Image courtesy of TiGames

F.I.S.T. Forged in Shadow Torch is a critically-praised anthropomorphic dieselpunk Metroidvania game

Brian Crecente |
November 10, 2021

Isaac Zhang has 18 years of experience in game development. He worked at Epic Games China for eight years, where he was responsible for the technical support of Unreal Engine and then as a game producer. Next, he worked for Tencent exploring cutting-edge technologies and new platform businesses. At present, he is the founder and CEO of TiGames, where Zhang is working on bringing F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch and other upcoming games to players.
Layering a dieselpunk art design over the rich tapestry of a Shanghai-influenced cosmopolitan city, F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch is an eye-catching Metroidvania-style game starring a mech-arm-wielding anthropomorphic jackrabbit and a supporting cast of animals. The action-adventure game, which was a MegaGrant recipient, has been praised for its mastery of the genre and unforgettable world-building. In its review, Cubed3 wrote “Everything about this title is a joy and great, engaging gameplay is complemented by a beautiful world that springs to life on the PS5 both visually in its setting as well as its characters and stories.”

We chatted with developer TiGames CEO Isaac Zhang about the game’s artful design, how it sought inspiration from a Hayao Miyazaki classic, and why the studio decided to cast a rabbit as its heroic protagonist.
 

How did TiGames come about and what sort of experiences do you hope to create?

TiGames CEO Isaac Zhang:
Ti in the name of the studio refers to the hardest metal, which implies that our studio consists of a group of hardcore game players who focus on developing hardcore action games.

Why are you developing the game in Unreal Engine?

Zhang:
The core members of TiGames have been developing games with Unreal Engine for more than 15 years, since UE version 2.5, through their entire development careers. UE4 opening its source code in 2015 led to the rapid growth of the development community, making it possible for an indie game team to take advantage of cutting-edge technology. Thus, we will stick with UE for the foreseeable future.

The look of the game's jackrabbit protagonist, Rayton, is great. How did you come up with his design, and why a rabbit?

Zhang:
From the very beginning, we realized that no human character would be as universal and acceptable as an animal character. People define rabbits as a kind of weak and vulnerable creature, so when a rabbit becomes a silent veteran wielding a giant mechanical fist, Rayton becomes a memorable character with intense inner conflict.

In the game’s story, this mechanical fist is removed from the armor that Rayton used to drive in a failed war against aggression six years ago. We designed Rayton wielding one fist instead of two because the imbalance and incomplete shape is an external symbol of his psychological trauma from losing that war.

The F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch aesthetic of dieselpunk with an Asian architecture backdrop is compelling. What inspired the game’s look and art style?

Zhang:
We chose the dieselpunk art style mainly because of its use as a kind of retro-future expressionism. The diesel engines first appeared in the period of the industrial revolution and became a manifestation of industrialization and militarization, which is in line with the background story of the game. In the meantime, we referred to Shanghai in the early 20th century, which was a city integrating Eastern and Western culture and reflected a rich cultural atmosphere. The complex social stratification in Shanghai is also an inspiration for us in designing game maps.

What inspired the creation of your complex Metroidvania world?

Zhang:
Back when we started to outline F.I.S.T. in 2018, most of our designers were addicted to several outstanding Metroidvania games, even spending more time with them than on AAA games. The basic concept of a Metroidvania game is more like an open-world game despite its 2D perspective. This became an opportunity for us to use UE to construct a modern Metroidvania game with top-class 3D graphics.
Image courtesy of TiGames
The game’s graphics are gorgeous. What elements of Unreal Engine did you use to push the game’s textures and rendering?

Zhang:
We have been using Layered Materials in UE4 to produce the game’s textures and materials. We built a texture library of metal, fibral, wood, and glass with Material Functions. Most of the items in the levels are small-scale Texture Masks mixing the textures in the library, which makes it possible for us to fill the entire game world in a short time. And mixing textures unified but also diversified the visualization of the game. 

F.I.S.T. has an interesting soundtrack. What made you decide to use this specific genre of music for the game, and how was it composed?

Zhang:
This is what our composer Caisheng Bo said:

“There were two major factors I was contemplating when composing for F.I.S.T. Firstly, F.I.S.T.'s take on the style of dieselpunk conveys a strong visual message. It is a retro futuristic world where cold steel pipes and steam heat cover the streets. When I looked at the visual designs in the early development phase, I immediately thought about using pan drums and other metallic percussion instruments to help to outline a more convincing dieselpunk environment. This decision meant that I had to curve the writing style that I was accustomed to, to a more percussion-oriented way, since metal instruments were mostly born to be slammed. The overwhelmingly, apparent percussion sounds in the soundtrack are a direct result of this.

