Remember the heyday of brawlers? When the arcades ruled everything, the brawler was the perfect vehicle for fun. Up to four people could play, meaning arcade owners could get more out of a single machine. You were likely to run through a number of lives, and by extension, quarters. That solid, basic gameplay was attached to a number original and licensed titles: Final Fight, X-Men, Sunset Riders, Golden Axe, The Simpsons, Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Alien vs. Predator, Dungeons & Dragons, and more.
The brawler one of the many genres that's fallen by the wayside, living on in the form of action titles like Bayonetta 2 and DmC. Slick Entertainment is trying to bring back the old style of brawler, without sticking to slavishly to the genre's early mechanics. Viking Squad is the studio's answer, a beat 'em up with beautiful hand-drawn 2D art and a few changes to the genre's core gameplay.
"We noticed that a lot of the brawlers coming out were all harkening back to an older age," explained Viking Squad designer Caley Charchuk. "They were just sticking with all the old mechanics exactly. We wanted to hit that nostalgia, but also try to innovate in the genre."
Slick's primary innovation is splitting up Viking Squad's battlefield into four parallel lanes. This means that players have more visual precision; they move, attack, and dodge within these lanes. Being unable to freely wander is bit odd when you first jump into Viking Squad, but once you get the hang of it, it improves the flow of the game's combat. Yes, you lose things like being able to diagonally move into a enemy for a few free hits, but you gain the ability to accurately see what will or will not hit you.
"One thing we focus on in Viking Squad is more precision in our combat," said Charchuk. "You can actually tell what your target is and who's going to be attacking you. All the attacks have a lot more anticipation; you can dodge them. The player skill ceiling is much higher. It's merging what players expect from games these days with that old nostalgia hit."
Oddly enough, Viking Squad is a three-player title, but you have four vikings to choose from, including the bow-wielding archer or the hefty shield-bearer. Each character has a different weapon and playstyle that leans on the game's other systems. Special attacks drain your stamina bar, so you're not spamming them all day. Critical attacks are based on timing: hit the sweet spot on your personal meter and your heavy attacks will do the most damage.
As your characters head out into successive raids, they can level up, improving their specific abilities. You can also find items out in the world, which you then bring back to your town's blacksmith to craft new upgrades for your characters. The world currently consists of four regions, each controlled by virtuous viking leaders, all of whom have been corrupted by the Norse god Loki.
"[Viking Squad is] story-light and more about the gameplay, but we still want there to be some purpose to it," said Charchuk. "Loki has come and he's corrupted the leaders of all these regions, including your yarl. He's made them greedy, so the Jarl keeps sending your team out raiding. As you fight the bosses of each region, you liberate them from Loki; eventually, you do the same for your own Jarl."
The four different regions have different themes. There are multiple levels in each region, with branching paths unlocked based on performance. There's no procedurally-generated levels in Viking Squad, but Slick Entertainment is trying to make sure that each playthrough is a bit different.
"The regions are persistent. There's always the set four themes," explained Charchuk. "Say one region has five levels with a boss at the end, the levels that you play within that region are randomly-selected. Every time you re-enter that region, it's going to be a new grouping of levels. Out of five levels, there's maybe ten possibilities that the game will pull from. You'll see things in one run that you won't see in another. We want to promote people running through a few times."
Right now, Viking Squad is coming to Steam and PlayStation 4. Slick Entertainment would like to do a Vita version in the future, but that's still just "the future". Right now, their heads are down for a 2015 launch. If players enjoy Viking Squad, Slick also has plans for further expansions of the title.
"Depending on the reception, we can do new zones. There's even little Easter eggs of zones we were thinking of putting it," said Charchuk. "New characters. We can put in tons of new equipment. There's a lot of potential for expansion."