Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios

Soulstice’s dark fantasy is fueled by Unreal Engine

September 19, 2022
Fabio Pagetti, Game and Creative Director at Reply Game Studios, has been in the games industry since 1999, and in that time has worked on all sorts of projects and platforms of various sizes. He began as a graphic artist; then worked as an Art Director. Later on, following his interests and aspirations, he took the opportunity to become a Game Designer. After joining Reply Game Studios, he became the studio’s Creative Director in 2012.
Inspired by Japanese dark fantasy masterpieces like Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and Norihiro Yagi’s Claymore, Italy-based developers Reply Game Studios set out in early 2018 to make the leap to AA game development with its own take on a highly stylized action game.

Aspiring to achieve something akin to Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, and Nier: Automata, the team created Soulstice, a game built around the story of sisters Briar and Lute–one alive and one dead–who set out to reclaim a city ravaged by wraiths and restore order to their world.

We spoke with Fabio Pagetti, game and creative director at the studio, about how the team came up with Soulstice’s unique game mechanics empowered by Unreal Engine, grew a studio during a pandemic, and how being awarded an Epic MegaGrant energized and motivated the team at just the right moment.
 

Reply Game Studios has been around for about a decade now, first as Forge Reply and now as Reply Game Studios. Over that time, it initially focused on mobile and then expanded to include VR and AA games. What has the team learned over that decade of growth and evolution and what sorts of lessons does it bring now to its creations?

Fabio Pagetti, Game and Creative Director at Reply Game Studios: We started as a team in 2011, when the games industry was still heavily affected by certain barriers, especially in terms of tech and access to console platforms. The Italian ecosystem was also really different at the time. Our team was created with long-term ambitions, but it was necessary to grow organically and raise the stakes progressively. After releasing our first game, Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, in 2013-2014, we decided to switch to Unreal Engine, which had been used by the most senior members of our team in the past. Our long-term goal was to drive the evolution of the studio towards a stage where we could actually establish a foothold in the AA scene. The first step we took was Theseus, which was conceived for flatscreen but was later turned into a VR adventure. And 2018 actually marked a new start for us, because it was immediately clear that Soulstice would become our biggest project, by several orders of magnitude.

How did the studio come up with the idea for Soulstice and how has the game evolved since its inception?

Pagetti:
After our VR game Theseus, we wanted to switch back to flat screen gaming, and we meant to do so with a format that could work from both a productive and a commercial point of view. Theseus was an adventure created with unique set pieces, but we knew we had to adopt a different approach and go for something more flexible and modular. From the genre point of view, we were aware that the action/style playfield was not as crowded as others were; we felt it could allow us to develop a AA game with good production values, which could even aspire to the likes of genre masterpieces like Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, or even Nier: Automata – with proper proportions. Moreover, the team was eager to put their skills to the test with a game in this genre. The dual-character setup was my idea to try and spice things up with something a little more unique, engaging, and functional in an already well-established genre.
Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios
The Briar and Lute dynamic–two sisters, one alive and one dead–plays a big role in the game. How did the studio come up with the concept behind the mechanic and how has it shaped gameplay?

Pagetti:
I had one vision in mind, about a strong single-player combat experience that relied upon the coexistence of two different characters. I shared this vision with the design team, and we worked together to refine this vision, adding more and more layers to establish some basic gameplay principles. The concept that the two protagonists would cooperate on the battlefield constantly, as well as the red and blue Fields to cast so as to make certain enemies vulnerable, both come from this very early stage of the pre-production. The idea of having two female protagonists, and two sisters in particular, also took shape during that phase. I felt that, with two sisters, we could also tell an engaging story about overcoming great difficulties together, sticking to each other no matter what.

Because of the game’s title, some people expect it to be a Souls-like. Is that something you realized would happen early on and have you done anything to address that potential confusion?

Pagetti:
I thought of many different titles, but I had this idea of a certain key event in the history of the game world, the Solstice of Souls … And I knew that I wanted that to be in the title in some way. I went for this name without actually giving much thought to the soulslike genre, because I was convinced that anyone watching even a few seconds of gameplay would recognize what kind of experience it offers. On the other hand, there have not been so many hack ‘n’ slash games over the last few years, and in the meantime, “soulslike” has become more and more widespread in the game jargon. So, yes, there has been some confusion when the game was announced, but it was clarified as we started showing and talking about Soulstice in deeper detail.

