Brave Earth: Prologue takes players to a dangerous gothic world, having them guide Naomi, Sinlen, and Trevor across this bleak landscape, using their unique combat styles to play through three entirely separate campaigns against an evil that’s sweeping the land.
Siliconera spoke with Michael “Kayin” O’Reilly, developer of Brave Earth: Prologue, to learn a little more about how the developer’s experience creating challenge in I Wanna be the Guy transferred to their new game, what challenges they’re facing in creating three play styles with their own levels to work through, and what drew them to build onto the Castlevania legacy.
You’ve said that Brave Earth: Prologue began as a study through emulation. What were you looking to learn from creating the game, initially?
Michael “Kayin” O’Reilly, developer of Brave Earth: Prologue – Despite growing up with and having played the NES Castlevanias, I was never much a fan of them. So, approaching them as an adult it was much easier to appreciate all the smart enemy placement and design in the game. Castlevania 1 and 3 do a great job making enemies that combine well with terrain and each other. I think this is something easy to take for granted, but if you’re like me and recreationally play a lot bad games, a common flaw in generic bad platformers are enemies that are just… there. Either too simple or too erratic to craft reliable challenges with.
So, coming off making I Wanna be the Guy, this was something I wanted to experiment with. IWBTG had very little in the way of enemies and those it had were used in just a few screens. Bosses were single set piece moments, so they didn’t need to be designed to be flexible. So, the original idea was just to create a Castlevania 1-like game for free, trying to make use combinations of simple enemies, leading to simple, yet exploitable bosses. Of course has the game expanded that didn’t quite happen…
What made you want to expand it over the years?
Part of the reason I wanted to make a small game was the tools I was using had a few bugs that made them unsuitable for larger projects. When those bugs were suddenly fixed, I started making bolder decisions. I had already been making the game far more complicated-looking than I originally intended. One of the appeals of doing a Castlevania 1 style game is you make everything with just a few tiles. The "Castlevania Block" is used for practically everything and the backgrounds were simple. But I was already doing more complicated-looking levels with parallaxing backgrounds and stuff. The game wanted to be bigger. It wanted more complicated bosses.
While I knew I could do pixel art, I always struggled with it. But I found the NES style to play well to my strengths. Anatomy is much harder to struggle with when things are so small and simple. Everything becomes about colors, composition and silhouettes. Making content was fun so I… made more content.
How did you want to make the Castlevania formula your own? How did you wish to build on it?
Originally, I wasn’t really considering changing it up that much at all. Besides Naomi’s more complicated special attack system, I decided to keep things simple. But, like many things in the game, it naturally found it’s own voice despite my initial plans, which really isn’t surprising. When you play and love tons of action platformer games, other influences are going to seep through and merge. It was hard for me to resist having big fancy boss encounters and more dynamic stage events. I like games where you really feel like you’re in an actual place – where the environment just feels right and the world feels like it has consistency. Where a level feels like a slice taken out of a world and not just a convenient videogame level. I feel like I manage that pretty well. I had a tester describe it as "A completely linear metroidvania without power-ups", which is obviously a joke but also a comment on how progressing through the game feels.
I’m not too concerned with having a perfect answer to "It’s Classic Castlevania, buuuuut…" because no matter what, Brave Earth: Prologue is always going to be seen as a Castlevania clone. I used to be self conscious about it, but then I saw the amount of people who missed Classic Castlevanias. We’re probably never going to get any more of them and if we do, there is no assurance they’d be good. That said, I hope when people play the game they both get that classic and under-represented style of action, while at the same time finding it fresh just due to having a different creative voice behind it, especially in the type of challenges the game presents as the difficulty ramps up later in the game.
You’ve shown skill at creating challenges for players with I Want To Be The Guy. How have you carried over your ability to push players into Brave Earth: Prologue?
Being about to predict players is a universally useful skill and I feel pretty good at doing that. While the results are often less obvious, it’s just as easy to use that to tune an encounter to be easier. Heck, it allows me to make players do cool things without them planning on it.
Here is a simple and easy to explain one. The basic bandit enemy in the game can spawn from anywhere by jumping in from the background. A fun thing I like to do is, in a few spots, put one just past a lantern, so when the player jumps and activates the enemy, they have a moment of panic, but they’re already attacking to hit the lantern, so they hit them out of the air. Describing it, it’s really obviously a staged thing, but when I watch new players play they still have that visible expression on their face of "Wow, I did something cool".
Also, I’ve just found such a deep love of level design. A lot went into making every screen in IWBTG feel different and memorable. The joke is "Oh that’s a game with rooms filled with spikes", but that is more an accurate stereotype of its fangames (which also often get called "Needle Games" for a reason). Also a sense of pacing; IWBTG screens follow a bunch of different difficulty arcs between save points to maintain tension. Sometimes, even in hard games, you need to give players breathing room, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re getting.
Brave Earth‘s difficulty is nothing like IWBTG‘s, but thankfully, I feel like all the skills I developed in IWBTG transferred nicely.
What would you say is the difference between irritating challenge and the kind that draws a player in deeper? How do you capture this with Brave Earth: Prologue?
