Chucklefish have been on a roll. The indie devs who made Starbound and are working on Wargroove have, as publishers, brought us Stardew Valley and Risk of Rain. Now they're adding to their stable of quality pixel-art indie games with magic school RPG Witchbrook and "Dwarf Fortress on a space station" game Starmancer, both on the way. Recently joining that list is Pathway, which sounds like Indiana Jones if it was a turned-based tactics RPG. That's a pretty good sell right there.
The setting is 1936 and the Nazis are out there digging up occult artifacts and generally being the bad variety of tomb raiders. After your pal Morten gets in their way and then gets captured you put together a squad of heroes and go after him, and that's when Pathway turns into Jagged Alliance with a whip and fedora.
German studio Robotality, the developers of Pathway, have form in this genre—they previously made sci-fi strategy game Halfway, which Chucklefish also published in 2014. Since then, they've quietly been hard at work on Pathway. I spoke to Robotality's Simon and Stefan Bachmann, brothers and designers who are responsible for art and code respectively, about what they've got planned.
PC Gamer: What's the elevator pitch for Pathway?
Simon Bachmann: "Choose your own adventure" events with squad-based tactical combat all nicely presented in a '30s pulp story scenario.
What were some of Pathway's inspirations? Apart from the fedora-wearing elephant in the room?
Stefan Bachmann: Well, surprisingly enough Indiana Jones really wasn't what initially sparked the idea for the game.
Simon: Yes, exactly. One of the main inspiration when we started were the comic books by Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin. We grew up with these books and they had a big influence on us back then. Other notable influences were The Phantom by Lee Falk and Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt. Besides these comics we got a lot of inspiration from all the '30s pulp stories. Movies like the The Mummy (1999 edition) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow certainly served as inspiration as well. But if I had to pick one I would definitely say The Adventures of Tintin was the primary source of inspiration!
This is your second game with Chucklefish. What attracted you to working with them again?
Simon: The way Chucklefish works with us the developers is quite unique. Being developers themselves, there's just an immediate connection we really appreciate. Besides, they are super nice and smart people!
Stefan: Absolutely. I'd also add that if you look at their line-up of games, there's a theme that goes through most of them: a clear love for retro games, but also a desire to bring new and modern aspects to them. This has always really rung true for ourselves. Which is why we spent a lot time developing a visual technology that allows us to do some pretty interesting things with pixel art!
Are there lessons you learnt from Halfway that you're applying to this new game?
Stefan: Oh, there's a lot of them. One big takeaway from Halfway was that randomness needs to be presented in favor of the player. We kind of naively thought that we're doing the right thing by creating a game that's true to the dice roll. But in reality it led to a pretty frustrating experience for a lot of people. Lots of strategy games tweak their numbers in the background to make it feel right for the player even though it isn't. This is certainly something we've spent a lot of time trying to get right in Pathway.
Simon: Yeah, the whole RNG part was super important and took us some time to figure out a good way forward. Another one was variation and replayability. We received a lot of feedback that Halfway looks and plays well but gets repetitive after a while—which is a problem a lot of linear story-driven games share. We took on board several concerns there and are addressing them in Pathway. So for example we're making enemies more distinct and varied in their behavior. We're also giving the player more freedom of choice in what strategies he can apply to an encounter. The playable characters are more distinct and give opportunity to try out different play styles. All this will hopefully create a package the player will want to revisit time and time again.
Stefan: And then there's a lot of lessons learnt when it comes to working as a team. I don't see this being talked about a lot, but being able to communicate and work well as a team is hard and doesn't always come naturally. Even (or especially) when you're working with your brother, ha!
Simon: Hehe, I do agree. We had a lot to learn as a team and Halfway was perfect for this. You could call Halfway a beta test for the team. Having worked out many of the kinks in our team dynamics has helped in delivering an overall more polished and in my opinion way better game then Halfway ever could have been.
How much randomness is there in Pathway's combat?
Stefan: We've gone through a lot of iterations in the combat system. As mentioned before, randomness in combat was something we really wanted to get right. We started out with an extremely deterministic system, where there was basically no randomness at all. You knew exactly what your move will do before you did it. There were a lot of problems though. Yes, we had successfully removed the randomness, but through that we had also lost a lot of action and speed that we really liked in Halfway. The game's combat became all about positioning your team correctly, and very little else mattered. We tried for months to make it work, but eventually decided to approach it from a new angle.
Where we ultimately ended up is a sort of hybrid between the deterministic system and Halfway's approach. It removes a lot of the frustrating bits, like shooting at an enemy directly next to you and missing, whilst still keeping the combat dynamic and surprising. We believe people are going to like this a lot.
Why did you decide to come back to turn-based tactics as a genre?
Stefan: Mostly because we love the genre. But there's certainly also a part of me that just wanted to have an opportunity to try and make a turn-based game that's much better than Halfway.
Simon: Yeah, it was a natural process that lead to it. When we started talking about our next project after Halfway, we were all at first a bit fed up with TBS games. They are pretty tough games to make. So we started to prototype several different game ideas whilst working on our new voxel/pixel engine. But after two or three months of trying different ideas we started working on a turn-based prototype and it just felt right. All of us here on the team have a deep passion for the genre and so looking back at it, it should have been the obvious choice to start with but it was not. And yeah, as Stefan said, having a second go at our idea of a what makes a great turn-based game is really cool.
Is the Morten of this game an ancestor of the Morten in Halfway? Are there connections between the two?
Simon: No, not really. Halfway and Pathway are not connected in a direct sense. There will be some fun little nods to fans of our first game, but they are not interlocked story wise.
What's the German indie dev scene like at the moment? Is it possible to generalize?
Simon: The German indie scene is well and alive, but it is somewhat focused around the bigger cities like Berlin and Hamburg. There are some really cool projects coming out of Germany lately like The Curious Expedition by Maschinen-Mensch a Berlin-based two man studio. We're also a part of a loose collaboration between many indies called IndieArena. They help organize booths for game conventions and have a big online community.
Do you have a rough idea when you'll be ready to release Pathway?
Stefan: When it's ready... But more seriously, we want the game to be as good as it can be. The gameplay and lots of content is already in place. But we want to take our time getting it right.
Simon: Yes, this is another lesson learnt from the release of Halfway. It could have used another month or two of polish to make it an overall better experience.
Finally, what's your favorite Indiana Jones movie?
Stefan: If I had to pick one, I'd say Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Simon: The Last Crusade.