When it comes to the deluge of indie titles that Sony promotes, it gets hard to keep track of what's going on with this side of video game releases. However, sometimes there are particular projects that simply catch our eye more than others, such as Rime or Yooka-Laylee. Death's Gambit is another fine example of this with gorgeous pixel art, deep RPG systems and combat reminiscent of Dark Souls, and grand bosses that might just be the most ambitious ever created for a 2D platforming game. We couldn't help ourselves from finding out more about developer White Rabbit's first foray into the industry, so we got in touch with lead designer and programmer Jean Canellas to find out some of the history, inspirations, and deeper gameplay aspects behind Death's Gambit.
Push Square: Would you mind telling our readers about who you are and what your role is at White Rabbit Games? Who else is on the team and what are their roles?
Jean Canellas: Hey, everyone! I'm Jean Canellas and I'm on the team for Death's Gambit. Our team is about five people right now, full-time and some part-time. My role pretty much on it is as a lead dev along with Alex. We made the design, programming, - well, I do the programming – and the story. Then we have extra team members with two other programmers and two animators. Alex does most of the environment art and starting art, which the other animators work on. I set up the levels, discuss the story with Alex and what happens with that, and one of my main focuses is the bosses. It's a big task; Alex and I have been cranking on the design of the game for a long time, and it's a challenging one to design. There's a lot of systems and different challenges. I think – in our opinion – our bosses are really solid and we've had to reiterate a lot of level design because we realized we could make it even better and better.
What's your elevator pitch for Death's Gambit? What are its major inspirations, and was it a catalyst for the formation of your studio?
For Death's Gambit, we just wanted to make the game and didn't make the studio as a result of the game. We obviously just had to make a company! We had to get with a publisher, but that's a whole other story in itself. And what's our elevator pitch for Death's Gambit…I would say that it's a crazy, 2D boss-fest with a lot of systems from games we really like including Castlevania, Dark Souls, and Shadow of the Colossus. It's got a lot more to it than that; I think most players will be very surprised to see where the game goes because we've been trying to subvert expectations and do a lot of weird stuff players won't expect.
But as an elevator pitch, I would definitely just say a Metroidvania with a lot of elements from those games, which are definitely the biggest inspirations in terms of gameplay. In terms of story and art, we have other inspirations. For art, Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery and Castlevania. We wanted to make something that looked indie but also unique, so one thing that makes it stand out is that has one extra layer of detail than most other pixel art games. And for story, I think a lot of people get really surprised with some of the stuff that initially surprised us along the lines of stuff like Princess Mononoke, Ghost in the Shell, and Attack on Titan.
A lot of anime! Really interesting.
Yes! Pretty much! [laughing] Definitely a lot of games, but I think players will have to see that for themselves.
There's a lot to dissect about the game, but let's start with the gameplay itself. You can use a lot of different weapons and abilities as you run, dodge, and grapple around enemies. What are some examples of how you can tailor the experience to your playstyle with these options? What's at your disposal?
Basically, you have three skills you can equip and two weapons that can be melee, ranged, whatever. You have a shield slot. You also have other equipment likes boots, cape, and other stuff. For combat, you have to choose between three abilities, two main weapons, and a shield, and you can switch those out. The abilities can only be switched out at save points and have specific requirements. Some of them you can only use with a Great Sword, a bow, or whatever other weapon. Some aren't weapon-specific, but they all require certain stats. You have about seven you can level up like Vitality, Finesse, Intelligence, Haste, and stuff like that.
Depending on what stats you have, it determines what you can use. At the beginning of the game, you can also choose a class and each one of them has different starting stats and equipment. All of them also have a minor perk that none of the others have, which I don't think I can go into yet because a lot of them are still upstage. If I give away some of the crazy ideas that we have and they don't work out in the final game, I don't want to dip into that! But yeah, we have some weird class ideas that should affect the way you play the game, and hopefully you can play it with other classes and have different experiences and fight bosses in different ways depending on what you have equipped.
