By Nathan Grayson on March 10th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
For eons now, humanity’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and Internet commenters have debated over the correct usage and spelling of the word “duel.” When you use that version? When is it “dual”? Despite being an incredibly simple binary, the true answer is still shrouded in mystery. And now, more confusion. A third entrant to the dual duel of due(a)ling-ness: Duelyst. It’s a gorgeous-looking turn-based strategy RPG from developers who headed up the likes of Diablo III, Ratchet and Clank, and Rogue Legacy, but it’s focused on rapid-fire Hearthstone-style competition instead of a winding Banner-Saga-esque, er, saga. Don’t let that frighten you off, though. There’s a lot of promise in this one. Also, it’s not free-to-play. One purchase, one even playing field. Reveal video/interview below.
The Duelyst team is being headed up by Keith Lee, former lead producer on Diablo III. He also spent many years at Spyro The Dragon, Ratchet and Clank, and Sunset Overdrive creator Insomniac, so he certainly has a pedigree in polish, focus, and anthropomorphic cartoon mascot dragons. Duelyst, however, is a very, very different animal – miles closer to PC’s multifarious maw on the food chain. Think traditional turn-based role-playing meets the rapid-fire pace (90 second turn limits!) and simple-yet-deceptively-maddening strategy of Hearthstone, and you’ll be on the right track.
Lee himself is soft-spoken and deliberate. He chews on each answer like a man in the middle of a make-or-break, checkmate-or-be-checkmated move in chess. But then, given his background, that’s not entirely surprising.
“I think there’s definitely a mantra I picked up from Insomniac and Blizzard,” Lee told RPS. “Easy to learn, a lifetime to master. It’s like choosing a hundred different ice cream flavors versus ten. I really learned it when we were making units for StarCraft II. Any time someone had an idea for a new unit, another unit had to go away. So it really asked the question, ‘Is this unit we’re building really better? Is it going to make the game better? Would you be willing to sacrifice another unit to add this one?'”
“And that’s what we try to do. Really be minimalist with the feature set in a way that makes for a cleaner, better game. And of course I think it happens naturally that way with us being an indie game studio. Time and resources are limited. It’s a natural constraint.”
The original idea for Duelyst, Lee told me, actually sprang from a table-top game he mocked up with some friends. But when they got right down to it, they realized a videogame could take calculations and other messy work off their hands, so it was a natural progression.
Somewhat surprisingly, then, the game is set to launch with a focus on quick, intense, meant-to-be-ranked 1v1 matches. There will be a non-timed asynchronous mode and a non-story-driven single-player mode (with AI that learns from top-ranked players) as well, but that sort of sagely beard-stroking won’t propel you up the game’s ladder. Instead, it’s all about learning to think on your feet while juggling all the various moving parts of your hand-selected team. When everything’s all said, done, and unlocked, you’ll have more than 100 units from five factions to choose between, but only six of your characters will take the field at any given moment.
And you will only be able to earn them through play. No microtransactions, no greedy foxes nibbling at your piggy bank. Just a one-time purchase of the main game. The only alternate option will be draft matches, which will allow you to choose from every character (whether you’ve unlocked them or not) by default. Lee told me that free-to-play just doesn’t fit his team’s vision for this sort of game, and he actively wants to avoid anything that could even be construed as pay-to-win.
Characters themselves, meanwhile, are quite lavishly designed, with a bit of MOBA DNA bleeding over into their gene pool. Each falls into one of a few archetypes/roles, but no two of your gloriously glittering chess pieces play exactly the same way. Everybody has at least one potentially tide-turning special move in their arsenal, be it passive or active. And of course, there are countless strengths, weaknesses, and strategic openings to be exploited. It’s up to you to build a squad (or likely multiple squads) for all situations, outcomes, and seasons. (Because who brings out a summer squad during winter? Yikes. Talk about a fashion faux pas.)
Joking aside, however, Duelyst’s art is impressively vibrant, and that’s a very deliberate focus for Lee and co. Having former Rogue Legacy lead artist Glauber Kotaki aboard doesn’t hurt, either. The goal? To create a place of majesty and myth without a) traditional story scenes or b) resorting to tired high-fantasy cliches. So the world has magical elements, but there’s also an almost Evangelion-inspired sci-fi twinge to it (it’s technically set in Earth’s far-flung future), with countless ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Norse influences to boot.
As a result of some rather off-the-wall character designs, unit powers stand to become more interesting as well. Lee explained:
“We want the units and the artwork to kind of have a certain look and style. We’re not just doing traditional fantasy. Like, we have one faction that’s more Eastern-influenced, and every one of its characters is based off the Chinese zodiac. There’s a snake, a horse, a monkey, etc. They all have associated abilities and skills related to that. The bull has a goring lance, and he can instantly kill you if you have less than 25 percent health. The boar can devour and digest units. And we have a lot of other stuff in the pipeline. All five factions are really different.”
Duelyst is, completely unsurprisingly, on Kickstarter, waging a turn-based campaign against wallets for a grand total of $68,000. Lee assured me, however, that the team’s already thrown jangling chunks of its own change in the pot, and they plan to see this through to completion no matter what. And after that? Well, this sort of game would die on the vine without long-term support, and Lee and co are well aware of that.
“For us, I think that as long as you’re continually pushing out more units, spells, and factions, that’s gonna be a good draw. We’re also gonna experiment a lot with different modes. So for example, if 1v1 head-to-head is pretty good, we’d love to be able to expand it to 2v2 or larger team-based games where it’s turn-based and you can work as a team. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there because not a lot of people have done that. So I think there’s still a lot up our sleeves.”
Expansion-style content (and possibly non-gameplay-affecting cosmetic upgrades) will be charged for, but smaller updates and additions will likely be free.
Duelyst has some potent ingredients swirling in its formative stew, and it already looks quite far along for a game that’s only just now hitting Kickstarter. That said, I would’ve really liked to have played a little, as turn-based strategies are tough to judge until you’re in the thick of them. Tiny mechanical tweaks and nuances can make a world of difference in this genre, and promises of svelte streamlining could well result in a game that’s shallow as a kiddie pool and limited from an options standpoint. I was fairly impressed by Lee’s pitch and even the small snippet of gameplay he showed me, but I need to see more before I’m convinced.
I have high hopes, though. Lee and co obviously have good intentions, so it’s all about resources and execution at this point. And as for that awkward Y in the game’s title? Well, we can just try to ignore that. For now.