Pokemon's combat has been gradually reinforced through decades of iteration. Where Red and Blue started, new generations have added layer upon layer of concepts, building up a fervent competitive battling and raising scene in the process. Bravery Network Online, from the Gloam Collective, is looking to change all that.
The indie versus-RPG is easily relatable to Pokemon's combat, and for good reason. Damian Sommer, a developer at Gloam, says he got the idea while playing the unofficial Pokemon Showdown with fellow Gloam developer Min-Taylor Bai-Woo.
"Just being able to access those root mechanics of Pokemon was deeply satisfying, especially for game design-minded people like us," Sommer tells USG. "But we found it was sad that it was all buried underneath in the actual Pokemon games. Buried underneath just a bunch of weird mechanics that makes stuff more obtuse. The start of this was all from wanting to make a more accessible version of that."
We played it at PAX West 2019, just on the other side of the hall from another indie game, Rivals of Aether. And where Rivals reinvented the core concepts of Super Smash Bros., Bravery Network Online is re-examining the basics of combat in Pokemon; Sommer tells us Rivals was an inspiration, to take out concepts like type charts in favor of new ideas.
The crux of Bravery Network Online is Bravery, the future-sport of this world. Set in the year 8000-ish ("So far ahead that it doesn't really matter," Sommer says), Earth is post-scarcity and post-mortality. Every character of Bravery Network Online is, effectively, immortal. So how do you beat an immortal in a fight? Sticks and stones can break bones, but words are just as effective. Fighters in bouts of Bravery can fling words and generally play dirty, because physical damage and damage to morale are all the same to an HP bar.
"We tweaked it and tweaked it and tweaked it," Sommer says. "Then eventually, we were like, why don't we change the status effects so that they're feelings? And we just ran with that."
While a Pugilist like Seyla fights with their fists, a Paragon would focus more on humiliation or status effects. Playing through a small section of Bravery Network Online's single-player campaign, I opted to recruit Grace, a glowing diva and the ex of my future opponent. Rather than focusing completely on offense, her moves were all about disrupting my opponent's game plan. Grace's Escape Whip let me tag out to another fighter if it did damage, and she could either sing a lullaby to make the enemy drowsy or unbutton the top of her shirt to fluster them.
It might feel a little jarring at first to play a Pokemon-style game where fighters are tripping each other or humiliating them to do just as much damage as a punch or kick. But it works incredibly well, not just in adding a new dimension to combat but also a spark of personality. You're not tagging in a certain Type character or moveset, but a character, each one brimming with their own look and personality.
"Right from the get-go, we wanted individual characters," Sommer says. "We didn't want like, there's one person who's part-knight part-dragon, and another person who's part-dragon part-thief or whatever. We didn't want any of that. Instead, what we wanted was to really have personalities that we could highlight."
Bravery Network Online's biggest gambit is a gradually filling fighting game-style meter that can be expended for various advantages. Represented by batteries running alongside your team's health, you can spend a battery to either Parry, potentially blocking your opponent's next move, or add a Flourish to your next move. Those benefits can be simple, like additional damage, or they could add status effects or stat bonuses, or even offset the usual downsides of a strong attack.
It adds a similar layer to the combat that fighting games have, with mind games being played out between opponents. Do you take a big swing when your opponent has enough charge to Parry? Do you spend some meter charge to pump up an attack now, or bank it for your last fighter? A team I played had a character, Erik, who seemed particularly adept at building up meter, acting as a battery for the heavy hitters on the team. This little twist opens up a lot of interesting potential in the unspoken exchange of feints and plays that make up combat.
"Really, on a core, surface level, if you pull back, it looks a lot like Pokemon," Sommer says. "But then once you get really into it, you're like, 'Oh, they changed a lot of it.' And all of those changes are justifiable in a way. They're not just for difference's sake."
Alongside a story campaign with several routes and a dense cast of personable, charismatic fighters, Bravery Network Online looks to take turn-based combat to new places. But by throwing out the manual, it might just find a following that's aching for something fresh and outside the norm. Bravery Network Online will hit PC and Mac sometime in early 2020.