PAX Online 2020 Highlight – Anew: The Distant Light

Posted on September 16, 2020

With so many indie games fighting for attention, it takes something special to stand out. Chosen as part of the PAX Online Indie Showcase, Anew: The Distant Light, developed by Resonator Interactive, caught my eye straight away, with a simply gorgeous art-style and interesting premise. Metroidvania exploration of an interconnected open world, with varied alien creatures and challenging combat? Sign me up for all of that. I had the opportunity to chat with Jeff Spoonhower, Co-Founder and Art Director at Resonator, about the visual style of the game, its interconnected gameplay structure and the prospect of developing a title with such a small team.

Anew: The Distant Light is a single-player, open-world action and adventure game where you play as a child with limited resources, waking up on a distant alien moon, twenty light years from Earth. Before you know it, you’ll be exploring a mysterious, alien world while carrying out a mission of critical importance. The inspirations are clear in Anew; Jeff notes that this Metroidvania style “is sort of in the genre of Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge. It’s this huge, vast, unique alien world that you’re exploring and discovering who you are and what the backstory of the game is. There’s all these all these crazy mysteries to unravel.”

I personally got vibes of previous stellar games like Ori and the Blind Forest from my time with Anew, in the sense that it paired challenging, interesting gameplay (albeit with more of an action focus) with stunning visual storytelling. Despite the challenge of working as a small team on an indie title like this, Jeff reiterates he wouldn’t have it any other way. “The one great thing about working on an indie game, even though indie games are really, really hard to do, and we’ve been working on this game for a really long time, is that it affords you creative freedom.”

“We’re a very small team, actually, just myself and my development partner, whose name is Steve Copeland. So two full time developers and then we have a really great freelance composer named Wilbert (Will) Roget, II who’s writing the score. We worked in big AAA games at studios for you know, 15 years, so once you start making your own game with two people, it’s kind of like, well, what is your personal vision? What speaks to you? What do I most emotionally visually connect with? And then I get to sort of breathe that life into the game in a way that I think is exciting and beautiful.”

“…that just helps make this alien world feel like very unknown and very strange to the player.”

When playing the demo, what stands out is that the world itself looks handcrafted and carefully curated in a way that other titles rarely capture. A strange, alien world is instantly an interesting setting to dive into when it comes to art design, which allowed Jeff to really create something unusual, in the best way. “I love science fiction, obviously. But a lot of the times, it’s like it just feels too human. Like the designs of the overall art direction of science fiction sometimes feels a little bit too familiar, or it just feels too recognisable as shapes and forms that we are used to seeing, and that we understand.”

“So architecture that we’re used to seeing on earth in our real lives is sort of wider at the bottom, like the base, right? To give it that foundation, it sort of tapers as it goes up. But in our game, we have the opposite of that, where we have a lot of the buildings that are like really tiny at the bottom, and they sort of expand and become wide at the top. So it gives it this sort of off-kilter feel, which feels very uncomfortable when we play and when we look at structures like that. So that just helps make this alien world feel like very unknown and very strange to the player.”

Excitingly, Anew is set to feature an open, interconnected world. The world map was recently revealed a few months ago, and provides a bit of context to the type of environments we can expect. Notably, there is a clear colour-coding to each zone, and each will be filled with its own unique enemies, challenges and mysteries. “They each have their own emotional tone and their specific story elements that are happening in each of these zones that tie into the overarching story of the game.” Jeff adds. “They’re very carefully plotted out and designed.”

“All of these elements like the color palette of the zone; for example, one of our zones takes place in this underground frozen lake, another one’s in a desert. So the color palette, the story beats, all the unique creatures and sort of the architectural structures you see in the background. All of those elements have to work in a unified fashion, to make the player feel like this is like a truly unique part of the world that they’re now entering. And you want to give the player that feeling like ‘oh my gosh, like, I wonder what’s in here. This is this whole new thing. I want to explore like every nook and cranny of this zone.’ And that’s how you get the player to get through your whole game, which is not easy to do.”

We’ve seen other games with these large interconnected world have their moments of confusion, where you may end up backtracking and trying to find your way back to the right area. This is something the team hopes to avoid with Anew. “There needs to be enough geographical waypoints, structures and interesting visual areas where the player will naturally mentally map each zone out and be able to remember and recognise those areas. That’s the ultimate goal I think, for games like this, and we’re giving it a go.”

Jeff continues to explain the fine balance between ‘frustrating’ and ‘captivating’ in the genre. “It’s a really tricky thing for us as designers to balance. You know, we know what we like but until you start getting hundreds or thousands of people playing your game, you don’t have a large enough data set of feedback. That’s what betas really are supposed to be for, to get that feedback where you can understand how people are reacting. So that’s going to be… we don’t want people looking at a map every 10 seconds, you know? That’s no fun. We want them to be in the moment.”

“…we don’t want people looking at a map every 10 seconds, you know? That’s no fun. We want them to be in the moment.”

In my time with Anew, combat is satisfying but not necessarily easy; there were enemies that knocked me down when I was unprepared, and the demo is quick to give you upgrades and new abilities to test out so that you can get a feel for what the final release will be like. An automatic rifle, a shotgun, a shield and a jetpack are just some of the tools at your disposal, but there will be certain points of the game where you get to use a vehicle as well, shifting the power dynamics between you and your enemies. Jeff also promised that there are “some awesome overpowered vehicles that you pilot.”

Taking control of an over-sized mech in particular stood out as a highlight of my experience, so I’m curious on what other surprises we have in store. Navigating the environment with some platforming while exploring the unknown and taking out a real mix of dangerous alien creatures so far seems to be a pretty satisfying gameplay loop. As you progress, you’ll earn equipment through skillful combat and solving puzzles, which you’ll also be able to upgrade. You can customise your gear as well. Moving through the world feels good, with animations allowing you to slide along the ground with ease and platforming has an appropriate weightiness, meaning I wasn’t ever frustrated by a misjudged leap. A particularly frantic moment had me moving swiftly to escape a deadly threat, which got my heart pumping as well.

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Anew: The Distant Light has a demo available here for you to check out as part of PAX Online, but the demo will continue to be available afterwards for those who want to try it out ahead of its release next year. But if you do check it out, note that the demo is quite linear in order to give you a taste of what to expect. And so far, feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive” for the sci-fi adventure.

The team at Resonator are, understandably, happy with how the game has been perceived based on this slice. “We wanted to give a little bit more of a hint of the scope of our game. So we’re sort of funneling people through a variety of content just to give them a sampling of what we have in store. But the player mechanics and the overall control schemes, the visual design and the overall look and feel of the game… people seem to be digging it. So that’s been really encouraging.”

With a genuinely fun combination of beautiful visuals, slick animation and tight action gameplay, Anew: The Distant Light has shot right to the top of my most anticipated list. I’m eager to test out the open, interconnected world and see how the game ebbs and flows throughout a longer play experience, but from my memorable playhrough of the demo and my chat with Jeff, the passion of this small indie team is already shining through. This is one upcoming release you should absolutely keep an eye on.

Anew: The Distant Light is releasing sometime in 2021 on PC and consoles. You can find out more about the game at the official website, follow the team on social media for updates, and don’t forget to wishlist on Steam!