Half Fighting, Half Metroidvania
Across the years, we’ve seen a variety of RPGs tackle a menagerie of battle systems. Turn-based combat became a stalwart staple in the genre, while action RPGs like Diablo still carry the torch for real-time combat. The battle system in games like Valkyrie Profile doesn’t come up much anymore, but Lab Zero Games hopes to make that combat relevant again. Known for their excellent work on Skullgirls, the team plans to bring their fighting game expertise to the realm of RPGs with Indivisible.
We took a quick peek at Indivisible last month and enjoyed what it had to offer. With launch date just around the corner, we spoke with Creative Director Mariel Cartwright about the studio’s experience designing their first RPG.
Indivisible: A Fighting Game-RPG Hybrid
In Indivisible, you control a party of four led by a girl named Ajna. The evil Lord Ravannavar took everything from her, so she sets out to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone else. In combat, each of your party members are mapped to a face button, like Valkyrie Profile. Depending on your inputs, you can chain attacks together into combos and juggle enemies. The better your combos, the more meter you build, which fuels your special attacks.
“I would even go so far as to say when you're building your party and selecting your four characters, you could almost think of it as one cohesive fighting game character moveset, where you have your different inputs, execute different moves, and strategize and customize your party that way,” Cartwright said.
Despite playing a lot of RPGs herself, Indivisible took a bit of time to click with her. Nonetheless, she finds it fun now. However, through trade shows and other pre-release demos, she noticed that fighting game players took to the combat most quickly.
Unlike other RPGs, characters aren’t labeled by what they can do here. Ginseng and Honey, for example, has the power to heal allies, but they aren’t marked as a “healer.” The system encourages experimentation rather than forcing players to adhere to a tank-healer-DPS paradigm. This lets players feel the roster out and see what works best for them.
Outside of battles, players platform through various hand-drawn levels as Ajna. She accrues various traversal powers on her journey. This helps her reach different parts of the map, so calling Indivisible a Metroidvania wouldn’t be out of the question.
“You do have a lot of different abilities, and at times it can feel overwhelming. But I think the way to think about it is, you have options. So hopefully players won't find it too bad, but we'll see,” Cartwright said with a chuckle.
Exploring these vast locales required Lab Zero to expand their efforts with their environmental team. With Skullgirls, the stages were easier to design in comparison. As detailed as they are, fighting game backgrounds don’t constantly change as much as they would in an action RPG. More talent was hired to build these stages, and the engine needed some extra juice.
“There's just a lot more work that went into this. We learned a lot of stuff on Skullgirls, we learned a lot of different things on Indivisible, so it'll just keep going on like that,” Cartwright said.
The Genesis of Indivisible
While the team was really passionate about Skullgirls, they decided to move onto a new project. Fighting games are fun, but not everyone on the team could say they were good fighting game players, Cartwright included. Those games have a high skill ceiling, and if your opponent is better than you, there’s only so much you can do. However, people on the team enjoyed RPGs, so as a group, they settled on some sort of RPG being the next thing they tackle.
“Our lead designer Mike [Zaimont] had existing ideas on how he would take an RPG and make it more active, almost making it a little fighting gamey in parts—the fighting system’s a little bit like that—but he also likes Metroidvanias,” Cartwright said. “So he injected some of that in there as well, and that's what kind of turned into Indivisible.”
While PlayStation game Valkyrie Profile sets the foundation for the combat system in Indivisible, the classic Super Metroid inspires the platforming. This duality makes a complex, layered game. At one point, you’re in a fight that requires strategic yet quick fighting-game-like inputs. In the next, you need to use an upgrade just to reach the next platform. Balancing the two wasn’t easy for Lab Zero Games at first.
“Some of the feedback we got early on was that it felt like two different things. ‘I just want to do the platforming,’ or ‘I just want to do the RPG.’ So it definitely took a lot of experimenting,” Cartwright said. “But I do think we struck the balance in getting it to feel like one cohesive thing and just flowing from one into the other.”
As far as environment and atmosphere goes, Lab Zero turned their heads toward Southeast Asia as a jumping off point. The folklore and mythology of the region, along with the Buddhist and Hindu influences, don’t get as much attention in video games. Of course, the team takes these ideas and transforms them into something else for Indivisible. Eyepatch-adorned pirates and Amazonian princess aren’t exactly staples of Buddhism, after all.
“Obviously it's all very fantasy; we don't want to say [Indivisible is] that thing at all,” Cartwright said. “There's a lot of inspiration there, a lot of research into gods and monsters and stuff like that that was really fun to do.”
Indivisible launches on Oct. 8 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. A Nintendo Switch release is on the horizon.