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Interview With Ben Cureton, Lead Combat Designer For Vigil Games

Posted on July 31, 2012 AT 10:09pm

During the Darksiders II Community Summit, members of the media were joined by developers from Vigil Games to share insight and see their work in the hands of excited gamers. Thankfully, they were also willing to share some thoughts with us. Ben Cureton, Lead Combat Designer at Vigil was kind enough to sit down for an interview to talk about the game, his influences, and the biggest part of his job on the game, the combat system.

DigitalNoob: Thanks for taking the time to sit down for an interview, Ben. Can you talk about your influences when it came to the way Death moves in combat?

Ben Cureton: The biggest influence from the top down came from the creators of the lore was that Death was almost feral and beast-like. He’s not a beast, you know, but he’s not like War. He doesn’t do anything by the book, he does whatever it takes to get things done, and he doesn’t really have a form. He’s just kind of like a beast, and that was the whole idea. So anytime we were designing his moves, we didn’t want them to look too pretty. When War does a move, he has these nice, big wind-ups, and he finishes with all these crazy poses. And while we still wanted some of those poses, we didn’t want him to look like he was “trained”. His style is just “by any means necessary”. That was the main inspiration.

DN: Did you guys have a set number of moves for the combat system?

BC: We didn’t really have a set number of moves, what we did is we went into one of the first meetings and talked about what he was going to do. What kinds of weapons and how we were going to use these weapons together. We have heavies, and we have melee, and they share some similar moves. All of the heavies have similar moves, but they have one-offs and their charges on the ground and in the air. But we wanted to figure out move sets that fit for the entire class, heavy moves that worked with all heavies, melee moves that worked with all melee, but that could also flow into whatever the special move is, so we had to figure out how to do that first. We already had some stuff, we’d put some stuff together and said “Okay, well this is cool. We have some of these feral, animal-like behaviors” and then trying to figure out how we work these together. How do we get scythes to work with melee, to work
with heavies. We never really had a number, we never said “we need 76 moves” or “we’re missing a move here”, we just did what felt right. And then when we got to the point where one of the moves was a little more fleshed out, we thought that maybe we needed another move, but in the beginning, there was never a set number that we had to hit. We just did it until it felt right.

DN: How difficult was it to chain all the moves together? Because there were a ton of different moves and combos.

BC: Yeah, you can pretty much chain everything into everything. There are only a few restrictions, like if the move is too heavy and needs a cool-down period or if the scythes leave his hand for an extended period of time and you can’t cancel or dodge but that’s very, very rare. Honestly, doing the stuff like making it flow into the air and air moves flow into the ground moves wasn’t really that hard, but the real challenge was making it flow into the traversal. If you can flip kick, and in the air do a move that launches you higher, it can actually launch you high than a jump.

And that would allow you to get over certain ledges, so that’s something that we had to be really careful of. Because if you notice, Death doesn’t have a double jump, unlike War. He’s different. He’s more on the ground, cat-like, and he doesn’t have any of that stuff. So I think that was the biggest hurdle, that we didn’t affect the traversal. Because if you notice the traversal, now he can jump up on a wall, then he can wall run, then he can jump off that wall, and then he can attack. War couldn’t do any of that crazy stuff, so we had to be careful. You know, what if you flip kicked, because the flip kick used to actually take you higher than a regular jump. And so you’d be able to flip kick and then wall run and then jump and in the air do an attack and then something that brought you up even higher and it would mess up the traversal. So getting that dialed back to where it felt smooth and fluid and didn’t break traversal was the hardest challenge.

DN: Yeah, I can see where that would affect it, because there are times where you’re trying to climb up something or get over a wall, and being able to use attack moves to get where you need to be seems kind of counter-intuitive.

