tradition you start the game waking up in a dark, windowless underground room. You stand up and… that’s it. No tutorial, no helpful tips, no goal. Whether that’s a result of this being a beta or a prelude, or an actual design decision I can’t say, but it set the tone for the rest of my experience. That tone being: “eh?”. A quick trip to the settings screen netted me the controls and a short “getting started” guide, and so I was able to explore my prison.

Baby Steps

Movement is simple but feels strangely off somehow. You have a choice of holding the right mouse button to walk towards the cursor, or using the keyboard to turn and walk. Yes – turn, not strafe. We’re back in the 90s again. So, mouse movement it is then. There’s a torch at my feet. Clicking it opens a dialog box telling me that it is indeed a torch, but provides no option to interact. After a bit of trial and error I discover that I can pick up the torch by clicking it on the ground and dragging it. This locks it to the cursor, but just drops it again when I let go. Maybe I have to drop it on my character? Nope. Ah. I open my inventory and drop it in there. That works. In fact, dropping it on my character on the inventory screen equips it and I’m finally holding a torch, which also seems to be a weapon.

Purely by accident I press tab and enable combat mode. Clicking swings the torch. “Swings”. “Pathetically flails” it a better description. And like the movement the action is so sluggish. I look like I’m fending off bees while immersed in treacle. Some experimenting opens up other attack options which are best described as “fending off more bees while immersed in treacle” and “beating up the floor while immersed in treacle”.

Combat is meant to be one of the best, most innovative aspects of Sui Generis. If this is meant to be selling it then it’s a miserable failure. But bare with me – it gets worse.

Physics Is The Enemy

It’s not all bad. While bumbling around the room I got a foot stuck in a crate and fell over. That wasn’t scripted or a property of the crate, just an emergent result of the game’s physics engine. A little later I got my makeshift shield stuck on a barrel and spun like a loon as I tried to get free. Little things like that were what kept me playing, and it’s a good thing too because the lack of any form of instruction, guidance or input from the game was incredibly frustrating. I’m OK with games expecting me to figure out my own goals, and I’m OK with games expecting me to figure out the controls by myself, but I’m definitely, absolutely not OK with games expecting me to do both at the same time.

I have many names.  In the tongue of man I am known as Godsbane, Doomslayer, Angel Tear.  I fell over a box.

I have many names. In the tongue of man I am known as Godsbane, Doomslayer, Angel Tear. I fell over a box.

I spent a good ten minutes walking around the room armed with nothing more than a note telling me “there’s another way out”. The prison had a big wooden door that resolutely refused to let me interact with it so I was looking for an alternative route. There’s a promising looking grate by one wall – perhaps I’m meant to break it open and get through? Or maybe the ladder on the floor needs to be used in some kind of physics puzzle? Or perhaps behind one of these objects is a key or a button or something Nope. In frustration I turned to Youtube for guidance. It turns out you can simply open the door by dragging the handle. Sort of. The handle has a hitbox the size of one of those invisible bees I was fighting earlier and is coated in teflon so opening the door was an annoyingly fiddly affair. If the game wants me to feel like I’m controlling a bumbling newborn then it’s succeeding admirably. But it opens eventually, which leads me to ask: is this a prison after all? Did I just doze off in someone’s basement?

Frustrated and confused I head out into a corridor, have a look around and promptly die. The first door I open reveals a half-naked starving man – or at least man-shaped thing. It could be a zombie, even carrying a torch it’s so dark I can’t tell. Besides, he’s hitting my with an axe so I don’t have time for sight-seeing. Aha! Finally! The game’s vaunted combat! Time for it to shine! No. I die. I’m not sure I even hit the thing once.

He stood there staring for a while.  Perhaps he was wondering if I were edible.  Then he hit me and I died.

He stood there staring for a while. Perhaps he was wondering if I were edible. Then he hit me and I died.

I start over. This time I go armed with a great big lump of wood held in two hands that promises to do much more damage. I can’t see a thing so I’m constantly swapping it out with the torch. I die again. This time I get a couple of hits in but it doesn’t seem to do anything. So back to Youtube. Oh. It looks like I’m not supposed to engage at all and the whole video is a big cat and mouse game.

One more go. I ignored everyone and just explored. I’ll say this for Exanima: it’s full of stuff. There’s more clutter in here than almost any other game I can think of. It really did feel like I was running around a once-used, now mostly abandoned space, not just a series of rooms designed to hold gameplay. Then I ran into a door that wouldn’t open, I got cornered, and I died.

This door has subtle differences to the others.  One being that it's locked, another that it has a dead adventurer slumped against it.

This door has subtle differences to the others. One being that it’s locked, another that it has a dead adventurer slumped against it.

That was where I gave up. I’ll go back to it later when my disappointment and frustration has had time to calm down a little. My last attempt was moderately less infuriating than the first two – next time I’ll treat it more like Amnesia and less like, well, an action RPG.


I keep telling myself it’s only a teaser, but it not only managed to fail to sell me on the game, it managed to make me wonder if the developers even bothered to put Exanima in front of a newbie before showing it to paying customers. My initial reaction was that I had wasted my money, that Exanima – and by extension Sui Generis – was just bad, but after realising how it’s intended to be played I’ve upgraded it from upsetting to slightly disappointing, with a sliver of hope.

The physics engine is everything they promised, though they could do with switching off Treacle Mode, and the graphics engine is very nice. I’ll forgive the Quake colour scheme because I’ve seen the videos of outdoor areas and it can indeed do more than three colours. But combat as presented in Exanima is awful and I fervently hope that the gameplay isn’t even slightly representative of what we’ll see in Sui Generis. There’s little that couldn’t be fixed by even a little guidance from the game, but until we get that… it’s disappointing.

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