Elysian Shadows Interview—Building the Next Generation 2D RPG

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Full Disclosure: I am friends with game director Falco Girgis and a few other staff members working on Elysian Shadows.

We’ve covered the ambitious 2D RPG Elysian Shadows previously here on Niche Gamer, and despite the team behind the game being incredibly busy, I had a chance to sit down and talk to Daniel Tindall, their web designer and one of the developers on team Elysian Shadows.

I picked some of the most probing questions I could think of, without snooping too far so that the team couldn’t respond to my questions. Without further ado, you can find our interview with Dan from the Elysian Shadows team below:

For our fans and readers who haven’t been following Elysian Shadows, can you briefly go over what the game is all about?

daniel tindall 06-01-14-1Elysian Shadows is an indie 2D RPG being developed for Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, Ouya and Sega Dreamcast. We fuse aspects of 16-bit classical RPGs such as Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy, with a highly stylized, modern vision by using dynamic lighting, physics, and audio engines along with swapping between 2D and 3D perspectives. Our goal is to create a “next-gen” 2D RPG in terms of gameplay, graphics, and audio while still remaining true to the games that inspired us to become developers.

Our team and project are best known through our popular YouTube “reality” game development video blog series, “Adventures in Game Development.”

How long have you guys been working on the game, since its very first inception?

That’s a complicated question for us, haha. Elysian Shadows was first conceived as a storyline concept around 2007, which also corresponds with the first chapter of “Adventures in Game Development.” If you consider this date the start of our project, that would put us at about 7 years of development.

But you have to keep in mind that we were literally a bunch of teenagers with no prior game development knowledge or experience, setting out on an epic quest from our parents’ attics. Much of this time was spent learning our trades as programmers, artists, and musicians, as we obviously didn’t have the skillset required to tackle a project of this magnitude initially.

Also, when you factor in how much time we invested in developing our own proprietary engine and software development suite, while usually working full-time jobs and attending college, this number is pretty bloated.

Are all of your team members based out of the same city/region, or are some of you scattered around?

We’re a highly international team. Falco and Tyler, our two main software developers both live in Alabama. Patryk and Leandro, our artists, live in Poland and Russia. Our musician, Connor, lives in Canada. Eddie and Daniel, mobile and web developers respectively, live in Michigan and England.

One of the greatest benefits of our YouTube popularity has been in allowing us to recruit a team of talented and driven developers from around the world, who we would have otherwise not had access to. Everyone on this team is extremely self-motivated and committed, and is a master of his own trade.

Where did the name Elysian Shadows come from? I’m assuming it pertains to the story in some way.

Yep! It absolutely is directly pertaining to the storyline. Now how do we elaborate without giving away too many spoilers? Haha.

“Elysium” is a recurring theme throughout mythology, as a kind of heaven-like divine paradise. We refer to its “shadows” as kind of an oxymoron, referring to the dark side of paradise. A subtle hint that perhaps there something more sinister going on behind the facade of this utopian paradise in the world of Elysian Shadows.

Why put the game on the Dreamcast alongside the other, modern platforms? I love that console, but not that much!

That’s actually a funny story. Our lead engine/toolkit developer, Falco Girgis, was originally inspired to become a game developer at age 14 by the Dreamcast homebrew and emulation scene. He spent his teenage years learning to code for the console and being active in that development community. He could render polygons on the Dreamcast before he could even do that on his PC! After growing up in that scene, and spending so much time developing on the console, he has made it his personal quest to release a game for his favorite platform.

Believe it or not, there’s actually still a pretty healthy and sizable indie community for the Dreamcast. The fan response and community support for bringing ES to the platform has been nothing short of inspirational, and the Sega Dreamcast was the first platform we secured an official publishing deal for, despite all the many other platforms ES is targeting. Haha!

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What made you decide on developing a “next generation” 2D RPG?’

Believe it or not, we actually did not initially set out to create a “next generation” 2D RPG. Elysian Shadows started off far more retro and was very much an “oldschool” 2D RPG, more along the lines of the 16-bit Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Phantasy Star games. But slowly, as we developed the game, we would find ourselves wanting to push the genre further, wanting to include things like physics engines, particle effects, and lights that weren’t present in these old games.

As our goal for ES became more ambitious, we realized the project was evolving into something completely different and new altogether. and that’s when we decided to rebrand Elysian Shadows as a “next generation” 2D RPG and pursue this new creative direction of taking the genre to the next generation.

Are you worried having the game on Dreamcast will hold back the other versions?

