VGB Feature: Necropolis Interview with Harebrained Schemes Game Director Chris Kohnert

Necropolis

With its Kickstarted Battletech revival still a year out from a projected early 2017 launch, Harebrained Schemes, the Seattle-based studio behind the excellent series of Shadowrun turn-based tactical cRPGs, is trying something a little different for its next title Necropolis, a single-player and co-op action-roguelike with a Souls-like desire to dish out pain and a distinct art style inspired in part by the gorgeous stylings of Journey. As Necropolis approaches a targeted Steam launch in March, Game Director Chris Kohnert was kind enough to take a moment out of his busy crunch-time schedule to answer some of our burning questions about the game. Also a big thanks to Susan Lusty for helping to coordinate this interview!

VGBlogger: Harebrained Schemes has been one of the most–if not THE most–successful game studios when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns for titles like Shadowrun and BattleTech and Golem Arcana. Any particular reason why you didn’t go the crowdfunding route with Necropolis?

Chris Kohnert: We have definitely been grateful for all of the support that backers have shown us. It’s been a great opportunity to work closely with fans (both old and new) during the development of all our Kickstarted titles. But with Necropolis, we are charting some new territory for the studio. We felt that we needed the space to explore and test out new ideas without needing to worry about what promises we’ve made to a group of backers. Early on, a lot of ideas were experimented with and ultimately discarded if they didn’t pan out. We needed to be able to find the fun, and sometimes that just means putting your head down and trying out lots of things to see what feels right.

VGB: Necropolis is billed as a “diabolical dungeon delve.” How diabolical are we talking here?

CK: If you’re asking the Brazen Head, not nearly diabolical enough! He really does enjoy tormenting the occasional Adventurer. There are a fair number of traps and the like, as you’d expect in any self-respecting dungeon delve, but I think the real heart of the “diabolical” is in the overall challenge that Necropolis will ultimately present if you are willing to delve to its furthest depths. We’ve built something that’s pretty easy to pick up and play (it’s a core tenet in fact), but quite difficult to master and ultimately beat.

VGB: Given the series’ immense popularity, new roguelikes and games built around the idea of being brutally difficult are routinely compared to the Souls games, including this one. Was the Souls series in fact a strong influence? Any other inspirations?

CK: You’ll definitely see the spirit of a Souls game in Necropolis, and frankly I consider it a great compliment to be compared to Dark Souls, because those games are such great accomplishments. Roguelikes add just another element of punishment in a way. Many people enjoy the challenge of not being able to memorize a level or predict exactly how a play session is going to go. Early on, Dennis Detwiller (the creative lead on Necropolis) and myself had conversations that started something like “What if Spelunky and Dark Souls had a child, and that child tried to murder you over and over…”

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VGB: I understand that the world of Necropolis is built around procedural generation, but more broadly speaking how is progression through the game structured? Is it set up to go floor by floor through the dungeon? Are there firm start and end points? Etc.

CK: The overall mantra within the Necropolis is Down is Good. Of course, down also means more difficult. We’ve ensured there are several routes downward, even some that aren’t necessarily immediately visible, but as you go deeper into the Necropolis, you will encounter more difficult enemies. It’s always exciting to look down over a ledge and think “oh, man, I just have to get down there”. It just keeps going and going. Until it doesn’t of course. There’s an end. I won’t spoil it just yet by revealing how many levels there are, but it will definitely not be a light affair to get to the end.

That said, you’ll be able to stop and pick up the game session later if you don’t have time to do it in one sitting. Sometimes life calls and you need to attend to things. The Brazen Head will wait for you.

VGB: How is character customization/development handled? Does the game follow the standard earn experience points and level up method, or is it more loot based?

CK: That’s an interesting point actually. Many people see Necropolis and think that it’s got all the trappings of an RPG, but it most definitely is not. At least not in a sense that most people expect. We’ve tried hard to build more of an arcade style game than an experience-and-loot game. You won’t be golden-pathing skill trees or stats here. It just doesn’t make sense with the roguelike as we see it. It’s all about adapting your play style to the tools at hand. So you found a blazing fire axe this play-through, great! Chances are you will find something else next time through.

VGB: What character setup options are available before entering the dungeon as far as things like ability and equipment loadouts? Is it all randomized or is there some player choice?

CK: There’s very little initial choice when you enter the game: male or female, and your initial color scheme. Everyone starts the same way. Again, it’s an arcade game, not an RPG, so your skills and weapons and loot that you collect as you go define how you play and react not the character you build up front.

VGB: Does Necropolis have any element of carry-over persistence between dungeon dives? Like the more you play do you unlock upgraded loadout options or the chance to get better loot on future dives?

