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Step inside a medieval kind of future in Fabular: Once upon a Spacetime

By Aaron Potter. Posted

Another day, another action indie roguelike vying for people’s attention. But at least Fabular: Once upon a Spacetime looks to provide some intriguing spins on the genre’s typical trappings. For instance, it isn’t set in either a ye olde fantasy land or far-off distant future, but rather a combination of both. Casting you as a chivalrous space knight on a quest to save your intergalactic kingdom from destruction, doing so means traversing a procedurally generated universe while engaging in top-down melee combat, all in the effort to loot better gear useful for upgrading your ship. Developer Spiritus Games calls this mixture of swords and stars a “techno-fantasy roguelike”.

“The initial creative spark that ignited everything for us was that we wanted to make a medieval folk tale in space,” says Spiritus Games designer and artist Milan Batowski. “We started from there and slowly constructed the entire universe around that core idea. On a base level, everything we add to the game must adhere to that core concept for the world to be believable.

“We really love contrasting opposing ideas and concepts together, things like big versus small, cute versus scary, archaic versus modern. So with Fabular we aimed to portray these antagonistic juxtapositions in an environment that has its own consistent ruleset, as together, they create the perfect level of tension for the player while constantly providing a fresh experience. The real challenge in content-making is finding the right balance of archaic and modern. Our starting point is the Middle Ages, and we’re trying to ‘invent’ futuristic things into that era while imagining how medieval people would design its form and function. We really enjoy this thought process and find the resulting objects of fantasy very entertaining.”

Being a studio comprising just three people, having procedurally generated levels seemed logical; however, that doesn’t mean Fabular won’t also benefit from a handcrafted touch, namely thanks to a lot of emphasis being placed on story – something often absent in a lot of modern roguelikes. Most importantly, this universe’s lore can be found in everything from the companion characters you purchase boons from in your throne room between quests, right down to how the first boss you’ll encounter, Dax the Deserter, is a turncoat from the King’s army.

“Small scale indie game development can be likened to cooking with what you’ve got in your kitchen cupboard,” continues Batowski. “When we first opened our cupboard, we found an art director [Peter Meszlenyi] who happened to be a classically trained pen-and-paper artist with a talent for world-building and a passion for chivalric culture. Together with a programmer and a designer, a graphic artist, and an all-rounder, we began to create a game that played to the skillsets of the three of us. This is why our game prominently features strong visuals and a pretty comprehensive lore.”

Being set in the zero-G floatiness of space gave Spiritus Games a unique opportunity to imbue Fabular with a different style of combat, one that’s primarily physics-based. Because in addition to attacking rival ships using all manner of melee weapons, winning these encounters also requires a good degree of planning and tactics. Players will need to think about positioning, the distance between themselves and enemies, and what potentially dangerous equipment they might have that lets them deal damage from afar.

Choosing between one of three classes – Paladin (warrior), Manticore (rogue), and Salamander (mage) – at the start of the game will go some way to influence your playstyle, but battles in Fabular will still test your mettle, due to how ships handle. Batowski cites the physics-based combat system as “a very distinct and unique characteristic of the game”. He also admits that it’ll take some time to get used to. “You have to feel and figure it out on your own. However, when you’ve got to grips with the system, you begin to realise there’s a lot of depth there, more so than a traditional shooter or brawler. Having momentum and inertia during combat helps us more accurately depict chivalric duels in outer space. You really feel the weight of the armour and the clash of steel against steel.”

With dialogue choices, ship upgrades, companion characters, gear looting, and multiple ship classes, Fabular: Once upon a Spacetime is juggling a lot of systems. A prologue chapter available on Steam, however, indicates that Spiritus Games has so far nailed the balancing act. It helps that much of these different strands will be broken up as players progress, leaping from battle to event encounters to management segments. Systems are encountered one after the other rather than all at once. Regardless of how well the final build can maintain this balance, with a planned release date in Q3 2022, this is one techno-fantasy roguelike unafraid to do things differently.

Repeat business

Roguelikes live or die on how motivated they leave you to want to undergo another run after death‭. ‬In‭ ‬Fabular‭ ‬you’ll lose most ship upgrades‭, ‬but these can be countered using boons‭. ‬“There is a meta-currency called Tokens that you get to keep between your runs‭, ‬and you can use to buy boons in the throne room from various characters‭,‬”‭ ‬says Batowski‭. ‬“These boons are permanent and will remain active in your profile‭, ‬even between runs‭. ‬The throne room is basically the hub of the‭ ‬game where you return after runs‭, ‬and you can unlock more of these boon vendor characters there as you progress in the game‭.‬”

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