Luc Bernard's Reaper 1

Reaper has been decaying in a decrepit crypt for some time now. Shortly after the smartphone release of the excellent Advance Wars imitator Mecho Wars, ambitious British designer Luc Bernard set to work on the colourful PlayStation Portable title, promising a traditional two-dimensional affair starring a mindless minion of Death. Three years after its initial announcement, the title is set point a cold hard finger at the PlayStation Vita – and you won’t even need to open your wallet to enjoy its macabre charm.

“The game had to be put on pause a few years ago; it was only recently that we started working on it again,” Bernard sighs when we ask him what’s taken so long. “However, we came up with new gameplay mechanics as a result.” While it’s still very much pitched as an action game – which a super secret demonstration showcases – developer Nine Tales Digital has layered card collecting mechanics on top. These hidden items will allow you to employ new spells, kit out your character in customisable clothing, and allow you to summon cataclysmic in-game events.

Luc Bernard's Reaper 3

“Reaper always had this system where you could collect enemy souls and then use them to summon creatures to help you in battle, but a producer I talked to asked me why I didn’t make the souls go into cards, and that's how the collectible card mechanic came along,” the creator continues. Unsurprisingly, these paper-based peripherals will form the foundation of the title’s free-to-play business model, as you’ll be able to purchase the tickets in packs or individually. However, you’ll be able to unlock virtually everything for free, the indie ensures.

“You can find most of the cards in the game by exploring or killing enemies, so like getting loot basically,” he says. “However, most of the game's content will be free. There may be a few cards that are paid only, but I would say that 90 per cent of the game it will be possible to unlock for free if you're determined enough.” As mentioned, the different card types will carry unique properties – but Bernard seems most proud of the summons. “These will summon a creature that will take up the entire screen and do an amazing super attack,” he beams. “I think that people will be blown away by those.”

Luc Bernard's Reaper 4

We didn’t get to see any of the extravagant special moves in action during our behind-the-scenes demo, but the developer did give us a good look at the two-dimensional brawling, which best resembles Devil May Cry. “The combat has been difficult, to be honest, because everyone on the project would have a different opinion on it,” recalls Bernard. “The main programmer and I agreed on what you saw eventually – even though people said that it was too complicated, and others thought that it was not complicated enough. We had to go with what we believed in.”

Based on our first glance, we reckon that the team made the right choice. It’s hard to get a feel for how the action will flow without a controller in hand, but it looks suitably flashy, with an enormous combo ticker at the top of the screen. Much like in Hideki Kamiya’s classic series, you’ll be able to launch foes into the air, and keep them there while you hammer the life out of them. “I actually do love throwing enemies into the air,” the developer admits. “The combat is simplistic like Castle Crashers – only with enemy launching.”

Luc Bernard's Reaper 2

The most striking thing outside of the combat, though, is the way that the game looks. As with all of Bernard’s titles, there’s a gothic, almost Tim Burton-esque aesthetic to its characters and environments – but it’s contrasted by a colourful, ethereal allure. “I would say what influenced me the most is European folklore,” he tells us when asked about the art. “Maybe witches, forests, and foxes. It's very European: dark and magical. I'm really proud of the art style – it may not be for everyone, but I think that it's a style that I'm really fond of.”

There’ll be plenty of reason to soak up the beautiful visuals, too, as the game is designed around replayability. While it will feature a full campaign, the team is promising to produce a slew of randomly generated levels, meaning that no two playthroughs will ever be the same. “I had to design several areas of a level, and then the game randomises those pieces and puts them together,” the developer explains when we ask how it all works. “I wanted people to have a new experience each time they replay a level to find more loot.”

Luc Bernard's Reaper 5

Bernard’s enthusiasm for the game is infectious – but it’s matched only by his zeal for the Vita. “I honestly think that the Vita is the best portable gaming machine out there, [and] I would become a Sony first-party developer in a heartbeat if I got the chance,” he laughs. “We released Mecho Wars on the PlayStation Portable at the end of its life, and this time I want to support the Vita as much as I can. I think [that the game's] a good fit because there is nothing else like this out on the Vita right now. Well, apart from the amazing Dragon’s Crown – but that’s not free-to-play.”

For the moment, the developer doesn’t have an exact date attached to the title, but it hopes that we’ll see it sometime in early 2014. Based on the short snippet that we were lucky enough to sample, we reckon that the team’s on to winner – especially if it can find the right way to implement the microtransactions without upsetting the balance of the game. Regardless, in Bernard, the Vita has found an imaginative ambassador – and if his equally ambitious Imagination Is the Only Escape reaches the platform as planned, too, you may yet have a new favourite developer.

Do you intend to pull back the cloak on Reaper when it releases? Would you like to see more free-to-play titles on the Vita? Let us know in the comments section below.