Ouya title Soul Fjord is a game based on concepts rarely found stitched together: ‘70s funk and Nordic mythos, roguelike and rhythm-based.
The randomly generated dungeon crawler tells the story of Magnus Jones, a dead viking fighting his way into the afterlife party at Valhalla. Each stage is part of his ascent of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, and is filled with a mix of Norse and funk-inspired enemies.
Finding a balance for its thematic and gameplay mashups required "gut checks" throughout the entire development process, according to creative director Kim Swift. Speaking with Polygon during a recent phone interview, Swift explained how Soul Fjord was formed in terms of its art direction, atmosphere, and more importantly, combat.
"We had to figure out gameplay-wise on the sliding scale how much we wanted it to be a music game and how much we wanted to be a dungeon crawler," Swift said. "So our combat system actually went through quite a few iterations before we found one that we were really happy with."
According to Swift, Airtight Games finished Soul Fjord late last year, but held onto it to continue testing.
"Throughout our whole process ... we would take a look at the game either as it stands from gameplay or art and sound and atmosphere and figure out if we were on the right track," Swift said.
We spent some hands-on time with the game, and, true to roguelike's punishing form, our experience was a trial by fire. Each level is split up into several different rooms that require you to kill everything before moving on. Randomly generated layouts and foes, however, made our journey difficult. Deaths happened often enough to keep us on our toes, and we found that it was to our advantage to take our time through levels; porting to the next level too quickly proved to be even more dangerous. Instead, we spent our time looting and leveling to improve our equipment and better prepare.
Soul Fjord's battles were the most challenging part of our time with the game, but usually for the wrong reasons. Beat timing is kept by a constant parade of notes across the middle of the screen. Hits are more effective when struck on the beat, while dodges and blocks are a must-match. Even enemy attacks are based on this rhythm. However, the game's music rarely seemed to correspond with the beat in a natural way. We couldn't successfully hit based on the music alone, which meant our eye was constantly focused on the beat line. In turn, this distracted us from our enemies, leaving us open for attack or slow to dodge.
According to Swift, the game's combo system was one of its biggest and most fluctuating changes. Early in development, the team realized that most players' first instinct was to button mash.
"It kind of took them awhile to understand that they had to press a button every beat and kind of get in the groove of the music," Swift said. "They were kind of frustrated with the game, so we decided to try different variations of allowing you to hit on the beat and maybe not do as much damage, allowing you to hit on the beat but not do any damage.
"It took us awhile to try and find that happy medium of allowing players to hit on the beat to feel like they're really getting in the groove and also trying to balance how much damage these various combos are going to do."
Combos can be switched up with different weapons, which are easily purchasable through each level's merchant. Each time you die, however, purchased weapons are lost unless they've been soulbound. Soulbinding required us to find or purchase records with real-world currency — one of the few monetary purchases required from the free-to-play game.
"Ultimately, because we knew that we were going to bring this game to the Ouya, we custom tailored the controls to fit on this console," Swift said. "Overall, I think the game is a good fit for the console."