Elysian Shadows: Kickstarting a new Dreamcast game

Back to the future: why the latest crowdfunding sensation is headed to a Sega console.
Elysian Shadows
Elysian Shadows: Kickstarting a new Dreamcast game © Elysian Shadows Team
By Ben Sillis

You only have to look at Kickstarter hits like Hyper Light Drifter and Mercenary Kings to know that retro gaming is back in. Most of these games however are mere imitations, playing on our nostalgia with brand new hardware powering things behind the scenes. Not Elysian Shadows though: this brand new RPG game project, which has already raised more than $100,000 (€75,000) on the crowdfunding website, is headed to Ouya and even the Sega Dreamcast (b.1999-d.2001) as well as smartphones, PC, Mac and Linux.

The game, which is being developed by a team of just seven spread across the globe, is an unusual take on the roleplaying game genre, fusing 2D “sprite” graphics of SNES-era games with 3D landscapes, an advanced physics engine and action combat mechanics. To find out more about the project, we caught up with lead developer Falco Girgis to find out why they’re bringing a game to a console that was killed off more than a decade ago.

Why did you decide to take this project to Kickstarter?
Elysian Shadows really started off as a Dreamcast-exclusive, strictly old school 16-bit style RPG, influenced by games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. As we started developing it, we kept wanting to do things that weren't possible on the older consoles from the 90s. We wanted to add physics engines to make combat more interesting. We wanted to add dynamic lighting, real shadows, particles, and positional audio. We basically found ourselves creating something entirely new altogether, so we took a step back and decided that instead of creating a "traditional" RPG, we wanted to push the boundaries of the genre. We wanted to do all the things the Super Nintendo and Genesis couldn't pull off back in the day. We wanted to give modern gamers a reason to play a 2D RPG, and we wanted to give veterans a reason to be excited all over again.

It really got to a point for some of us where we felt like we were living our game developer dreams during the weekends, then coming back to work on Monday. That's when we decided we couldn't go on living like this any more. We wanted to focus full-time doing what made us happy, so two of us quit our jobs, basically risking everything, and we set off on a journey to get Elysian Shadows crowdfunded.

Tell us about the inspiration for Elysian Shadows. Was it just RPGs?
One of our coolest inspirations has been Resident Evil and the survival horror genre. We always wanted to create a very strong dichotomy between the lush, colorful, and cheery overworlds and the dark, brooding, scary ruins within ES. Once we finished the dynamic lighting engine and started playing around with it, we realised that we had the opportunity to use lighting to create emotionally tense scenes and creepy environments within our dungeons, which is something we believe has not really been explored within a 2D RPG.

© Elysian Shadows Team

Elysian Shadows such an unusual art style. How did it come about?
Our team really had a pretty solid vision for how we wanted the game to look and feel in our minds, but then we had to architect an engine and create game assets to bring our ideas to life. We had to experiment quite a bit with the whole 2D/3D thing and with fusing pixel art and dynamic lighting. It's not like there are many other projects out there attempting this, and there certainly isn't literature to help you out.. So on the coding side of things, we had to figure out how to make these lighting equations and the physics work with both perspectives, and on the graphical side of things we had to develop a pixel art style that not only could look good in 2D and 3D, but could also look good with dynamic lighting techniques. It was something we had to settle on purely through trial and error, since we were on our own creatively in that regard.

Tell us about combat in the game. How does it work?
We had always envisioned the physics engine playing a pivotal role in combat. It really allows us to add another level of strategic depth that I feel like the genre has been sorely lacking. We want players to be able to cast fire spells to burn trees and bushes, to cast spells that exert forces on heavy objects and hurl them at enemies or use them as shields. We even want you to be able to go into your inventory, drop a potion, then shatter it over a boss's face in a last desperate attempt to deal damage. The last thing we want is for our environments to be static backdrops like they are in most 2D RPGs.

Part of our quest to not create a button masher is creating an interesting and useful repertoire of moves for combat, and allowing players to use them defensively instead of just offensively. You can jump over attacks to try to dodge them, but we’ve taken it to a next level with more complex moves like dashing and sliding. We want the player to feel agile and "badass," and I think games like MegaMan have influenced these kind of mechanics.

What’s the size of the game you’re shooting for?
Our team has unanimously settled on a 40-hour main storyline, because we feel like this is about standard for the epic RPGs from the Playstation One era (Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy 7-9, Legend of Dragoon, etc)... but make no mistake, this number is just for the main storyline arc. We always wanted to give the player something to do in each town that is not just going from point A to point B to progress the storyline. After we spent so much time developing our engine and tools, creating sidequests and additional content is purely a matter of assets now, which is why we're shooting for something more like 100 hours for 100 percent completion.

