One of the games that we're most looking forward to this year is Aztez, and indie title that mashes together two very disparate genres along with an incredibly strong visual style that throws black against white with a dash of blood red. It's also grounded in history, and we're suckers for that sort of thing, so there's a plethora of reasons why we've got our beady little eyes on this one.
The game's being made by Team Colorblind, a two-man team consisting of Ben Ruiz and Matthew Wegner. Wegner, Aztez's programmer, is also co-chair of the Indie Games Festival (among other things), and so indie games are in his blood. It's a similar story for Ruiz, who aside from acting as artist, animator, and combat designer on Aztez, is also a judge at the Independent Games Festival. It's Ruiz who sent us the demo that we played for this preview, and it was Ruiz who was on hand on to talk to us after we'd played it, explaining the game's different facets.
The demo gave us a tantalising insight into Aztez, but it also left us with as many questions as we had answers. Its sole focus was on the beat 'em up part of the game, but Aztez is also a turn-based strategy, and while we were able to get a good idea of how the combat feels, when we hung up our controller we were still scratching our heads as to how the whole would fit together. Luckily for us Ben Ruiz was on hand to answer our questions.
"The other half of the game is turn-based," he started by way of explanation, "and it's all about expanding and maintaining the empire. Whenever you begin a new game, you're looking at a map of the Valley Of Mexico 100 years before the Spanish show up. At first, there is no empire; only the legendary Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Your job is to build an empire from scratch by turning as many of the independent city-states around you into tributaries to establish income, and then using either money or power to prevent the tributaries from revolting. Meanwhile, there are special political events in the empire that occur every turn that you address by entering the location of the event and engaging in real-time beat 'em up combat."
Ruiz then went on to highlight a couple of examples, giving us a much clearer idea of how the strategy component would play out: "If you have a tributary that suddenly breaks out into a plague, it's your job to get in there and exterminate the sick denizens, who are of course attempting to defend themselves. If you win, you curb the plague, and receive a tribute boost in the next turn. If you lose, the tributary succumbs to plague and becomes ruins, disrupting your flow of tribute. We intend to make the experience by binding the two gameplay types so tightly together. Everything you do in one affects the other, and so you're always thinking and all actions and fights are meaningful."
Having played though the demo, we can confirm that the beat 'em up aspect of the game is shaping up very nicely. On the surface it's a standard combat engine, accentuated by the lush aesthetic. Scratching under the surface, however, reveals surprising depth and replayability. After just a few rounds we were stringing together combos, using the edges of the environment to launch mid-air attacks, switching between weapons mid-stage, and generally having a jolly old time in the process. When we went back to Ruiz, one thing we were interested in was hearing about his and the studio's influences.
"My influences are, on one hand, sensational and rich beat 'em ups that have a lot to offer mechanically but also look and feel great," he explained. "On the other hand, we've got randomly generated adventures like Weird Worlds, that offer a fresh experience many many times over, and without taking up a lot of your time. All of the events and locations and distribution of factors in Aztez will be randomised. We're trying to create a beat 'em up experience that is actually replayable the way great games like Weird Worlds, Spelunky, and Teleglitch are. As far as we know that's never been done!"
We can't think of anything either, and in one sentence he's name-dropped a trio of titles that has us salivating. Then we're moving on, same subject, but with a Triple-A lean: "Bayonetta to me is the single best feeling beat ‘em up of all time. In no other game does it feel as good to push a button, watch the attack fire, and then observe its response on the environment. The effects are spectacular, the animation is flawless, and the audio is perfectly weird and impactful. The influence I draw from Bayonetta is this immense stack of factors that make the attack mechanics feel good."
"Alien Vs. Predator is a sensational orgy of violence and power," Ruiz continues, looking back at the twenty year old title (likely) with nostalgia in his eyes, "and seeing it being played in 1994 for the first time ended up being one of the most important moments of my entire life. When played at a higher level, the game becomes an olympic level display of finesse and grace. The influence I draw from AVP is to be so over-the-top remarkable at a glance that people can't take their eyes of it."
"And Devil May Cry 4 is a strong influence on me because it did something really important; it opened the Devil May Cry doors without bringing the ceiling down. What I mean is the game was made leagues more accessible than it's notoriously hardcore predecessor by rebuilding the game's classic feel without the clunk and the stiffness. However, it didn't become a less high level game as there's still a startlingly high skill ceiling. I love this because the alternative is to do what Ninja Theory did to DMC Devil May Cry, which is to lower the ceiling, which ultimately hurts a game's longevity. My take away from DMC4 is to create something with larger doors but without compromising the depth of my game. This seems like a no-brainer, but it takes a huge amount of self-awareness to do both, and I've made a point to desperately cling to this idea since I realised it."
But why these two particular genres? Why bind together two completely different types of game and risk alienating a prospective audience with polar opposite game types? Could there be a such a thing as too much gameplay diversity? "We worried about aiming at two different types of player originally, and it's part of the reason we've scrapped and rebuilt the strategy game in its earlier stages. What we've built now is ultimately about controlling a large chaos pot through combat events, and even the most hardcore meat-headed action game maniacs (like myself) enjoy."
"We've married these two types of games because we're both so bored of the standard beat 'em up formula of "Have a fight, walk into next room, grab ledges, have a fight, walk into next room" etc. Beat 'em ups are running on a 25 year old formula with so much more to offer and that's all we're trying to do," and when he puts it like that, it's difficult to disagree with him. We've played plenty of beat 'em ups over the years, but they nearly all fall into the same groove sooner or later.
Given the disparate genres at play, and the distinctive visuals, we wondered whether the simplistic graphical style might be hinderance as well as an eye-catching selling point. While it's easy to see what's going on during the combat (for the most part), we asked whether there were any issues relating to clarity in the strategy part of the game: "The visual style is a HUGE limitation in both the combat parts of the game and the strategy. But to be honest, I really like that. To me limitations are really fun to work around, and they make success even sweeter."
Limitations or no, we're still looking forward to getting our hands on the next build of Aztez, and even more so to playing through the finished product. The beat 'em up side of the game is already in a great place, so it just remains to be seen on what Team Colorblind can deliver on the strategy side of things. If they can get that right we could well have a very good game on our hands.
But while we have our fingers firmly crossed, all we can really comment on now is the combat demo. After spending some time learning its subtleties, we began to really appreciate what we've played so far. The action is much more substantial than the opening round would have you believe. Once we'd got into our stride we started to really enjoy ourselves, stringing together more complex attacks and lasting longer and longer until we were able to survive the full duration of the demo.
It also sounds like our experience with the demo wasn't an atypical one: "The inevitable timeline of an Aztez player is at first to be overwhelmed, then learn to mash, then learn to play stylishly when later enemies punish mashing. Players who continue to play past that point and evolve become absolute war gods, which is exactly the type of experience I was trying to create when I started developing this game."
Aztez is coming out sometime in 2014, and it'll be appearing on a variety of different platforms (Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita and PC - including Oculus Rift). For more information you can sign up for email updates by heading here.