That’s not our exact fear with the Dreamcast build. Initially, we limited everything to what the Dreamcast could handle to keep every build identical, but as we rebranded, we adopted a different design philosophy: We want to make ES the best it can possibly be for each platform, which is certainly going to result in differences between builds. So far, we have done a great job of designing every new subsystem in such a manner that it can be implemented differently for each platform without affecting gameplay.

For example, it’s highly unlikely that the mobile platforms, the OUYA, or the Dreamcast will be able to handle all of the dynamic lighting, shadow volumes, and bump and specular mapping; however, even opting to not fully implement this functionality on these platforms will not fundamentally alter the gameplay itself or the player’s experience. The same philosophy applies to limiting the number of particles, rigid bodies, or background SFX tracks based on each platform’s capabilities.

While we have no doubt that Elysian Shadows will be possible on the Dreamcast, our biggest fear is the amount of scaling back on the fancy effects that will have to happen on the platform. We really don’t want to create a majorly inferior version for the console, but make no mistake, ES will easily be pushing it to its absolute limits. We are already using SH4 assembly in performance critical code, and we will be tapping into some of the console’s capabilities that weren’t even fully exploited in commercial games with the official Sega devkits…

It is going to require some extremely advanced low-level optimizations and performance considerations along with a considerable amount of R&D. Only time will tell exactly how much of our ambitious engine will have to be scaled back on the console, but we remain optimistic and committed to pushing it as far as it can possibly go.

Coming from this, can you briefly give some examples of what sets Elysian Shadows apart from other 2D RPGs? What makes it a true next generation experience?

Absolutely. At first glance, the graphics should stick out to viewers. We are using traditional pixel art sprites, but unlike other games in the genre, we’re adding advanced modern rendering and shading effects, like dynamically lit scenes, omnidirectional shadow maps and shadow volumes, bump mapped 3D textures, and specular maps for making glossy or metallic surfaces realistically “shine” based on their positions relative to a lighting source. In addition to that, our worlds are literally being rendered in 3D space, which allows us to present them with the standard top-down 2D perspective, or to dynamically pan the camera down in-game to move into full 3D for effects or cutscenes.

In addition, our engine boasts full day/night cycles using the lighting engine and dynamic background music, which adds and removes instruments and varies in intensity based on the environment and combat conditions. Our SFX are fully three dimensional and positional, so every event will sound as though it’s taking place in 3D space.

We incorporate advanced rigid body and particle systems into the game to allow for realistic environmental interactions between the character and objects and very intense spell effects that allow players to directly manipulate their environments.

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From a gameplay perspective, we’ve also deviated from the classics in a few important ways. We’ve added platforming aspects to Elysian Shadows, such as jumping and dashing, to move combat and exploration mechanics into full 3D. We’ve also focused on making our combat system extremely fluid, agile, and action-oriented, taking full advantage of the physics engine.

For example, you are about to die, and in one last epic move of desperation, you can always pick up a barrel laying around or drop a potion from your inventory, and shatter it over an epic boss’s face … who knows … Maybe he has a hidden weakness to these objects you were unaware of.

You mention that the game switches between 2D and 3D perspectives, does this happen on the fly, or is it controllable?

It happens on the fly. We’re currently using it for transitions and cutscenes. We’re also playing around with certain buildings and locales using different camera perspectives, depending on which looks best and offers the best vantage point to the player.

We have also considered allowing the players to disable the “3D-ness” of ES from the menu, turning off things like dynamic lighting and 3D perspectives, and allowing players to play the game as a more traditional, top-down 2D RPG. And if your computer, phone, or GPU really suck, this could allow you to potentially play Elysian Shadows on some VERY dated hardware.

I’m a big fan of open world games, and you describe Elysian Shadows as an open world featuring a Zelda-style emphasis on exploration and environmental interaction. Is this for real, or can we expect more of a “traditional RPG” overworld that focuses on random battles?

Oh, this is absolutely for real. This is something we absolutely MUST HAVE in Elysian Shadows, or we will hate our own game, haha! We play lots of RPGs, and we study a lot of their successes and shortcomings as inspiration for Elysian Shadows. One of our biggest complaints about the genre in general is the seemingly “flatness” of the environment and lack of any motivation to explore or interact with the environments.

ES has been VERY Zelda-influenced in this regard, and in the latest chapter of “Adventures in Game Development,” you can already see us implementing Zelda‘s traditional “choppable” grass mechanic to add another layer of depth to the forests.