CK: We have something called Codexes, which when found provide additional perks or unlocks. For example, you might find a Codex that increases defense or makes you jump higher. If you can carry the Codex back to one of the Scriptorium points, you’ll permanently bank it and have it available in future play sessions. Though if you die before you can make it back… well, there’s always next time.

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VGB: Regarding the combat system, do the movesets and animations change based on the weapon being used, and thus allow for different play styles and strategies?

CK: Definitely. Much like a Souls game, the movesets of weapons are the heart of how each one plays. Some are faster or swing in different arcs. Some have more reach, etc. I will say we’re even going one step further. We have plans to release other classes in the future that will add an extra layer to all the existing weapons. For example, a big heavy sword that is a bit sluggish in the hands of the Blackguard (a thief type class) might be much lighter and faster to the Brute (our knight class) and he’ll swing it completely differently, giving you a whole different feel.

VGB: Can you elaborate a little on the game’s “living ecology” and how it impacts gameplay?

CK: We’ve built many of the creatures in the Necropolis with an inherent predator/prey relationship. Often these can be used to the player’s advantage. For example, there are these magical crystalline creatures called the Grine that have started taking up residence in the Necropolis. Well, it just so happens that we also have a creature called a Gemeater, who, as you might guess, really loves munching on anything gem-like or crystalline. So, if you find yourself being overwhelmed by a group of Grine, maybe you can just lead Mr. Gemeater over and he’ll see what he considers to be dinner, and bam, you just sneak out the back as he wades in and takes them out.

VGB: How does the game handle the difficulty balance between single-player versus co-op? Do things like enemy count and strength simply scale based on the number of players?

CK: Yeah, we’ll be tweaking some of the stats behind the scenes to make sure that players continue to have a good time without upsetting the overall difficulty we’re trying to achieve.

VGB: Are there any unique gameplay dynamics to teaming up in multiplayer? For example can players revive fallen comrades, share items, do any sort of cooperative attacks or strategies?

CK: Definitely! I love the cooperative elements of games like Borderlands or Left 4 Dead, and combine that with the sheer lethality of the Necropolis in general, it totally makes sense that you’d want to bring along a friend or two. They will be able to help you up if you’re downed, assuming you can be reached in time, so it makes the likelihood of a complete restart less likely. Just watch out for a misplaced sword swing from your friend, however…

VGB: Will the co-op support online, offline/split-screen, or both?

CK: Co-op is online only.

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VGB: What were some of the inspirations behind the game’s stylized low-poly art?

CK: Our characteristic look has been driven by the hard work of our art directors Chris Rogers and Mike McCain. Early on, they began toying with some different directions for Necropolis. One of the earliest decisions was to break from the typical pursuit of photorealism. In doing so, it gave us a lot of room to pursue a more stylized aesthetic and let the player experience something new and fresh compared to a lot of offerings out there currently. You’ll definitely catch hints of Journey (an absolutely gorgeous game) coming through, as it was a pretty big inspiration early on. We were also looking to capture some of the genuine sense of fun and adventure you’ll find in many of the Zelda games (Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker for instance), so you’ll also see hints of that in places too, if you look in just the right places.

VGB: I noticed with the recent launch of the Steam page that pre-orders come with the official soundtrack. Who composed the soundtrack and how do you intend for the music to complement the tone of the game?

CK: The composer is Jon Everist who we’ve worked with in the past on our Shadowrun games. It’s been interesting feeling out exactly what music means in Necropolis. If you take something like Dark Souls, music has a subtle presence and is used sparingly. But there’s definitely no questioning its power when used effectively to accentuate emotional or tense moments. Add to that, the particular brand of quirky humor that we are bringing through characters like the Brazen Head, you’ll get a completely different angle. For example, check out our PAX East trailer or PAX Prime trailer from 2015 [trailers embedded at page bottom], you’ll hear a much more upbeat and whimsical tone than you might expect for a “diabolical dungeon delve.” That’s not to say that that’s what you’ll hear in game, as trailers are their own beast when putting them together, but it gives you a hint as to some of the variety that we’re trying to deal with tonally within the Necropolis.

VGB: Are all systems still a go for a March 17th launch?

CK: As you can imagine, the team is all hard at work fixing bugs and making sure all the enemies and traps are at prime lethality. We’re looking forward to seeing all the carnage the Brazen Head will bring when the doors to the Necropolis open in March.

VGB: Are there any plans to explore console versions once the PC version is done?

CK: We’ve definitely got plans… Unfortunately I can’t say much more yet, but you should definitely stay tuned!

VGB: Thanks for your time, Chris. Can’t wait to play the game!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!