One of the big changes from Castlevania or Dark Souls is the ability system since you have three, and the way we're designing them is that you'll want to not only use them all from time-to-time depending on your situation, but also splice them in between your main attacks. If you have, say, a Halberd and a Great Sword at the same time, you can splice out each combo by starting out with your Great Sword, and then your second attack could be with the Halberd, and your third with the Great Sword.
So there are a lot of opportunities for different kinds of combos you can do with different equipment and weapons you can equip?
Yes, absolutely. One big change from Dark Souls is the fact you always have a shield, no matter what other weapons you have. Our design idea behind it is that we feel like you should always be able to use one. In Dark Souls, we felt like it eventually became about more viable strategies to just not go with a shield. You just dodge and roll everything instead of blocking and then attack, so why ever use a shield? We wanted to let players have a shield at all times so it doesn't feel like a burden. Our overall idea behind the abilities is to make them complex enough so that each time you fight an enemy or boss, you can do better. Some abilities empower other abilities and weapons. I believe one of the Halberd special abilities is that its combo finisher deals more damage if you another Halberd ability of cool-down. That in itself makes you think a lot about how you should approach a boss or enemy and the idea is to keep the player thinking about how he can improve.
We noticed that leveling up – like in Dark Souls – allows you to allocate points to particular attributes as well. What are some of these attributes, and can they be geared toward specific ways in which you want to play?
I'll start with each one of the stats. Vitality increases your health and other stuff like resistances, but all stats level up your health a little bit, too. Strength is for heavier weapons; Finesse is for lighter weapons like bows; Intelligence is for magic and specific weapons; endurance increases your green stamina meter, and Haste is probably one of the weirder ones by lowering your ability cooldown rate, which makes shooting bows, using abilities, and doing other things faster, including stamina regeneration. Lastly, there's another stat that people can't keep asking about, but we can't go into it because it's part of the story. It's called Fear, which is the last stat and one you can't level up.
You also asked how all of these stats affect equipment and abilities, and basically it just works in the way that all abilities and weapons have certain requirements, so, say, a Great Sword requires 10 Strength to equip, and then one of its abilities maybe requires 15 Strength to equip and 10 Intelligence or something like that. Hopefully, this system will make you think about what role you want to have; you can't constantly switch between all abilities and weapons at all times, so you have to choose a path.
Again, that reminds us of Dark Souls! When we played through the game we begin to fit into a certain role and started to level up two or three specific stats that relate to the playstyle we were actively adjusting to.
Yeah. Definitely. It's a similar system for sure, at least for leveling up.
The slew of hard-hitting foes and challenges that permeate the game world are certainly reminiscent of those in Dark Souls, but how does Death's Gambit alter or even improve some elements pulled from the series? Has Bloodborne had any influence on the game?
It's definitely had a big impact on the game, and I would say one of the reasons that pushed us to go ahead and make the game was Demon's Souls. I remember when I played it and had an idea for this game, but I wasn't pushed to do it because I wasn't sure if it would have an audience because Demon's Souls was niche at the time. And then when Dark Souls came out and blew up, I was like, "I have to make it." The idea originally was still different with a similar world, but very different combat. It was only ranged weapons back then when we started making the game. However, where we're at is way better than what we initially had. Our original inspirations were Demon's Souls and even MMO raiding had some influence on the fact that we wanted a really hard game where difficulty's not the major thing like in Dark Souls, but it feels intimidating.
Bloodborne did have influences for sure. I think of the things that people will be- …okay, so it's hard to talk about Bloodborne because I would say that it did a lot of things that we wanted to do, and once From Software did it, we were like, "Well, we have to change this." The truth is I won't be able to tell anyone what we had to change until we're done with the game, but people will be really shocked to hear about a lot of the things we ended up changing! But I would say the biggest thing that I love about Bloodborne was the weapon switching; just the way that weapons worked in that game are still, in my opinion, the best I've seen in the whole series. One of my favorite bosses in the whole Souls series is Lady Maria from the DLC, and is an indicator of how the game's bosses are done really well and feel like you really have to master the timing of each of their attacks. In that sense, we learned a lot about what players would like out of bosses.
