Punch, kick, repeat: How one dev is tackling the side-scrolling brawler
Sweden's Southend Interactive isn't exactly known for sticking to one genre. The studio's most recent release ilomilo was about as cute and cuddly a puzzler as you could get, and followed on from such titles as retro space blaster remake R-type Dimensions and cel-shaded first-person shooter XIII.
The company's latest in-development title, Sacred Citadel, is a side-scrolling multiplayer brawler that is looking to pull inspiration from classic fighters like Golden Axe while emanating a modern edge. Due for release next year, it's once again nothing like any of Southend's past work.
"Historically, Southend have hardly done two games in the same genre," explains Fredrik Bronjemark, producer and managing director at the studio. "It's kind of a part of our company culture, to not want to do the same thing over and over again, but instead always look for new ways to challenge ourselves."
He continues, "Of course the step from ilomilo to Sacred Citadel is huge, but I guess that's also a sign of how diverse the team is." He noted that new talent has also joined the Southend team since the development of ilomilo was completed.
Punch, kick, repeat
Sacred Citadel will no doubt prove a challenge for the team, given that certain common gameplay characteristics found in classic brawlers -- repetition, button-bashing, shallow gameplay -- might not meet the expectations of today's player. But that is a challenge Bronjemark is more than happy to tackle.
"Repetition is indeed one of the primary pitfalls that we had to take into account when designing Sacred Citadel," he admits.
"One approach could have been to simply add in a silly amount of different combos or skills that would then be unlocked throughout the game. We did however feel that in most cases, players tend to just learn a few combos, and then use them throughout the game. If there's nothing else going on except new unlocks, that doesn’t really solve the problem."
Instead, he says, Southend experimented with making the combat and controls less rigid, with a larger focus on speed and skill.
"Instead of just taking influence from other games in the genre, we looked at more modern action games such as God of War, Darksiders and Super Smash Bros," he explains. "Here, combat is fluid, fast and explosive. When a player is skilled enough, he will occasionally be in 'the zone' where he fluidly lands one perfect attack after another and counter or dodge each incoming attack."
"That's what we wanted to achieve - a sense of progression by improving your own skill, and extending that time in the zone a little more as your skills improve."
Sacred Citadel will still lean a little on common brawler elements, with new fighting combos and skills unlocked throughout play -- however Bronjemark notes, "they all serve a purpose, they are not just there to give a sense of progression."
Another method that Southend is exploring in an attempt to revitalize the brawler genre is environmental obstacles and hazards. While other brawlers have their fair share of hazards to dodge while pummeling enemies, Sacred Citadel will go all out with swinging pendulums, exploding barrels, crushers and gaping holes -- all of which can also damage enemies.
"We also have a varied colorful environment, taking the heroes on a journey through several different exotic locations, mounts, war-machines character development and hundreds of different weapons and other items to collect," adds the Southend MD. "All these things work towards fighting repetition, but what's really going to make a difference is the skill based core combat mechanics."
Looking good on the job
From a visual perspective, it's not difficult to see the classic brawler inspiration with a more modern 3D rendered look splashed across it. Peter Trappe, art director on the title, says that the unique style was exactly what the team was looking to achieve.
"The general direction we wanted was a 2D painted look, by following the process of how our concept art was created," he notes. "The thought was that it wasn't just about making a 3d rendered scene look like 2D, but actually taking it yet another step further to achieve an 'illustrated look'".
Trappe was looking to avoid a "parallax effect" with the visuals, in which three planes of varying detail overlap in the background. "When painting we have a sense of 3D space and we didn't want to lose that depth and just make it flat," he adds. "We also decided to keep the level of detail simple to not distract the player from the action, make things readable and keep the game running at 60 frames per second to ensure that you get that feeling of full control and fluid movement."
Bronjemark tells Gamasutra that both the overall visual style and the game's setting were very much inspired by a wide range of brawlers from the 90's console era, although this is where the comparisons become more outlandish.
"Sacred Citadel certainly does have a bit of a Golden Axe feel to it," he says, "but mainly I think it has to do with it being set in the 'Sacred' world, which is a rather classic fantasy setting. When scratching the surface though, in terms of how the combat plays out the similarities are not that big, aside from the general level progression mechanics."
"That being said, we are huge fans of the old classics like Golden Axe, Double Dragon, Streets of Rage and TMNT: Turtles in Time, and are definitely taking inspiration from many of the classic Beat em' Ups. Keeping those classic elements in there ensures that there’s enough familiarity and recognition for players to quickly understand and get into the game."