Creating a distinct yet relatable fictional world seems like a difficult and daunting task. Crafting one that blends sci-fi, fantasy, mythology and history all while spanning a spectrum of media from novels and comics to board games and video games seems all the more ambitious and frankly exhausting. Thankfully, that’s responsibility doesn’t fall on me but rather is the pursuit of author/illustrator David Cabrera, and now, in part, the creative minds at Zerouno Games.
With Holmgang: Memories of the Forgotten Cabrera ventures beyond the printed page, bringing his series “The Dragon Nindenn-Ka-Yh” to life in a visually arresting hack’n’slash adventure. Acting as an introduction to the series, Holmgang affords itself the flexibility of a prequel while benefitting from the deep lore and world-building Cabrera has already established. Helping him in realising this vision, Zerouno Games, a Spanish publisher-turned-developer, boasts an impressive pool of talent with industry veterans from EA, Rockstar, 343 Industries and Tequila Works to name but a few.
In a recent chat with Zerouno’s founders Bernardo Hernández and Juan Cañete and Holmgang project manager Victor Cerezo, I got a look into the game’s development as well as some hands-on time with the game’s pre-alpha demo on Steam. With Holmgang being the studio’s debut game, I was impressed by just how much the team had managed to accomplish in just 5 short months of development time. At the forefront of this hugely promising project is its fantastic art design.
Before I’d even sat down to this meeting or played the game itself, Holmgang had already enticed me with its distinct art style which blends soft watercolour tones and textures with bold illustrative ink work. Combing artistic inspiration from games like The Wolf Among Us and Assassin’s Creed China with a comic book aesthetic employed by artists like Dave McKean and Zerouno’s own Lem Castañeda, Holmgang possess a unique visual identity.
Zerouno’s strong sense of style extends to the game’s dynamic enemy design and richly detailed environments, both of which are showcased in the demo’s Submerged City section. This vertical slice places you in the ruins of a once-great underwater kingdom, home to the Wargon-Teedah, a strange race of humanoid-fish, as you seek a powerful artefact hidden in its depths. From this brief area alone, it struck me not only how well Holmgang manages to translate its graphic art style from 2D to 3D but how much care and consideration had been taken with the look and feel of its world.
If you can’t tell already I’m a big fan of the way Holmgang looks and thankfully the game shows similar promise in how it plays. Citing games like Sony Santa Monica’s masterful God of War reimaging and the criminally underrated Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Holmgang’s gameplay combines combo-centric melee combat with environmental puzzles and Metroidvania-esque exploration. While the pre-alpha has only a handful of encounters against a limited number of enemy types, I managed to get a good feel for Holmgang’s simple but strategic combat during my hands-on with the game.
Chaining together light and heavy attacks builds your combo, allowing you to either inflict high damage direct hits or perform crowd control with wide-ranging sweeps. Timed parries let you riposte enemy attacks giving you a small window to follow up with a combo while finishers reward you with a satisfying execution animation. Rounding out your arsenal are special sidekick summons which let you call in either L’Oriel the mage or Ga’Alosh the warrior to help you turn the tide of battle. In its current, rudimentary state, Holmgang’s combat system lacks the mechanical complexity, visual spectacle or well-balanced challenge needed to hold up to modern action game standards. However, the solid foundation it does have holds huge potential, one that hinges greatly upon how Zerouno chose to iterate on these core mechanics.
Central to this success is Holmgang’s combo editor. While this unique feature, reminiscent games like Remember Me and God Hand, was absent from the pre-alpha I played, I’m excited to see how much depth and personalisation it could lend to the combat experience. Having only spent time with Valentia the Amazonian, I’m also eager to see how Holmgang’s other two heroes, Kandar the Hunter and Tatsu the Rōnin play. I’m hoping that when these character’s unique fighting styles, skill trees and combo sets come together with a slightly more cunning enemy AI, Holmgang will boast an intricate and exciting combat system worthy of its ambition.
Aside from these minor mechanical shortcomings, the only other criticism I can make of Holmgang’s combat is its pulled back camera angle. With this isometric view, I felt a little disconnected from the action which took some of the excitement and intensity out the experience. The addition of a dynamic, cinematic combat camera or even a switch to a more intimate third-person perspective overall could really help build the player’s connection with Holmgang’s characters and their actions.
And these are characters I want to get to know. While Cabrera’s rather tropey brand of fantasy is yet to capture my imagination, the trio of heroes at the heart Holmgang’s story do intrigue me. Kandar, Tatsu and Valentia each seem to have their own mission and motives and seeing how these interweave and interact has me excited for where Holmgang’s narrative could go. Thankfully, Holmgang gives you choice in how you decide to direct your adventure. Narratively this plays out through key story choices while in term of gameplay this promises to offer alternative approaches to tackling levels, allowing you to avoid combat altogether. These diverging paths also add replayability, encouraging you to revisit the game’s Metroidvania-inspired levels with each hero in order to unlock every all they have to offer.
Holmgang: Memories of the Forgotten is a project with immense potential, a potential I sincerely hope comes to fruition. While its promising combat and storytelling seem yet to reach the same level of its exceptional art design, I have every faith in Zerouno to deliver on their ambitious vision when it comes to PC, PS4 and other consoles in 2021.
You can check out Holmgang: Memories of the Forgotten on Kickstarter to learn more about the project and pledge your support.
Disclaimer: This preview was carried out using preview code for the PC version of the game, provided by the publisher.