Downward Raises Expectations for Small Teams
Downward is a first-person open-world parkour adventure set in the medieval ruins of a post-apocalyptic world. While that description might take a little time to wrap your head around, the game’s impact on your senses is immediate.
Developed in Unreal Engine 4 by the three-person team at Caracal Games in Rome, Italy, Downward is set centuries after a cataclysmic environmental event and tasks players with seeking out the mysterious artefacts that could have a role in explaining the "End of the Earth".
Fittingly, the team behind the project has leaned on Unreal to navigate around the challenges of development to reach its goals and, in the process, helped to raise the bar for indies by showing first hand that big things can come from small teams.
I caught up with Caracal PR coordinator Alex Angelini to find out more about the project and the ways in which UE4 has enabled this small yet passionate group of developers to bring Downward to life.
How did the original concept for the game come about?
We wanted to develop something truly original, re-interpreting the Post-Apocalyptic theme in a historical and “esoteric” key, which immediately convinced us as something worth exploring.
In doing this, we thought that the best way to get into the context of our medieval world could have been through the use of parkour mechanics, as first-person parkour is something mostly confined to contemporary or futuristic settings.
For the artistic inspiration, we own a lot to the works of Frank Frazetta - and even more - of Roger Dean, which inspired the overall visual feeling of the game.
What can you tell us about the game’s story and setting?
All begins when three stray planets mysteriously start to orbit the Earth's atmosphere bringing death, disaster, and the end of an era.
Many years after that we set off on humanity’s final adventure, to seek out an explanation for the apocalypse that changed the Earth as we know it.
Taking advantage of parkour techniques and of the mysterious "anomalies" we traverse astonishing and dangerous ruins of past civilizations, all to find the legendary artifacts meant to control the deadly calamities that came to this world.
Was it difficult to get the feel for first-person parkour or did it seem to work right away?
Yes, it’s been quite difficult to achieve the right feel for first-person parkour as we are a rather small team with limited resources, and we had to make do and adjust it along the way, making treasure of all the feedback we could receive.
Reaching something satisfactory it’s been particularly challenging also due to how the market is at the moment, as people tend to associate parkour games mostly to AAA titles and are quite strict on how a parkour game should feel and run.
We tried to balance gameplay more towards platform and exploration than pure parkour action, which allowed us to bypass several problems related to keeping up with the pace of AAA parkour games – often putting speed and flow as topmost priority like in Mirror’s Edge – which in turn required us to focus a lot also on other gameplay mechanics that could balance and complete the gameplay.
A lot of the parkour “feel” comes - other than from the system itself - from the addition of the right sounds and camera shaking effects, which contribute to build the parkour experience.
The visual style is rather stunning. Did you have the game’s look out of the gate or did you experiment with different styles before landing on the final one?
As mentioned above, Roger Dean was our reference point for the style from the get go. Taking inspiration from his illustrations was a real challenge as we had to try to transpose into 3D his beautiful 2D illustrations.
There was still an evolution in our style as we were going on, basically adapting it to the parkour nature of the game and following the principle that “whatever structure you see, you should be allowed to climb it”.
How do players customize their character’s ability and impact the environment throughout the adventure?
There are several skills and abilities you can use in Downward - some can be activated through a skill-tree while others are unlocked along with the story.
Of this second kind, “anomalies” allow you to learn new acrobatic movements that would be impossible with parkour only, while “planet activations” allow you to change the basic characteristics of the different areas and their colors, together with the different parkour paths you can unlock in the game world.
How many people have been working on Downward?
Caracal is a three-people team: a Game/Level designer/3D artist, a programmer and a PR guy, which tried their hardest in handling most of what you see in the game.
Along the way we’ve collaborated with different experts for concept and 2D art (Roberto “Pregium” Bianchi, Edoardo Cecalupo), 3D art (Stephen Messier, Bora Altay, Domenico di Caro), music (Brendon Williams), receiving also a lot of support from volunteers, testers and players from our community (in particular, Alexa Bianchini and Psp4804)… we don’t know if that counts strictly as “working”, but Downward wouldn’t have been the same without their support!
How has Unreal Engine helped bring the project to life?
Having the chance to work with Unreal Engine has been essential to implement a consistent workflow when handling programming and graphics thanks to the straightforwardness of the Blueprint system.
Also, the Unreal community is wide and very experienced and all the Unreal personnel is kind and always available to lend a hand in times of need.
Who do you think is the target audience for this game?
Downward finds its audience among 3D platform and parkour lovers, together with those that like and support independent productions for their innovative and creative mindset. It’s also aimed at those players that like and accept challenges and don’t want to be led by hand by the developers, together with all those that are attracted to creative and original visual designs.
Where can people go to learn more about the game?