That being said, not all the bosses are 100 percent just learning when to dodge roll, which is one of my complaints about the Souls Series in general. That's why I love the bosses that aren't just about this, and I don't like bosses that are like one mistake deaths. So there's a few situations in Bloodborne where I was frustrated because I was like, "Well…I was dead in one hit" or something like that! [laughing] I like it when players die because they ran out of healing items. Not because they got comboed to death…although that will probably happen with some bosses because we're trying to have a lot of inspirations for all our bosses.
And I think players will be surprised to see that we're not trying to take the same kind of world as Dark Souls. As they play the game, players will realize that there's a lot of unique locations that I don't think anyone is going to expect. I could go into a lot more about what makes our game unique, but I will say that in our trailers we're purposefully showing the most generic stuff. One thing that will help make us stand out is our giant bosses. Although we have many bosses that sort of work like a Bloodborne or Dark Souls boss, there are a lot that work more like Shadow of the Colossus' bosses, and that by far has been our biggest challenge to nail the feel of that game into those bosses because at the beginning we were sort of trying different ideas that ended up feeling like God of War. And God of War's amazing, but we wanted to hit the Shadow of the Colossus vibe.
As for the massive bosses, there is that obvious influence of Shadow of the Colossus since you scale their bodies to access points where you can attack them, but the similarities seem to stop there. Some of them require you to platform and grapple your way up with enemies to fight along the way, which sounds thrilling in concept. How did your team manage to accomplish these grand fights?
There's a lot of different points that I could hit on with that. I think a lot of people look at it and say "It looks cool, but does it play well? Does it feel awesome? By replaying it, will I have good experiences with different classes?" and stuff like that. Our biggest challenge has been that. In our original trailer, the first ice giant played more like a Shadow of the Colossus boss because you do climb him and fight enemies along the way, and I won't say much more besides that, but I would say pretty much all of our climbable bosses work differently. You are holding onto them, climbing them, and they'll try to get you off them like, say, the giant with the sword in our latest trailer. If you're climbing his leg, he'll try to get you with his arm and if you're climbing his sword he'll shake it to get you off. And they have certain weak points on their bodies. That boss, for example, has three swords and you have to take them all out. You've got to hold on, and there's an animation that plays when the player has to take out the weak point. If you don't do it in time, the boss will shake you off or hit you.
That being said, we then felt like we had to add extra elements to add replayability. Shadow of the Colossus is an amazing game, but replaying it…I don't think it's worth it.
It's more of a one-time experience.
Yeah. I think with different giants we've been trying new ideas, so we showed off in our latest trailer that the sword boss has a rider on top of him, and when you're trying to hit the weak point on his head, the boss lifts his arm up and creates a platform where you fight the smaller guy who's protecting the weak point.
That's so cool!
Yeah! It's something we're definitely proud of and it's a complete 100% combination of what Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus would be like combined, I guess. That was our goal with that boss. There are some more in the direction of Dark Souls and others more like Shadow of the Colossus. And I would say those aren't our only inspirations! When people play the game they're going to see a few bosses with really weird stuff going on with them that are very Metal Gear inspired. That's our whole thing: we love bosses. It's not the only thing in our game; there's a lot more to it. But they're definitely the highlight for sure.
The non-linearity of Death's Gambit sounds fun since you can somewhat choose which bosses you want to fight first. Has this open-ended design allowed you to play with the world's dynamics? That is, do previous areas you've visited change when you progress? Are there locations you can't access until you have certain items?
