I first got my hands on Seraph, a side scrolling acrobatic shooter, at this year’s Rezzed. It was, frankly, quite brilliant. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get another go on it yet, despite the game’s early access status, and discussing the title at length with Dan Leaver, who heads up developers Dreadbit, did nothing to satiate my hunger.
We do, of course, have a transcription of the interview below – it’s quite long, so we’ve split it across two pages – but if you’d rather listen to our conversation then you can do that too. Just click play below!
TSA: So Seraph is currently out on PC? It came out of early access?
Dan Leaver: No, it’s still in early access!
TSA: And it will be coming to PS4 later this year?
Dan: That’s right, definitely.
TSA: So tell us a little about the game, just to kick things off.
Dan: Seraph is a skill based, acrobatic shooter, where you don’t have to aim. Which obviously makes you think “What does skill-based have to do with aiming, isn’t that easy mode?” But what we’ve done is make a game that’s like Christian Bale’s Equilibrium, if you remember that?
TSA: Yes! I do remember that.
Dan: Or like The Matrix, where the main character’s doing cartwheels and back flips and wall jumps and wielding two pistols or two machine guns at once. Now, there’s a lot of games that have tried to do this in the past, and I’ve really enjoyed playing a lot of them, like WET or Stranglehold, or even Max Payne.
But, often, trying to aim requires that the game goes into slow-mo mode or something similar, where, basically, the player’s given a time to do the aiming. I just felt that was not really what I wanted for Seraph, I wanted it to be a super speedy, twitchy shooter. So I thought why not just remove the requirement for aiming and let the character track the enemies for you? What would that allow you to do as a player?
So, obviously, you still control the firing, you still shoot the enemies, you still have to make sure you control you machine gun bursts so they don’t spray up the walls, but, generally, the character is aiming for you.
TSA: I played this at Rezzed myself…
Dan: Oh, you did? We must have met!
TSA: Yes! I really enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. You had it on PS4 there, because you were on Sony’s booth.
Dan: Yeah, we were very lucky to get that. It was mostly first party games there. There were a few [third party games], like Kickoff, that were there, but it was a very cool event to be at.
TSA: You told me at Rezzed a little bit about the backstory of your main character, do you want to go into that?
Dan: You play as Seraph, who is an angel essentially. We never use the word angel, we use the word Seraph because we try not to be to angel and demon-y. And you are trapped inside a human’s body on earth, you can’t go back because you’ve been taken captive by humans who want to use your healing properties to heal other humans for money.
After about thirty years of being trapped on earth, you’ve had enough and, as the other angels aren’t coming to help you, you finally take the offer of the demons of our world, called the Termini.
They say, “We’ll break you out, we’ll get you out, don’t worry about it, it’s on us – this one’s free.” And, of course, they break you out, but you were double crossed and they’re actually trying to kill you. So you’re trying to escape this facility, which is your prison facility, while it’s filled with demons.
TSA: It’s quite a nice, simple story, for a game where its gameplay feels very deep. I like that you haven’t gone too crazy with it, but it also feels like it’s quite rounded out.
Dan: That’s it! I mean I’m not a story writer. If I was going to make a game that was based around story we’d have a team of writers and that’d be the focus, but I’m 100%… I can’t say 100%! I’m 90% about the gameplay in every game that I create.
So, for me we started out with what do we want to achieve? Which is the idea of acrobatics and evasion and cool looking stuff happening above anything else, and then I just thought, “What’s a cool setting?” I’ve always liked the idea of angels, who probably shouldn’t even need guns, wielding guns! [Laughs] I just thought that’d be a really cool thing to have happen in your game.
TSA: You were talking at the beginning about the balance you’ve got between the movement and the acrobatics and the gunplay stuff. It’s weird, because as you say, you don’t have the aiming, but the gunplay never feels like it’s ancillary, it never feels like it’s just completely by the wayside. You still feel like you’ve got control over that, how have you managed to get that feeling to it?
