Project: Nocturne

A turn-based RPG and rhythm game hybrid where the player must hit notes to power up their attacks.

Prototype (In Progress)

Downloads

  • Team Size: 1

  • Role: Designer, Programmer, Artist

  • Tools: Unity, C#, Photoshop, Microsoft Office Suite

  • Development Time: 6 Weeks

  • Platform: PC

Intent Statement:

By using rhythm-based mechanics that require players to hit notes scrolling along the screen to power up their actions, I intend to create a turn-based RPG in which players experience a heightened sense of tension and feel more accomplished for mastery, as opposed to most RPGs that rely entirely on strategy.

Feature List:

  • Turn-based RPG with a side-view camera

  • Rhythm mechanics including a note track and a combo meter

  • Unique enemy abilities, such as hiding part of the note track behind a veil of mist

  • Visual effects including color changes and damage numbers, which allow players to know the impact of their and their enemies' abilities

Gameplay Footage:

VDD:

ProjectNocturne_VDD.png

Research and Thesis:

Though I enjoy turn-based RPGs and their focus on strategic gameplay above all else, I have always wanted to see more titles that combine physicality with strategy to create a more unique system. While researching ways to make the base system both more interesting and more interactive, I found that many turn-based RPGs that rely on player physicality - including the Mario & Luigi series and Legend of Dragoon - tend to do so using rhythm mechanics. This lead me to pursue a Guitar-Hero-style note track, along with a combo system that determines the strength of the player's abilities. In doing so, I hoped to create a turn-based RPG system that was more exciting, tense, and rewarding than traditional RPGs.

Most of my research on this project focused on the rhythm mechanics, and especially on how rhythm games engage their players. Project: Nocturne is meant to be an RPG battle system above all else, and because of that, the rhythm mechanics have to be accessible to players who might not be entirely familiar with rhythm games.

As such, I decided to make the UI scroll from left to right, rather than top to bottom. I believed doing this would give players more time to see and react to the notes. I also gave the notes and buttons generous hitboxes, making it easier to hit them and alleviating player frustration during faster songs. This, in turn, wouldlet players enjoy the physicality without taking away from the base strategic elements.

Iteration:

Because Project: Nocturne was technically developed as two separate projects - one made over three weeks and finished on February 8, 2019; and one made over three weeks and finished on May 3, 2019 - I used the second project as a chance to heavily iterate on the first. These iterations are as follows:

Visual Updates:

The original version of Project: Nocturne had a fairly undeveloped UI. The bar at the top of the screen always displayed semitransparent notes, even when the player was not currently hitting them, which many testers found confusing and awkward. The system also did not display the enemy's health, making it difficult for players to understand how close they were to entering the battle's second phase.

For the updated version, I changed the following visual elements:

  • Changed the note bar so it only displays notes after the player selects an action

  • Added a UI element to display the turn order at the bottom of the screen

  • Added a basic targeting system, where the player must select the target of their action before they can perform it

  • ​Added an enemy health bar that becomes visible whenever the player targets it

  • Added a button to display the controls, which becomes disabled whenever the player is hitting notes

  • Made the player character smaller and the enemy larger to make the latter feel more powerful

  • Implemented particle effects to add more impact to player and enemy actions

First Version (2/8/2019):

Second Version (5/3/2019):

ProjectNocturne_UpdateUI1.png
ProjectNocturne_UpdateUI3.png
ProjectNocturne_UpdateUI2.png
ProjectNocturne_UpdateUI4.png
ProjectNocturne_UpdateUI5.png
ProjectNocturne_OriginalUI1.png
ProjectNocturne_OriginalUI2.png
ProjectNocturne_OriginalUI3.png
ProjectNocturne_OriginalUI4.png
ProjectNocturne_OriginalUI5.png

Audio Updates:

While the first version of Project: Nocturne did have music (as it required music for the rhythm elements), it lacked sound effects. This severely limited its ability to provide audio feedback. To fix this for the second iteration, I implemented simple sound effects for when the player makes an input, hits a note, deals damage, takes damage, and so on. However, as these elements are incredibly basic and I pulled most of them from free websites, several of them have slight delays or sound somewhat awkward. As such, for any future iterations of Project: Nocturne, I would like to swap out the current sound effects for stronger ones.

