Key art for Conjured Soul

Conjured Soul: Brothers Turned Devs Bring Swords and Sorcery to Survival Horror

When I tell you, dear reader, that I have found an interesting, third person survival horror title inspired by Resident Evil, you probably start cooking up an idea about what that game is going to look like. You probably picture cities in the throes of chaos, or secretive labs that are floor to ceiling blindingly white. What you probably don’t think of is gothic castles and medieval armaments. These are the things that intrigued me about Conjured Soul, the in-development debut title from Tyler and Brandon Bates, the brothers and game developers at Black Knife Games.

I had been looking at this title for a moment now, and loved the concept. Hell, it’s something I hope to make myself some day. So of course I needed to learn more about this sword swinging scarefest, and the brothers in both blood and battle that are bringing it to life. While I was unable to speak with both brothers, I was grateful that Tyler was not nocking arrows to fire at undead knights, and was able to find time to speak with me about the title, its inspirations, and its development. 

After taking a moment to exchange introductions and again thank Tyler for his time, I began the interview by asking how large the team at Black Knife Games was?

Tyler Bates: Right now it is just me and my brother, we both wanted to start this little thing, It’s been one of our dreams since we were in middle school. And I think about the time when COVID first started, around the start of 2020 when everything was shutting down and stuff. We had a lot of time on our hands, and we’re sitting around playing Stardew Valley actually. And we looked at each other and were like, “you know, one dude made this game.”  And then he was like, “You know what, why can’t we make a game?” And I was like,” yeah, why can’t we?” So we decided to really get back onto it, you know. Throughout school and growing up, we just kind of did it for fun. But around that time we really decided, you know, this was something that we want to do, we might as well take this time to do it now, or else we’ll never know. So that’s what we did, and it’s just us two right now. I mostly do the coding and programming and all that, while he’s more of the graphics side of things, like modeling, and UI elements. Photoshop and things like that, that’s more of his strong suit.

I commented that it was rare to see a family business in game development. I know if I tried to make a game with my brother we would murder each other.

TB: Oh, yeah. I’m surprised we haven’t either. But, you know, it’s really just been something that we just wanted to enjoy amongst ourselves and just see where it goes. Try to take each other’s ideas into consideration and not kill each other.

As a follow up, I asked Tyler how he landed on the name Black Knife Games?

TB: There’s not really a meaning behind it, it’s mostly because it sounds cool. We were sitting around, or actually I was sitting around, and I was playing Elden Ring. I was fighting one of the black knife guys and I was like, “You know what, that’ll be a good thing for our studio.” So there it is, Black Knife Games.

Moving on to the topic of the brothers’ shared history of game development, I wanted to know if the duo had only recently begun making games, or if this was something they already had experience with, so I asked Tyler to tell me how long they had been making games as a sibling studio?

TB: It was something we kind of dabbled in, never really released anything publicly, we just kind of worked on little personal projects just to see what we could do and see what we could make. Just kind of like, tell a little story, something to kill some time, if we didn’t want to play a video game, we would sit down and try to make one. Back in middle school, I think it was called Game Maker Studio that we started with, it was a little 2D program where you could do top down games and things like that. And it was so long ago that I remember, we probably made 15 or so little games, and we would save them to these floppy disks, then we would print out a little tag for it and put a little cover on it, and that’d be a little game. And we’d pop them in and play them off of a floppy disk. But other than that, back when COVID started, we made a few smaller things that we also didn’t release, just to kind of get back into it. We messed around with Unreal Engine and Unity and decided to go with Unreal. And so most of that time was just spent making small parts of the game or, you know, tiny bits of a big game into one little game just to kind of figure out how things worked. And just complete something and have something you could sit down and play and see what we did. And take that and move it into another project and just prepare for the full scale project that we wanted to release.

Curious as to how the brothers landed on the concept of medieval survival horror, I asked Tyler if the idea for Conjured Soul was something they had always wanted to make, or did they start with 100 ideas and whittle it down to just one?

TB: Yeah, well, we actually had a few ideas, and we really didn’t know… I loved horror games growing up. And we had a few different ideas out there, and, you know, started some but just wasn’t into it. And we both agreed that we really wanted to make a survival horror game and we’d love a dark fantasy, medieval type era, and always thought that, you know, a Resident Evil type game in that type of universe would be something pretty cool, and something that you don’t really see that often. So that’s where we decided to go with that. And I had somewhat of a story in mind, so once we officially decided on that, we started to flesh things out, and kind of develop the basic story of the game and how it’s gonna go through, how things are gonna play out.

