Asked for the creative inspirations behind his studio’s next game, DrinkBox Studios co-founder Graham Smith first nodded to The Legend of Zelda, and that makes perfect sense. The top-down, overworld/underworld environment of Nobody Saves the World, coming later this summer, instantly communicates you’ll be playing an action RPG, even if this doesn’t have the puzzle-solving for which Zelda is known.
But I was not expecting to hear Final Fantasy Tactics as the game’s other spiritual parent. It doesn’t sound like Smith was, either, when a DrinkBox developer originally pitched the concept a couple of years ago.
“I haven’t played [Tactics] myself, but I think they have some kind of a jobs system,” Smith said, “where you can […] assume the role of, like, a fisherman, or a mage, or a mime, and whichever role you assume, you can gain progress toward that role, and gain new abilities from that.
“So, the initial pitch was talking about [Final Fantasy Tactics],” Smith said, “and, also, dungeon crawling.”
A decade after its founding, DrinkBox has done well at distilling winning gameplay loops from eclectic ideas and screwball humor. And after spending about an hour with Nobody Saves the World, I do see a reason for the comparison with Tactics. The Zelda-like motifs may give the game an immediately recognizable appeal, but the progression through a bizarre tree of 18 different “forms” — involving a horse, a ranger, an egg, a stage magician, and a bodybuilder — and acquiring and combining their perks, is what most distinguishes Nobody Saves the World.
In the game, which will launch on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X, players take on the character of Nobody — a featureless, mostly expressionless human (“this little white baby thing that has no clothes,” as Smith put it). Nobody is the understudy to a powerful magician who has gone missing, leaving it to the player, on the first day of their apprenticeship, to clean up a world overrun by monsters, brutes, and likeminded threats. To do this, Nobody will use the only magical power they’ve acquired — a wand, which allows them to assume something else’s form, and derive helpful offensive or defensive talents from it. It really doesn’t matter who the world’s savior is at any given time, thus the main character’s name, and the game’s title.
As players get deeper and deeper into Nobody Saves the World, though, they’ll be mixing and matching their perks into a loadout that suits their playing style. That said, DrinkBox developers were scrupulous about building a game that required players to see everything the progression tree has to offer. For example, my first form, the Rat, was surprisingly effective in the clicky, Diablo-esque combat awaiting me in the dungeons. But the bigger “legendary” dungeons are gated by having a certain number of stars, and stars are earned by completing various sub-quests and lodging other milestones.
All of this is meant to keep the user shifting forms, using different talents, attacks, and damage types (blunt, sharp, and dark), and seeing all of what Nobody Saves the World has to offer. The Egg, for example, is not secretly some kick-ass combatant. It’s actually as fragile as you’d expect, taking damage if it rolls too hard into a wall. But it has one unlockable talent that is worth taking a few quests as the Egg to level up: “Incubate,” which recovers health (a cozy-looking heat lamp even pops up over the player while it’s active). Incubate can be applied to any form thanks to the mix-and-matchability of the perk system, and DrinkBox very much wants people to use it that way.
“I think forcing people outside of their comfort zones,” was a big obligation and challenge to tackle, said Ian Campbell, the game’s lead designer. “We have 18 different forms, and we’re putting a lot of effort into them, and making them very different. But then, the first play testers are just like, ‘Well, I like the rat. I’m just going to be the rat all the time.’ So then we put in a lot of the systems, like the wards, and the shields, and put more of an emphasis on customizing. All those things are just trying to force people to keep moving around the tree, and discover and use these things.”
The quirky forms and their signature talents notwithstanding, combat in Nobody Saves the World unfolds under a familiar system of health, mana, and cooldowns, with light and strong attacks and perks adding to their effect. For example, the Rat deals dark damage with its Gnaw (and more powerful, chomping “Consume”) attack, and an enemy may become poisoned after taking enough damage. After leveling the Rat to rank D, I acquired a talent that let me detonate poisoned enemies, with attendant damage to bystanders.