BC: That happened for a long time. And we knew that was in there and knew we were going have to do a huge pass to tone everything down. And I wouldn’t say that we were worried, but we knew that, you know, “Hey, we’re going to have to tone the jump down a little bit here” or we’re going to have to make sure the flip kick is the same height within a few pixels of the regular jump and let’s make sure that when you do a charge move that it doesn’t pull you higher than where you already started in the air, but that you can’t get over additional ledges. But in terms of just flowing things together it just came together naturally, once we added the Meteor Strike, which is the air dash move down, which was just the easiest way to go from air to ground.

DN: I noticed that. Is there a way for the Meteor Strike to work into ground combos?

BC: There are actually things to still be discovered about the Meteor Strike and we’re leaving it up to the players to find and I’m sure people will make videos.

But there are ways to go directly from the Meteor Strike into additional moves. And there are ways with every other move, except for moves that are already taking you into the ground, to cancel into the Meteor Strike. So you can do air-slash-slash-slash-Meteor Strike to the ground, keep your combo and dash out of that into another combo. And of course when you hit jump in the middle of a ground attack you go straight into the air and if you dash while you’re in the air you go to the ground.

DN: That seems like a pretty complex system to go into a fantasy game. Was that something that was designed to be this complex or was it something that just grew?

BC: Yeah, I don;t think we ever went in saying “Oh, we want to make this the craziest combat ever”, we just wanted to stay true the original vision of Death and made sure we made this feral-like guy and said “Hey, if you can chain this move into that move, that would feel pretty cool” and it would feel wild. But if you want to move from a hammer attack to a melee attack, you can cross over. We actually have what’s called “cross-overs” where you go X to Y and you get a special cross-over move. And we wanted to kind reward players for exploring things and we didn’t want them to feel contained, but you don’t need all of those moves to beat the game. You can use a very small handful of moves and you can really play it like Darksiders if you really want, but there’s so much additional stuff for players to discover and find. You know, you might like to get in close and use the claws, I might play far using the gun and the ghost cloak and the hammer and that’s what we wanted, for everyone to play the game a little bit differently.

DN: That makes sense, because I used the Possessed armblades a lot, because that felt more like my style.

BC: That’s kind of the thing. We never said we needed this many moves or that we need to rival any of these other big games. Just stay true to what Death can really be, and see if we can do that. And I think we did a pretty good job at that.

DN: Was it difficult using a guy that fast to create combos? Or was it more of a fun challenge?

BC: It was definitely fun and definitely a challenge to make sure that we didn’t open it up too much. I ran into this problem working on other projects, because we don’t want to give the player too much freedom, but as a player I want as much freedom as I can have. So finding that balance was the trickiest part. But I think the we went about it ended up suiting the game the best.

DN: What was your favorite part during the design of the game?

BC: I think my favorite part was when I took over the main character. I spoke with all of the other combat guys and I spoke with [Lead Designer] Haydn [Dalton] and I spoke with [Vigil Games General Manager] Dave [Adams] and everybody involved and said “Hey, these are my thoughts and this is what I’d like to bring into this”, because everybody at Vigil brings something unique to every aspect that they touch, everybody’s not the same. You know that I would really like to speed him up a bit, make him ever more feral, I’d like to give the player more tools, and I think the part that I was most proud of was when I did this really huge check-in, and I had to check in all of these files, and everybody got to see it. And they were like “Whoa, what happened? This is huge.” and it wasn’t negative, it was more like “This is crazy now” and just knowing that people respond to that and you’re proud because you worked a long time on that and I’m glad that people really liked that.

DN: That makes a lot of sense. You obviously put a lot into this combo system and it really shows.

BC: Well that’s the thing, something that we worry about, well not really worry, but it was something on our minds, when we release it to the fans of Darksiders. Maybe they want something a little more reserved, like War was. Or maybe they want something different because they don’t want to play War again. They don’t want to play Darksiders 1.5, they want to play Darksiders II, the new game. They wanna play Death. And I think people are pretty happy, and that makes me the most proud.

DN: From the good chunk we got to play, the combat system was really robust. I know I was playing through and using the arm blades and the scythes and it almost felt like I was going too fast to be in control.

BC: Like just on the verge.

