E3 2017: Peter Barthalow on Combining Fighting, Platforming with RPGs in Indivisible

Indivisible is the second title from Lab Zero, the California based studio that worked on Skull Girls that was also an Indie GoGo campaign. Indivisible is an action RPG that features hand drawn animation with a combat system where each of the four party member’s attacks are assigned to a specific button. Each attack can be modified with a directional button, given each character five attacks that can be used in conjunction with other characters for some fighting game style combos. Lab Zero’s CEO Peter Barthalow took some time to discuss this upcoming title with Hardcore Gamer.

[Hardcore Gamer] Indivisible looks like an interesting hybrid of game types. You have a tactical RPG battle system mixed with some platforming and fighting. In the demo we see protagonist Ajna using an ax to scale a wall. What other sort of things will we be able to do in Indivisible?

[Peter Barthalow] Ajna gets five weapons in total and those are generally the starting point for all her traversal abilities to overcome obstacles. I think we’re going to have around twenty total so there are multiple abilities on each of them. The ax can cut down a vine or help you climb a wall, later on you can use it to break through certain floors so that you can find new hidden areas. There is a spear that allows you to thrust upwards and stick it in the ceiling and in some cases break ceilings or walk along the ceiling using the spear. There’s some other ones I don’t want to get into because they’re really cool and I don’t want to spoil them. There is a lot of variety in the abilities you can use to navigate the world.

The areas I saw looked very open ended, how much exploration freedom will the players have?

It’s a Metroidvania so there is a linear critical path but there is a lot of backtracking and exploration opportunities. The game on the whole, because of the story we have to have a linear element to move the story but we’re trying to leave it as open as possible to backtrack whenever it makes sense and by the end of the game you will have free reign of the entire world. All the areas do connect in a big ring so at the end of the game you will be able to walk from the first level through all the other levels and back into the first level. Also in the middle section of the game you can pick which region to pick, there are three regions but you can play them in any order. The story is not completely linear, those are self contained episodes so that is why the player can choose to play them in any order they want.

Can you give me a general synopsis of the story?

The story is about Ajna, she is a good natured kind of tomboy, kind of rebellious and raised in a remote village by her father. They come under attack from this warlord who is kind of a religious zealot named Vonivar. Leading the charge is General Dar and Dar kills Ajna’s father. She challenges and in the process accidentally triggers this power she didn’t know she has which causes them to sync up emotionally since they are both angry and fighting and she ends up sucking him into herself. They are both very confused about what happened. She can hear him inside her mind chattering away and she can hear him like why am I inside you? What did you do to me witch? And basically she wants revenge against Vonivar for her father and Dar being trapped inside her. Not wanting to die if she dies, Dar reluctantly agrees to go along. It starts out as a revenge thing but goes to much more like why does she have these powers and more about the world itself.

Your colleague mentioned some crossover characters making an appearance like Shovel Knight and other popular characters from indie games. How many guest stars are there and how many are you willing to discuss?

We are planning nine. If there are more, I don’t think there will be more. That was kind of part of our campaign. Joe Madureira from Battle Chasers approached about putting a Battle Chasers character in the game, we chose Calibretto because he’s a big cool robot and we wanted to animate a big cool robot. And then we realized this was a great idea so we started reaching out to other indie developers to get their game communities interested in Indivisible. Surprisingly a total of nine companies took us up on this and honestly it was really humbling. Some developers I’ve never even met saying they like our work and yeah, you can put our character in. We’ve already announced all of them and I can’t remember all of them off the top of my head. Shovel Knight like you mentioned, a character from Skull Girls, the Drifter from Hyper Light Drifter, Juan from Guacamelee, Lea from Curses and Chaos, Red from Transistor, Calibretto from Battle Chasers. I’m forgetting some but they are all very popular indie characters. The plan is to release them as free DLC updates since it does take a long time to program characters and we are more interested in telling our story with our characters first but the game will have a new game plus so we think it’s a great way for players to enjoy the new game plus with a cast of great indie characters.

That sounds like the ideal way to do it. Play it the intended way on the first go round and since you know the story on a new game plus have some fun and bring in people like Shovel Knight and Juan.


You inadvertently answered my next question which was how are you going to balance the inclusion of these guest characters with the story you want to tell.

Exactly. We are very happy and excited that everyone was willing to lend us their characters but at the same time we want to present our vision of the game first before putting in all these other characters but we have a lot of ideas of what we want to do with them. We are working very closely with the developers to make sure we get the animations and all the model sheets. We revealed our renderings already and they have all been approved so the model sheets are pretty much done. Once we’re done with the core game it’s going to be playing those games and seeing what moves they do and how we want to incorporate them in our game and what role they’ll play and then working with the developer to make sure they’re happy with our implementation.

Watching the demo it looks like the battle system is pretty intricate. Each character is activated with a specific button and they each have five different attacks with the directional modifiers and the characters can do combination attacks off of each other. How many different party members are there and how complex is the combo system? Are there any character combinations that will work really well together with some very powerful combo attacks?