We also want you to be able to do things like cast fire spells to burn trees obstructing your path, use spells to magnetize metallic objects to solve puzzles. Our goal is to even allow this kind of environmental interaction to be used strategically in combat. Every area should feature multiple ways of interacting with it, and we want players to feel a strong sense of reward for exploring the vast overworlds of Elysian Shadows.

Alchemy is sneakily mentioned in your game—is this the sole “job” or crafting in the game, or do you have plans for others?

Haha, yes. That’s something we never really elaborated much on, but we are fairly certain Elysian Shadows will feature a Final Fantasy-style “job” or class system, allowing you to further customize your characters. “Alchemy” in that regard is something we’re toying with as one of our many proposed character classes.

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So let’s talk about the story. It sounds like it has a mix of political intrigue, and religious undertones—what kind of feel are you going for? Serious? Drama? Both?

That’s a really good question we’ve never been asked before … Honestly, there’s a lot of all of us in Elysian Shadows. We have all been through some dark times in our lives on this team, and especially within the last few years, have used Elysian Shadows as kind of a creative outlet for our inner demons. The overall theme and tones of the game are definitely fairly dark for a JRPG, as we have endowed our storyline with some very serious philosophical and moral undertones, and we have created a storyline with very real, relatable characters with very realistic problems.

But it’s not all doom and gloom … If you have ever watched our AiGD series, you should know we’re all a bunch of pretty laid back guys who love to joke around. One of our favorite aspects of the JRPG genre is the comedic relief and humorous characters that add another dimension to the otherwise dark storylines… Quina’s character in Final Fantasy 9 comes to mind specifically. ES is certainly endowed with our own unique sense of dark comedy, throughout your adventures.

The world of Elysian Shadows sounds meticulously crafted, just how alive will towns, cities, etc feel?

It is, and this is something we’re still crafting. We’ve been working very hard to give the civilizations of ES plausible backstories and economies, and their residents more depth than just a few lines of static dialog. We’re toying around with giving NPCs different behaviors and actions based on the time of day, to make the towns feel more alive.

Dialog is also something we feel very strongly about, as we are very invested in the writing of Elysian Shadows. We want players to want to talk to NPCs, rather than having them rushing through towns trying to avoid pointless conversation at all costs.

Will there be races other than human in the game? If not, will there be a good variety of human archetypes?

There will definitely be nonhuman races, with robots and mechs being the biggest outside race we have currently announced. We are still developing other, organic races, but the bots do play a pretty significant role in our storyline. As far as human archetypes go, that’s definitely something we’re planning on having, especially when we introduce the “job” system and different trades and vocations into the world of Elysian Shadows.

A game like this requires a great deal of monsters and baddies to fight. Can we expect a good variety, and most importantly, some huge bosses?

Oh, it absolutely will. We kind of love the idea of creating our own little funky creatures inhabiting the world of ES … We take a lot of notes from games like Poke’mon (haha), Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest here, and we want to create a well-rounded bestiary of creatures and critters that people will come to know as inhibiting our world. And it’s funny you ask about the bosses.

We’re currently working on creating our first boss encounter as the main focus of AiGD26. He’s a gigantic, mean, pissed-off boss golem, inspired as a kind of mechanical, steampunk-infused Shadow of the Colossus boss lurking deep within our ruins. We released some pretty cool concepts of him on our Facebook page, and the fans loved him!

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Since this is primarily a pixel art based game, are you planning on having bosses/enemies with multiple sprites/components that you can attack, individually?

Wow, good question! Yes, absolutely, and the aforementioned boss will really be our first exercise of pulling this off with our engine… We invested a pretty significant amount of R&D time into trying to create a sprite-based animation system that gives us full control to create complex animations as the aggregates of individual sprite components. So we’re about to see what it is capable of!

So is combat real time, or turned based? Also, do you plan on having a stamina gauge (or something similar) to encourage players to think more tactfully?

It’s absolutely real-time. Think Secret of Mana meets something like God of War. We want to create something very fast-paced, fluid, and action-oriented while still trying to maintain high levels of RPG-style strategy. We are trying to avoid becoming a button-masher at all costs.

At this point, we haven’t really seen any need for a stamina gauge. We’re designing attacks and combos such that they have various speeds and damage ratios and hopefully enough variations and tactical differences to discourage button-mashing. Spells are still bounded by the traditional MP gauge, so feel free to spam them, but you’re going to run out of MP.

How varied will the skills and available classes be? Are we talking a few, or dozens?

We are definitely talking dozens here. It would be shame to invest so much time and energy into our product and engine to fall short in the content area. We’ve been developing a system of learning skills, spells, and magic that allow us to simultaneously give each party member their own unique “feel” while allowing players to customize their specific play styles for current situations through the job systems.

