Bleak Sword takes the challenging combat of games like Dark Souls and distills it down to the essentials for a compelling adventure on iOS, macOS, and Apple TV. Learn how Unity developer more8bit kept streamlined the project with a clear vision and smart prototyping to launch this Apple Arcade hit.
Mobile developer Luis Moreno Jimenez (more8bit) has worked in the games industry for more than 20 years. “I started pretty early doing little 3D models and crude animations, and fantasizing about the games I would like to make,” he says.
At 17 years old, he joined Enigma Software, where he spent three years working on different prototypes and the RTS-RPG hybrid Excalibug. His next role was at MercurySteam, first as an animator on games like Scrapland and Clive Barker’s Jericho, and then as lead in-game animator on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and its sequel, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2.
“Years working closely with gameplay programmers and gameplay designers has been very beneficial for me in the long run,” he says. “I got to see how they tackle gameplay specific problems from different points of view, understand what works and what doesn’t, and pick up little gameplay tricks here and there. I’ve also learned how to finish and close projects, which is something very important if you’re working solo.”
Inspired by the growing number of indie innovators finding success outside large studios, Luis decided to pursue the dream of making his own game. He experimented with a couple of different engines before choosing Unity. “I felt that if I was going to learn a programming language, it would be better to learn a more established and general one like C#.”
From the outset, Luis knew he wanted to make a mobile game, and he had a clear idea of what Bleak Sword would look like. The game features 2D sprites rendered in a 3D environment. All game assets use minimalistic pixel art, brought to life in a lo-fi, monochrome style.
“The first thing I came up with was this aesthetic,” he explains. “From the very beginning, the main character was as you see in the final game. I thought this minimalistic style would look cool on a handheld or mobile screen, so I chose mobile as my first target platform.”
Gameplay took several rounds of prototyping. “The first version of Bleak Sword was 2D,” says Luis. “Another was open world, like a mini-Witcher 3, but that idea soon proved to be too big for one person to do in reasonable time, even with minimalist graphics.”
Eventually, Luis landed on the concept of “diorama-based arenas,” where each level is confined to a small square. “This was the structure I was looking for – the two ideas matched perfectly as both have a minimalistic design approach,” he says. “The great thing about Unity is how quickly you can put together a few assets and try out different ideas. It definitely saved me months of work in the experimental phase.”
Bleak Sword’s base game contains nine different chapters, each containing 10 diorama-based arenas. Every chapter has new enemies to conquer and culminates in a unique boss encounter.
“I knew from the start that I wanted to have very different settings. Because the game loop in the original game was designed specifically for short, quick, intense sessions, if the settings were too similar, it could bore the player,” says Luis.
To keep the experience fresh, Luis created different types of terrain, obstacles, enemy types, and gameplay elements. “You have chapters with water, environmental traps, weather conditions that can affect gameplay, and so on,” says Luis. “Players can also hide behind trees or other objects when enemies throw projectiles at them. I tried to balance each arena together with the enemies, so each level is a little different and has the potential to create memorable moments.”
One of the game’s most memorable chapters is the Northern Passage, where combat happens on horseback in a perpetually scrolling environment. Luis used Shader Graph to prevent enemies and objects from coming into view beyond the bounds of the scrolling diorama.
“Enemies on that level have a script that changes their material. When they spawn, they are created outside the arena using the shader that hides pixels. When they enter the arena, the script changes the material and uses a normal shader, making them visible.”
Going mobile gave Luis the opportunity to experiment with control schemes and create a uniquely challenging Soulslike, a genre not often seen on handheld devices. “I wanted to make an action game playable with one hand – no onscreen joysticks or buttons,” he says. “When people play mobile games on their commute, they’re usually holding onto the bar with one hand and playing with the other.”
The controls are simple but effective: Players swipe to roll in a direction for movement, tap once to attack, and tap and hold to charge an attack or counter a blow from an enemy.
In early prototypes, Luis used Unity’s built-in Input System because it was easy to set up and implement, but switched to Rewired from the Unity Asset Store later in production. “I was very happy in general with the plug-in – it helped a lot with the original Bleak Sword’s development, especially with the Apple TV controls.”
more8bit’s publisher, Devolver Digital, pitched Bleak Sword to Apple, who added it to their library of Apple Arcade exclusives in 2019. The game was a hit, receiving praise for its fluid and responsive gameplay.
“I’m very happy with how things went,” says Luis. “It definitely allowed me to continue on this indie adventure.”
So, what’s next for Bleak Sword? This year, Devolver Digital announced Bleak Sword DX, an expanded and improved version of Bleak Sword for PC and Nintendo Switch™ with updated controls, visuals, and a brand-new campaign.
“I can’t wait for players to try the new DX campaign mode, which I think is a lot of fun and pretty challenging, especially with the addition of two more difficult modes,” says Luis. “I’m also excited for players to try their hand at the new Boss Rush mode or see if anyone can get a crazy high number of rounds in Endless Arena. I put a lot of work into this game, and I hope players enjoy their time with it!”
Stay tuned for the Bleak Sword DX case study exploring how more8bit brought his debut game as a solo developer to more platforms.
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