Necropolis Interview: Spelunky Meets Dark Souls

Harebrained Schemes’ next is a roguelike that won’t let you rest.

Posted By | On 12th, Apr. 2016 Under Article, Interviews

If you’ve heard of Harebrained Schemes, then you know that the company is renowned for its tactical turn-based RPGs like Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Hong Kong. However, this Summer, the developer will be attempting something different with Necropolis. This rogue-like action adventure title will see you venture into some mysterious ruins in search of treasure, either alone or with friends.

GamingBolt had an opportunity to speak to project lead Chris Kohnert and art director Chris Rogers about Necropolis, including the studio’s motivation to develop a rogue-like title and the overall art direction.

Necropolis 2

"Dodging is definitely a useful skill to develop as a player, but it’s not going to get you out of every situation. Generally you’re facing off against more enemies at one time than in Dark Souls, so that dodge that gets you out of one situation may just put you into another."

After several successful Shadowrun games, what inspired you to venture into the rogue-like genre with Necropolis?

Chris Kohnert: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the name of the company is Harebrained Schemes. I say that as a bit of a joke, but it’s also has an element of truth to it. One of the things we really pride ourselves on is our ability to get passionate people together and see what they come up with. In this case, the Necropolis conversation was basically started with the question: “What if Dark Souls and Spelunky had a diabolical baby that tried to murder you constantly?” I’m a huge fan of the Souls games and the replayability and challenge of a roguelike seemed like a natural fit. It’s been a learning experience for the studio though, I will admit. It’s a pretty big leap from something tactical and narrative-heavy like Shadowrun, but we really felt strongly about the idea and how it would allow us to reach a whole different type of player. And for us, that’s tremendously exciting.

What can you tell us about the art-style, which seems to embody an abstract aesthetic of sorts? How does it factor into the overall atmosphere of the game?

Chris Rogers: The art style definitely helped us establish a tone and an identity for the game quickly. Very early on we knew we wanted to take the ideas of high fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons stuff, and give them a little bit of a humorous take. The same way “Cabin in the Woods” did a humorous take on the horror genre, Necropolis plays around with the fantasy genre.

So there’s magic swords and prophecies, but it’s all treated with a sly humor. Meanwhile, on the art side, we were exploring a more minimal art style for a variety of reasons, both aesthetic and practical. Those two elements —  the sort of abstract, low-poly look and tongue-in-cheek vibe —  just meshed. The art bounced well off the humor, a lot of which plays on the idea of the adventurer’s impending horrific death.

That’s all a little easier to swallow when the character is a faceless polygonal thief. At the same time our animation team really played it straight. So even though Necropolis is set in an abstract, geometric world, the movement and fluidity of the characters really turn the combat into a tense, visceral experience.

Tell us more about the combat system, including how timed attacks and figuring out enemy attack patterns tie into the gameplay. Will it be like Dark Souls where one’s success lays in figuring out the right timing of enemy attacks? With that being said, how much success will S-rank dodgers have in Necropolis?

Chris Kohnert: Timing is a huge deal in the Souls games for sure. It’s if anything, even more important here. Since you can’t count on knowing the exact layout of each level and how many baddies might be lurking behind that door, you have to be able to treat each encounter as a new one. And in some ways, we’re even more punishing than a Souls game, because if you die in Necropolis, you’re done, time to restart from scratch.

Add to that, that each enemy has a multitude of attacks, many are even held in reserve for special situations. For instance, the AI may analyze the current situation, and determine it should pull off a nasty backhand attack only because you happened to catch it off guard. It’s not something you might normally see, except in certain circumstances. Additionally, if you’re not paying attention, it may be a lethal surprise.

Dodging is definitely a useful skill to develop as a player, but it’s not going to get you out of every situation. Generally you’re facing off against more enemies at one time than in Dark Souls, so that dodge that gets you out of one situation may just put you into another.

Necropolis 2

"It’s been a constant struggle to strike the right balance between a fun “magical death labyrinth” and a frustrating one, but we think we’ve got it right."

Will players have a variety of stats they can upgrade or skills to gain? Can different classes be chosen and builds created?

Chris RogersNecropolis isn’t an RPG that has a lot of stats or builds. Because the game is taking some cues from “Rogue,” you may not be spending a lot of time with your adventurer. I’ve seen players get cut down right after they step into the Necropolis. And when you die you lose nearly everything, so we don’t want you to invest too much emotionally into your character. Your upgrades will come from things like weapon pick-ups, new recipes you can craft, and armor. Some of that is just luck.

I prefer fighting with lighter weapons, but if I come across a powerful hammer or axe I try to adapt my play style to that weapon. That might mean stocking up on invulnerability potions so I can stand in the middle of a group of enemies and pound them. In turn, that’s probably going send me seeking the ingredients I need for invulnerability potions, so I’ll be looking for the enemies that drop those ingredients and so on. The next Necropolis play-through, however, could be a completely different set of circumstances and the game may nudge me more toward using a crossbow.

