Replaced made waves when it was first shown back at Xbox's E3 Showcase earlier this year, and has now made another mighty impression with a new trailer at Gamescom Opening Night Live. It's had such an impact, even the head of Xbox Phil Spencer took to social media to rave about the game earlier this year.
With all eyes on the team at Sad Cat Studios, it's undoubtedly an exciting, albeit scary time ahead. But it's something co-founders Yura Zhdanovich and Igor Gritsay are ready to tackle head-on before the game hits Xbox Game Pass next year.
Pure Xbox: Could you give us a quick introduction and your role on Replaced?
Yura: Hi! I’m Yura Zhdanovich. I’m the founder of Sad Cat Studios and the game director of Replaced.
Igor: And I’m Igor Gritsay, the co-founder of the studio. I’m working on all things sound related for Replaced.
Pure Xbox: In a nutshell, what is Replaced and what can we expect from it?
Yura: I think you pretty much know what it is from seeing it. But it’s a cinematic action-adventure. It’s a very heavily story-based game. That’s it in a nutshell.
Pure Xbox: The 2.5D art style was a big talking point amongst viewers after its E3 reveal. Can you give us a bit of insight into why that particular style was chosen?
Yura: When we decided which art style to use, it pretty much came down to what we wanted to do versus what we could pull off, and at the same time what will get people excited. Ultimately, when we were thinking about the ideas for our first project as a studio, we were working around different concepts, different ideas, and different art styles. At some point, we thought about doing it fully 3D, but as we talked through it, we ultimately decided a fully 3D game would be very hard to pull off for the first time. After that, we set out on doing a classic indie pixel art style game, but at the same time stick to budget constraints.
When we started developing we initially figured out that doing the traditional pixel [approach] wasn’t very fun for us, it just wasn’t very exciting. It’s probably what a lot of people do and it’s cool, you can pull out something with traditional pixel art that really is very beautiful, for example fully hand-drawn games such as Hollow Knight. We ultimately found out that’s not the direction we wanted to move in because we wanted to do something a bit different.
After we looked at what we can do with traditional pixel art, we started experimenting on what can be done outside of the box. We tried different ideas and then we shifted our focus on something 2.5D. There’s a lot of games that have been trying to do the 2.5D perspective, for example, classic games from the PlayStation 1 era such as Disney’s Hercules. It really is funny how this kind of game was a long time ago and it still holds up in terms of 2.5D art style. And then came more prominent modern takes, for example, The Last Knight and Backbone. We ultimately thought this is the direction we wanted to move in, while at the same time doing something unique for ourselves in terms of gameplay and enhancing the art style itself. That’s how we came to this decision of making it 2.5D pixel art.
Igor: 3D is too much for us. It’s not in terms of skills. Even though it’s our first game as a unit, many people in our team have worked on 3D mobile games before Replaced. It’s just that we wanted to tackle a cinematic approach to the game, and cinematic stuff is pretty limited in terms of what you can allow players to do. When you add a third dimension, you add another level of issues you have to tackle because players can break the game. For our first try, we decided to get something a bit easier where we can limit a player's movement to an axis.
Pure Xbox: Replaced seems to have a lot going for it visually. Personally, I got elements of dystopian Cyberpunk, gothic horror, and even a bit of Blade Runner. Can you tell us what inspired the world of Replaced?
Yura: Initially we were leaning towards the classic cyberpunk as people know it, but while developing the game we thought about how we can enhance this setting, such as how we can add something or do something different. That’s when we came to the conclusion we will do a retro-futuristic style approach because a lot of us are big fans of the old science fiction movies that were very popular when we were kids. Something we wanted to do was to try and show what the science fiction world would look like if it was made back then instead of focusing on modern science. From our perspective, right now we are mostly living in some kind of cyberpunk world, to be honest, we just take it for granted.
We wanted to do something more gimmicky in terms of taking this approach to try, and emulate something that people might imagine the future would be like back in the 80s. For example, with some of the works from the Alien franchise - something futuristic - but at the same time is very primitive in terms of technology. You have all those beeping diodes and buttons, but at the same time, people are using cassettes. It’s something very interesting we wanted to explore, and that’s the main focus of the inspiration behind the visuals.
Igor: To add, we wanted to have a cultural focus on western culture because the usual cyberpunk trope is a mix of western and Asian culture with blazing neon lights. We have those too, but at the same time in Replaced, it’s mostly focused on United States-based cyberpunk with its western culture and less impact from Asian culture.