So you can't access everything from the get-go. Like, from the main hub, you can't literally go to any boss. You have to beat some other levels or go back to them, or beat a different boss or activate something. But I would say that most of the time, our goal has been to have players have a choice between three to four different areas at all times that they can tackle in case they get stuck somewhere or try something else. That's been a challenge because you run into other issues, right? Maybe players don't go in the right direction or make things way harder on themselves, and that's fine. I think that at all times players should have at least one level accessible to them that's way too hard. I love that. And that has been the case in the Souls series since Dark Souls, in my opinion…and maybe Dark Souls III if you go through the castle first, but no one does that. [laughing]
Another problem was that players could potentially do three levels and then – because you're so overleveled – the fourth one is super easy. We're trying our best to make sure that never is the case. I think you mentioned if levels change if you do them in a certain order? I would say that the NPCs and the way the story works goes that way. I don't think there's a level that drastically changes anything, but there are different story elements that occur with events and enemies. Maybe, for example, how you treat one NPC could affect what he does later on in a level or whether he sells you something, but I wouldn't say playing a certain level first wouldn't affect the next too much.
There is replayability because there's a lot of hidden stuff with Blood Chests and Phoenyx Chests, and the latter only open if you haven't healed by the time you get to them, so that rewards players to redo the level as well as possible to unlock that chest. And Blood Chests have to be attacked and destroyed, but they heal quickly, so you have to find ways to deal as much damage as possible in, like, eight seconds or something.
When telling others about the game, a Castlevania-like 2D platformer inspired by Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus sounds impossible to make, but here you are with Death's Gambit. I'm sure development hasn't been easy, so what were some of the hardest things to implement?
The hardest thing to make has been the giant bosses. To me, making Dark Souls-like bosses…that's easy. But the difficulty of making an enemy is directly proportional to how big he is. [laughing] I know it sounds kind of silly, but it's turned out to be the case with our game because it's harder to make changes. You've got to make sure the design is really solid before making it, and there were situations where we had to redo a lot to make things feel right.
The animation and music are fantastic! How did your team create the visuals and why did you go with a pixelated style? With the music, is it all orchestral, or will there be retro or digitized sounds thrown in here and there? What's the general tone and themes the music takes to match the game?
At the beginning of developing Death's Gambit, we definitely thought about what other art styles to use, but honestly we were still in college and weren't good enough to use any other style. We would've loved to have used something like Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Maybe Dragon's Crown, which has a really cool, painted style, but we didn't have the skills to do that. But Alex was really, really, really good at pixel art, so we just went with that. I do think it ended up being a good choice because it feels more classic like the original Castlevania, but at the same time our goal was to have stuff about that makes it look like it could've never been on a Super Nintendo. There's stuff like a bunch of gradients, which is partly inspired by Sword & Sorcery to make our game look more stylized. That's what helps it make it stand out as something not only look like a Super Nintendo game, but something that would sell today.
As for music, the style depends on where you are in the game, but I'd say it's mostly orchestral. Over the course of the game it gets darker and darker. We use a little bit of everything. I wouldn't say we go 100% retro; I think there's a track that's straight up 8-bit music, but yeah, it's very orchestral. We don't have an actual orchestra, but we have a composer that makes it sound like we do. His name is Kyle Hnedak and he interned for Hans Zimmer. He does all kinds of music for indie film and horror movies, and since he loves Legend of Zelda, we've been able to talk about other game soundtracks we like as inspirations. So we've got a soundtrack people will expect, but it will stand out as our own thing. We've also got another composer named Alex Roe. He's a big YouTuber that makes Dark Souls remixes, and he'll be making a track for one of our bosses.
Can you give us any broad generalizations on when the game will release and how much it will cost?
I definitely can't say cost, but I can say the release date will be early 2017. That's what we're targeting. We want to make sure the game is good; we don't just want to release it at a set time and rush towards that. And it's definitely not vaporware. This game's definitely coming along and it's coming out soon, we just don't have a release date.
What do you make of Death's Gambit? Has Jean Canellas made you want to taste death's sweet embrace in his team's game, or are you wary that its large mix of inspirations will prove too ambitious? Fight giants in the comments section below to let us know your thoughts.