Secondly, F.I.S.T. is a Metroidvania game. We all know music is important in helping with game's narration. This is even more so in Metroidvania games, in which ways of storytelling are confined. The common game narration tools—cutscenes, long dialogue, and item collection—tend to slow down the pace of an action game, which some players don't like. This is where music comes to light. As mentioned above, now the pan drums and other metal instruments had the stage set up, the story of the protagonist needed to be told. And it needed to be told in a more personal way. By "personal," I mean more "organic" in contrast to the lifeless metals clamoring in the background. A nylon guitar was my final pick after a few tests. It was the best candidate to picture the story of a veteran, haunted by his past, nevertheless embarking on his final mission. I wrote a short repetitive musical motif that the guitar plays, representing the veteran and his past. This motif was scattered across the entire game, from the beginning of the game to the final battle, reminding the player about the veteran's struggle. 

In short, I did not stick with the common musical symbols of dieselpunk (blues, jazz, swing, etc.) when composing for F.I.S.T. because F.I.S.T. is such a unique game with a distinctive style. It calls for a fresh-sounding soundtrack. Rather than borrowing from the musical norms, I experimented with new ideas and put together my own color palette—pan drum, guitar, percussion-oriented writing, the veteran motif. I hope these could bring a breath of fresh air into the game's sound experience and further strengthen the game’s memorable adventure.”
Image courtesy of TiGames
Were there any particular books, movies, or games that inspired the animals-against-machines story of F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch?

Zhang:
We started to design the game world by designing the character. Rayton the rabbit refers to the protagonist Porco in Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. They both are retired pilots and living in seclusion but choose different ways to stand up to the great power. Meanwhile, Rayton's rival is another rabbit who once was Rayton’s comrade. The idea of once-friends-become-enemies was from several classic films like Face/Off and A Better Tomorrow.

What else can you tell us about the game’s rich universe and backstory?

Zhang:
You may notice that the citizens in the city are all animals—we call them furtizens. In this world, we only humanize mammals but keep other kinds of animals like insects and birds as animals themselves; in this way, we make sure that the world is pluralistic and variable on species.

Do you have future plans for the world of F.I.S.T. after this game?

Zhang:
Of course. We are so passionate about the world that F.I.S.T. built for both its characters and environment, and we expect to expand it to create more games and dive into other mediums like comics and animation. But for now, we are still focused on the PC version of F.I.S.T. and the potential DLC.

The combat in the game looks like a blend of brawler and fighter, with the inclusion of parries, a rich set of chained attacks, and combos. How did you come up with this take on F.I.S.T.’s combat?

Zhang:
We decided to merge the system of action games with the Metroidvania genre from the prototype stage. To create a fresh action experience, we designed three unique weapons, the Fist, the Drill, and the Whip, with variable and distinguishing combos to make it become the core element of the character’s growth. At a later stage, we tried to link the combos with different weapons, so that it enriches the possibility of the action system [and] reaches new heights.

For every player to experience it, we reduced level-growth elements. This way, players will pay more attention to combos and invent their own style.

Are there any particular features of Unreal Engine that you found more useful in bringing your game to life?

Zhang:
The Level Streaming system in UE is what we have been relying on. As a Metroidvania game, F.I.S.T. has a large-scale 2D game map, which needed to be separated into hundreds of sub-levels. Thus, F.I.S.T. would not be possible in its current state without the Level Streaming system.
Image courtesy of TiGames
Were there any ways that PlayStation 5’s next-gen features helped shape the game?

Zhang:
PS5 is the best platform to play F.I.S.T. on, not only because of its native 4K 60fps performance but also because of its unique Haptic Feedback DualSense controller. With that feature, players will experience various kinds of vibration in different situations and that will better immerse them into the game. This is a big part for us to shape the game since we first knew about this new feature.

What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Zhang:
TiGames is still working with UE4, but now that F.I.S.T. has launched on PS5, we are very interested in developing for next-gen using UE5 and we’re imagining what the cutting-edge system will bring to games. In addition, World Partition is another feature that we are looking forward to. We believe that these features will empower us to develop a next-gen Metroidvania game.
Image courtesy of TiGames
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about TiGames and F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch?

Zhang:
We highly recommend players to follow our social media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, and Weibo if you speak Chinese. This is where you’ll get the latest information on F.I.S.T. and our future games. We hope our games bring you joy!

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