A Metroidvania RPG shows Lab Zero branching out from its fighting game roots
Developer Lab Zero Games Publisher 505 Games Format PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Origin US Release 2018
We expect certain things from Lab Zero Games. The studio behind
Skullgirls knows how to unpack a virtual punch. It’s also very good at designing memorable characters (we still can’t unsee demon nun Double unpeeling herself into a pulsating mass). It’s fiercely detail-oriented, each fighter in Skullgirls’ small roster a technical labour of love. Sprawling Metroidvania RPG
Indivisible, then, is something we weren’t expecting from this studio: when you’re used to focusing on individual frames on single screens, creating an entire world must be quite a culture shock.
“I’m starting to realise why RPGs have so many bugs,” says Mike Zaimont, lead design director and programmer. “In a fighting game, you spend months looking at the same character: you implement a thing, you try all the edge cases you can think of, you find bugs. You’re staring at the same part of the game for a long time, so you find a lot more of the problems. But in an RPG, or something with a giant world, you test every edge case you can think of in 15 minutes, and then have to move on. It’s a lot of work – I slept some time last year – but it’s something we want to be doing.”
It was time for something new. Zaimont had always wanted to make a Metroidvania game, and the idea of a more accessible game reinvigorated Lab Zero. “We were interested in branching out of fighting games,” says Peter
Bartholow, CEO. “As much as we love Skullgirls, it’s an assembly-line kind of thing. With Indivisible, we approached one publisher and they wanted something like Child Of
Light. We all went and played this platformer RPG. And then we thought of Valkyrie Profile, which has our favourite battle system, and also fits well with our fighting-game chops.”
They didn’t end up signing with the publisher, but the concept remained at the forefront of everybody’s minds. “The other major reason for doing this is that not a lot of people on the team play fighting games seriously,” Zaimont says, “so not a lot played
Skullgirls after it came out. It was like, we got to work on this, and the animations are cool – but we also wanted to do something as a studio that everybody there could get behind, play and actually have fun with.”
Plenty of fans have supported the new approach, too, having collectively pledged over two million dollars to make Indivisible a reality. Many of those are doubtless Skullgirls fans – but some are bound to be newcomers attracted by this friendlier approach. Starting a fighting-game demo can be intimidating; but from the outset Indivisible’s demo is a familiar, Mega Man- like joy, as you move Ajna from left to right, hopping up ruins with ease and effortlessly sliding under obstacles.
“I design by feel, a lot,” Zaimont says. “This has been collaborative with people who aren’t necessarily able to be like, ‘This needs to be two frames longer’, but, ‘This feels slow’, or ‘Play this game and try this out’.” Lead environment artist and Towerfall fan Max Gonzales gave Zaimont some harsh, but fair, feedback on the way Ajna’s bow felt. “I spent a long time crying in the bathroom,” Zaimont jokes. “But because I have a 128fps camera for doing lag tests for fighting games, I did things like recording him playing Towerfall with his hands in front of the screen.” This may seem excessive, but Indivisible’s weapons are crucial to both battle and movement. Firing an arrow, for instance, can flip switches in hard-toreach places. A hand axe thunked into stone walls helps Ajna climb sheer surfaces, as well as cutting down vines blocking paths – and taking bigger chunks out of nasty monsters.
Enemies are, predictably, visually arresting, inspired by various cultural mythologies. Succubus-type grapplers are tangles of organs hidden by long hair; gianttongued green boars turn into rolling balls of death capable of damaging your entire party. Your party of four characters are each mapped to a single attack button, as in Valkyrie Profile. When we tap Ajna’s, she runs forward to swing the axe we’ve found, while holding down on the D-pad and tapping a second time launches our foe into the air.
In ex-professional fighting game player Zaimont’s hands, it’s clear that this simple-input, combo-centric system has been thoughtfully constructed, both superficially accessible and with potential for player discovery and creativity.
Encounters are made swift and active through the use of stamina meters. Unique to each character, they dictate how many moves a character can pull off consecutively before needing to rest. Working out how to string together an optimal combo, then, can be the difference between battering a foe in one fell swoop or losing to a blob in a ramen bowl. Mongolian archer Zebei’s shots can pierce multiple enemies, while snarky shamaness Razmi’s stackable down-attack will slow an enemy attack’s recharge rate. Healer duo Ginseng and Honey prove invaluable, but also challenging to use. We’re able to stack a mortar-grinding move that heals the party more the longer it’s charged – but it explodes if overdone, forcing you to decide whether to blow the extra HP early, or save it for a bigger boost later in the battle.
And while our demo proves generally amenable, we fear that there may be some unavoidable walls to run into later on. It’s a complex system, and Lab Zero wants to encourage players to work things out for themselves (there will, we’re told, be a training mode designed for workshopping). We have a feeling, however, that things will hinge on how combos and complex character moves are introduced. There are multiple types of block, for instance: one requires keener timing but significantly reduces damage. Had we known, we might have switched our party to full DPS, relying on our reactions to give ourselves an edge in tougher boss fights.
Still, Skullgirls was a fine teacher, and we don’t doubt that Lab Zero will manage something similar here. But it’s another task on the to-do list, and we worry that the studio has bitten off too much. But Bartholow and Zaimont surprise us. “Most of the things in the game exist in one form or another,” says Bartholow. “We’re close to done animating all the enemies and bosses,” Zaimont adds.
Whether the world and its inhabitants will be as rich and varied as hoped, given the short timeframe and tiny team, remains to be seen. At least Lab Zero has the spirit of exploration nailed, if Zaimont’s outlook is anything to go by. “One of my favourite things I’ve learned about Super Metroid is that the map was not finalised until early January,” he says (the game launched in March 1994). “They were still messing with stuff right up until the end, because you test and change things based on what people think. Making a world that people want to explore and try to find all the nooks and crannies of – I think that just comes down to iteration.”
Enemies are, predictably, visually arresting, inspired by various cultural mythologies
Mike Zaimont, lead designer (top) and Peter Bartholow, CEO of Lab Zero Games