Yura: Yeah, it’s mostly like if globalisation never happened. You have this nationalistic theme going through it. It’s something we wanted to do because there’s a lot of things that it got inspired by. You mentioned Blade Runner and it’s cool, but we wanted to switch gears here because as we are exploring the ultimate history, we wanted to focus on the sole component of American culture, American history references and those things, while also exploring sci-fi focused themes such as artificial intelligence and so on.
Pure Xbox: Another notable moment from the reveal trailer was the use of combat which is extremely visceral. Can you tell us a bit more about how combat works in the game?
Yura: Let’s start with what inspired our combat. Initially, when developing the game and deciding to include combat, we wanted to do it in a story inclusive way. It’s not like you’re a terminator just because you’re the main protagonist, but rather than being an AI in a human body gives you some perks such as making some decisions and doing some stuff much better than your inner human.
One of those inspirations was the movie Upgrade, which tackled this theme quite well. We wanted to capture this feeling of being very visceral and at the same time bring a non-human aspect of combat. When we experimented with animation and combat systems, we ultimately decided on some things that pretty much already exist in the world, like one of our favourites being the Batman: Arkham series.
Igor: The Arkham series was one of our main research objects because many members of our team played it through and through. This is an excellent example of a combat system being both challenging, but at the same time casual. It all of course depends on the level of difficulty but has enough in-depth mechanics to make it challenging enough. This was our main source of inspiration, and in Replaced we wanted to capture a sense of flow in combat where it never stops. There are no moments where you are basically running from one enemy to another and doing nothing. That’s why there is a strong magnetic feel to the protagonist, he just snaps from one enemy to another, and this allows us to provide this smooth feeling to combat.
We also have counterattacks that help you to parry and riposte enemies in a beautiful way, and there are finishers which are mostly for eye candy, but at the same time, it also adds up to this visceral and energetic feeling in the combat. I would say we also added our own details to this combat, but as a general reference, you can think of it as Batman in 2D with its own twist to it.
Pure Xbox: What else can players do in the game?
Igor: Platforming is something we’re heavily invested in by giving it a tactile feel. The animation pipeline for the platforming is more than 100 different pieces for the main character, just to give you an idea of how seriously we want to take this cinematic approach to the platforming aspect.
Yura: When we first started developing Replaced it was much closer to old titles such as Flashback and Another World. Basically, this game’s levels are very tightly crafted, because the player has a very limited amount of animations, and it was very expensive to create this fluid motion. This is what we wanted to upgrade upon. We didn’t want to limit players to where they could jump, where they can grab stuff, and like that. That’s where we got around 100 different animated bits, because we can’t allow them to do whatever they want to do, and it allows us to be restrictive. The platforming is akin to the Prince of Persia series I would say.
Igor: The 2000s series.
Yura: Yeah, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, etc. This is where we wanted to give players exploration opportunities and proper exposition for beautiful locations that our art team has developed. There’s also a bit of challenge with sudden threats through the traversal. Our platforming is more on the relaxed side, it’s not like Celeste by any means, but at the same time, it’s a mix of light challenge and exploration for the player.
Pure Xbox: The reaction to the game has been overwhelmingly positive, with even Xbox boss Phil Spencer highlighting it specifically on social media. How was it like seeing that sort of feedback?
Yura: This was… I just…. you know, there are only those simple words that you can think of. It was mind-blowing, and at the same time, it was frightening as we are now in the spotlight. When you see the man [Phil Spencer] retweeting you and noticing you, it’s out of this world. Also other huge influences such as Geoff Keighley, Alanah Pearce, and others. It was almost a week without proper workflow because you just can’t sleep. It’s kind of tedious, but at the same time, it’s really inspiring because you can actually feel the impact you have made. It also gives you a high amount of pressure. Now you don’t have options not to deliver, you have to deliver, and it should be really, really good.
Pure Xbox: Replaced is hitting Xbox Game Pass on day one. Was this something that was decided from the offset or later on? How did this come to be?
Yura: We haven’t actually been thinking about Game Pass from the get-go, because we started making and prototyping the game when Game Pass was in its infancy. It couldn’t have been the plan all along.
When we first started talking with Xbox, we first applied for [email protected] and that was our starting point with Microsoft for our partnership. As we have been working on the game and showing more, the development was continuing with a lot of positive feedback. When we were approached with a deal, the proposition to enter Game Pass, at this time I and Igor were talking about it, it’s almost like we’re advertising for Microsoft. It’s rather not that. When we were given the opportunity to enter Game Pass and sign a deal, we were not thinking for more than five seconds because it was a really good opportunity and right now developers who are making their games, maybe their first games, should grab this opportunity and never look back because it can be very great.