So it is luck of the draw, but you can also unlock and equip a codex, which is an upgrade that persists for the player between lives. Some codices make relatively small tactical changes, like adding the ability to knock down enemies with ranged attacks. Some of the more powerful ones can automatically recover exhaustion, for example, which can be an incredible help in a game where you are always trying to fight off hunger and keep enough stamina to attack.

Is there a built-in skill cap for Necropolis i.e. is it better suited for rogue-like and Dark Souls veterans? Or can your average adventurer hop in for a good time?

Chris RogersNecropolis can be pretty unforgiving, especially in single-player. Dying is a big part of the game, especially at first, and we’ve worked to make it a fun part of the experience. After you die you can look at a whole bunch of stats to see where you’ve improved over the last play-through and you can earn tokens of favor with each play-through that persist between lives.

Eventually you can use those tokens to buy codices, which also persist between lives. The lesser ones allow you to last a little longer, get a little deeper, and learn a little bit more about how to survive. The more powerful ones can really expand your abilities. All along the way you’re learning about enemy behaviors, who their natural enemies are in the Necropolis and how to use them against each other. So the curve can be steep at first, but it’s easy to jump back in and try again. If you have a friend, or friends, with a little more experience with Rogue-likes or the Souls’ games they can really help you jump in and learn how to play in Necropolis’ co-op multiplayer.

Spelunky‘s procedurally generated levels have also been cited as an influence. How does this affect the overall layout of environments and the scale of difficulty for players? How much variety will there be in the levels themselves?

Chris Kohnert: Early on, we definitely took a hard look at how Spelunky was doing things. When you dig into it a bit, there’s actually a really neat structure there that keeps the game moving forward yet still provides interesting challenges. We wanted to create something similar that would help the player know where to go while always mixing it up. “Down Is Good” was a mantra we repeated early on.

You’re delving a dungeon, so of course you go down to make progress. Over the course of development, we’ve created a lot of prototypes and iterations that had various sizes of each level, different complexity within those levels, etc. It’s been a constant struggle to strike the right balance between a fun “magical death labyrinth” and a frustrating one, but we think we’ve got it right.

But even within the overall level layouts within each macro-sized procedural element (we call them modules), we have what we call “micro” procedural elements that will mix up how you engage within the space itself. It really provides a unique space to play in, and as you go further down, you start seeing different parts of the Necropolis to make sure there is always more to discover. Even I still haven’t played every module yet.


"I would say that the co-op experience is faster paced, frenetic, a little more chaotic, and overall the stakes are lowered a little bit. Plus you can drop in or out really easily, so a friend can join you mid-game."

What kind of puzzles can be expected in Necropolis? How will the ability to alter the world factor into the overall progression?

Chris Rogers: There won’t be puzzles in the traditional sense, the sort of “flip these switches in the correct order” stuff. That said, you can change things to your advantage. It’s easy when you are playing to attract the attention of something much more dangerous than you or even a whole mob of things that are much more dangerous than you.

When that happens you can run out to a moving platform and swing the bridge away from the enemies behind you. You can also bring the enemies that will attack each other with the same method. If you can buy yourself a few moments, you can craft a super jump potion or some bombs to help you survive. Necropolis gameplay is very improvisational, and thinking on your feet will definitely give you an advantage.

How does the game’s co-op mechanic set it apart from similar titles? Are there certain challenges which become easier with multiple players on-board or unique challenges for co-op players?

Chris Rogers: Co-op play definitely gives you a leg up because your friend has the opportunity to revive you if you run out of health. In a single-player game you would be starting over when your ran out of health. I would say that the co-op experience is faster paced, frenetic, a little more chaotic, and overall the stakes are lowered a little bit. Plus you can drop in or out really easily, so a friend can join you mid-game. They will be under-powered at first, but it can be a lot of fun to shield your friend while you scrounge up the weapons and armor that they need.

There’s a little bit of an edge to the co-op as well. Friendly fire is on and that provides opportunity for some shenanigans between friends. Since loot drops are shared across all players, you really want to get what’s inside any chests you come across. A well-timed power attack can knock your friends back long enough for you to run in and scoop up a new armor set or weapon.

All in all, you’re a little more free to take risks, so it’s a much more freewheeling experience. We’re still balancing the scaling in multiplayer so I’m not sure exactly where we will end up yet, but that’s the way it feels right now in our internal play tests.

When can we look forward to the game’s release?

Chris Kohnert: We still haven’t decided the final date yet due to our recent announcement to simultaneously ship the game on both consoles and PC in collaboration with Bandai Namco, but it will definitely be sometime this summer.

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