After developing Kung Fu Chaos for the Xbox, Just Add Monsters changed their name to Ninja Theory and shacked up with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. Their first project was a big one, developing Heavenly Sword, a flagship Playstation 3 title. The game was first put on display in E3 ’05 as a video and last E3 the world got a chance to try the title out. Now that the game’s release is coming out supposedly soon, Ninja Theory unveils more details about the game and what it’s like to work with the PS3 hardware.
Just what sort of game will Heavenly Sword be?
I think of it as the “blockbuster action-movie experience”. When you play the game, it looks and feels like you are playing through a movie without having to interrupt gameplay with those laborious cut-scenes I really hate in games.
It means that, while you are playing, the music, the camera, the action, the drama and everything about it feels like you are taken through this beautiful and visceral journey.
Nariko looks like a particularly lethal lady. What can you tell us about her background and fighting skills?
The story revolves around an ancient sword, the Heavenly Sword, which belonged to a deity and can never be wielded by a mortal without destroying them.
When a genocidal King invades and wipes out a warrior clan including many of Nariko’s friends, she says to herself “no more” and takes hold of the Heavenly Sword in order to fight back.
But as the sword is not meant for her, it sucks away her life-force. So you begin the game with only a few hours left to live and have to fulfill this one last mission before the sword finally takes your life.
How does Heavenly Sword compare with other titles?
It is hard to compare Heavenly Sword to other games as we do break a few genre conventions. The closest I can come up with is something like Resident Evil 4. It might seem like an odd comparison but Heavenly Sword is an intensely personal story-driven action game. When you play through it, it feels and looks like you are playing through a blockbuster. Even the fights look like they are pulled straight out of a movie. For example there are some scenes where you face hundreds if not thousands of enemies but they are just a part of the overall experience.
Just how smart and unpredictable have you been able to make the AI characters in Heavenly Sword?
When you fight one-on-one against a tough character like a boss, they will behave just like a dedicated one-on-one fighter, pushing your skills to the limit.
When you are fighting against a group of enemies, they coordinate their attacks into what we call “group combos”, an AI system that tightly choreographs individual enemies into a group intelligence that can adapt to how you play.
When you fight armies, each individual enemy has its own AI so that they can move together, navigate the environment and avoid obstacles. If you look closely at the 2005 E3 trailer, you can see them dive out of the way of the bazooka projectiles. Once they get close, they exhibit full combat AI behavior.
Our focus is to create, above all, fun AI that reacts to you in a believable way. So enemies will cheer, jeer and taunt you as you fight. Morale also comes into play as do things like killing an enemy’s best friend. We have an obscene amount of in-game motion capture animation in this game in order to create a wide enough palette for the AI to use.
Can you tell us a bit about some of the weapons we’ll be getting to grips with in the game?
Your main weapon is the Heavenly Sword itself. It comes in 3 stances which you can switch between on the fly to create your own combos and fighting style.
Speed Stance has the sword split into two blades. It’s fast, technical and has a lot of depth to it. It is good in one-on-one fights against skillful opponents.
Power Stance has the sword blades join to form one huge powerful sword. It is slow and powerful and great against tougher enemies or to break enemy defenses.
Range Stance has the sword blades extend from its handles with chains. It is the weakest of the three but it covers a large and wide area. It is great for taking out lots of enemies or knocking them into the air for follow-on aerial combos. It can also be used to sweep debris at enemies.
Then there are the tables, barrels, bowls, and all the enemy weapons which you can pick up and throw around with Aftertouch controls. You can even knock enemies out and Aftertouch them into other enemies.
Now all of the above can be mixed and matched freely during combat but it is still surprisingly easy to get to grips with. Mastering combat is another matter.
How long has the game been in development and when is it due for release?
We first had the idea for Heavenly Sword in mid 2003 so it’s been quite a while in development. Its official launch date will be announced soon.
Launching new a IP is always a tricky task. What makes you confident Heavenly Sword will be able to stand out from the crowd?
We started developing Heavenly Sword when next-gen wasn’t even on the horizon. We knew that crafting a next-gen action adventure game would take years. The quality difference in all areas of Heavenly Sword, not least gameplay, will hopefully become very apparent once you get your hands on it.
