The seeds of Mandragora were sown after staff at Primal Game Studio completed Dark Souls III and The Witcher 3. While the team has great admiration for both games, they found the former to be lacking in human contact, and the latter to be missing a sense of challenge.
“The combat in Dark Souls III is so challenging and so rewarding at the same time, but I miss more NPC interactions, more story elements and choices,” Primal Game Studio tells us. “The Witcher 3 has such a great and immersive world and story, but the combat is too easy, even on Death March difficulty. And so the basic idea of Mandragora started to take shape.”
Capturing the essence of The Witcher and Dark Souls in one game would be a lofty enough ambition, but it’s even more of a challenge when you try and do it with just three people. While the team would eventually scale up to 15 staff, moulding their idea into a fully fledged third-person action game was out of the question. The compromise they reached, however, would give Mandragora something clearly different to its inspirations. “Making a side-scroller was the obvious choice”, the developer says. “Very soon we delved deep into the world of side-scrollers, playing Salt and Sanctuary, Hollow Knight, Bloodstained, and various Castlevania games, to learn what could and what couldn’t work in Mandragora.”
So Mandragora’s inspiration has broadened to encompass a range of beloved classics. How is it bringing them together, and what ideas of its own is it throwing into the mix?
“We are making Mandragora to be an action side-scroller that is fair, but also very challenging, just like Hollow Knight, Salt and Sanctuary, and other such games,” Primal Game Studio explains to us. “We want Mandragora to be different and to stand out from the crowd of other (mostly pixel-art, 2D) games in a few ways.
“2.5D, painterly, beautiful visuals with the help of the lighting and post-process tools of Unreal Engine. A complex story with a quest system, branching storyline, moral choices, and different endings. Finally, RPG-like character development with customisable characters, various starting classes, countless mixed-class possibilities, a robust skill tree, ability levelling, and more.”
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As we’ve seen many times before in this series, ambition is consistently one of the biggest challenges in making games, especially for small studios. As Mandragora’s development continued, Primal found that its main hurdle was squaring its 3D characters with the 2D perspective of a side-scroller. Getting to grips with Unreal Engine 4 helped the team reach that goal.
“We wanted our characters to be able to quickly switch their facing by 180 degrees, while making sure that their weapon was always held in whichever hand was currently closer to the camera,” the developer says. “That’s a relatively easy thing to do with a 2D sprite – it just needs to be flipped horizontally – but it’s a whole different story with 3D characters, especially if you want it to be as automatic as possible, without additional work on the animations. The online Unreal documentation and the tons of official and user-made tutorials available on the internet were a big help for us to learn UE4 quickly.”
Nonetheless, for a team with “little to no experience with Unreal Engine 4 in a professional environment”, there was still a steep learning curve.
“Mastering some of the features took time,” the developer tells us. “For example, creating good looking cloth simulation, ragdolling, and foot IK [procedural foot planting] in an active game environment were all challenging. Our engineers also had to get used to the engine and to learn the performance characteristics of certain engine components, like Garbage Collector [a feature that periodically purges objects that are no longer referenced in the code] and Character Components.”
So Unreal Engine 4 took some time to learn, but the studio says it’s now reaping the benefits. Being able to chop and change different ideas gives its team room to experiment and make Mandragora better, the studio says, and once it got Unreal Engine 4 down, the the ease with which it enabled them to iterate proved invaluable.
“One of the most, if not the most, important process in game development is iteration,” the Hungarian studio says. “More iterations mean a more polished, smooth, and fun gameplay experience. So, even if it is not a design challenge per se, it is a principle that we always try to keep in our mind. Blueprints has helped us iterate a lot. The designers can create various interactive objects and populate the levels with them, or they can balance the various aspects of gameplay (enemy difficulty and player character values, to name a two).
“At the same time, the artists can implement unique audio/visual effects, or add custom animations to the game. All this without any help from the engineers. This is possible because of the Blueprints Visual Scripting system, which is easy to pick up by non-engineers, and easy to extend by engineers.”
While Primal Game Studio has found Unreal Engine helpful in keeping the game ticking over, the development tool has also had a visual impact. The studio explains that concept artist Ildiko Toth’s idea for a painterly art style was challenging to transport to the screen. Thanks to some of Unreal’s tools, though, they figured out how to give it more life.
“Our main goal has been to keep the painterly style of the very first Mandragora concept art,” the studio says. “So we decided not to use normal maps, specular maps and other modifiers that would make the objects look ‘too real’.
“The result of the first tests looked painterly all right, but at the same time, it also looked quite flat, quite dull without those additions, so we needed to find ways to fix that. And we found those ways in strong lighting, the extensive use of Unreal’s various post-process features, such as film grain, depth of field, and chromatic aberration, and atmospheric VFX that ‘you could cut with a knife’, as one of the loyal followers of Mandragora has put it on Twitter.”
Mandragora is set to release in late 2021 or early 2022, though a demo is planned for this year – learn more at the website. Unreal Engine 4 is now free. Unreal Engine 5 is due to release next year.
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games, with thanks to Epic Games and Primal Game Studio.