“A lot of the abilities have good synergies with each other,” Smith said. Keeping your eyes peeled for these compatibilities will help players scale up their effectiveness. The Necromancer form, for example, has a “Blood Sacrifice” ability, which kills any familiars the player has summoned (the Magician can summon rabbits; the Necromancer raises demons) to give the player a big damage bonus. The inverse of this ability is the Necromancer’s “Blood Pact,” in which damage the player does with their own attacks is added to the damage their familiars are causing to other enemies on the screen. In either case, players who can manage a swarm of familiars, either keeping them alive or sacrificing them right before they expire, can scale up their damage output considerably.
As the foes in Nobody Saves the World are constantly swarming and pressuring you, such skill management become essential to a boss battle, where enemies’ ranged and area-denial attacks can give the action a strong bullet-hell vibe. Level bosses also have a pattern of attack that requires a smidgen of observation, before breaking down their weak points and laying on the buttons. In all, the action I found was fast-paced, but it never felt overwhelming, and it required me to vary my tactics just enough that everything seemed distinctive and purpose-driven, not like I was just spamming generic attacks to get out of a mess.
- Players explore a crashed UFO, one of 25 procedurally generated dungeons in Nobody Saves the World, early in the game Image: DrinkBox Studios
- Similarly, this dungeon is some kind of wrecked excavator, which purposefully breaks the high-fantasy boundaries most expect of an action RPG with rangers, magicians, and mana. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- The Crashed UFO’s exterior. Note the poorly disguised, quest-giving aliens outside. This dungeon isn’t gated by a Star count, but the “legendary” ones are in Nobody Saves the World. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- Here’s the muscle-bound Bodybuilder, crawling through a dungeon styled like a Mesoamerican temple. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- A horse firing off the Ranger’s charged-shot arrows? It’s Nobody Saves the World, just go with it, man ... Image: Drinkbox Studios
- Nobody Saves the World is saturated in DrinkBox’s offbeat, expectation-subverting humor. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- NSTW’s mana fairy is a familiar callback to The Legend of Zelda. As for Nobody, they are “this little white baby thing that has no clothes,” says DrinkBox co-founder Graham Smith. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- A random encounter in Nobody Saves the World’s overworld. Believe it or not, this zombie horde is on your side. We think. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- After blighting it with nuclear waste and tire fires, DrinkBox developers redoubled their efforts to make the overworld feel populated and alive with things to do. Image: DrinkBox Studios
- The Calamity (you can see its hideous effects sticking to the castle wall at left) has come to the world, which Nobody can save. Image: DrinkBox Studios
“A lot of the focus has been more about the high-level structure of the game, and how we’re going to be unlocking the world to the player in a way that they won’t feel frustrated or too overwhelmed,” Smith said. “And then, filling in things that they might feel like they’re missing. For example, in the most recent milestone, we added a lot more side quests to the world, because it felt like the world wasn’t really inhabited very well.”
Nobody Saves the World at present has about 25 dungeons to finish, with five of them being “legendary dungeons,” larger stages that advance the story. While some of these dungeons have standardized entrances or final room complexes, all of them feature some form of procedural generation, Smith said, legendary ones included. Like your foes, the dungeons will increase in complexity and difficulty as the player levels up.
Aesthetically, Nobody Saves the World routinely breaks the high fantasy assumptions one might have of an RPG realm involving magic, wizards, and a king who needs your help. One dungeon I explored was a crashed UFO site, whose stranded occupants needed me to sweep the area of monsters and get the power back on, for example. It’s a DrinkBox production, after all, where you can almost see the developers’ whiteboard with a zillion ideas written on it.
“Early on in the project, one of the very first things that was produced was a mockup of the form tree,” Smith said; it was something they were showing to potential publishers and other development partners. “The form tree was one of the things that was getting the team most excited about this game. It was full of some standard things like, you know, ‘ranger,’ or ‘guard,’ but then a lot of non-standard things like ‘turtle,’ or ‘rat,’ or ‘horse.’ So a lot of the fun of this project was just exploring those ideas, and that initial form tree concept had more ideas than we’ll have time to do in the project.”
Nobody Saves the World does not yet have a launch date; the news release announcing it today says “later this year,” but Smith said DrinkBox is “targeting around the end of the summer.” The PC version will be available on Steam and the Microsoft Store, but it will also be a same-day launch in Xbox Game Pass, along with the Xbox One and Xbox Series X versions.