What was the biggest challenge you overcame during the game’s development?
It’s fair to say that there wasn’t an area of gameplay, development, business, or whatever that wasn’t an enormous challenge.. Not one area.
The setting looks like ancient Japanese warfare. Can you tell us a bit about how you arrived at this setting?
It isn’t specific to any country or specific historical setting. Think of Conan but with a touch of the Far East and you are not far off the fantasy setting we have created.
We wanted to create an original fantasy title. It had to look beautiful, it had to move you, and it had to have insane combat and action set-pieces!
Did not having an historic setting make it tough to deliver combat that still feels cutting edge?
No, it made it easier. We can make up our own characters, myths, fighting styles and weapons. We can be as outrageous as we want without having to stick to any preconceptions of what has come before either in games or films. Heavenly Sword has its own unique style that you won’t get anywhere else.
What steps have you taken to ensure Heavenly Sword will have a strong appeal in Western markets?
Heavenly Sword is a western game that is an intensely personal cinematic and story-driven experience featuring amazing set-pieces. It feels and looks like a movie, while you are actually playing the game.
How do you feel about developing for the PS3 so far? What has been the hardest thing to accomplish?
It’s great for us that Heavenly Sword is exclusive to PLAYSTATION 3. It means we can focus all our efforts on getting the best out of the machine without the usual compromises you are forced to take on a multi-platform game. The SPU’s in particular are amazingly fast if used correctly. The challenge has really been in learning how to take advantage of this unique architecture.
Do you use the new hardware in any way, other than creating more advanced graphics? Does the new technology also affect gameplay?
Combat is our biggest area of gameplay. The combat engine has been in development for well over two years. You can fight using three sword stances which you can switch between on the fly to create your own combos. You can use all enemy weapons against them. You can use objects in the scenery to throw and smash, you can blow up masses of enemies with cannons and so on. Physics has been integrated into combat so that you can smash people into objects or sweep debris into enemies. You can fight one-on-one against supremely skilled enemies, fight against dozens of tightly choreographed enemies, or against armies of thousands. There are also some amazing and outrageous combat set-pieces which have no precedent in games or films. This a real next-gen combat engine that would never be possible on current gen consoles.
We have heard a few developers describe next gen graphics as a way to evoke emotion in players. Is that something that Ninja Theory strives for as well?
People have been talking about it while we have been doing it! We really are breaking new ground in creating real-time dramatic CG performances. We have been working with the very best in the business for a while now. We identified this area three years ago as a massive step forward in turning games into a dramatic medium like film or theatre.
What are your thoughts on the next generation experience?
What I see as next gen is the sum of many things: great gameplay, visuals, audio and that magical thing that just sucks you in and gives you an experience unlike any other. The machine and technology is the canvas, and the painting is the overall gameplay experience. It’s what you do with the canvas that matters and there’s a whole lot of canvas on PLAYSTATION 3!
Do you feel that it’s hard to develop a first generation PS3 game, as your creative effort could easily be overlooked in favor of polygon count?
Our focus has always been on the core gameplay experience. We have developed some of the most advanced rendering technology to support this experience. We started developing Heavenly Sword in mid 2003 well before anyone was even talking about next gen. Why? Because we knew that crafting a true next-generation experience would take many years so we started years before other developers. This has given us the time to craft things that many developers simply don’t have time to do. I think Heavenly Sword will stand out both on the creative side and technical side.
What is it like developing a PS3 game? Is Ninja Theory a much bigger company than Just Add Monsters was? Is the actual process a lot different, or does it just take bigger teams and more time?
At JAM we grew up from 3 people to 23 people developing Kung Fu Chaos. Starting with a tiny team was a huge challenge. For Heavenly Sword we started with 23 people are now at 80! Again it’s a huge challenge! But we haven’t gone all corporate as a result. The team is made up of lots of mini teams tackling many areas of the game and we have kept the spirit of ambition, style and fun that we fostered as JAM. Ninja Theory has been lucky to gain a bit of a reputation as a centre of excellence among the game development community and so we have and are continuing to attract amazing talent from around the world. It’s tough, it’s fun and we’re learning all the time.