XBLIG Spotlight: Brand

We like to regularly shine the spotlight on an exceptional XBLIG, and the developers behind them, in what we like to call the XBLIG Spotlight.  This week, we take a look at Brand, a highly anticipated hack and slash with slight RPG elements. Check out the trailer below and as always, my perspective and an interview with the developers behind the game (Author’s Note: I never read the response to the interview questions before writing my review to ensure that it remains unbiased). Add Brand to your download queue! First, check out the game’s trailer:

 

First, tell the readers a bit about yourself: what is your history as a game developer, previous efforts, why you decided to start getting involved in making games?

When I finished my game design degree, I quickly got a job as a tester in a new QA department at Activision. I was among the first 15 employees of that department and it quickly grew to over 200. This quick expansion meant that I quickly rose up to a leadership position. I was happy to be within the video game industry, but I was still not doing what I’m most passionate about, which would be making games. I tried to work with a few colleagues on side projects but we were told to stop by our bosses, so I decided to leave and start my own studio. To be honest though, I think it was only a matter of time before I start my own company, so in the end it probably only sped up the process.

If you had to pick one specific game to describe as your inspiration (for this game or in general), what would it be?

That’s a tough call. We were careful not to use only one game as our inspiration to make sure we’d have our own flavor. Mega Man and Castlevania clearly had a visible impact on the game though, so those are the first to come to mind.

Have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform?  What made you decide to develop for XBLIG?

We want to move Brand to PC and we probably won’t return to XBLIG for future titles, although we’d be very interested in working on a XBLA title someday. We chose XBLIG as our first platform because we needed the experience of working on a console game. As gamers, we aren’t very interested in mobile or social games so we intend to stay focused on the platforms that matter to us.

How long did you spend on development?  Can you explain, roughly, how the development process worked for you? What tools and programs did you work with?

We worked on Brand for roughly ten months. At first we intended to put 6 months on that game then move on to a bigger project, but the team had more ambitions for the title than what we initially envisioned. Since one of the core values of Nine Dots Studio is to make the games *we* want to make, we decided to put more time on Brand rather than stick to the plan and do something we’d be less proud of.

A game’s soundtrack can make or break a game, tell us how you selected yours. Did you produce in house, team up with a music producer or simply purchase royalty free music?

All but one song in the game were found on the Audio portal of Newgrounds.com. I contacted the artists myself and asked them if they would accept to be featured in Brand and most of them happily accepted. The whole soundtrack of the game is available for download, there’s even a post on our website with a link to each song!

If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently in regards the game’s development what would it be? 

I wouldn’t have announced a release date so soon. We’ve delayed the game three times because we took for granted that everything would go smoothly. From now on, I won’t announce a release date before I’m really really sure we can make it.

How did you go about deciding on the name for your game and why did you end up with the title you have?  Were there any rejected titles that didn’t make the cut?

We had so much troubles finding a title! At first we had a codename, which was “Swordcraft”, and although it was very marketable, we wanted something more unique. At some point we asked people for their opinion on different titles. We had some intentionally bad ones, such as “Swo: The incomplete Sword”, which quickly became a running gag in the studio.

Tell us about your game’s virtual “box art.”  Who designed it? Was there any specific inspiration or story behind the creation process?

The cover art was drawn by our lead artist. There isn’t much of a story, he simply tried a few different approaches and eventually chose what he preferred. There is a series of blog posts on our website detailing the creation process of the cover art, showing the different approaches we considered.

Many gamers dream of making their own games, what advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to developer?

Not everyone will agree with me, but I’d say get a team. I know there are a lot of solo developers and I have a lot of respect for the ludicrous amount of skills it takes to do games all by yourself. However, I find it so much more fulfilling to create and reach a vision shared by a group. Besides, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and to take advantage of that will let you reach goals that are much more ambitious than what you would have expected.

XBLIG have had a mixed result so far, what can make it better?  What one thing do you think would improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?

Well, there were a lot of valid suggestions already, but one thing I’d like to see is the possibility to sort by price. Right now, 80 MSP games are making a lot more money than 240 MSP games in general. Maybe if the consumer could consciously choose to browse games in a higher price tier, he would find it more acceptable to pay a little more since it would be what he was actively looking for. That’s just a thought and of course I have no data to back it up.

What can fans of your game(s) expect in the not too distant future?

Expect some updates for Brand, we intend to react to user feedback and we need to implement some additions in response to our generous contributors from RocketHub.

We’re also working on a PC version and on a few videos, this time something a little different from the usual gameplay trailer.

Anything else you would like to say?

We’re proud of what we’ve done with Brand, but it is our very first project and it was the perfect opportunity to learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves. We’re certain that the next title by Nine Dots will be bigger and better in every way.

Add Brand to your download queue!

