Physical Exorcism is a peculiar indie horror RPG

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I forget exactly how I stumbled across indie developer Sounding Stone’s Physical Exorcism games on Steam, but stumble across them I most certainly did — and they intrigued me enough to want to check them out. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do today, beginning with the first installment.

At the time of writing, the Physical Exorcism series consists of four games, with a fifth due later this year. After the first game released in 2018, its follow-ups have arrived on a roughly annual basis, with each offering a markedly different experience from the last — both in terms of narrative and mechanics. Some of the same characters show up in multiple “cases”, but for the most part each game is designed to stand by itself.

The first case, known as both Physical Exorcism and Mountains of Molehills, casts you in the role of Brucie and Jade, two super-powered but down-on-their-luck exorcists looking for their next big break. They’re approached by a girl named Lucy, who believes that she and her group of friends have been cursed by an evil spirit; one committed suicide, another is in a coma after surviving a jump from the roof and the third hasn’t been seen for several days.

Intrigued by the case — well, Brucie is; Jade finds the whole situation rather tedious — the pair decide to investigate and, if possible, root out the cause of the problem and destroy it. It doesn’t take long to determine what that cause is: Jade’s telepathic abilities allow her to witness the memories and dreams of the comatose Blaze, and it becomes apparent that the evil spirit haunting the group is that of their former classmate Black, who was bullied so much he was driven to suicide and carried so much resentment in his heart that he stuck around after death to cause trouble.

Physical Exorcism

The game, like many other indie horror titles, is built in RPG Maker MV, but rather than providing complete freedom to wander around a little world, it unfolds as a strictly linear, chapter-based affair. Its short length — a little shy of an hour — means that progression is minimal, but there are a few customisation options along the way such as purchasing new equipment and consumable items.

It’s still an RPG at heart, though, which means there are turn-based battles throughout Physical Exorcism. Because the game focuses on a single case unfolding over the course of a brief period of time, this means that the characters are pretty statically set up to work in a particular way — and figuring out the best way to use both of them is part of the overall puzzle of Physical Exorcism. I won’t spoil the specifics here, but let’s just say this is a game where just hammering the “attack” option turn after turn probably isn’t going to get you far.

As you work your way through the various scenes in the story, you’ll gradually uncover the plot through a combination of things happening in front of Brucie and Jade, flashbacks that Jade witnesses through her telepathic abilities, and written documents. Although brief, the story is structured well and remains consistently interesting — and while it’s perhaps not handled in a way that I’d call particularly sensitive, it isn’t afraid to depict the reality of bullying and peer pressure among young people, and how severe the consequences can be.

Physical Exorcism

It becomes very evident as you proceed through the story that not everyone Brucie and Jade encounter are quite what they seem — and that it’s difficult to decide exactly who to place the blame on for the situation in which everyone has found themselves. There are a lot of people at fault, and no-one comes out of the situation looking particularly good — not even Brucie and Jade, who show themselves to be fairly ruthless, uncaring, mercenary anti-heroes as their work continues. But then, they’re just there to do a job, not to get personally involved in individual squabbles.

There are a few weird moments in Physical Exorcism that feel like they’re slightly handwaved away as being “you know… ghosts and shit” — being inexplicably attacked by elderly veterans as Brucie and Jade return to the school during their investigation is just one example — but for the most part the story is enjoyable, refreshingly uncompromising and, perhaps most importantly, neither feels rushed nor that it is outstaying its welcome.

The game is presented well, too, with a number of full-screen CGs highlighting important moments in the story, and a customised interface giving the game a distinct visual identity rather than simply sticking with the RPG Maker defaults. Music is solid, effective and complements the action well — the battle theme is particularly rockin’ — and some spooky sound effects round out the package nicely. There are two endings, too — though which one you get is pretty much a case of “pick which one you want to see” just prior to the finale — and the ability to review the CGs at your leisure from the game’s gallery function after you’ve seen them once.

Physical Exorcism

The translation of the game from its original Traditional Chinese is mostly competent, with a few odd turns of phrase, such as an instance where the game makes use of the term “social justice warriors” towards its conclusion. This is a term with a lot of baggage surrounding it that, given the context in which it is spoken, is not necessarily intended by its use here; it’s not incorrect given the discussion that is taking place at the time, but a different phrase might have been a better choice.

On the technical front, there are a couple of typos and grammatical errors here and there, but nothing majorly offputting. For the most part, the game is very readable in English and the translated writing has plenty of personality to it — Brucie and Jade are particularly well-written, and eminently loveable despite the fact they are clearly awful people. And that’s precisely what makes them interesting.

I would happily play a full-length game starring Brucie and Jade as they investigate multiple cases that require their exorcism services, but as a bite-size adventure that simply shows a snapshot of their less-than-lucrative career, Physical Exorcism works well. If you’re in the mood for a horror game that is less about explicit scares or gore and more about psychological trauma and people being awful to one another, it’s a great choice for an evening’s entertainment — and it’s certainly got me curious about what the rest of the series has in store.

Physical Exorcism Case 01 is available now on Steam.

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Pete Davison
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