That’s probably going to happen. Mike, our designer, is a genius when it comes to fighting game character design concepts. I assume he has a grand plan in mind for it but because it is an RPG and not a competitive fighter having something be broken isn’t that big of a deal, outside of something like this combination of characters wins every time, that could be a problem. Being able to spam the final boss isn’t good. But that’s part of why we put out the backer beta so we can get some feedback on the characters and they are balanced right. The way we do it is we try to design characters that fit their personality and come up with moves and Mike has an idea of how he wants them to play. We want people to experiment and come up with crazy things as much as possible we’re trying not to limit what type of characters you can play with and push the battle system to its limit.

It looks like a huge amalgamation of things like platforming, RPG combat, and tournament fighting but oddly enough it looks like everything meshes together well. It’s not really same type of control input of a fighter but does have the same frenetic energy and combo feature. It’s also kind of like the double and triple techs from Chrono Trigger where characters can combine their strength to gang up on the enemy. 

We had talked at one point about actually doing specific combos like that but decided against it for the time being because we don’t want to constraint players’ choices. We think there will be certain combinations that are better fits than others but we want players to discover that for themselves instead of saying like hey, use these two characters because they are great together all the time.

Basically any character can be paired up with anyone and chain there attacks together, just some combos will end up being better than others.

Exactly, and there are some characters are purely support. This one character is strictly a healer/support character and we tried to make them fun since healers typically aren’t fun but they have some interesting mechanics that helped achieve that goal. I don’t know if they were able to show it to you, but the healer has a giant mortar and pestle and when you have more actions available you can make a potion and use the mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients and make a more powerful potion and use the up attack to splash everyone and heal them. So the more you get them involved in the battle the more they can heal and they can forage for ingredients and add them to the potion for a buff or throw them at the enemy for a debuff. Even though the game could be seen as kind of mashy we are building intricate mechanics into individual characters when we can. It’s not done yet but we are working on a bard character that will have very little in the way of attacks, more along the line of debuffs instead of direct attacks and support abilities.

So it would be a more dynamic play mechanic instead of press X to heal. Since you mention the bard are you going to have a rhythm based dynamic input for the bard’s songs?

We talked about something like that but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. It sounds like a natural fit but within the chaos of battle it might be hard to do it and trying to keep a different rhythm from the battle music might be difficult so I don’t think we’re going to do it just because there is so much going on in battle without having to keep rhythm with character out of the four and also without having any music to guide it. Implementing anything with rhythm is also really really difficult, if you talk to anyone who’s ever worked on a music game will tell you it sounds really easy but it’s incredibly difficult. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of people trying to play Guitar Hero on TVs with bad lag and that’s enough to just throw everything off just because of some millisecond computational cycles. I feel like personally I would have a really hard time keeping rhythm on something that is not the same rhythm of the music we’re hearing. But wherever possible we are trying to find depth, there will be some character combinations you can just mash with but if you dive into the deeper mechanics you will do much better.

I’m getting the finger across the neck signal so I think that means I have to wrap things up. Any final things you want to say about Indivisible?

I would like to pimp some of our awesome Japanese collaborators. Music is being done by Hiroki Kikuta who did the Secret of Mana soundtrack, he’s done some amazing work and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it since we’re on the topic of music. We also have an anime opening by Studio Trigger who did Kill la Kill and Little Witch Academia, it’s been directed by Yō Yoshinari, who is a god tier animator and that’s super exciting for all of us because we all love his work and it’s pretty crazy to think he’s doing animation for our game. That’s going to kick off next month and I’m very excited to see how that goes.

There is some nice animation in Indivisible and I do see the similarity to Skull Girls. Obviously a different aesthetic and different characters but the fluidity of movement is there.

It does have the fluidity for most parts of the game but it also has the snappiness of a fighting game. Animating for a fighting game is different and fluidity isn’t always good for attack animations. We have very high standards for animators, we don’t care about someone’s resume we make them take a test to see if they can do what we need them to do and if they do a good job they’re hired, at least for contracted positions. There’s a lot a little things and animation tricks we want them to know so it looks right and snaps right. People think that the goal of animation is to have as many frames as possible and to be as smooth as possible but in fighting it’s the opposite. Frame economy is actually important for snappiness and action. Sometimes people criticize animation because they pause it on a frame and just see a big smear but first off it’s not meant to be viewed still frame, it’s meant to be quick to create the appearance of motion. It’s a very important thing for fighting games in particular and fighting games are all about timing. Sometimes you see Kickstarters for fighting games and it has this beautiful animation but it looks like everyone is fighting under water because it has too many frames. And there’s other times where people make a bunch of animations and say they’ll figure out the gameplay later and they can’t really do that either. The animations and the posing are the game design, and again the timing so if you don’t plan for the stop or how many frames this attack is it’s not going to play well. It’s a very involved process going back and forth between design and art to make the animations look good and play well together. It’s a little lighter on Indivisible since it is an RPG so the timing can be a little freer but it’s still important to get that snappiness and responsiveness. Our animation team is amazing.