Brand started getting people’s attention back around August when the first trailers started to make their way around the net.  The hack and slash with 2.5D visuals was certainly easy on the eyes and looked to offer a good time as well.  Well the day has finally arrived, and one of the more anticipated XBLIG’s of 2012 has arrived but does it hold up to the hype leading to its release?  Yes, and no.

The whole point of Brand is the sword.  The game’s story is basically told in a single screen; you are given a quest to make a lowly, rusty sword fit for a king.  To do this you must battle through three dungeons, accomplishing various quests for The Chemist, The Alchemist and The Blacksmith in return for upgrades to your sword.  Each quest that you pick (in return for a specific upgrade) sends you to one of the three locations (The Necropolis, The Castle and The Mine) where you will have to accomplish some specific task before returning to collect your reward.  Upgrades range from magical powers (like a wall of fire coming from your sword) to simply increasing the damage dealt.  Once you have finished 15 quests you will go to the “Arena” to prove the sword worthy.  More on that later…

Shazaam!

There isn’t a ton of story or variation, but the small selection of upgrades offers enough that you can pick a path if you desire.  Brand’s simple premise works for the most part as well.  The combat isn’t overly complicated, offering a light attack, heavy attack, dash attack and block, and there really isn’t much more needed.  Enemies increase with difficulty as you move away from the starting location of the various dungeons, areas you won’t be able to avoid as you take on quest for higher and higher upgrades.  The quests themselves are not particularly complicated either, but some of them can certainly be difficult as you go deeper into the dungeons. While you are likely to find yourself only exploring a little bit of each area, the levels are well designed and are bigger than you might expect.  This is important since you’ll be returning to them over and over again.

Avatar support in action

Brand’s biggest selling point though is the presentation.  The soundtrack, clearly a mix of different artist who have contributed to the game, is not only solid but rather enjoyable.  Some tracks stand out more than others, and a couple of songs in Brand don’t fit as well as others.  Overall though, Brand has one of the better soundtracks in an XBLIG.  Visually Brand really stands out as well.  The 3D visuals are presented in a 2D side scrolling manner (2.5D) and it is vaguely similar to Gauntlet Legends in style.  The various dungeons look notably different and the backgrounds are incredibly well designed.  When you get down to it, there aren’t many XBLIG’s that look and sound like this, and even fewer that cost a dollar (at least to start, heads up, the developer plans to increase the price up to 240 points on March 3rd).  One last nicety is that the game does have avatar support.  Simply go into the options menu and turn the avatar mode on or off, even mid-level.  Since the character has no customization to it, you don’t feel like you are missing out by doing so (and if you are like me you’ll soon be playing Brand as Master Chief instead).

Backgrounds in Brand are fantastically done

All is not good in the land of Brand though.  This XBLIG definitely has a couple of faults that are likely to frustrate gamers.  The game’s controls are a little wonky, yes, wonky.  Why wonky?  Well, first off it’s fun to say and type, second, it’s the best way to describe it.  While gamers are likely to become familiar with the controls after some time spent, initially (especially when jumping) the game is likely to frustrate.  One more issue that becomes more maddening as you move on is the load times.  Starting a level takes what seems like an eternity, and even if this is an exaggeration, it starts to wear on the player.  This is especially true on the more difficult quest that may take a couple of tries as the game does not just restart the level but instead brings you back to the level select screen so you have to load the level all over again.

and then your avatar died, and no one came to the funeral...

Lastly, Brand’s final level leaves something to be desired.  After having added various upgrades to your sword and reach the magical number of 15 upgrades, you go to what is essentially a long, linear level.  The Arena at the end of Brand can best be described as an endurance run.  The problem though is that among all these upgrades, health and armor are excluded.  You are as weak to an attack at the end of the game as you are at the beginning and many more difficult enemies can break through your block.  While the focus on upgrading the sword is interesting, the game almost specifically doesn’t lend itself to longer dungeon runs (and with health random and exceptionally limited), the last level is sort of like being kicked in the groin as a reward for taking a punch.  Adding insult to injury, there is no option to either add more upgrades or potentially change upgrades; unless you want to start all over again.  It is always hard to knock a game for its difficulty, but it can’t be ignored in this case.

As a $1 XBLIG, Brand stands out from the crowd.  The game’s presentation is well above normal and the base gameplay is enjoyable if not simple.  The good outweighs the bad more often than not, and when played for a little bit here or there, as opposed to marathon sessions, the enjoyment level is bound to be higher. Ultimately, if you have an interest in the game you should pick it up before the price increase.  While Brand stands out as a $1 XBLIG, the $3 price tag after March 3rd will be a bit harder to sell in its current form (barring updates, etc.).

Final Rating: 7/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On
: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Time to completion: 5 hours?
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by nine dots
Current Price: 80 Microsoft Points ($1), 240 MSP ($3) after March 3rd
Recommend Purchase Price: If you want it, get it now.
Why you should buy it: You enjoy hack and slash games, waiting patiently.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: Dungeons bring back bad memories from that trip to Gary Busey’s house.
Add Brand to your download queue!

avatar

About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.