There are at least two branches of spell and ability acquisition—one based on the character’s overall level, which gives them unique abilities based on their own innate aptitudes. The second path of ability acquisition is through job leveling, which gives players control to fundamentally mold and sculpt specific strengths and focuses of each party member.

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 I’m a huge music nut, both in games and outside of them. Tell me about this 3D positional and dynamic music—will I be hearing all kinds of wild stuff with headphones on?

Connor’s music with Falco’s Audio Engine is arranged so that based on the player’s current situation we can dynamically fade in and out different background loops. So if an enemy sees you, we can fade in more instruments, heightening the tension, and as you fight it, even more instruments are added for more tension. As you play, the background music is interacting with you just as much as any other part of the game.

We can also then have other audio tracks layered on top for wind, rain, fire and atmospheric ambience to make sure what you see on the screen is being reflected in your speakers/headphones. For sound effects and any other audio we can attach it to certain locations, so if it’s coming from the left of your character, the noise will come from the left headphone and same with all other directions.

I’ve been brainstorming how to make the audio for Elysian Shadows as immersive and interactive as possible, and Falco has been able to implement everything pretty easily so we’re definitely trying to push the limits of what people have come to expect from basic video game audio!

You mention that the soundtrack will be comprised of mostly SNES and Genesis era synths. So you’re not going for a hybridization of modern samples (instruments or not) and synth?

The soundtrack is going to be a mix of both old and new gear and recording techniques. I am inspired by the games we all played growing up and love but also do not want to impose any artificial limits on what I can do. Our screenshots are actually a really good representation of what I want to do with the soundtrack; it’s pixel art and has an oldschool feel, but we have tons of features that are way more complex than what could have been implemented on the Super Nintendo, such as our lighting and shadows, so that mix of old and new is what I want to do with the audio.

Connor can also sing, and can play guitar, bass, turntables, and drums, so the audio world of Elysian Shadows is like a giant open book waiting to be conquered. We also think Connor’s survival horror background and DIY/self-taught background in music will add an interesting dynamic that will hopefully make Elysian Shadows have a unique and memorable soundtrack

When your game is finished, are you going to go all out and release a limited print run on Dreamcast? I can only imagine how wickedly awesome that would be.

Absolutely. Not sure if you got the news yet, but we actually have an official publisher now for the Sega Dreamcast, Watermelon Corp (WHOOO!!). They’re the guys behind Pier Solar for Genesis/Mega Drive, and they’re currently working on bringing Pier Solar HD to the Dreamcast and many other platforms… They have invested a great deal of time and resources into creating an infrastructure allowing them to create professional, physical Dreamcast releases, as though you just bought the game off the shelf from Sega in back in 2000.

These guys are serious retro gamers, and they pride themselves in creating physical releases with an “authentic feel.” You can absolutely be certain Elysian Shadows will get the same epic, deluxe physical release treatment.

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When can we expect your highly anticipated Kickstarter to go live?

We’re actually about to have a team meeting later today regarding going public with the official launch date and starting the real-time countdown timer on our site. It’s looking very, very probable that the Kickstarter will go live August 1st.

Lastly, do you have anything to say to your fans, and to your potential fans?

First of all, we just wanted to thank you guys at Niche Gamer for this awesome interview. We have never been asked such deep questions before, and it has been really fun elaborating on some of these topics publicly.

As for our fans and potential fans, I would encourage you guys to follow our progress on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, and especially to check out our YouTube series “Adventures in Game Development,” where you will get a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Elysian Shadows, and you will see first-hand the blood, sweat, tears, and commitment that have gone into this project…

After the last few videos and press releases, things have really gotten serious for us and the project. After receiving a publishing deal and some initial investor funding, our lead developer just took the leap of faith of quitting his high-paying engineering job to work full-time on Elysian Shadows, moving towards the Kickstarter. We have received a tremendous amount of support from the community, and our team has decided that it’s time to go all-in. We’re off to a fantastic start, but we have a long few months ahead of us!

With your help, not only could we bring you guys our dream game on our long-list of currently targeted platforms, but we can also bring it to other platforms like the PS3, PS4, Vita, 3DS, Xbox One, and Wii U … We also have quite a few other surprises in store for you guys as Kickstarter rewards and stretch goals!

That’s a wrap. We want to thank the team at Elysian Shadows for being so incredibly cool, and for having such crazy passion for crafting a truly unique RPG.

You can expect their Kickstarter to possibly go live in August then—we’ll be keeping you guys up to date with all of their development, so please stay tuned!


Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry.

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