Elysian Shadows © Elysian Shadows Team

You’ve gone for an unusual choice of platforms to launch on. Why Dreamcast to begin with, rather than, say, Nintendo Wii U, 3DS, or Vita? I note they’re only stretch goals currently.
I stumbled upon the Dreamcast "homebrew" community when I was 14. I will never forget how absolutely amazed I was that there was a group of crazy developers out there writing their own games and software for the Dreamcast without being a part of a big company or being endorsed by Sega. You have to realise this was before consoles had indie markets and before smartphones. Console development was reserved exclusively for huge gaming companies, but here was this amazing little white box just waiting to be developed for. I taught myself C and C++ just to create games for it, and even after its time in the limelight had come and gone, I vowed to create a game for the console that started it all for me. It's kind of like a childhood quest for me.

And the Ouya? It’s had a lot of bad press in the year since launch.
Ouya was another console that I just kind of fell in love with. I'm a computer engineer, so I love tinkering with all hardware, but every now and again, you run into a platform that really entices you on a more personal level. Here's a group of guys who truly support indie developers. A group of guys who appreciate the struggle. A group of guys who all appreciate what we're trying to achieve creatively. We have even had Skype calls with some pretty high-up people in the Ouya ladder, who have been insanely open and supportive of us. They have all been so warm and friendly, and it has really stuck out with me as a developer as being insanely refreshing.

Is there still a sustainable market for Dreamcast games, do you think? How many Dreamcast copies sold would you consider a success?
You know, when we decided to target the Dreamcast with Elysian Shadows, we did it purely because we loved the console, not for sales. But as it turns out, there actually is a sustainable market for Dreamcast games, which shocked all of us. Our best selling tiers on our Kickstarter campaign are by far the Dreamcast versions of the game. The vast majority is players purchasing Elysian Shadows for a console that has been "dead" for about 15 years now. I think that's just incredible.

Given the Dreamcast version, people will inevitably draw parallels with Pier Solar. Have you played the game and do you see any similarities yourself?
It's really funny that you ask this, because Watermelon Corp (the guys behind Pier Solar) are the guys who are publishing us on Dreamcast! Our team had always been huge fans of Watermelon for releasing a game as cool as Pier Solar on the Sega Genesis with an official physical release. It was totally the Genesis version of what we were trying to do with the Dreamcast, so I think we always felt a connection to them in that sense. Then oddly enough, I get an email from them, offering to publish us as a commercial physical release with professionally pressed discs, instruction manuals, and casing for every region on the Dreamcast. Watermelon has really helped us in that regard, and we can't thank them enough for it.

I see Elysian Shadows and Pier Solar more as sister projects. I think we both have very different goals creatively. PS is an "old school" 16-bit RPG for the Genesis, being rebuilt with HD graphics. With Elysian Shadows, we've really tried to build a "modern" game from the ground up, incorporating old school influences from games like Pier Solar. Our whole team is actually playing through Pier Solar right now for inspiration, and it's really cool to be able to talk to the WM guys the next day on Skype about beating the next boss in their game. Do not be surprised if you see Pier Solar cameos or easter eggs in Elysian Shadows!

Elysian Shadows © Elysian Shadows Team

What makes it a “next-gen” 2D RPG? Taking it to Dreamcast makes it rather last-last-last-gen, right?
I know hearing a "next-gen" 2D RPG for Dreamcast totally raises a few eyebrows, and we honestly want that reaction too. This whole project is about marrying the old with the new and doing things completely unconventionally. The "next-gen" aspect really comes from wanting to take an old genre that left the gaming mainstream nearly 20 years ago and reinvent it with advances in gaming and technology from the last two decades. We wanted better visuals, more immersive environments, full surround sound, real physics, modern gameplay mechanics, and a much deeper storyline. We wanted to make a game that would be enjoyed and appreciated by a younger gamer who never played Chrono Trigger and who isn't into old school games in addition to the people who grew up playing them.

You’re currently planning to launch in December 2015. What work has been done on the game so far?
Yeah, that's correct. We initially were aiming for a year, since I feel like that's about standard for a Kickstarter, but we decided on a year and a half, because we really didn't want to face any bad press if something wound up getting delayed. Elysian Shadows is really untraditional with respect to measuring its percent completion, because we had to build our own multiplatform engine and toolkit from scratch, which is by far the largest and most time consuming portion of the development cycle. Now that they're both done, it's basically asset creation (pixel art and music) and gameplay-specific scripting moving forward.

Do you have any plans for what’s next? Is that just too far ahead?
We try to keep our focus narrow and stay 100 percent emotionally invested within Elysian Shadows. If we have a great idea, it's more like "how do we implement this in ES" rather than "this will be in our next game." And if we hit some of our stretch goals (online functionality, downloadable content, user-created content), the "What's next?" may very well still be creating the world of Elysian Shadows.

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