It is, perhaps, indicative of Microsoft’s still-limited selection of upcoming Xbox and PC first-party titles that, for many, the most notable takeaway from its E3 2021 showcase was a side-scrolling platformer from a small Belorussian indie developer called Sad Cat Studios.
But then again, REPLACED is incredibly good-looking. It catches the eye with the same stylish 2.5D aesthetic that had folks excited about The Last Night back in 2017, and its cleverly directed trailer exudes a similarly engrossing cyberpunk ambiance — one that has seen me rewatch it time and time again over the past month or so.
The sheer number of views of REPLACED’s announcement trailers over on YouTube suggests I’m far from the only person equally as enthused; nearly 1 million views and an overwhelmingly positive like/dislike ratio is a reception that Yura Zhdanovich, game director at Sad Cat Studios, has been both delighted and slightly intimidated by.
“The trailer was deemed by a lot of people very high quality, and so we are now a bit stressed because we need to deliver everything according to this level of expectation. We can’t go and do a section of the game which looks subpar in terms of quality compared to what we’ve shown,” he told me over 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 later iterated on their initial idea following several trade shows in which members of the public played a small section of the game.
“Later, after those several trade shows, we thought to ourselves, all right, that was cool but we don’t think that we will be able to create a whole game based on this gameplay because, well, in a classic cinematic platformer it’s all about content. And with the modern quality of content and the modern price of creating visual content, we understood that we just cannot allow ourselves to create a whole game without any substantial gameplay. So, we went back to the lab and thought, okay, how can we iterate upon this?”
Combat was the obvious starting point, which the team wanted to ensure was not only presented in a stylized, cinematic fashion but also felt smooth to control.
“We were heavily inspired by the Batman series. I finished all of those games and they’re really perfect and I really like the combat within those games. So we took inspiration there because of this fluid sense of flow and, you know, it just feels that everything is right and the combat feels natural. So, this is what we were trying to achieve. We weren’t looking for hardcore stuff like Hollow Knight or Salt and Sanctuary.”
Still, for as exciting as the combat in REPLACED looks, traversal is still obviously a hugely important part of any side-scrolling platformer. Here, though, it’s less about the sorts of challenging stages you’d expect to encounter in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (from which the team also drew inspiration), and more as an opportunity to engage players with a sort of visual exposition and generally showcase the beauty of the art team’s work. Gritsay explains:
“…for us platforming is not so much about challenging players but a way to give an exposition for beautiful locations; and since I’m really proud of our (art) division, they deserve that their creation has great exposition and that players can have a proper taste of what we’ve done and what we are, what our artists made.”
Based on what we’ve seen of REPLACED’s sensational art style so far, that is likely to come as music to the ears of anybody enamored with its gritty cyberpunk aesthetic. But how did the team actually forge such a unique-looking style, and what were the design imperatives in terms along the way? As many have pointed out since the debut of REPLACED’s trailer, and as I mentioned above, its style echoes that of 2018’s still-to-be-release The Last Night, and it turns out that was absolutely a source of inspiration, Gritsay remembers:
“…we thought that the usual pixel art wouldn’t be enough because we wanted to do something more interesting with it. And when I started experimenting with some other things, then came along the trailer for The Last Night, which was really great, and it showed off a really interesting type of art direction.”
But REPLACED is far from a carbon copy; it has its own flair, with a cyberpunk flavor that’s much more retro in appearance — dingy, even, compared with the clean futuristic style of many recent cyberpunk games.
“…when we started to try to implement the style ourselves in 2018 there wasn’t a lot out there. It was very interesting for us to do it ourselves and to make some adjustments, some of the tweaks and stylistic choices we want to create. As you have seen in the trailer, our game is not a very classic, super futuristic kind of cyberpunk. It is more on the Retro side.
…when we were young there was a lot of cult following in the 90s here especially in the post-USSR with the retro sci-fi movies, like RoboCop, and we had this feeling, you know, that we want to do a homage to this because we really like those aesthetics of how the future was depicted back then and not like right now. We wanted to go in a little bit of a different direction, more on the side of a futurist of that time who was a designer thinking about how things would be like ten and twenty years.”
Importantly, REPLACED is set to deliver a cyberpunk experience that doesn’t just look and feel in accordance with the tropes of the genre but actually attempts to convey thought-provoking messages to prompt discussion and critique about our own society — so much an important aspect of the cyberpunk genre. Igor explains:
“…in our world, the U.S. gets much more dystopian than it actually is in reality. I think that we definitely have a political message in our game because, well, living in a sort of half dictatorship (in Belarus) has inevitably had an impact on us. We have our post-Soviet heritage and things happening in our country right now. Of course, in our game we are not talking about Belarus, but, you know, (people who live in) the post-soviet are somehow attracted to dystopia in pop culture (laughs), which is really strange — as if we don’t have enough of it in reality! The most popular book here is 1984.”
Zhdanovich then weighed in on what he considers the two most important thematic premises weaved into REPLACED’s narrative:
“I would say there are two core 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 it faces humanity’s downsides and having to make hard choices that we ultimately always destroyed for, as we have seen in films such as Terminator.
…the other core theme is what would happen –and this is actually very applicable to what happens where we are right now– if you start to give out your freedom piece by piece for something of a better life or protection or anything else that makes you more comfortable and more controlled?”
The pair highlight that, in REPLACED, bio-engineering has led to organ donation becoming a common and encouraged practice in its dystopian society; initially a good deed, it quickly took a sinister turn as people sought to take advantage of the financial opportunities involved.
“It (REPLACED) definitely will touch a lot of other aspects and issues that are sensitive topics in modern media and modern discussions around those things, but it will be subtle. It will be good enough (for us) if people play the game and decide for themselves on some of those complex topics we want to explore because there are definitely some that are very empathetic to things that are happening right now. We’re really interested in how people will react to this.”
REPLACED certainly sounds as though it has the depth to excite cyberpunk and cinematic platforming fans beyond the vibrant visual flair that has seen it receive so much attention. I can’t wait to see more from the team at Sad Cat Studios, and by the sounds of it, the team has much more up their sleeves to showcase moving forward. For now, though, it’s back to work after a brief moment bathing in well-deserved applause from the many who have shown enthusiasm for what they’ve seen so far. Zhdanovich said in reflection:
“…our artists were definitely humbled by the reception, but there is so much more to show so much more interesting things that we want people to see, either in-game itself or in any other media or going to release later down the line.
It’s just a start and we have definitely not shown the greatest things quite yet. It’s exciting for us — it’s stressful and exciting for us to see how people will react to things we show in the future. though there are plenty more surprises in store.”
REPLACED is set to launch in 2022 on Xbox and PC platforms. Quotes used in this article, which have been lightly edited for clarity, are excerpts from a wider Q&A interview that will be published here at Twinfinite later this week.
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