How did you balance the complexity of controlling two characters at the same time while still making the game feel approachable and dynamic?

Pagetti:
Lute, our ghost character, is actually there to help the player have an intense, yet smooth single-player experience. We took inspiration from free-flow combat games, where you constantly react to the enemy surrounding and coming at you in droves. We decided to manage these counters through a separate character, adding further features about crowd control and ranged attacks. We took this approach so that the player could actually dominate the battlefield in Soulstice, setting their own pace and goals, without the melee flow being slowed down or interrupted.
Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios
How did the team come up with the sorts of weapons that would become unlockable and upgradeable over time?

Pagetti:
We wanted Briar to have a signature weapon that would also define her as an Ashen Knight. This weapon would be dual in its functioning, landing quick blows as a sword (the Ashen Vindicator), and heavy ones as a warhammer (the Ashen Enforcer). However, we also wanted Briar to wield other weapons as well. It was a two-way process, which was carried out in sync with the enemy combat design. Several weapons were developed with specific enemies in mind, with a straightforward (but effective) rock-paper-scissors structure in mind. We would have the Tearing Penance, our whip, if we didn’t have swarms of weaker enemies swarming upon you. On the other hand, the Hand of Retribution, a gauntlet/shield mash-up, makes sense specifically because we also wanted certain enemies within the game to wear breakable armor sets. The Hallowed Hunter, which is a bow, is especially effective against flying enemies, and so on. We always meant each weapon to have their set of unlockable combos, but we also added a proficiency system to make each weapon more effective against their target of choice, or more versatile in general.

The game’s story sounds like a compelling take on dark fantasy. What video games, movies, and other fiction inspired the story and setting of Soulstice?

Pagetti:
When it comes to the setting and the story, Soulstice is clearly inspired by the masterpieces of Japanese dark fantasy, especially Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and Norihiro Yagi’s Claymore. But the game is meant to pay a tribute to these manga and anime, and not be a copy. Especially because we are European, and Italian in particular, we made sure to add our own touch to everything we did as we developed the game.
Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios
Speaking of the setting, the game seems absolutely packed with stunning backdrops, level design and lighting. How did Unreal Engine help you achieve the look of Soulstice?

Pagetti:
Unreal Engine offered invaluable help to the whole team as we worked on Soulstice. The engine helped us pull off something really striking, while also safeguarding performance. It’s not just about the work of our (amazing) artists, but also the tools that the designers had at their disposal in prototyping autonomously the blockout levels, and even the specific mechanics that we wanted to implement in the game.

The enemy and character design of the game is also very captivating. Can you walk us through how you used Unreal to breathe life into your early concept work and how those designs evolved over time?

Pagetti:
We have different types and classes of enemies in Soulstice: there are the Corrupted humans who were touched by the tainted hand of Chaos, Wraiths (the blue enemies), and Possessed (the red ones). This trio was conceived early in the pre-production stage, and we strived to make the mechanics related to each immediately clear, but also visually interesting. Moreover, the closer you get to the tear that opened in the sky over the city of Ilden, the more sinister and twisted things become. It was important that we could convey this otherworldly feeling to the players, and that encompassed the whole production pipeline. The process started with an open conversation between designers and concept artists, and then character artists, animators, VFX artists, and so on, every one of them had the opportunity (and the tools) to add something unique to each creature.
Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios
The game’s use of entropy, cobalt, crystal and rapture, all add new layers to the game. Can you walk us through how they work and interplay with one another?

Pagetti:
We have already hinted at the different types of enemies, especially the Wraiths and the Possessed. These classes are also related to the Fields that Lute can cast, the blue Evocation Field and the red Banishment Field. Simply put, these enemies are invulnerable when not under the influence of the proper Field. You need to cast the proper Field to face each enemy, and that sounds simple enough, but when different creatures get mixed up, things become quite challenging. Moreover, most Possessed actually release the Wraiths haunting them when they are defeated, and if you do not destroy those Wraiths in time, they will revive their former host. Once we nailed these combat mechanics, we also decided that they would have to work as consistently even in the exploration phases; and in boss fights, too!

The game’s over-the-top boss battles bring all of the game’s mechanics together in neat packages. What challenges did you have to overcome to deliver these moments to Soulstice?

