Berserk Boy preview: a dash of Sonic, a dollop of Mega Man

Capcom hasn’t made a new entry in the Mega Man Zero series for about 15 years, but its vibrant run-’n’-gun action lives on in other forms. Mega Man Zero developer Inti Creates channels more than a hint of its spirit with its Azure Striker Gunvolt games, for example; meanwhile, indie developer Zu Ehtisham and his team are working away on Berserk Boy.

It’s a side-scrolling action game firmly in the Zero mould, albeit with a hint of Sonic the Hedgehog thrown in for good measure; you play an athletic young hero named Kei (he’s the Berserk Boy of the title) who’s capable of jumping, dashing, and sliding his way out of tight situations. This is just as well, since Kei’s world is under threat from a group of once-benign protectors called Mythical Guardians; once each is defeated, though, Kei will be granted a new form, which he can switch between with a nifty ‘form ring’ system inspired by Mega Man ZX.

Berserk Boy began life as a much smaller – and grittier – solo project called Death Dust. Over time, however, the tone began to shift, as Ehtisham explains. “Originally, Berserk Boy was going to be a lot darker, based more around telekinesis and precision platforming and be way more unforgiving. As time went on, I redesigned the main character a lot, and found myself naturally going towards a more light-hearted hero with a cheeky personality every time.”

With that shifting tone came a growing team: Ehtisham started working full-time on Berserk Boy after a year of fitting development around other work, including teaching and freelance art projects. Today, there are five other people working away on Berserk Boy: programmers Kyle Riley and C.L Kerl, pixel artist Kevin Ramaputra, Sonic Mania’s Tee Lopes on music and sound effects, and Rob ‘SketchCraft’ Duenas providing illustrations. “For over a year I was juggling it with my full-time job and part-time freelancing,” Ehtisham says. “It’s definitely nice to be able to knuckle down and spend more time on it.”

Although originally from the UK, Ehtisham is based in Japan, while his collaborators are scattered across other parts of the globe – so co-ordination is one of the bigger challenges Berserk Boy currently faces, he says. “We all live in different time zones, so co-ordinating can sometimes be a nightmare. That, and trying to not add new features every time you think of something cool, so I’d say staying within a reasonable scope is something you’ve got to pretty much gauge and learn along the way.”

Key to Berserk Boy’s action is Kei’s ever-growing roster of Berserk Forms, which he gradually acquires as he progresses; his FlameDrill form, for example, allows him to perform a deadly spin attack, Tasmanian devil style. Players will be able to switch between all these abilities via the ring select system mentioned above – a mechanic added to the game following feedback from Twitter followers.

More powers are acquired as you fight Mythical Guardians, and can be switched on the fly.

“Originally, the form ring wasn’t a ring at all – you would need to stand at a transform point and then you could swap forms,” says Ehtisham. “I did a poll on Twitter and the majority vote was for changing forms on the fly, so we went in that direction. Originally it was going to be selected by flicking through the analogue stick up or down, but with the nature of the game, you’d need to know what form you were changing to and when. Naturally, we found how Mega Man ZX tackled it and got inspiration from that.”

Kei’s also joined by a feathered sidekick named Flore – a friendly Mythical Guardian who aids you on your quest. “While he isn’t fully playable or upgradeable, unlike Kei and his Berserk Forms, he does have his chance to shine,” Ehtisham explains. “He also makes having dialogue and building the story in the game a lot more natural, as Kei can have a back and forth with someone during missions.”

Those missions may be inspired by the colourful sci-fi trappings of the Mega Man series, but don’t expect the difficulty level to be too punishingly old-school: although Ehtisham’s thinking about adding a harder mode for veteran players, it won’t be “ultra-tough”, he says.

“The main thing I want is for the player to actually be able to finish the game, and so I’ll be moving away from those instant kill spikes. While it does have its challenges, it’ll have frequent save points and checkpoints so you can keep trying without getting too frustrated, making it much more forgiving than an early Mega Man game. I’d say it’s like a more modern Mega Man game, but with some light Metroidvania elements that encourage you to explore the stages.”

There’s a way to go on Berserk Boy’s development, with its release pegged at 2021 or 2022. Until then, one of the main tasks is ensuring controls and abilities handle just right. “Sometimes I can spend days testing an ability and finding things that need a bit of tweaking,” Ehtisham tells us.

“It makes it even more time-consuming because each form has a unique method of traversal and attacking, so they have to feel equally as good as the original form.”

Genre: Action-platformer
Format: Switch / PC / XBOX / PS4
Developer: Z2team
Publisher: TBA
Release: 2021/22

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