This is a tricky one. In IWBTG, there was a sense of comedy. It was a funny game, so a well-timed "mechanics joke" could lower the tension of a costly death. Sometimes, you just had to lay back in your chair, hands in your face and laugh. Brave Earth isn’t so cruel, but neither is it as funny. Still, there is the factor that I think you see in almost all good, challenging action games. It’s that, when you fail, hopefully you learned something. That loss is part of the process and even if you died, you don’t start back from square one. You come back better, mentally.
Frustration sets in when the player doesn’t know what they’re doing wrong, or if they think they know what they’re supposed to do, but their chances or the time required to succeed seems brutally unfair. As long as a goal seems obtainable, it’s easier to fight frustration. Sadly, this isn’t something that’s easy to handle with designer intuition. This is a play-testing problem. Even IWBTG needed a lot of play-testing to make sure challenging segments were challenging, but not brutally unfair. The same is going on with Brave Earth right now.
Brave Earth: Prologue features three playable characters with wildly different play styles. What thoughts went into creating each style, and why did you make so many different styles?
Honestly, the original idea was to have Naomi do something while a rival knight trailed ahead of her, much like Shorn in La Mulana. I asked my friend, the artist Neolucky (who’s contributed to BEP in the form of a lot of cutscene art too) to do a design for me. She sent me back a mage instead by accident and I decided to go along with it. After making some sprites, I decided she could be playable. Like many things in the game, "It just happened". Three felt like a more balanced number than two, so I added Naomi’s brother as well (who was already going to be an NPC anyways).
Sinlen’s design was easy, as much of it just contrasted Naomi. Air control, ranged attacks, floating. I made her powerups replace her normal attack. Trevor took more thought. Going for the ‘power’ archetype would be obvious, but the thought of having someone less mobile than Naomi seemed dreadful. So, I came up with the idea of swiping the Secret of Mana attack bar. He’d be slower to attack, or less mobile if he held down the attack button to ‘overcharge’ but his basic mobility could be much the same as his sister. Then, instead of giving him offensive specials, I gave him all dodges and mobility moves. Naomi, under normal circumstances still out DPS’s her brother, but his access to sudden damage makes bigger foes less intimidating but smaller foes a bigger nuisance.
Also, each character has their own route through the game, rather than playing through the same stages with different abilities. What did you feel this added to the game? Why do things this way?
This is probably the design decision I’m worried most about, but I didn’t like the idea of people playing one character. "Oh let me just play through the game as Sinlen,", much like people falling back to Maria in Rondo of Blood. Also, the characters benefited from content designed for them. This was a horrible idea as a game maker because you want your content to pull double duty when it can but… Hey, whatever, it’s a lot of content for players.
My only concern is the game forces you to play all three characters to finish it. That said, players can always change the difficulty of their saves and can tackle character paths in any order through most of the game. So, hopefully, if a character turns out to be too tough or at odds with their play style, they’ll still be able to complete the game. Still, what I hope happens instead is that people get pushed out of their comfort zone and learn to like things they thought they wouldn’t.
A great deal of attention was paid to creating a dark, gothic, violent look for the game. What thoughts went into creating the game’s visual style and its moments of shocking gore (like the character death faceplates)?
Not to be a broken record, but the death animation kinda just happened. I was experimenting with something like Alucard’s bloody death spiral and started messing with sounds. Just basically ‘doodling’ until all of a sudden the sound hit just right and the whole thing felt horrifying. I’ve actually had misgivings about the death animation, sometimes wondering if it’s too much. The game is dark, but it’s not too dark.
At the same time, that gut punch is affecting. That kind of fear and vulnerability is something I think about a lot in even movies when a random goon dies. So, I feel like some of that darkness mixes with some of the levity in the anime-ish tone of the story. It gives things some stakes without having to be utterly brutal or edgy in the writing of the story. I don’t like the idea of leveraging too much grisliness just to set tone. I’d rather those elements, when necessary, mean something. I love that kind of super violent late 80s/early 90s anime aesthetic, but not so much the casualness of it. I want the violence to be impactful and a little sad. When I kill a zweihander guy and he collapses and curls up, I feel a little bad for him. I don’t know, I kind of like that?
As for the rest of the aesthetic, it draws a lot from Sunsoft’s Batman for the NES, which is an absolutely beautiful game. The beautiful use of blacks in that game was something I couldn’t live up to, but I tried my best to take elements from that and mix it from elements from Castlevania and the later Ninja Gaidens. I wanted that dark, lonely feeling while also having vibrant colors. The NES palette works well for this, where you can have vibrant blue and purple trees and no one thinks anything of it. Never having the perfect shade or highlight color means injecting your scenes with a dynamic, colored lighting. It kinda enforces some good art habits. if you look at say, Vampire Killer on the MSX, it’s kinda bland looking. All the colors are very ‘literal’. But Castlevania on the NES is vibrant and colorful and a little weird. Late gen games of that era learned to truly embrace this and it’s fun to be able to draw on all their work now with all this hindsight.