“We wanted to make a game like what we played in our youth,” said Ironbird Creations studio head Alex Godlewska, about its debut project Phantom Hellcat.
Described in Ironbird’s promotional materials as “Devil May Cry meets Nier: Automata, with a twist,” Phantom Hellcat is a stylish action game being built in Krakow, Poland. It was shown off-site at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, where I had the chance to interview Godlewska. She describes Hellcat as “pure” by design, as it deliberately avoids the inclusion of heavy RPG elements like leveling up or Soulslike mechanics. Instead, the focus is on combat and traversal, which attempts to make the player feel like they’re always in full control.
Phantom Hellcat is set at an indeterminate point in the ’80s or ’90s, inside a magical theater that was created as a trap for demons. The theater has a single guardian, its creator, who has a strained relationship with her teenage daughter Jolene. When Jolene accidentally breaks one of the theater’s seals, her mother gets abducted by an entity known as the Trickster. Without any real idea of what’s going on or how to stop it, Jolene is forced to learn her mother’s job from the ground up and pursue the Trickster into the pocket dimensions inside the theater.
Jolene’s weapons in Phantom Hellcat are all created by a series of magical, upgradable masks that she can find and wear, with each mask providing one weapon and one unique traversal mechanic. In my demo, the only mask shown gave Jolene a single one-handed sword and a short-range forward teleport, useful for both dodging attacks and dashing to the other side of obstacles.
The onscreen action shifts between 2D and 3D based on what’s happening at the moment. Traversal/platforming stages see Hellcat switch to 2D, as Jolene jumps, slides, and uses her mask’s powers to get from point A to B. During these sections, you can explore the theater and revisit past areas to find collectibles, hidden challenges, and more information about the theater’s history.
In 3D, the Devil May Cry part of the game kicks in. Hellcat‘s combat is designed to be fast-paced and stylish, where you use Jolene’s weapons and traversal abilities at the same time to dispatch the demons inside the theater, with scoring assigned based on performance.
The combat in Hellcat is meant to switch between a power fantasy and more strategic action. When you’re dealing with small-fry, rank-and-file demons, you’re free to style on them however you like, as they don’t pose a real threat to Jolene. Larger enemies, on the other hand, will require some thought. Jolene also has a “drama time” mechanic that slows down the action at key moments, and in “encore mode,” a spotlight illuminates Jolene from above as she finishes off an opponent.
Theater of the mind
Phantom Hellcat is as much a theatrical production as it is a supernatural brawler. Each level of the game is set inside one of the productions of Jolene’s mother’s theater, which mixes reality, stagecraft, and the demons’ corruption into a single surreal whole. It’s designed to look like Jolene’s genuinely stepped into another world whenever she enters a new production, but many of the details are made to look like stagecraft. The “sun” and “moon” in each level, for example, are visibly theater lights.
The levels in Hellcat are based on actual plays, with the first stage set in the theatrical version of Dracula. Later levels have yet to be announced, but Godlewska said at PAX that her team plans to add “as many Slavic references as possible” to the finished product.
Phantom Hellcat has no firm release date at the time of writing. It’s under development with a team of roughly 20 people at Ironbird Creations, and Godlewski was careful to say at PAX that she’s going out of her way to avoid “crunch” on the project. The marketing process has begun, however, which suggests we might see more of Phantom Hellcat sooner rather than later.
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