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

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