Dan: Well, if you’ve played anything like Diablo III or other games like that, you find that if you’re playing a lot of the ranged characters in those games you’re not really aiming very much, you tend to be clicking near the enemies and the character does the aiming for you. But it doesn’t feel like that’s what happening, it feels very much that you’re completely in control, and there’s a lot of other stuff around that to ensure the player’s always doing something.
That’s pretty much how it is in our game, in that you do aim in a way because you have position yourself correctly to attack the right kind of people or the right kind of enemies, or you have to always be aware of how fast you’re firing a weapon because the accuracy rating – accuracy rating, that sounds so technical – the accuracy gets lower the more you hold down the machine gun trigger.
You’ve got to make sure that you’re firing in little bursts, and that you’re always picking the healer out of the group first. There’s plenty to think about and do in the game, so you don’t really miss aiming.
In fact, explaining it with words is tricky, but when you put someone in front of it, like you do at Rezzed or at other shows, and say “Just play this,” they don’t even question the aiming. As soon as you’ve gone through the first ten enemies you just go “Oh, it’s great! I understand exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
TSA: It’s nice that it lets you focus on the movement a lot more, because it just lets you do cooler stuff in the game, which I imagine was the entire point of the exercise.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely! We always said that if we ever did slow-mo – actually we never did slow-mo in the end – if we ever did slow-mo, it’d only be to punctuate cool stuff happening. Like, you know, you kill a boss and we do a little bit just to show it dying slowly or something, but we just don’t need it. In fact, the game just looks so much more appealing to watch being played and also play when you see it happening at 60 frames and everything’s kicking off in real time. It just feels so good.
TSA: With the kind of mystical background that you’ve got to this, you’ve brought a powers system into the game that I found very useful, where you can push enemies back, or fire nice balls of Seraph energy at them…
TSA: Yeah, light. It’s a really cool system, is that something you felt you needed to add for longevity to the game, or to keep people interested? Or was it just to mix things up a bit?
Dan: A bit of both actually! One of the cool things about having a prototype early on that you’re very happy with is that as soon as you start to feel that you’re getting tired of it, you want work out what it is that would keep you playing. Which is really nice, it’s what we had on this game. We had a good prototype within the first week.
We looked at three different things. Seraph has access to her miracles, which are the things you’ve described; powers that you activate with the face buttons. So pushing triangle or circle sends out one of the miracles you have equipped. There’s actually six miracles in the game, and you only got to play with two I think.
They range from things like the ones you described to one which sends out chains of light that attach to enemies close by and, if you maintain a chain for a second, the enemies are hit by a huge amount of damage, or the comet one, which is where you launch towards the ground from wherever you are and the further you travel the more damage you do when you hit the ground.
We also have a bunch of blessings, which are the passive upgrades you get everytime you level up. They are passive things you equip that might make your bullets explode with holy magic when you shoot enemies, or maybe slows enemies down when you hit them, or maybe every time you dash through an enemy you cause damage that way. So it modifies the way you play without requiring button pushes. That’s also quite important to me, because that’s creating a build for you character as you’re playing through the game.
And the final thing we did was we added oaths, which is another way of saying skill tree. So you’ve got the longevity outside of playing one level to another level, you’ve also got what you do over the course of hours, or days.
TSA: It’s really nice to have all of this in a game that is in no way presented as an RPG in my opinion.
Dan: Well I’m a big player of all kinds of genres. I love Diablo, I love League of Legends, I love Mass Effect; all these different games. There’s something that can be drawn from all of them in different ways.
Skill trees are not alien to most games now really, but one of the ways we thought we could mix things up a little bit is instead of having a skill tree where you just put in five points into one and then five points into the next one and you get a good skill, what we thought we’d do is that you actually attach these collectible items called shards that drop of enemies sometimes; they’re quite rare.
When they drop you get a shard and you can attach it to an oath, to a skill. But the rarer the shard, the more powerful the skill becomes. So, say you’ve got one that say your magical abilities can critical strike. If you put a common one in there it’s 2%, but if you put in the supreme it’s like 20%. So you can decide where you put the rare loot you’ve acquired to make your skills better.