Unruly Heroes, Chinese Mythology, Rayman, and More
One of the most impressive games I saw at Paris Games Week 2017 was Unruly Heroes. In my article of the best games played at PGW 2017, I called it “fluid and expressive,” “a love letter to 2D platformers both old and new,” and “a smaller scale game with a large heart.”
Back in November, I had the chance to talk with Meredith Alfroy: Marketing Assistant, Community Manager, and Playtest Coordinator for Magic Design Studios. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the development history of Unruly Heroes along with both its influences and its unique properties. We also took time to explore the founding of Magic Design Studios as well as some of the developer’s aspirations for Unruly Heroes and future projects.
“If you were to describe Unruly Heroes in a single sentence, what would you describe it as?”
“A single sentence?”
“Or two! Or…”
(laughs) “Well, it’s just a fantastic and epic adventure with four heroes.”
In theory, Unruly Heroes is built upon games that came before it. As Magic Design Studios states on its website, a large portion of the development team is made up of ex-Ubisoft talent. As a result, the team and its developers have experience working on games in major AAA franchises such as Rayman, Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, and Ghost Recon.
Of all these franchises, it’s perhaps Rayman that has had the greatest influence over Unruly Heroes. Aside from the fact that both are 2D platformers, Unruly Heroes’ gameplay places an emphasis on defeating enemies, interacting with the environment, and working cooperatively with up to four players in drop-in, drop-out multiplayer. Meanwhile, its visuals maintain a vivid, painter-like art style along with fluid, expressive character animations. Both aspects of the game call greatly to mind the recent Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends.
When asked about how coming from a place like Ubisoft has influenced development for Unruly Heroes, Alfroy acknowledged the importance of the team’s past work.
“It’s very influenced. Rayman is [a] very great game and we hope that we have the same success before and after,” she admitted. “When you get a lot of experience at Ubisoft, you have to put it in your game. It’s not very voluntary, but it’s a kind of reflex.”
Although Unruly Heroes may be representative of the different skills and practices learned during the team’s collective time at Ubisoft, that isn’t to say the game isn’t unique. On the contrary, Alfroy stressed the idea that, creatively, Unruly Heroes is its own beast. As opposed to past Rayman games where cooperative play meant playing as characters with similar if not identical movesets, the game puts players in control of four different characters, each with their own distinct personality and play style.
“[There’s] the monkey… his real name is Wu Kong. And then you [have] the monkey’s Shifu—[he’s] the master. [He’s] very wise. And then the pig is Ki Hong, so [he’s] very funny. [He’s] always enjoying: [he] loves food; [he] loves women. And then you [have] Sand Monk, which is the big guy, but [he’s] very shy.”
The story of Unruly Heroes is based off of the Chinese legend and 16th century novel “Journey to the West,” which recounted the pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk and his three supernatural disciples. Like the old Chinese tale, Unruly Heroes embraces the idea of four heroes meeting under different circumstances and coming together on a singular mission.
“The four characters [have] nothing in common, but they have to be together, and be united to do this adventure,” Alfroy explained as we watched some Paris Games Week attendees play through a level of the game. When asked about the meaning of the title Unruly Heroes, Alfroy elaborated further on the story and these characters, saying, “[It’s called] Unruly Heroes because they’re not very [heroic]. … The monkey, Wu Kong, is not very friendly—he’s a little bit selfish, so he’s not a real hero like Batman or Superman. But the four together are very strong together.”
Curious, I asked if Unruly Heroes would have moments of tension and levity and if the relationships between Wu Kong, Shifu, Ki Hong, and Sand Monk would evolve over the course of the story. Alfroy graciously reminded me that elements of the story are still being finalized by the development team but assured me, “…Of course, when they see each other for the first time … it will not be easy, when they meet each other.”
As for why the studio landed on “Journey to the West” for story inspiration, Alfroy cited its popularity in the East. “In China it’s very popular … so … why not bring this story and make your people know this legend?”
Creatively, it also would seem that this decision came in large part from Magic Design Studios’ top leadership.
“…Yang Lu, [who] is our creative director, [is] Chinese … I think maybe he wants to share this vision,” Alfroy reasoned.
As with the game’s story, the four protagonists of Unruly Heroes also impact gameplay. From my brief time playing the game, I was able to switch around between the four characters at the push of a button. As I played through a forest level alongside Magic Design Studios Level Designer Simon Swinscoe, I noted the variety of attacks and special abilities at our disposal. From Wu Kong’s quick and nimble combos to Sand Monk’s heavier punches and uppercuts, there’s surprising depth underneath Unruly Heroes’ accessible pick-up-and-play surface.
While Unruly Heroes supports up to four-player co-op, it in no way requires it. “You can play the game in solo and finish the game with one character … you can play with up to four characters but… sometimes it’s [easier] with one character than another. But, you can finish with one character and maybe it’s more fun or [easier] in co-op with two people or four players.”
This gameplay diversity also carries over into Unruly Heroes’ numerous game modes. When players aren’t working together to make their way through Unruly Heroes’ campaign, there’s a full-blown competitive mode that pits Wu Kong, Shifu, Ki Hong, and Sand Monk against one another. Inspired by arena brawlers like Super Smash Bros. and PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale, the PvP mode in Unruly Heroes puts players in control of one of the four titular heroes on smaller stages based on the main story. Featuring the same directional-based attacks, recoveries, and special moves as in the co-op campaign, this mode allows players to explore their favorite characters in an interesting new light that I found surprisingly enjoyable.
When asked what led Magic Design Studios to include PvP in the game, Alfroy gave a succinct and straightforward response. “When you see people playing together in co-op, they are having [a lot of] fun … But sometimes you see them and want to fight each other, just for fun too. So why not do a PvP mode where they can fight each other?”
While Unruly Heroes is a new property to hit the gaming landscape in 2018, the game has been in the works for over two years. Magic Design Studios, which is based in Montpelier, France, was founded in 2015. At the time, Alfroy told me, the studio began with only five people.
“…they had a really creative process,” Alfroy explained. “There were five people, really thinking about ‘what are we going to do? Which kind of universe [do] we want to do?'” She continued, “When I arrived in August , I think we were 30 or 40 people, and now [in November 2017] we are 20 people.”
Unruly Heroes entered full production back in June. When asked what has been one of the biggest challenges Magic Design Studios has faced in development, Alfroy highlighted the creative process and the necessity of having to kill your darlings.
“I think the most difficult challenge is when you [have] a lot of ideas, because we [have] a lot of ideas, and you have to [say], ‘Okay, we can do a game with a lot of things…. [but] we have to release a game on date so…’ We had to make [a] choice… it’s very hard.”
When asked whether Magic Design Studios would stick to action-platformers for future projects or consider other genres, Alfroy couldn’t say for sure. Regardless, she assured me that the studio is still hard at work on Unruly Heroes.
(laughs) “I don’t know! We love this kind of game so… But I don’t know. … We are still creating [Unruly Heroes].”
As we neared the end of the interview, I asked Alfroy what she hoped would be people’s biggest takeaway from Unruly Heroes once they get the chance to play it for themselves.
“I just want them to want to know more about this universe… Want to know ‘Okay, who is that guy? What is the story?’ I want them very [immersed]. … And [to have] a lot of fun, of course.”
Unruly Heroes releases in early 2018 for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
Author: David Silbert
David is the creator and editor of The Punished Backlog. A recent Penn graduate, David enjoys gaming and writing. Now, he’s combining his passions and doing both at the same time, all from the comfort of his French apartment!
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