Put Titan Souls, Not a Hero, and Ronin: there’s no getting these three Devolver Digital-backed games confused. They couldn’t be more different, from the teams that make them, to their art styles and varied levels of depravity.
Also, one of them has a time-traveling bunny, so there’s that.
But the origin stories for this trio are surprisingly aligned. All three projects come from ideas that came into being during game jams. For the uninitiated: A game jam is a loose term for a short gathering of game developers — typically not longer than weekend. Some are free-wheeling (bring your own ideas), others might have a handful of stipulations, like making an Oculus Rift game, or one that explores a particular theme or specific element of the human condition.
For Ronin, 2014’s Cyberpunk Jam was the cradle of its creation. Designer Tomasz Waclawek, who spends most of his time working at Flying Wild Hog, used his love of Samurai Jack and Kill Bill as inspiration. “It’s a simple story about revenge, really,” says Waclawek. “With some puzzle elements included.”
In under a year, Ronin has evolved from a game jam nugget of gold to a freeware title (still available on Waclawek’s website) to a standalone Devolver joint. While the core concepts seen in the freeware version of Ronin are still present, the visuals have been completely reworked to draw more explicitly from the aforementioned Cartoon Network hit.
Ronin might very well be the first turn-based platformer I’ve ever encountered (although the Worms franchise comes to mind), as the voiceless heroine slashes her way through the mega corporation that murdered her father. You jump, and the implant-laden henchmen take aim. You dive and stun, and any henchmen still standing are shooting at where you were moments ago. Each level, each setpiece within that level, is about finding the right rhythm. Thankfully there are multiple rhythms that work, as you can take the crisp, suit-wearing minions down head-on, or via stealth kills and computer hackery. No matter which route you follow, the polished art style has an effortless flow to it, and the whole universe almost begs for more backstory — if Waclawek ever gets the time.
Of the three developers in this trio, Ronin‘s creator is the only one treating his title as side project of sorts. “It keeps things fresh, really,” Waclawek says. “It helps me keep an open mind while working [at Flying Wild Hog].”
And it’s in this regard that Titan Souls is a markedly different development experience. Acid Nerve, the developer behind this brutally difficult fusion of Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda, and Shadow of the Colossus, first came together at a Ludum Dare game jam.
Programmer Mark Forster, composer David Fenn, and artist Andrew Gleeson don’t appear to have any major studio experience under their belts, but there’s no evidence of that in Titan Souls. It’s a mean game. An empty world, free of resources, where the only things that live are big monsters that wait to kill you. There is no forgiveness once you take up the controller.
Titan Souls supplies you with one arrow, one hit point, and around 20 Titans to defeat. Victory requires a mix of timing, learning the environment, and extreme patience — and, given the challenge, at flurry of expletives and “walk away from the controller” moments. I spent nearly an hour trying to defeat the first four Titans, and that was after watching other PAX-goers play before sitting down. And If I hadn’t been writing about Titan Souls for Digital Trends? I most surely would have walked away from the second Titan I faced.
“I like it when a game doesn’t care if you can beat it,” says Forster. “Mastering should be a challenge.”
Titan Souls is brutally simple. There’s no inventory, no force-fed backstory (at least in my time with the game), and no secret sauce. No path of least resistance to follow in this slugfest, as there is in the boss gauntlets of old school Mega Man games. As Forster put it: “When you beat Titan Souls, you level up in real life.” And he’s right; Titan Souls seems to succeed where many fail — making you feel, at times, hopeless and a bit foolish.
Foolishness is always close at hand in Not a Hero, easily the most ridiculous game at PAX East 2015. Not a Hero‘s creators at Roll7 also cut their teeth by way of game jams, but it and its founders exist somewhere in between our other two Devolver devs.
You’ve likely heard of Roll7, or perhaps OlliOlli and its freshly released sequel. But where the OlliOlli games serve up a buttery-smooth skateboarding experience that envisions something simpler for a world raised on Tony Hawk, Not a Hero is more crude in every sense of the word.
Oh, there’s smoothness to the movement — plenty of ducking and sliding to be found — but we’re talking about Hotline Miami-levels of dirty, pixellated violence. And it’s all masterminded by Bunnylord, a big-headed, time-travelling rabbit that will stop at nothing to become the Mayor of London. And you? Well, in the grand tradition of Metal Slug and similar side-scrolling 2D action mayhems, you’re going to help him (it?) take the election. Machine guns, grenades, corruption, and velvety-smooth Spaniard assassins are just some of what’s waiting.
This grand design is achieved through some very gory, misguided vigilante justice, as you explode your own path through Vodkatown and other neighborhoods in Her Majesty’s Homeland. And it’s at this point you have to ask: Am I on drugs? Is Timelord Bunny on drugs? Someone has to be in an altered state of mind here.
“We want to give someone a dose of acid and leave them in a room with this game,” said producer/designer Simon Bennett.
The graphics, while sitting in a 2D engine, are decidedly 8-bit, but the mechanics feel like something akin to a modern shooter. You slide, duck, and take cover as you take on an army of armed guards in the rooms and hallways of generic buildings — think Gears of War — all while racking up a major bodycount and completing secondary goals along the way.
Not a Hero does take some cues from Titan Souls when it comes to difficulty. There’s no checkpoints in the levels you traverse, so planning your routes and stopping your momentum can be crucial to survival.
Roll7 also places its history in game jams, but ones not nearly as close by as those for Waclawek or the Acid Nerve crew. “When you end up at game jams with the same larger pool of creators, you figure out who you like to work with,” said Bennett. And it seems to have led to a winning formula, as Not a Hero could very well be the studio’s third acclaimed hit in less than 18 months when it arrives on May 7.
If you’ve ever considered getting into game development yourself, the game jam seems like a promising point of entry. Teaming up with like-minded individuals only promises to amplify your skills, creative energy, and passion. As the saying goes, “It’s Dangerous To Go Alone,” and these three developers prove that time spent within the game jam framework can lead to profound success.