Cygni: All Guns Blazing preview: shoot them up

It’s not often a relatively straightforward shooter brings out the coos of delight these days – we’re accustomed to the Ikarugas and Radiant Silverguns of the world, so why would another game that by its own admission isn’t aiming to reinvent the genre be of note? Well, because it looks like Cygni.

See it on this page and tell us it doesn’t look fantastic, and we’ll call you a purveyor of untruth. The obligatory ‘looks aren’t everything’ comment will be thrown out there, of course, but looks are something, doubly so when they’re as hypnotically delightful as the ones here.

It’s what you’d expect though, given one of the team’s four members once worked at animation powerhouse Pixar, both going through a training programme as a lighting artist and working for a time on Toy Story 3.

Various other credited and uncredited VFX work goes in the back pocket of Nareg Kalenderian, one of KeelWorks’ co-founders – along with brother Meher and Helen Saouma – and helps give the game both a bit of visual polish you might not expect in an indie shooter, as well as a nice tag line for the marketers of the world to jump on.

“Ex-Pixar staffer makes game!” is true, of course, and the experience at the House of Mouse subsidiary is sure to have had a huge impact on Nareg and his work, but it’s not the full story of Cygni. This is a team of four (rounded off with Vatche Kalenderian [Kalforian] on composing duties) making its first game in the fine city of Edinburgh, with the intention to grow into something more than a four-person team making a shoot-‘em-up.

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You can’t have a good shooter without a lot of satisfying kablooey going on (technical term).

Taking inspiration from Amiga-era shooters, KeelWorks began work on its first game – which would become Cygni – with the intention of “reviving the feeling of joy and excitement we had playing those games as kids,” the team tells us. That nostalgic pursuit pootled along until a slight game-changer entered: the Epic MegaGrant.

“We submitted to the Epic MegaGrant an early demo of Cygni,” the studio says. “The playable prototype at the time was a very early build and a skeleton version of what was shown in the announcement trailer, but we knew what we wanted to do with Cygni, so we communicated this clearly in the application. But the news about our selection still came out of nowhere. We were surprised but very pleased, and the team at Epic were, and still are, very supportive of us and our work.“

While the game was being made anyway, the grant nonetheless gave the team a renewed push to make Cygni stand out; for it to be something special. While internally they had believed it could be something good, the support of an organisation like Epic – an external, independent adjudicator – just confirmed that internal belief.

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The lazy, quick compari-blend would say: ‘It’s like Geometry Wars meets Blade Runner!’

In part this is down to how the team works: while the initial prototype was loose and straightforward, Cygni’s future development had already been planned out and blueprinted well beforehand. “Then through testing, things were amended until finalised,” KeelWorks explains. “It’s how we are used to working from our experience in animation. You always have to have a plan or a blueprint, and then you add.”

We’re not privy to those blueprints, sadly, but we do get a good idea of what Cygni’s going for from the team’s brief explanation of what’s important about a shooter: “We believe the more satisfying the carnage, the greater the experience,” they say. What this amounts to in-game is “massive boss fights, play area obstacles, and more weapons along with large destructible backdrops at key moments.”

Definitely straightforward then, but through purity of vision can come purity of design – and a pure shooter is often a thing to behold. And while everything is coming in pre-planned, it’s not being left to chance – that playtesting will be a key part of Cygni’s development until it’s much further along the creative process.

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It’s not hard to see where KeelWorks’ unique lighting tools have come into play.

And that’s a key factor here, because – from its initial coverage, even comments made earlier in this preview – you’ll see a lot of focus on the game is on those glorious visuals. KeelWorks is aware of the graphics/mechanics split and the need to make sure something plays well before it looks the part. “If our game only looks good, but it doesn’t equally play and sound good, then it will seem incomplete and get lost in the crowd,” they say.

“Because of our background in the animation industry, polishing visuals is very important to us. However, we have always believed that gameplay is to games, what story is to movies; that it is the blend of having good gameplay, visuals, sound, and story, implemented with hard work and passion that would give a chance for Cygni to stand out in the end.”

The game is only officially coming to PC and Mac at the time of writing, but informally it’s said to be making its way to PlayStation 5 and the next-gen Xbox console too. This would make sense, with Cygni’s 2021 release date. We’ll just have to sate our eye-thirst with these images and the game’s trailer for the time being.

The animation game

Moving from visual effects and animation to video games brings with it unique challenges, and it’s something KeelWorks has had to contend with through the making of Cygni. “In traditional animation, you can take a lot of standard shortcuts when you need to move things faster,” the team explains.

“You’re often able to hide a lot since it’s just visual and often only appears on screen for a few seconds. In video games, everything has to be a lot more optimised and tested to death. Players will be in control of what you create, so there is more room for them to break things. To find the dirt under the carpet, so to say. So you need to be more creative and careful with your shortcuts because they can come back and bite you if you’re not.”

Genre: Shoot-’em-up
Format: PC / Mac
Developer: KeelWorks
Publisher: KeelWorks
Release:__ 2021

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