Balance Updates:

Originally, many players complained about Project: Nocturne's difficulty. They cited elements such as the enemy dealing too much damage or having too much health. This stretched out the gameplay consistently, with the enemy's high health making it difficult for players to kill it during the more aggressive second phase. As such, I performed the following balance changes for the current version:

  • Implemented a "Normal" mode and a "Hard" mode​​, rather than using a single difficulty

    • "Hard" mode features the original enemy stats, while "Normal" mode​ features updated stats to make the enemy easier

  • Reduced the "Normal" mode boss' maximum health, attack, and defense

  • Fixed a bug where the enemy would occasionally attack the player during the player's turn

  • Changed the enemy's charge attack from "Mist Fang" to "Mist Breath"

    • Added a persistent animation to the boss showing it is about to use its charge attack to make it easier for the player to react

    • Reduced the damage the enemy's "Mist Breath" attack deals on both difficulties by about 20 percent

  • Added a new mechanic where trying to hit a note that was not there decremented the player's combo by one, whereas in the first version, it had no effect

    • This change proved unpopular due to being too punishing, and I plan to either refine it or completely remove it in future iterations

First Version (2/8/2019):

ProjectNocturne_OriginalBalance1.png
ProjectNocturne_OriginalBalance2.png

Second Version (5/3/2019):

ProjectNocturne_UpdateBalance2.png
ProjectNocturne_UpdateBalance1.png

Postmortem:

What Worked:

Players took to the rhythm mechanics well, and most of my testers showed interest in the system as a whole. One tester, who made it clear to me that they do not enjoy turn-based RPGs, said that they still enjoyed the basic system and thought that it has potential. This reaction only improved in the second iteration, where I fixed many issues that bogged down the initial prototype.

The visual effects for taking damage, dealing damage, and healing make it clear to the players what is happening at any given time. They also help establish that the player's and enemy's actions have consequences, and they make it immediately obvious that combos impact the efficacy of players' abilities. The "boss death" animation also makes it immensely satisfying for players to kill the boss monster.

Additionally, I managed to fix most of the problems present in the original iteration of Project: Nocturne. For example, players who struggled to beat the boss in the first version responded positively to the reduced difficulty in the second prototype. They also seemed to enjoy the UI changes, where I removed the semtransparent notes from the music bar and changed the controls that no longer rely entirely on the arrow keys. The health bar, turn order, and targeting elements also heavily improved the gameplay experience. Players were able to strategize much more easily thanks to knowing the enemy's health, giving them the choice to either rush it to the end or slowly whittle it down, which fit with my intention of creating a prototype that encourages both strategy and physicality.

Players also reacted favorably to the boss's "obstruction" ability, in which it covers part of the note track with mist to block the player's vision. They claimed that it makes gameplay more interesting and dynamic, and that it connects the RPG and rhythm mechanics together well. Some even offered possible alternatives for future bosses, generally seeming excited about the possibilities it could bring.

What Did Not Work:

Though I managed to fix most of the intial problems with the prototypes, some of my testers pointed out new ones I had overlooked. One issue with this prototype is that the sound effects are slightly delayed, which some players stated made them feel as though the notes' timing did not match up with the song. The current sounds are also either too loud or simply do not fit the atmosphere, taking players out of the gameplay experience.

Another problem is that I never quite finished creating the beat-map for the in-game song, which resulted in some notes not lining up properly with the music. It also caused the song to suddenly loop halfway through. This jarred some players and ruined their immersion, though most of them were still interested in the systems and enemy enough to keep playing. Regardless, in the future, I would like to finish the note-map and make it more accurate to completely mitigate this issue.

Conclusion:

Overall, I consider this system to be a success, even if it faced hardships along the way. Using rhythm mechanics to improve turn-based combat shows promise as an enjoyable, tense, and exciting system. It forces players to constantly pay attention to the game and appeals even to players who dislike the slow nature of traditional turn-based RPGs.  In the future, I would like to expand on this system, perhaps implementing it in a full game.

One way that I could improve future iterations of this system is by giving bosses new and unique methods of interacting with the note track. These might include an ability that "mutates" notes into diagonal-facing versions that players have to input two or more notes to activate or an ability that launches a sound grenade, which would cut off the music as the notes continue flowing. Such obstructions will make gameplay even more interesting and will force players to alter their play styles without forcing them into a corner. Giving players the ability to fight back even after adding a new wrinkle to the fight should hopefully make gameplay more engaging while also reducing frustration.