I think it's not for any game and not for every publisher or developer, but it is for a lot of projects that want to get noticed and want to have some kind of financial support from the get-go. It’s a very good option to consider.
Igor: It’s also a great way to deliver your game to as many players as possible. I recently had an opportunity to buy an Xbox Series X since scalpers are out of their minds with the prices. When I created my Game Pass, I basically downloaded tons of games I wouldn’t have cared to try before as games cost money. When you see something that costs more than spare change, you think ‘should I buy it or should I not?’ With Game Pass, you can just try it out. I’m a big physical collector of games, so this is a great opportunity to test out the game and then I can just go to the shop and buy the game.
It’s been a long era of no demos for games, since the beginning of the 2000s. A lot used to come on discs with magazines, but later on, it just disappeared. Today I think Game Pass is a great way to check out lots of games, and if you want to support the developers you can purchase it. But Game Pass is a really great deal for both developers, well not every developer as Yura said because I don’t think a triple AAA studio like Rockstar actually needs that because they have that giant marketing reach. But for almost every indie developer, it’s not just about money, it’s about getting a lot of marketing and discoverability for players.
Pure Xbox: With such a wide range of people jumping into the game via Game Pass, perhaps many who wouldn’t necessarily have done so before, is there anything you’re hoping they’ll take from the game or be surprised by?
Yura: To give a little secret, right now we are working on some things that will be present at the beginning of the game. I definitely work to do as much to impress anyone who would even try it out who may not be into 2D pixel art games or platformers. We want to suck them in within the first couple of minutes when they’ve just launched the game. I hope it will be worth it.
Igor: We really hope to actually enter this very narrow segment of those games that are equally reaching for hardcore indie gamers, but as well for those people who are more into AAA titles. As I said, this is a very narrow segment of games such as Ori and the Blind Forest. We hope we can deliver because the bar is really high there.
Pure Xbox: We spoke to a developer this week who praised their experience working with the team at Xbox around getting their title on Game Pass. Has this been a similar experience for you? And does it encourage you to work on bringing future titles to the service?
Yura: I think it’s too early to say anything about that because we need to finish this one. There’s a lot of work still to be done, but I think we are 100% doing Game Pass if we get an opportunity to make another project. Generally, we have been saying Microsoft is a real pleasure to work with right now. I think when doing any partnerships, we have a really good sense of them being really interested and invested in the project that they get partnered with. We are really looking forward to working with them and partnering with them again if there’s an opportunity.
Igor: Also, the overall timeline of production is really long, for example, we need to release Replaced in 2022, and who knows when we will ship our second game. Basically, it’s a long time and there are too many unknowns, and we really don’t know where Game Pass will be in 5 or 6 years. Maybe Microsoft will switch focus to AA or AAA titles, and maybe we’ll be able to produce those sorts of games by this point. But if we had all the same prerequisites for the situation, I would say yeah, we would definitely go with Game Pass again. I would stress again, for now, it is a real delight to work with them.
Pure Xbox: Can we expect any Xbox Series X|S enhancements? And did you find any challenges working across three different consoles?
Yura: Regarding next-gen, or current-gen as it is now, we are working right now on the weakest of platforms - the Xbox One S. That’s where all our decisions around the game are being made, such as ‘can it run this’ or ‘can it run that’? We are trying our best to deliver the most cohesive experience across all platforms, so we are targeting 60fps on the Xbox One S. We are also targeting 60fps on the Series X and Series S.
Right now we are focusing on 4K/60fps for the Series X, but if we have time maybe there will be some more updates that include some additional features for the most powerful hardware. We don’t want to overpromise, we want to deliver the most cohesive experience for all platforms possible. If there is an opportunity to add something even more such as 6K at 120fps, I think we will go for it. Time will tell.
Igor: I think the only real promise we can make here is that we will do our best so that even the lowest tier of Xbox One will run the game great.
Pure Xbox: Any final words for our Pure Xbox community ahead of Replaced’s launch on Xbox?
Igor: We are still a long time from launch, so I would say just talk about us in the loudest words possible. At the same time, I would say everybody can expect very exciting things in the near future, and we hope that we can deliver even better down the line. I think the journey has only just started for us.
Yura: Just keep an eye out and stay hydrated. 😉
We'd like to thank Yura and Igor for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out Replaced when it hits Xbox Game Pass on day one next year!