As a follow up I asked Tyler if he always had the story for Conjured Soul somewhat planned out?

TB: Yeah, we had a rough idea, and then we took some time and just sat down writing, a lot of fleshing things out, and getting just the big picture out there. So we know how to develop our world, where we want things to be, and what we can throw in there, to flesh it out more as we travel throughout this world and get to the end goal. So you know, there’s still a lot of story that needs to be developed, a lot of side things that we’re gonna throw in there. But the general part of it is all there and ready to be worked on.

Having discussed the brothers’ history of gaming and what led them to develop Conjured Soul, I wanted to learn more about the game itself. While Tyler had been transparent about how dark fantasy and survival horror were the main influences, those two things cover a lot of ground. So I asked Tyler what inspired the looks, gameplay, and layout of Conjured Soul?

TB: Yeah, so it’s mostly inspired by Resident Evil and Bloodborne. And so I always looked at this project as if, you know, you combined those two games, what would you get? So we want to take that dark fantasy setting, we really want to capture the feel of the more recent Resident Evil remakes from that third person perspective. We want to have a combat system that’s going to be fun to play, but still keeps the player feeling vulnerable, and in this survival instinct. Rather than, you know, I-can-run-around-and-kill-everything instinct, like you could in Bloodborne. Aesthetically, we really want to go for that gothic era, medieval, decrepit atmosphere. Perfect example is the original Resident Evil 4. I know they’re about to release the remake of that, but that was one of my favorite games growing up. The village and castle area of that game is really what we looked at to build this world, on a very remote, very old and decrepit land. I want the player to feel isolated, and have this massive explorable world to go out and find things. It’s not open world, but it’s not necessarily a linear path, if you will. I guess you can go to different areas and then move on to the next one, and still go back to those areas to unlock things that you might not have been able to do before. But you can’t necessarily like, you know, look across the map and say, “Oh, I’m gonna go over there and get to that tower” . But it’s gonna, you know, provide that fuel for exploration. 

While Conjured Soul may aim to distance itself from the tsunami of Souls-like games that have been washing up on gaming storefronts, it did still share a lot of DNA with that series. Eager to learn more about what Conjured Soul would bring to the table, I asked Tyler if he could tell us specifically what differentiates his title from other Souls-like games, or rather, how much of this game is RPG-adjacent and how much of it is survival horror?

TB: So that’s a pretty tough question. What’s really going to differentiate it is, I guess, the combat style. With the Souls games, you feel like once you get to a certain point, you can just take on anything, and you become so powerful as you’re leveling up your guy. Well, in this you’re still going to be able to find  these unique weapons with unique abilities. And you can actually find these enchantments that you can place onto your weapon, which is similar to the art of wars, I guess you would say. But what differentiates it is that you’re not gonna feel like you can always just go and take on anything in your path. Your health is very limited, and enemies will deal a massive amount of damage to you. So you really have to pick your battles wisely and you’re mostly wanting to find the tools, equipment, and the items that you need to survive, instead of finding things to become more powerful throughout, if that makes sense…

There is not a traditional leveling up system. But there are ways to improve your character, there’s upgrades that you can find. There’s a workbench where you can upgrade your weapons and place the enchantments on them, so long as you have the right materials. When it comes to upgrading your player, there are certain things that you can find and turn in that will give your player a permanent max health boost. Similar to the Resident Evil VII upgrades where you could find the coins for the bird cages and get something out of them that would permanently increase your health or whatever it may be, that’s similar to how the upgrade system will work here. You’re not necessarily going to be able to spend souls or runes or whatever on certain abilities to just become the super powerful hero.

On a similar topic, I asked what it was that was brought over from Resident Evil, that wasn’t lost in the translation from modern to medieval times?

TB: So, as you know, a classic staple of Resident Evil is puzzles, and the different things that unlock a certain room or to just progress to the next area. There’s gonna be a lot of puzzles in this game, whether it be just finding a unique key to unlock a gate or three stone tablets that you have to place on a sculpture to lower it into the ground or send this elevator, just things like that. Puzzles are a main focal point that we take from Resident Evil. And just the, what you would call it, a lot of Resident Evil is about connecting with the characters, at least as I see, and what I felt when I was growing up. You know, these characters become more fleshed out as the story progresses and you feel this bond towards them as you’ve played them throughout the game. And so transitioning to third person will allow us to provide this body and provide the player a visual representation of who you’re playing as. And that will allow them to you know, hopefully make that same connection that Resident Evil establishes with their characters.

