Since its unveiling at E3 2014, gamers have wondered just what kind of game Platinum’s Xbox One exclusive would be. Until recently, all we had to go on was a pretty-but-cryptic CGI announcement trailer that did little to describe the kind of things we’d be doing in-game. At Gamescom last week, we finally got our answer.
If people had been expecting a character-action game, perhaps they were a touch disappointed. But if there’s one thing you can say about Platinum’s output, it’s that they don’t much like repeating themselves, so it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise to discover that, with Scalebound, the Osaka-based team are treading fairly virgin soil.
In a six-minute demo at Microsoft’s Gamescom press conference, we got to see Hideki Kamiya’s new action-RPG, starring some guy and a massive dragon. That guy, Drew, has somehow been transplanted to a fantasy world that bears more than a passing resemblance to Avatar’s Pandora – all floating islands and cascading waterfalls – and finds himself bonded to an enormous dragon called Thuban. Perhaps as a consequence of this, he also has a scaly, claw-tipped arm.
The world Drew finds himself in, Draconis, is sustained by an energy source called The Pulse. Much like its inspiration, it pervades and links all living things, though hopefully there will be no sign of any midichlorians. It’s this force (sorry) that links Drew and his dragon, the last of its kind in Draconis, and one cannot survive without the other; should Thuban fall in battle, so will Drew. Thus, the player will often find themselves playing as much of a support role as an offensive one, backing up his draconic buddy with heals while Thuban goes claw-to-claw with enormous monsters, like the Gamescom demo’s titanic mantis.
This is still a Platinum game though, and there’ll still be plenty of hacking and slashing for Drew to take part in. In the first combat encounter against a group of plate-mail-armoured knights, you’d be forgiven for being reminded of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XV, except there’s an angry dragon beside you instead of three impeccably-coiffed bros. Combat looks to be somewhat pared back compared to the usual Platinum extravaganzas, but it still looks tight and responsive, if not massively flashy and over the top. Drew flashes into combat with wide, arcing sword swipes, stopping to defend himself with his shield, and while there is no crafting mechanic in Scalebound, there are other weapons to be found, such as a bow, a spear, and an enormous greatsword that would make Cloud Strife blush. As well as standard blades and bows, you’ll also be able to find weapons with innate elemental properties, which should further extend Drew’s utility against Draconis’ oversized menagerie. Using his scaled dragon arm, Drew can also tether himself to larger enemies, clambering aboard them to deal large amounts of damage, and maybe even sever a gigantic limb in the process. And if he feels like he’s not quite pulling his weight in battle next to Thuban, Drew can also draw upon that Pulse energy to clad himself in thick, scaled armour, dialling up his speed and damage output in the process.
Thuban will act independently for the most part, though the player can direct his attention to certain enemies and structures that might be in need of some attention from a big, stompy dragon. Thuban can also be heavily personalised, from armour, horns and offensive tail-blades to the elemental effect of his breath; Need to hit some ungodly, building-sized nightmare creature with a frigid blast of ice, rather than the more traditional flaming dragon-breath? No problem, you can make that happen. But in order to build up Thuban, you’ll need to gather gems from defeated enemies. These gems are only available if you land the killing blow as Drew, so while you could easily rely on Thuban to wipe out fodder enemies in one hit rather than wade into battle yourself, you’ll miss out on an opportunity to develop your dragon. Platinum really wants you to strike a fine balance between the pair, and they really want you to feel a connection to your own, personalised vision of Thuban. “The more you invest in that dragon and in your relationship with that dragon, the more that dragon becomes yours,” says Creative Director JP Kellams.
And what of the world of Draconis itself? Media have been quick to call Scalebound an open-world RPG, but it’s not a term that Platinum themselves are using, preferring to call the game ‘non-linear’, while also promising that the game-world will be vast – it’s going to have to be to accommodate Thuban and some of the larger creatures we’ve seen. While the team won’t be drawn on the openness of the game’s world, they are promising many different villages and towns across Draconis, each with their own personal look. In one of their ‘First’ articles, IGN mention being treated to views of a “village that stretches off into the distance.” Hopefully, if the world is big enough, we’ll be able to fly Thuban between these outposts of civilisation.
The same article states that Drew and Thuban will have to gain new skills in order to fully traverse and explore Draconis, which perhaps brings to mind a gear or skill-gated progression system; could Scalebound be a post-Okami Kamiya taking another crack at the Zelda formula, perhaps? From the sounds of it, rather than levelling up, Drew will gain skill points based on his actions and his performance: “If you heal your dragon, or execute other supportive role-type actions, you’ll be able to earn skill points,” Kamiya explains. “By motivating the player to participate in actions and behaviours that are meaningful, it will… help you progress further”. Drew can also extend his earning potential by chaining kills together, adding a bonus onto the skill points he has already gained: “If you’re successful at consecutively defeating the enemies, the longer that chain will last,” says Kamiya.
But if all this focus on skill points, gems and customisation gives you cause to worry about the action side of things, fear not; Platinum aren’t about to let their hard-earned reputation slide: “Even though I know we’ve been emphasising that this is an action-RPG, because I need to get that message across – I hope you agree that we know how to make action games,” Kamiya told IGN. “We know how the responsiveness of a move is what really differentiates our games from other action games. That’s what’s so special about our games, whether it’s Bayonetta or my previous title Devil May Cry. So one thing that’s not going to change is that how great it feels when Drew is in battle. You’re not going to feel like it’s worse than what we’ve done before. The sort of intuitiveness and the response to the action that Drew is taking? That will remain at the quality that’s always defined our action games.”