DN: Yeah, like he was about to go into a berserk rage.

BC: Well, his attitude throughout the whole game is that he’s completely arrogant, he doesn’t care what anybody has to say, he’s like “Take me to your leader, tell me where I need to go and that’s it. Don’t tell me anything else.” And that’s how he is in combat. He’s like “If I can cut this guy in half I’m gonna cut him in half. I’m not gonna play fair, and I’m not going to play fair, I’m not gonna go by any rules” and that’s the meaning behind death in combat.

DN: Was it [Creative Director] Joe [ Madureira]‘s idea to use the double scythes, or was it a combat idea?

BC: I think it was Joe or Dave, I’m not sure. It definitely wasn’t my decision, but I’m glad that they made that decision. Obviously people have seen Death in numerous types of games and he had the big scythe and I think they had told me something about that and that was one of the decision t really set him apart from the other versions of Death in other media, having a dual scythe guy. And then being able to put it together, and going “Oh, he can still do that.”

DN: What the reasoning for weapons like guns and the hook? Because it felt like it was something that could be left out because it’s mainly for traversal.

BC: Well, I mean that’s the thing. We wanted some familiarity from the first game, when you had the first game, and you also had Abyssal Chain. And Death, being a Horseman, has access to similar things, but it does work a little bit different. The gun is a little bit different, this one has bullets, so it allowed us to make it a little bit stronger than the first game. The thing is, these are also, first and foremost, working towards puzzles, figuring out puzzles. Be it traversal, or how to make something blow up. And then we thought “Well, these are still great tools, how do we work these into combat and make them combat tools?” Because we don’t want to give you one thing and only be able to use it one way. Here’s a jump button you can use two or three different ways, here’s a ghost hook you can use two or three different ways, here’s a gun you can use two or three different ways. That was the thought behind that.

DN: It was really cool in combat, but it almost felt pointless in traversal, because you could just have grabbed a wooden ledge.

BC: I think it was just to break it up as well. I mean, obviously it’s very fun to use in combat and that’s something we’re proud of but at the same time, if we only had those little traversal nubs everywhere then that would probably get stale as well. So we have something that can span both combat and traversal and where you like it the most is completely up to you.

DN: Did you have any input on the weaponry or the armor and how they’re used in combat?

BC: In terms of armor, we had a whole team that does armor, and those guys are amazing. And I have another guy that sits next to me that does all of the stats. Of course, anybody can give feedback, we don’t work in tiny compartments where nobody can affect anything, but the design of the armor, that’s all from the art team. They go crazy with that and do what they do and they bring it to the stats guy, the guy that I sit next to. He works with Dave and Hayden and some of the other guys and they come up with the style. Is he going to have Necro armor, is he going to have Slayer, is he going to have Wanderer, and then however the stats break up through that. So that doesn’t really affect me at all, except that I have to know that strength affects Harbinger, arcane affects Necromancer, and that’s all I need to know. Because that doesn’t add any tools, that doesn’t bother me at all. I just need to know “Is damage going to be too much here”, and I don’t even balance damage either, but I do get feedback.

DN: Did you play more Necromancer or Harbinger, when you played the game?

BC: I played Harbinger, I’m a Harbinger fan, but I know a lot of people on our team that love Necromancer. They love to stay back and knock people over, prevent people from them from getting to you, but I’m just a melee guy.

DN: Well, that’s about it from me, Ben. Thanks for talking to me.

Thanks again to Ben Cureton, Lead Combat Designer at Vigil Games for hanging outwith us during the Summit and sitting down for an interview. Sorry for the typed version, the recorded version ended up not going so well.

Darksiders II will be available August 14th for Playstation 3, PC, Xbox 360 and Wii

Russ Pirozek, known as "Noobcrawler" to some, is a gamer and comic book fan who sometimes gets around to writing for He's also awesome. If someone looked up "awesome" in the dictionary, his picture wouldn't be there, but that's because he's too busy being awesome to pose for a photo.

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