Pagetti:
Boss fights are key to an engaging hack ‘n’ slash experience, and we wanted to match (and possibly go beyond) players’ expectations in this regard. We made sure that each boss would present a specific challenge, with dedicated mechanics and visuals for each one. The Arrowhead that is featured in our Steam demo is a perfect example, with special attacks, different phases, and so on. And that’s only the first boss fight of the game!

You feature five difficulty levels in the game. How does the title change, specifically, as you switch between them?

Pagetti:
We have five difficulty levels, and three are available right away as you play the game for the first time. Each level determines how much damage the enemies inflict and the amount of health they have, but there’s more. When you beat the game at “Knight” (hard), you also unlock the next difficulty level, “Chimera,” and you can unlock the final one, “Transcended,” in the same way. At “Chimera” and “Transcended,” the game also changes the composition of each enemy wave, presenting you with a much bigger challenge. Luckily enough, when you start the game again, your progress is carried over to the new playthrough!
Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios
How did receiving an Epic MegaGrant impact the studio and the design of Soulstice?

Pagetti:
The MegaGrant came before we announced Soulstice, at a time when it was hard for us to gather feedback from the outside world. As a result, beyond the material support that we received, the MegaGrant was an opportunity for us to see that the worth of our work had been noticed and acknowledged. It motivated us to do our best to develop the best game possible!

Were there any particular challenges you overcame as a studio that you’d like to walk us through?

Pagetti:
As we started working on Soulstice in early 2018, our team was made of only 13 people. We knew we had to grow and nurture a team that could turn our vision into reality, so we underwent a massive recruitment effort. In the meantime, we also had to set up pre-production, as well as a proper workflow for the whole studio. We also wanted to develop a prototype by the end of the same year, and we managed to do that by the end of October. That was one big challenge, because the destiny of the whole project would depend on those first steps. That was not the only one, however. There were many others that we had to face along the way, because every game is a massive collective undertaking, even more so when you are dealing with a new genre, and with a project of a much larger scale than anything you have dealt with before as a team. Then the pandemic struck, but we managed to stay the course and brave the storm until we could get back to working together safely last year. But more challenges awaited us, as we approached the final stretch of the development process. You’re never done, really, but that’s what makes game development both tiring and exciting!
Image courtesy of Reply Game Studios
What are your thoughts on Unreal Engine 5 and what it can deliver to future gaming projects? Are there any particular bits of technology that most excite you?

Pagetti:
Due to timing, we used Unreal 4.27 for Soulstice, but we are eager to start working with Unreal Engine 5 on our next project! Now that our work on our game is almost done, our team is practicing and experimenting with the new tech. There’s so much stuff we will have the chance to learn and master, but if I have to highlight one specific feature, I am especially excited about Lumen. We did a great job with the lighting and post-production in Soulstice, and we can’t wait to see what we can create with the new version of the engine.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Where can people learn more about Reply Game Studios and Soulstice?

Pagetti:
Soulstice will be released on September 20 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. You can check out the official game website at soulsticegame.com, and follow our studio on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks a lot for reading, and we truly hope that you enjoy everything Soulstice has to offer!

    Get Unreal Engine today!

    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool.
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.
    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024
    Event
    February 13

    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024

    Tune in to the State of Unreal for the latest announcements from Epic and our partners, dive deep with our tech talks, and get inspired and informed with our sessions and learning theater.
    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024
    Event

    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024

    Tune in to the State of Unreal for the latest announcements from Epic and our partners, dive deep with our tech talks, and get inspired and informed with our sessions and learning theater.
    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products
    News
    February 15

    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products

    Retro cafes, rustic interiors, low-poly towns, customizable NPC characters…February’s Marketplace sale has something for everyone. Act now to get this month’s selection of goodies at half price.
    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products
    News

    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products

    Retro cafes, rustic interiors, low-poly towns, customizable NPC characters…February’s Marketplace sale has something for everyone. Act now to get this month’s selection of goodies at half price.
    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024
    News
    February 6

    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024

    Fantasy interiors, stylized crystal mines, a trip back to the 90s, and more—February’s free 3D assets from the Unreal Engine Marketplace have landed!
    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024
    News

    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024

    Fantasy interiors, stylized crystal mines, a trip back to the 90s, and more—February’s free 3D assets from the Unreal Engine Marketplace have landed!