The games industry’s a fast-moving place at times, but paradoxically, working in it can require a huge amount of patience. Just ask Edd Parris, sole developer at So Romantic: his JRPG-inspired cyberpunk, Jack Move, began life almost a decade ago. It was 2012 when he started working on its battle system as a hobby project; it would be several years before Parris got to work on the game full-time, found a publisher, and Jack Move really got going as a commercial title.
When Jack Move got started, Parris was still working at Mediatonic, the Murder by Numbers and Fall Guys studio that recently got snapped up by Epic. “I was a server engineer on mobile games, so while I was helping to make games, I was working on the parts you don’t see, like saving your game, leaderboards, and in-app purchases,” Parris tells us. “I wanted to learn how to do all the cool fancy stuff, so I started working on a small prototype of a turn-based battle system. At the time, there weren’t that many turn-based Japanese-style RPGs – my favourite type – so I thought that would be a fun place to begin.”
Parris quickly settled on a cyberpunk theme for his RPG, though the plot – about a plucky computer whiz whose father’s kidnapped by a shadowy corporation – didn’t start to coalesce until a year into development, when Parris was enjoying a spot of lunch with narrative designer and critic, Cara Ellison. “She suggested a sassy girl hacker like Angelina Jolie’s character Kate in the film Hackers,” Parris says. “This would be much more interesting than the usual gruff dude type like in Deus Ex, etc. Her character has changed a lot since then, but Noa is still that sassy hacker at her core.”
The cyberpunk setting means that Parris has been able to have all kinds of fun with the aforementioned battle system. In place of magic, Noa’s equipped with a ‘cyberspace deck’ of software, which has different abilities she can switch between on the fly. Battles are turn-based yet timed, giving them a snappy, urgent feel, which is underlined by the titular Jack Move: a bar that fills each time you deliver or receive a blow. Once it’s full, you can activate your Jack Move, essentially a special attack, by completing a rhythm-action minigame. The battle system is, Parris says, his “love letter” to the Final Fantasy Series. “VII was the first JRPG I played, and I fell in love with that turn-based ‘Active Time Battle’ system, so I really wanted to make my own little love letter to that,” says Parris. “Final Fantasy X is another one in the series that I really love – in fact, it probably has my favourite battle system of them all. I really love the rock-paper-scissors/chess-like nature of it, which forces you to try and pick your opponents apart systematically.”
In terms of visuals, Jack Move looks less like a PSone-era Final Fantasy game and more akin to something on the Game Boy Advance. This is no coincidence, since GBA classic Golden Sun was another influence on Jack Move. But while the game looks like a traditional 2D game in stills, with some sumptuous art and animation courtesy of Joe Williamson, the environments are actually 3D. “We use Unity for the game engine,” Parris explains. “I’ve written a ton of custom tools for it, including a ‘3D’ tile mapper. The overworld is 3D in order to take advantage of the proper lighting models, but to keep those pixels crisp and square, we use a forced perspective trick using an orthographic camera. We stretch the world out in the Y and Z axes, everything then gets pulled back into shape by the angle of the orthographic camera which sits above the world. Unity also gives us a ton of cool stuff like post-processing effects which we like to slap on everything to give it that really modern look.”
Playing through an early build, and it’s striking how cleanly Jack Move marries old and new; its pixel art and palette (see box) may recall the GBA era, but its lighting and shadow effects wouldn’t have been possible on old handheld tech. Similarly, its exploration and battles feel apiece with the traditions of a classic JRPG, but with witty, modern writing from Amalie Kae, and similarly current quality-of-life options, like the ability to turn random encounters off if you just want to explore without the grind. Nor will Jack Move be one of those vast RPGs that outstays its welcome, Parris says. “We’re aiming for a campaign that’s about 8-10 hours long, not a 40-hour epic like you might expect from a JRPG. This is mainly scope, but also because I’m getting old and I don’t have the time outside of work and family to play these long games anymore. I’d much rather experience a whole bunch of really solid 8-10-hour games than one 40-hour slog.”
Jack Move’s been in the making for around nine years now, but the effort’s beginning to pay off – with its systems all in place, the remaining work largely comprises locations, cutscenes, and NPC sprites. Based on what we’ve played so far, Jack Move promises to be a thoroughly charming take on a much-loved genre.
Jack Move’s world and characters mix the gritty and the light-hearted, giving the game a feel that’s part Blade Runner, part Saturday morning cartoon. The process of creating the game’s assorted, cybernetically enhanced lowlifes and other quirky denizens is a collaborative process, Parris tells us, as he writes loose character descriptions and then passes those on to artist Joe Williamson for his interpretation. “My original ideas are usually blown out the water by what the animators suggest and come up with.
For example, one of the bosses we have is the evil Dr Qadir. His main attack element is ‘wetware’, which is all sorts of goop and gas-type attacks. I originally planned him to be driving some kind of tank that would shoot you with goop, but Joe came up with the idea that he’d be bouncing on a space hopper that he’d inject with goop which, after one huge bounce, would get sprayed all over you! Way more interesting than a boring old tank.”
Genre: J-Inspired RPG | Format: PC/Switch | Developer: So Romantic | Publisher: HypeTrain Digital | Release: 2022 | Social: @empika