For a turn-based universe, the research, creation and ramifications of real time would be as drastic as suddenly adding a third dimension to a world with just two. Just such an incident is tearing the world of Nova-111 asunder, as you have to rescue the titular 111 scientists and try to avert catastrophe.
But real time and turn-based games are usually diametrically opposed. There are certain instances where they try to intersect, with the turn-based empire management of Total War accompanied by the real time battles, or the Active Time Battles of Grandia or Child of Light letting characters take turns based on a timer. Nova-111 manages to weave the two concepts together in a much closer fashion.
It’s a concept that has been very difficult for the team to relay, as Eddie Lee, Funktronic Labs co-founder explained, “You talk about a turn-based game or a real time game, and when you say it’s a mix between those two people have no reference point to bounce off of. So we just tell them it’s like Speed Chess, where it’s turn-based but then it also has time pressure.
“It’s really hard to communicate, even with a trailer. We built a trailer to show it and people still get confused. It’s when they play it… it’s like a very [tacticle] thing. You’ve got to feel it.”
Of course, I will have to try and do just that, to explain how the game works. Each action you take acts as a turn, whether it’s a move, an attack or the use of one of your abilities, with all of the enemies and environmental elements then moving or triggering at the same time. It starts you off nice and simple with just turn-based elements to consider, allowing you to sit and think about your next move for as long as you like, but at the very start it’s easy to quickly push forward, uncovering the unknown that is hidden from view.
Certain rocks can block your path until you smash into and break them up, but then you come up against your first few enemies – odd little creatures called Chompers, which seem to be about 90% beak. There’s a pleasing little dance to the combat, whereby an enemy will signal an impending attack when next to you, giving you a chance to dodge out of the way and then butt into them with your box-like ship. Or, with multiple enemies around you, you can manipulate them into attacking one another when you shift back.
It is a precursor to the complexities that await, as the way that real and turn-based time intermix comes into focus. Passing under a stalactite sees it start to shake before coming loose and falling down at you from the cave’s ceiling, but it does this in real time, dropping down after just a second or two. So while you are still moving in turns, it gives you that push, that impetus to make sure you take that turn quickly, before you get damaged. Except that you can turn this against your enemies, ensuring that they are in the path of this environmental danger.
Such a situation is just a very simplistic one, and as Eddie took the controller from me and dove in and out of levels deeper and deeper into the game, the enemies and environments started to exhibit more real time behaviours, lasers start to shoot at you, webbing on the floor tries to ensnare you if you wait too long, while enemies might spew out fire which spreads from one bush to another as you try to find safety and wait for it to die down. That precarious balance between thinking in real and turn-based time also comes into play with some of the more puzzle-oriented locations, with elements akin to those found in The Legend of Zelda’s dungeons.
Getting that difficulty curve just right will be important for the final game, especially as you have to start juggling the use of your ship’s various upgradeable abilities, with a laser beam, a teleporter and the ability to freeze real time for a few moments, using them in some intriguing ways within different environments. For example, some areas deep into the game freeze time within them, but the Time Stop ability flips them into action, so that enemies and objects can move within, while time outside has been halted. These run off a separate energy meter which recharges in real time, but they add another layer to what is a fascinatingly complex scenario that will often keep pushing you to make decisions.
The hunt for compelling and fun gameplay ideas within this scenario took a lot of prototyping and experimenting. “We had an idea for a turn-based game to become a real time game,” Eddie said, “and then we just thought, like, fire is really cool and spreads in real time, so we put that at the end of the game, but then we have these turn-based ideas that we could keep near the beginning of the game. We just riffed upon those ideas and tried to build a progression.
“We had tons of ideas and we tried lots of things. It can seem very overwhelming, right? Because the turn-based gameplay you’re using your strategic part of your brain, and then in real time, you’re using the fight or flight reptilian part of your brain, and it’s how the two mix together. We try to make it not overwhelming to understand, but also interesting… It’s just a lot of trial and error.”
It’s maybe a little unfair to draw such a comparison, but coming from the small team at Funktronic Labs made up of former Q-Games developers, there is something just a little bit PixelJunk to the game. It’s unafraid to take something that feels familiar – in this case something a little like a board game – and then puts a different spin on proceedings with the real time gameplay elements. Of course, even if it’s perhaps an overly simplistic parallel to draw, Funktronic are happy to have and be able to play on that relationship and that experience a little, in order to get noticed in a crowded market.
“It definitely helps. We’re an unknown studio and we have that PixelJunk experience, so we kind of play that up for the press.” Eddie admitted. “I don’t try to abuse it, but it just helps, you know? People associate PixelJunk and quality, and if I can say we were part of that team, it just helps us not get lost in the sea.”
For Funktronic, they’re in the enviable position of being able to get people to pay attention to what they’re working on, but their real challenge is always going to be in getting across what the game is truly like to play. It’s all too easy to assume that these two concepts of time will be kept at arms length from one another, or that one is more important than the other, when Nova-111 makes them both utterly integral and key to what is a rather unique game.