Few development studios have the creative luxury of developing a title for 18 months without publisher input, but that's exactly what Just Add Monsters [editor's note: since renamed Ninja Theory following the break-up of owner Argonaut] has been able to do since it started prototyping Heavenly Sword early last year. Building on the experience gained in developing the excellent, but overlooked Kung Fu Chaos, the small Cambridge-based team found publishers unreceptive to another cartoony fighting game. Realising this, JAM began work on the prototype of a more mature-looking sequel entitled Kung Fu Story, full of crazed destruction and improbable but easy to pull off moves straight out of your favourite kung fu movies.
But despite an evidently slick and promising pitch, once again publisher reaction was muted and JAM elected to take heed of publisher advice and get working on a fighting game with the same kind of style and substance in gameplay terms, but with a realistic look and feel - and using next generation technology. But given that this was in early 2003, and midway through a hardware life cycle, JAM realised that to produce a game based on all-new IP would prove to be a tough sell for publishers looking for sequels and licensed games. Far better to concentrate on the next generation, where original IP is traditionally embraced by the early adopters looking for something new - and hence the publishers eager to have something on the shelves to cash in on the period when there are usually precious few games available.
And so Heavenly Sword was born; a next generation fighting game designed for next generation consoles, but on a high end PC. Details of the game still remain sparse, but JAM's design director Tameem Antoniades gave a world exclusive debut showing of a specially prepared teaser trailer to the attendees of his Wednesday afternoon talk at this week's European Developer Forums. That trailer and another are now available through Eurofiles.
The game stars a young girl, "In a land of sword and heroes" the trailer croaks movie style, and using the power of an ancient sword must "make the ultimate sacrifice to save her world". "I'm not ready to die yet," she cries, and in a quick-fire sequence that reflect the exceptionally lavish visual grandeur we see a game of immense promise and style, mass battles, flags waving, hundreds of armoured men charging across a battlefield, rocky landscapes and the murmured reply and shuffling of (not so brave?) warriors asked to be volunteers. Could it be they know full well the task in front of them? Get your first glimpse of Heavenly Sword in screenshot form here, and trailer form here - a game Antoniades hints may feature online fighting.
Read on for more details on Heavenly Sword in this exclusive interview, and look out for more news on Just Add Monsters' next generation project in the future.
Eurogamer: What's the basic high concept of Heavenly Sword, and what do you think will make it stand out of the next generation crowd?
Tameem Antoniades: The core message in my European Developers Forum talk was about how we will be able to create sophisticated and powerful experiences that can rival the power of film and literature. This is what we are working towards.
You can probably gather from the materials I showed at the talk that the core gameplay is all about ultra-stylish combat against overwhelming odds. The combat is already surpassing the likes of Ninja Gaiden in terms of depth, style and variety and we still have a long way to go. Think Half-life with swords against obscene amounts of enemies.
Eurogamer: Can you reveal anything at this stage about the main characters and the overall aim of the game?
Tameem Antoniades: Not yet. The stuff we have shown with the EDF talk doesn’t give any of the critical gameplay, story and structure elements away. It's too early for that.
Eurogamer: Do you envisage this will be ready in time for the next gen launch? If we assume the launch period will be early 2006?
Tameem Antoniades: Our publisher will have to decide the best time to launch is. We are pretty flexible as long as we never compromise quality.
Eurogamer: During your talk at EDF, you mentioned that the manpower and man hours to develop a next gen title increases exponentially. Has that been the case with JAM, and have you seen a corresponding increase in staff?
Tameem Antoniades: Kung Fu Chaos took about four to eight people three months to prototype. Heavenly Sword took 22 people nine months to prototype not including the professional actors, musicians and Foley artists. It’s getting crazy.
Eurogamer: There was no mention of online in your presentation, and indeed you pointed out that online is still a tiny fraction of the market. Is it safe to say this is not being designed with online in mind? Do you feel it's still too much of risk to go overboard with the online experience at this point?
Tameem Antoniades: We are designing one engine for the next gen life-cycle which we believe will last a lot longer than this gen. Retro-fitting online at a later date is unbelievably complex so we are building online play from the get-go. Namco recently said that online 1-on-1 fighting is impossible. We are experimenting with online fighting with lots of players and it’s looking perfectly feasible to us.
Eurogamer: Do you expect Heavenly Sword to be signed soon?
Tameem Antoniades: We have now moved away from the prototype and are in pre-production and we need to sign the game in order to bring on board the best talent out there and scale up our team. So yes, this is our focus at the moment and I hope to bring you some good news soon.
Eurogamer: Can we assume that what we saw will work comfortably on an Xbox 2 or PS3?
Tameem Antoniades: We are working on PC at the moment but treating it like a console. Given Moore’s law, what we have up and running is probably only a fraction of the power that we can expect from the next-gen platforms. In terms of content and visuals, it is only a prototype and as such represents only a fraction of what we at JAM are capable of.