Bleak Sword is a foreboding minimalist action game on Apple Arcade that draws easy comparisons to Dark Souls, with its brilliantly executed design. But it has enough personality and polish to be notable in its own right.
We spoke with Luis Jimenez, developer behind Bleak Sword and founder of the game company more8bit. While Bleak Sword is Jimenez's first game as an indie developer, he's worked as a game industry animator for over 16 years. Here's what he had to say about development of his highly-regarded first outing as an indie.
I like that pixel style has become something more than just a retro signifier. Bleak Sword uses pixel graphics, but also effects that aren't beholden to that style. Why did you decide to use them, and what do you think they add to the game?
I personally love the mix of 2D sprites, 3D environments and a few other techniques working together. It gives the game a unique look, and that certainly helped the game being noticed by Devolver at first, when I started posting videos and screenshots on Twitter. I would like to see more games mixing pixel art with modern techniques, like The Last Night or Octopath Traveller for example.
Stylistically, in both use of overt pixel art and also something in how characters are designed and animated, and the Jim Guthrie music, the game is reminiscent of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery. Is there any conscious borrowing?
Oh yeah I love Sword & Sworcery. In my opinion it's one of the games that showed the potential mobile gaming could have. I consider it a masterpiece, and the same goes for the soundtrack; it was amazing to have Jim, who I admire a lot, to do the music for Bleak Sword. I don't know if there's a conscious borrowing, but my pixel art style definitely was influenced by that game from the moment I saw it. I already loved pixel art by then, but Sword & Sworcery showed me the beauty of minimalism in pixel art.
Creating good touch screen controls are the bane of many developers. How much effort did you put into your own, and would you have any advice to other developers on using touch in their action games?
A LOT of effort and thought. Getting the touch controls right was one of the reasons to do the game in the first place; I wanted to do an action game with a purely touch-oriented system (with no virtual joysticks or trying to emulate a gamepad). I think I was fine-tuning the controls until very late in development. My advice would be to stop trying to replicate a gamepad in a touch screen, because without the physical feedback of the buttons and sticks it will never feel the same. Try to come up with creative ways of control using just the touch language (touch, hold, tap, swipe, etc.).
Bleak Sword is a game about learning and building skill; failure and improvement is part of its gameplay loop. Were you worried that players might reject that aspect of it?
Not really, I always knew Bleak Sword was a niche game, and besides that I think one should not worry too much about players at the beginning of the design. You should start making the game YOU want to play, some idea that gets you excited. That doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to feedback, but if you believe in the core idea of your game, you should go after it. There are more players than ever before, so chances are that if you like what you're making, some other people will like it too.
Bleak Sword has an aspect of it that throws away character advancement and items if the player fails, but gives them one extra chance at finishing the level they just attempted, and if they succeed they get them back. In an age where some claim failure should be "frictionless," this almost sounds like sandpaper, yet this decision gives Bleak Sword some of its personality. I'm reminded of classic arcade games. What inspired this play element? What would you say it adds to the game?
I thought it would add a layer of tension in that second attempt, knowing that if you die again, you will lose definitely the items you had. So there's the risk of losing it all, but also the "hell yeah" satisfaction if you finish the level. It's all about raising the stakes. I like games with challenges that keep you on the edge. Obviously From Software has popularized again that feeling with the "soulsborne" games. The mechanic is inspired by the second attempt Dark Souls gives you to recover your souls. Shovel Knight had also a similar mechanic that I though worked incredibly well to keep you on your toes.
The atmosphere of the game, from the monochrome-plus-one graphics, the music and the minimalist UI, is one of those cases where everything just seems to come together into a whole. From start to finish, how did you get this kind of feeling to the game?
It was an organic process really. When I started prototyping I had different ideas I wanted to try. In the end I mixed two ideas and from there everything sort of "clicked". One was pure gameplay, an arena based action game on little dioramas controlled with intuitive touch controls and the other one was a 2D mockup I did with sprites and setting very similar to what I ended up using in the game. I wanted to have a heavy and dark mood that would contrast with the minimalistic graphics.
Regarding the audio department, I had already gameplay when Jim [Guthrie] and Joonas Turner (the sound designer) came on board, so they could have a good sense of the mood, and after just a few conversations, both pretty much nailed the style from the get go.
The verbs available to the player have to be fairly limited in order to be suitable for touch, I think at least. Dodge, attack, strong attack. How did you keep the opponents varied and interesting within that limit means of interacting with them?
Yeah, I had it clear from the beginning that to be able to keep the game engaging and fun I needed to add constant variety in the form of new environments and enemies. I set a rule for myself to have three or four new enemies in every chapter. To keep them interesting I wrote down every possible idea I had on behaviors and actions I could come up with and then mixed and matched them to each new enemy based on what they were and where they would appear.
I tried to make them environmentally aware when possible too, so it would create new gameplay opportunities (like the tentacle that hides under water in the swamp levels). Another element I had taken into account was to mix enemies with complementary behaviors to appear in each level so the player had to think a little bit about the best strategy to deal with different situations.
The difficulty of Bleak Sword is finely honed. It's hard, it has to be challenging for the kind of game it is, but it's not too hard. How did you decide how hard that was? Did playtesting play a role in determining that, or was it something where you knew how hard it should be, and testing just added polish?
Yes, playtesting was crucial. Devolver Digital set up several sessions in different stages of development, and it helped tremendously, specially with the difficulty adjustment. When you work on a game you end up being very good at playing it, so if you are not careful or listen to feedback, you will end up with a hellish difficulty. I ended up leaving what I considered my "standard" difficulty as one of the hard modes.