Perhaps indicative of Microsoft’s still limited selection of upcoming Xbox and PC titles to come, for many, the most notable takeaway from its E3 2021 showcase was a side-scrolling platformer game of a. small Belarusian independent developer called Sad cat studios.
But again, REPLACED is incredibly beautiful. It catches the eye with the same sleek 2.5D aesthetic that people have been raving about The last night in 2017, and its cleverly crafted trailer has an equally captivating cyberpunk vibe – one that has seen me rewatch it over and over again over the past month or so.
The large number of views of REPLACED trailers on YouTube suggests that I am far from the only person so enthusiastic; nearly a million views and an overwhelmingly positive “like / dislike” ratio is a welcome that thrilled and slightly intimidated Yura Zhdanovich, Game Director at Sad Cat Studios.
“The trailer was judged by a lot of people to be very high quality, so we’re now a little stressed because we have to deliver everything according to that level of expectation. We cannot go and do a part of the game that seems inferior in terms of quality compared to what we have shown ”, he told me on a Zoom call last week.
Co-founder Igor Gritsay then explained that REPLACED has been in development since mid-2018. Having been conceptualized as a simple cinematic platformer, the team then reiterated their original idea following several trade shows where members of the public played a small portion of the game.
“Later, after these several shows, we were like, okay, that was cool but we don’t think we can make a full game based on that gameplay because, well, in a classic cinematic platform game. , it’s all about the content. And with the modern quality of content and the modern price tag of visual content creation, we’ve realized that we just can’t afford to create an entire game without substantial gameplay. , we went back to the lab and we were like, okay, how do we repeat that? ”
The fight was the obvious starting point, which the team wanted to make sure that it was not only presented in a stylized and cinematic manner, but that it was also easy to control.
“We were strongly inspired by the Batman series. I finished all of these games and they are really perfect and I really love the combat in these games. So we got inspired there because of that feeling of fluidity and, you know, it just feels like it’s all right and the fight feels natural. So that’s what we were trying to achieve. We weren’t looking for hardcore stuff like Hollow Knight or Salt and Sanctuary.
Yet for as exciting as the combat in REPLACED, traversal is still obviously an extremely important part of any side-scrolling platformer. Here, however, it’s less about the types of difficult stages you’d expect to encounter in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (which the team also took inspiration from), and more as an opportunity to engage the players with some kind of visual exposure and generally showcase the beauty of the art team’s work. Gritsay explains:
“… For us, the platform is not so much a challenge for players as it is a means of giving exposure to beautiful places; and since I’m really proud of our (artistic) division, they deserve to have their creation on display and players to get a good taste of what we’ve done and what we are, what our artists did.
Based on what we’ve seen of REPLACED’s sensational art style so far, this is likely to become music to the ears of anyone who’s enamored with its gritty cyberpunk aesthetic. But how did the team actually forge such a unique style and what were the design imperatives along the way? As many have pointed out since the early days of the REPLACED trailer, and as I mentioned above, its style echoes that of The Last Night, which is yet to release in 2018, and it turns out that was absolutely inspirational, recalls Gritsay:
“… We thought the usual pixel art wouldn’t be enough because we wanted to do something more interesting with it. And when I started experimenting with other things, the trailer for The Last Night came along, which was really great and showed a really interesting type of art direction.
But REPLACED is far from a carbon copy; it has its own style, with a cyberpunk flavor that is much more retro in appearance – drab, even, compared to the clean futuristic style of many recent cyberpunk games.
“… when we started trying to implement the style ourselves in 2018, there wasn’t much. It was very interesting for us to do that on our own and make some adjustments, some of the tweaks and stylistic choices that we want to create. As you saw in the trailer, our game is not a very classic, super futuristic cyberpunk. It’s more on the retro side.
… when we were young there was a lot of cult in the 90s here, especially in the post-USSR with retro sci-fi movies, like RoboCop, and we had that feeling, you know, that we wanted to make tribute to this because we really love this aesthetic of how the future was portrayed then and not like now. We wanted to go in a little different direction, more on the side of a futurist at the time who was a designer who was thinking about what things would be like ten and twenty years from now.
It’s important to note that REPLACED is designed to provide a cyberpunk experience that not only looks like tropes of the genre, but actually attempts to convey thought-provoking messages to spark discussion and criticism about our own society – such an important aspect of the game. cyberpunk genre. Igor explains:
“… In our world, the United States is becoming much more dystopian than it actually is. I think we definitely have a political message in our game because, well, living in a sort of semi-dictatorship (in Belarus) has bound to have an impact on us. We have our post-Soviet heritage and things happening in our country right now. Of course, in our game we don’t talk about Belarus, but, you know, (people who live in) the post-soviet kind of attracted to the dystopia in pop culture (laughs), which is really weird – like we don’t. I don’t have enough in reality! The most popular book here is 1984.
Zhdanovich then weighed in on what he sees as the two most important thematic premises woven into the REPLACED narrative:
“I would say there are two main themes: one is artificial intelligence and what would artificial intelligence do when it is in the context of a living being, rather than a supercomputer that has learned to be moral – when facing the disadvantages of humanity and having to make difficult choices that we ultimately always destroy, as we have seen in films such as Terminator.
… The other central theme is what would happen – and it’s actually very applicable to what’s going on where we are right now – if you start giving your freedom piece by piece for something of a lifetime. better or protection or anything else that makes you more comfortable and more controlled?
The duo point out that, in REPLACED, bioengineering made organ donation a common and encouraged practice in their dystopian society; Initially a good deed, it quickly took a grim turn as people sought to take advantage of the financial opportunities involved.
“It (REPLACES) will certainly touch on a lot of other aspects and issues that are hot topics in modern media and modern discussions around these things, but it will be subtle. It will be good enough (for us) if people play the game. play and decide for themselves some of these complex topics that we want to explore, because there are definitely some who are very empathetic to things that are going on right now. We are really interested in how people will react to that. .
REPLACED certainly sounds like it has the depth to excite fans of cyberpunk and cinematic platforms beyond the vibrant visual flair that has garnered it so much attention. I can’t wait to see more of the Sad Cat Studios team, and judging by the sounds, the team has a lot more up their sleeves to show they are moving forward. For now, however, he’s back to work after a brief moment of well-deserved applause from those who have shown their enthusiasm for what they have seen so far. Zhdanovich said in reflection:
“… Our artists were really touched by the reception, but there is so much more to show so much more interesting things that we want people to see, whether it’s in the game itself or in any other medium or coming out later.
This is just the start and we certainly haven’t shown the biggest things yet. It’s exciting for us – it’s stressful and exciting for us to see how people will react to the things we show in the future. although there are many more surprises in store.
REPLACED is expected to launch in 2022 on Xbox and PC platforms. The quotes used in this article, which have been edited slightly for clarity, are excerpts from a larger Q&A interview that will be posted here on Twinfinite later this week.