We all watched the recent Halo: Infinite gameplay demo and we all had the same basic reaction – those graphics don’t look current gen. Possibly they don’t even look as good as last gen. There are memes about it everywhere and it’s only been a couple of days, but that’s the internet for you.
Each time we move to a new console generation, the graphical fidelity leap is a tangible thing. After a few years, this means that looking back on previous gen games can be painful. There are hundreds of games on the PS3/Xbox 360 cycle that look very grey and bland and sharp now, and its actually more difficult going back to them than it is just playing pixel-art games from ten to fifteen years earlier.
But you know one graphical genre that doesn’t age like that? Cel-shading.
You know, the flat yet vibrant colours, comic-book style images, and often thick outlines? You can go back to a cel-shaded game, and it will feel like no time has passed at all. The Jet Set Radio series, Viewtiful Joe, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Zelda homage Okami, all have that wonderful timeless quality that cel-shading gives. Because they effectively don’t seem to age. Cartoons don’t age. They are not relying on the graphical power of the time, and so do not suffer from that same painful look back that games that try to look ‘realistic’ always seem to.
There was a real tangible lack of these games for a long time, most of the last generation has gone by with only a small scattering. Persona 5, which I reviewed in March, is one glorious example that proves the rule, but nothing stood out so much as Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo brought back the style that made the very best of the Zelda games, added flourishes and modernisations, lost the thick ink lines of Okami and Jet Set Radio, and made their wonderful punt for the top of the open-world game scene.
The success of Breath of the Wild has started something of a revival. Indie developers and big first-party studios alike are embracing the graphical feel of cel-shading, hoping that it will lend their games that timeless quality. There are more games on the horizon in the next two years featuring cel-shading than there have been in the last entire generation. Here’s a bunch that I want to play so much its unhealthy.
Haven has some of the most evocative and gorgeous cel-shading on this list. A narrative-driven sci-fi fantasy featuring a young couple living alone on a planetary paradise. They must survive, power their home/crashed spacecraft, forage and cook, and of course traverse the landscape with their fantastic hoverboots that have you literally gliding over the ground. This is an RPG with a beautiful and heartfelt story, turn-based battles and music from reclusive synthwave legend Danger, of Furi fame, and is made by the same studio. Haven looks beyond beautiful and I know it will just make my heart swell constantly when it comes to PS4, Steam and Xbox by the year’s end.
Everwild is a cel-shaded fantasy dreamscape. Xbox first party studio Rare, of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark fame, are going in a direction like nothing they’ve done before. We don’t know a huge amount about Everwild at this point, but we can see its beauty and the artistic vision that is going into this mystery game. Embracing wildly magical ideas, Everwild features a cel-shaded world brought to vivid life with animals that have been somewhat mixed with plants, and a visual feast of animal designs from all levels of an ecosystem. You play as an Eternal and your role is something like a magical caretaker, keeping your world in harmony, communing with spirits, healing sick and injured creatures and generally being a good animal lover. I can’t watch the trailer for this without getting goosebumps every time.
A bit of an indie darling during the recent virtual expos, Dustborn must be the coolest cel-shaded indie I’ve seen. You play as Pax; a pregnant female con-artist, who has a little robot pal called Anomal, and you take a band of misfits on a road trip across future America. It’s got a very diverse cast of character with all manner of genders, issues, races and creeds. A narrative action-adventure about hope, friendship and robots. Interestingly, Pax can use wordcraft, a kind of word-based magic where she can literally take down enemies verbally. Check out the stylish trailer above, Dustborn is coming to Steam and consoles in 2021.
No Straight Roads
Smashing together indie music with indie games, No Straight Roads comes from the minds of Street Fighter and Final Fantasy alumni. Start an indie rock band with Mayday and Zuke in a rockin’ action-adventure that brings together rhythm-infused third-person combat with a kick-ass soundtrack. Your mission is to end the EDM empire who have banned all Rock! The cel-shading in this is perhaps the closest to Jet Set Radio in flavour, and it certainly looks to have that timeless feel. We can’t wait to play this on 25th August 2020 on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch.
