In the eastern Melbourne suburb of Bayswater is Torus Games – a game development studio that has been part of the Australian gaming industry since 1994. The company has worked with some of gaming’s biggest names such as Activision, Disney, Bandai Namco and Warner Bros. The studio’s latest project sees them team up with Maximum Games and Orchid Books to bring the highly-popular kid’s book series Beast Quest to consoles and PC for the first time.
This past week we had the opportunity to visit the veteran studio and go hands-on with Beast Quest, as well as chat to the team about the project, its challenges and what the future holds for Torus Games. We were joined by game designer (and self-confessed studio eight-ball champion) David McIntosh and Kevin McIntosh, the studio’s head of production, both of whom have been with the studio for a number of years.
Experience Beast Quest on consoles and PC for the first time
The studio is no stranger to developing video games for licenced products, with many of the studio’s works falling into this category. However, despite being a licensed product, Beast Quest is a title that allows the team at Torus to flex its creative muscles. ‘In the past we’ve worked on licenced products where the licensee has been quite restrictive in regards to creative freedom; where characters have to be a certain way etc.’, says Kevin McIntosh. Surprisingly, the Beast Quest licensee has been more than happy to let Torus do their thing, Kevin informs us, and even with budget restraints, the studio’s collective years of experience has allowed the team to really bring the Beast Quest books to life. More importantly, it’s a refreshing change of pace for Torus, who have spent the last few years developing young children’s titles such as Ben 10 and Barbie and her Sisters: Puppy Rescue, with David McIntosh jovially stating how ‘it’s nice to be playing with swords again, even if Beast Quest is still aimed at a younger demographic’.
For those not in the know, Beast Quest is a long-running children’s book series (114 books currently) by various writers under the nom de plume Adam Blade. It sees a young boy named Tom entrusted with the duty to save the Kingdom of Avantia and the beasts that protect it from the evil wizard Malvel’s curse, which has caused the beasts to turn against the kingdom and its people. Torus had a lot of material from which to draw and craft the game’s narrative thanks to the 114 books that currently make up the series, however Torus’ adaptation focuses on four of the first six books (the books are broken into six-book mini-series), which includes the monsters Ferno the Fire Dragon, Arcta the Mountain Giant, Nanook the Snow Monster and Epos the Flame Bird. For anyone wondering whether this game has any relation to the mobile game, the answer is no.
Get up close and personal with Ferno and the other beasts of Avantia
Our hands-on preview began right at the start of the game, and for anyone who has read the Beast Quest books, the start of the game strays slightly from the source material. Instead of players witnessing Tom being sent to the King’s castle for aid, players are thrust straight into action, with the good wizard Aduro setting Tom’s beast quest in motion. According to Kevin McIntosh this was a strategic decision, as building a whole village and castle level would not have been worth the infinitesimal amount of gameplay that takes part in that area.
As Aduro walks Tom through a basic tutorial, David McIntosh points out that not only is this the first Beast Quest game on consoles and PC, but it’s also the first time that the characters have been voiced. As such the team at Torus thought long and hard about what style of voice they wanted to give Tom and his companions. Ultimately they chose to go with a British accent, which led to a lot of British fantasy inspiration permeating into the game’s design.
Not long into Tom’s adventure do we get our first taste of the game’s combat mechanics. It’s a system that almost has a turn-based feel to it, with Tom not able to move around freely during battles. Instead, Tom is able to attack his opponents from one of three spots (centre, left and right) with a variety of moves such as light and heavy attacks, as well as charged attacks that help Tom deal damage to multiple enemies at once. To evade an enemy attack Tom must time his dodge correctly (which opens up the opportunity to perform a counter attack) or he can use his shield to block attacks. Tom can also unlock and equip various abilities, such as the Flame Sword ability which gives Tom’s attacks further damage. Tom can also call upon quest companion Eleena to unleash a mass of arrows on the opponents should Tom require assistance.
Make no mistake, Beast Quest is primarily a kid’s game, and it’s not something that Torus Games are shying away from either
As our journey continues we come across a village, here we can speak to the locals and get an insight into the grief caused by the cursed beasts, pick up side-quests and purchase consumable items from traders. One noticeable absentee is Storm, Tom’s trusty stallion from the book series who does not feature due to budget restraints, but would have made traversing Avantia a quicker process.
The game’s controls are perhaps its most frustrating aspect. Controlling Tom is relatively simple using the controller’s analog sticks, however it feels like there is a fair amount of resistance with the game’s camera, occasionally making it difficult to keep Tom on your chosen path. The jumping is also an element that I failed to grasp with ease, with the timing feeling a little out. In one section we had to cross a path of rocks across a lake, which required jumping from rock to rock. I felt like I had the jumping down pat, but it was really a chook raffle as to whether I would find that timing sweet spot and make it across or fall into the drink.
It’s worth noting that Beast Quest did not have an infinite amount of resources in its budget. As such the visuals are a little dated (something which the younger generation aren’t going to care about) and the technical performance did seem on the lower end of the scale with the occasional framerate hiccup. Game designer David McIntosh did point out that we were playing an older build and that the launch version contains some additional polishing.
Tom will have to face-off against all kinds of enemies on his quest
Make no mistake, Beast Quest is primarily a kid’s game, and it’s not something that Torus Games are shying away from either, with the developer proud of their work bringing the popular children’s book to consoles and PC. With an approximate runtime of 10-12 hours, it’s probably not a game that fans of Skyrim and Dragon Age are going to lose themselves for years in, but that doesn’t mean that fans of those series won’t find something to like in Beast Quest, especially if they read any of the Beast Quest novels growing up.
With Beast Quest set to release on the 13th of March this year in the US and on the 16th of March in Europe and Australia what’s next for Torus Games? Kevin McIntosh says that it’s easy for developers to get type-casted after they’ve developed similar games consecutively. “We did a couple racing games in a row and we became the driving guys, then we did a couple first-person shooters so we became the FPS guys, and now we’ve done a couple children’s title so we’re the children’s games guys,’ he explains. Despite these changing labels, Kevin McIntosh sees the studio’s eclectic past as a sign of the company’s strengths and wealth of experience, which allows them to tackle any project. Currently, they’re also working on The Unsung Story, after taking over development duties after original developer Playdek wasted all the funds raised from the project’s Kickstarter. Torus Games has confirmed that all Kickstarter pledges will be honoured despite having no Kickstarter funds to do so. Furthermore, the company is branching out and developing software designed to help people with learning disabilities, something which Torus are passionate about.
But what of Beast Quest? With so many entries in the series surely the potential is there for multiple games? That is what Torus is hoping for, with the studio having some rough ideas about how it can craft the next mini-series’ game should Maximum Games greenlight a sequel. Whether this happens or not, it’s great to see talented Australian devs getting their chance to show the world what they can do.