Underhero casts players as a lowly minion who’s a little tired of being the bad guy. After finding a magical hilt, it’s up to this monster to use their position as an ex-villain to learn secrets from other minions, and all while using a rhythm-based battle system to deal with things when your new, good tendencies get found out.
Siliconera spoke with some of the development team for Underhero to learn more about the game’s inspirations, the fun to be found in playing a bad guy and learning about the secret lives of villains, and how having a well-tuned ear will help (but isn’t necessary) to pile on those critical hits in a combat system that’s focused around music.
Why has a villain turned into a hero in Underhero? What drew you to this kind of story? To explore things from an ex-villain’s side?
Alvaro Dominguez, Lead Artist for Underhero – With Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 as one of my first experiences with RPGs, one of the things that first caught my eye was how the enemies you had been stomping in previous Mario games could actually talk! Not only that, they each had distinct personalities and a life of their own. We thought it would be very interesting if one of these "evil" minions could become the protagonist of a game, and that line of thought lead to the main idea behind Underhero: "What would happen in a typical RPG story if the hero was replaced with a minion?"
Being an ex-underling, players can talk to many of the game’s villains. What sort of story opportunities does this provide to look at things from the bad guys’ side?
Since your enemies consider you their ally at first sight, they will most likely share important info with you! It provides a good opportunity for world building; they will tell you about their boring lives, and sometimes, they’ll even share very important tidbits about the overarching story of the game. Some of those tidbits could be important later on. Who knows?
With this kind of story, we started writing by asking many questions: Where do these minions sleep? Do they eat? Do they have siblings? Do they have different ranks, like an army? WHY do they always arrive first to all the world levels? Answering those kind of questions was a fun way of examining how their world works. We wanted to make exploring their everyday lives a fun and different experience! Also, this way, you will be throwing a wrench in their plans from the inside, so your enemies will never know what hit ’em.
You call Underhero‘s combat turn-based, but with no turns. Can you explain how it works in detail? How does the timing-based combat function?
Once a battle has started, your enemies won’t wait for you to make decisions, so your best bet is to evade their attacks by jumping or ducking and counter-attacking when they’re vulnerable. To do that, you need to observe and learn your enemy’s tells/hints before they make a move. Evading these attacks requires good timing that will reward the player with stamina points, which are spent each time the player attacks!
You will have 3 very different weapons for different occasions: a quick sword attack for ground enemies, a slingshot for flying enemies, and a slow and heavy hammer attack that deals a lot of damage. You will also have a shield for blocking and parrying enemy attacks. Blocking damages your shield, but parries reward you with more stamina points and leave your enemy in a stunned state.
Experimenting with all your weapons is encouraged since some enemies might have weaknesses that are not clear on plain sight.
Rhythm also factors into combat. How will each song play into how the player fights?
Each song will have a particular beat, and a particular instrument that stands out from the others. Part of the challenge is discovering the right rhythm for each song. There are visual hints that will help you find it, of course!
We added this mechanic as a cherry-on-top kind of thing. Instead of adding a random critical attack, we decided that hitting your enemies to the beat of the music rewards the player with bonus damage! We did it in such a way that if you’re not actively looking to hit the beat, you can simply fight without a care and hit the beat accidentally from time to time, just like a critical. But if you want to hit those beats and finish your enemies quicker, you can do that too! It’s about letting the player decide how they approach things.
There is also an ultimate attack that uses the rhythm mechanic: we call it Rush Mode. In this mode, players can chain powerful combos if they hit the beat successively. This way you can deal massive damage to your enemies!
What difficulties do you face in creating the music when you want to tie it to combat actions? Does that place any limitations or expectations on the game’s songs?
Stijn van Wakeren, Composer for Underhero – One thing we wanted to do from the start was to have the battle music be part of the area music. We didn’t want the music to have to stop each time you enter a battle. This meant I had to make a battle music layer for each area song. This actually helped because it gave me a lot of freedom.
The most challenging part was having a clear beat throughout this battle track. It needed to be clear on what beat the player should place their hits.
Underhero teases RPGs over the course of the game. What drew you to make fun of the genre and some of its tropes?
Many of our favorite games fall in the "Nintendo and RPGs" category, so those are our main inspirations for Underhero. We wanted to satirize things like ridiculously convoluted stories, backtracking, fetch quests, bizarre characters, etc. Things that we love about the genre and things that we don’t love that much.
What are some of the appeals of creating a silly story for players to explore? Some of the challenges?
Writing an RPG game is a lot of work! One thing we love about it is having these silly characters interacting with each other – imagining how they would react to these situations is fun. Finding new ways to make the player laugh is quite a challenge, but rewarding when you finally see it work.
By far, the biggest challenge is writing the game in English. Our native language is Spanish, so proofreading has become a top priority for us. Still, we’re trying our best, and we hope that those who play Underhero laugh at our silly jokes and have a good time!