I felt it, and I wasn't alone. What we were shown of PlatinumGames' Scalebound at E3 2016 didn't fill all that many people I know, even big fans of the Japanese studio's previous titles, with eagerness to play this story of one boy and his dragon – expanded to (up to) three more and their fire-breathing buddies in its co-operative multiplayer mode. The combat of the game, in which the player can alternate between protagonist Drew's less-powerful human attacks and commanding their dragon, Thuban, to bring the pain, was markedly sluggish in comparison to the fleet-footed protagonists of Metal Gear Rising and Bayonetta, and Sam Gideon's rocket-propelled arse. The E3 boss encounter sequence had spectacle, definitely, but it all just seemed so much more sedate than what we've come to expect from this celebrated house of kinetic excess.
Having now sat down with director Hideki Kamiya – whose past credits include the original Resident Evil, Devil May Cry and Ōkami – and producer Jean-Pierre Kellams at Gamescom 2016, however, I can feel my doubts about Scalebound being able to meet its makers' precedent of excellence subsiding. I'm not about to call it a classic in waiting, or anything so reckless as that; but having learned a little more about the customisation options available to the player, and that Thuban isn't simply an AI-controlled lump unable to be directly influenced, I'm more optimistic for what's to come sometime in 2017.
Firstly, Thuban isn't a fixed-of-form dragon – the player can switch modes, morphing its physiology between a dinosaur-like "rex", an on-all-fours tank type set up to take punishment and dish it out, and a mobile "wyvern", which sacrifices attack strength for flight. Thuban can be tooled up with elemental buffs, adding magic power to particular parts of its anatomy, and also wear armour, which can be varied depending on the situation, or just put on to fit a player's aesthetic preferences. This customisation goes deep, with plenty of different human-made components to collect, as well as your standard array of fire, ice and so forth powers to assign to Thuban's claws, tail, jaws or wherever, altering the creature's DNA on the fly. Drew's scaly partner is much more than a drone, then, but equally so far from a dumb pet following basic commands. Indeed, the AI isn't following any pre-determined script, whatsoever – the player controls Thuban's attacks, as witnessed from Drew's first-person perspective.
"With Dragon Link, you take command of Thuban," says Kamiya. "But, because of how this focuses Drew, as you share a life force, it leaves him defenceless, and at the risk of being attacked. The timing of when you use Dragon Link is very important." This is where Platinum is looking to push the game's multiplayer campaign, so that while one player takes their dragon into the fray, another can protect their exposed human avatar against any other enemies.
I'm shown a situation where Drew and Thuban, just the two of them, come up against an ape-like beast. What follows is pure Platinum action, mercifully dubstep-free, with cross-species combos launching the furry foe into the air for an above-ground pounding. It's lightning quick, almost like a different game entirely to the slower battle showcased just two months ago.
"We're encouraging people to play smarter here, not harder," says Kellams, emphasising how the game's meant to be played with friends, and equally how strategy plays a big part in success. Unlike Bayonetta at its easiest, nobody will be able to simply button-bash their way through Scalebound. Succeeding in combat here requires a more methodical approach, I offer, than the twitch-responsiveness that Platinum is best known for, even while it's still playing out at terrific speed. Kamiya nods approvingly.
"In multiplayer, it's unlikely that you'll be teamed up with dragons that are exactly the same as yours," says Kellams. "So, you'll always be better prepared for any enemies you come up against, without needing to rapidly switch between forms. However, we want players to find the path through the game that's right for them, and while there will be situations where playing with friends will make things easier for you, we're not out to punish anyone. If there's ever a boss that you can't beat, you can go elsewhere to level up, fine-tune your dragon or change your elemental buffs, and then come back to it."
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"We want the player, even when they're on their own, to be rewarded for doing cool stuff," says Kamiya. So, don't expect to see Devil May Cry-style grades flashing up on the screen after battles – or at least, if they do, for the game to not effectively rub your nose in how crap you just were. I get the distinct impression that Scalebound isn't out to punish those who aren't particularly adroit on a game pad.
Seeing Drew and Thuban join forces in taking down a towering enemy – with all the fluidity and pizazz of Platinum titles past – is both a blood pumping and reassuring sight. This isn't all projectile fire from afar, chipping away at a brute's defences; instead, both human and dragon get stuck right into close-quarter combat, and it looks thrilling. I've not had my own hands on the game yet, so how it feels to play is still an unknown – but my attention is pleasingly piqued like it wasn't before.
Find more information on Scalebound, coming to Xbox One and Windows in 2017, at the PlatinumGames website.