Nothing like recreating a cel-shaded classic for modern audiences, although it disproves my point about not needing to. Ah well. 17 years ago, XIII was a bit of an underrated gem. It’s the story of an amnesiac man who must piece together his memories and personality from what he finds in the game, soon getting involved in a global assassination plot to kill the president. It’s a bit like the film Memento, with a liberal dose of The Bourne Identity, remade as a first person shooter.
The cel-shading on this one takes full advantage of the comic book style, with thick ink lines, and onomatopoeia and sound effects represented as large words across the game space. Think 60’s TV Batman, you get the idea. Though I’m not sure it needed a full remake, it’s great that a whole new generation can experience something of a cult classic.
Cris Tales just might be my most anticipated of the lot after playing the demo a few months back. Beautifully-designed and on course for a November 2020 release, Cris Tales, takes inspiration from classic JRPGs of yesteryear, combining them with wonderful 2D cel-shaded animation that looks like a living cartoon. Its the wonderful endearing story of Crisbell, a young girl living at an orphanage, who one day discovers she can wield a time crystal. This allows her to manipulate time, see the past, present and future all at once, and age and de-age enemies in battle. There’s some serious style in this one that evokes great memories of Persona and Kingdom Hearts. Cris Tales is coming to almost every system in November.
Windbound is the most directly influenced of the games on this list, looking like Breath of the Wild, by way of the Wind Waker. It’s got all the cel-shading, ancient blue neon tech, and heart of both those games. What’s great for me, now without my Switch, is that it’s coming to Steam, PS4, Xbox One and Switch.
Kara has been shipwrecked alone on the Forbidden Islands, but she’s a resourceful young woman, and you need to help her find and forage, and use resources to build a new raft, upgrading it into your own custom vessel with each new island you visit. You will uncover the mysteries of the islands, and eventually build a vessel worthy of battling storms, deadly sea creatures and taking you home.
From Heart Machine, who made the incomparably atmospheric Hyper Light Drifter, comes a 3D cel-shaded vision of otherworldly weirdness. Similar to Haven in that it embraces a high speed hover mechanic (maybe its all tied up in the cel-shading ala Jet Set Radio) Solar Ash is meant to deliver a highly stylized world, with massive enemies and endearing characters, but for now, like Everwild, we know little about the gameplay beyond the hover boots. This one is also likely to feature a soundtrack from the jaw-dropping composer Disasterpeace, who memorably scored HLD and Fez. Look out for more on this one in the coming months ahead of its pencilled release in 2021 on PS5.
Sable has been knocking around the upcoming indie lists for a little while now, but 2021 is the firmest its release window has gotten. Where Solar Ash is vibrant neon, Sable is a bleached and muted cel-shaded world, that is no less intriguing and eye-catching. You play as Sable, as she takes a rite of passage journey across a vast open-world littered with fallen spaceships. Instead of hoverboots this time, you get a wonderful Star Wars-esque hoverbike with its stark cel-shaded tail plume which you use to explore the world. There also looks to be a hell of a lot of climbing involved which makes it look a lot like a certain Zelda. Hopefully this time the 2021 release window sticks, because I can’t wait.
BONUS – Bomb Rush Cyberfunk
As a bonus, and really the release that made me start thinking about how many goddamn cel-shaded games were coming up, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is essentially Jet Set Radio remade, because shit, someone’s gotta do it. Sega keep not letting us have the next game! BRC will see you take on the role of a street tagger, complete with spray can and graffiti ready to tag the city. You can grind and slide across the world with your hover shoes rather than actual skates (yeah, again, there’s a theme) so it’s a spiritual homage to everything that made those games great. And if that wasn’t enough, the original composer of all those classic choons, Hideki Naganuma is back to score the entire thing in 90s breakdance-flavoured electro. I can’t wait.
There are plenty of other cel-shaded games coming, that didn’t quite make the cut, so if I’ve missed something amazing let me know in the comments. I want to know about it.