After hearing more about the influences on Conjured Soul I had to know about the moment to moment gameplay. Resident Evil and Dark souls are quite different series in terms of gameplay, and I was curious to learn more. So I asked Tyler if he could give me an elevator pitch for the gameplay in Conjured Spul

TB: So it’s really going to feel more like the Resident Evil remakes more so than a Bloodborne or a Souls game. I guess the dodge mechanic that was in the Resident Evil 3 is something similar, there’s not really these dodge rolls and all that, but there’s a quick step here and there that you can perform. But you know, you’re not going to just be able to roll around and get to the back of the enemy and just slash away at him until he’s dead. It’s really more of avoid and lure to get to a point to where you can take down an enemy away from the rest of them and hopefully just kind of thin it out enough to where you can either decide “hey, I’m going to take down these enemies and see if they drop a potion for me to heal” or “I am just gonna leave them be, try to get out of their sight and just continue to move around and scavenge for some materials or something to heal myself with.” The combat is melee, there is target lock and all that, but it’s not going to feel as fast paced, but it will still be enjoyable. There will still be ranged weapons like bows and crossbows, Molotovs, things like that, so it’s it’s not just going to be a melee system they’re gonna be able to you know, sit back and and have that classic over the shoulder, shoot your bow from a distance and get around a certain group of enemies without having to stir them all up, possibly die, and restart from the last save.

As a follow-up I asked if the bow and crossbow would see use as more than just an alternative to melee combat, and if the player would encounter situations where they could not simply fight their way out of an encounter?

TB: Absolutely, there’s many different enemies that we’re working on in this game. And a lot of them will sit back and try to get you at a range if you are in sight. Having a bow or some ranged weapon, and being able to sneak around a ledge and take them out without being seen would definitely be better than having only a melee weapon and running in and then having ten zombie soldiers firing the crossbows at you while you’re trying to take them out with a sword. There are certain enemies that will only be able to take damage from certain damage types. One being  these certain areas of the game where you’ll be in this manor. And it’s just crawling with these specters, and they can’t take damage from physical weapons. You have to avoid them throughout unless you find a specific weapon inside that manor that allows you to deal damage to spirits. So there’s different things like that throughout that you’re gonna have to just kind of avoid or find their weakness, and find a weapon that can deal that weakness to them.

I loved to hear about the level of depowerment that Tyler and Brandon were aiming for in Conjured Souls, and I told Tyler as such. I found that I had been growing more excited for the game as the conversation went on.

TB: I really appreciate it, that means a lot. You know, we haven’t really revealed too much yet. I just kind of created the Twitter to kind of prepare, and also just to keep up with other people and their projects because, I mean, I love the indie world and seeing what everyone else is working on. It’s so, so different from what you see in major titles now. Indie developers I feel like are becoming much more unique and so that’s that’s really why. But we’re getting to the point where we can start sharing more, things are becoming more permanent, there’s still a lot of things that could change, which is why I’m kind of refraining from sharing too much. And I want to be able to share something that’s going to be closer to the final product before  just throwing out all these screenshots of something that may not even exist in the future. But luckily, we’re getting to that point. So hopefully, here in the next month or so, we’ll be able to start revealing a lot more gameplay and screenshots and hopefully a demo sometime this summer.

We were hoping to get it out sooner. But that was when we were still planning on the game being in the first person perspective. And we were kind of playing through the area that we had almost ready for a demo, and we just didn’t really like where it was heading. Not with the first person, the combat didn’t feel enjoyable, it felt like a chore. And, you know, making the switch to third person allowed for a much better feel for that, while still keeping the horror atmosphere that you would get from a first person game. You’re not gonna get many jumpscares, although I’m not gonna say there won’t be any, but, you know, it’s different than playing Outlast, or the first person Resident Evils compared to the third person perspective. So once we decided to change that, there were few things that we had to change around in the code. But it’s shaping up pretty nice, and we can hopefully continue on with the demo area, get that prepared, and get it out as soon as possible.

Now that we had spoken about the development and the mechanical aspects of the game, I wanted to learn more about the world and story of the title, so I asked Tyler if he could tell us about the concepts and conflicts in Conjured Soul?

TB: Yeah, so, the game takes place in an unidentified land, you just start there, you wake up on this altar, and you hop down. And you’re pretty much what the name of the game is, you’re a conjured soul. This witch doctor approaches you, he talks about why he brought you there, why he stitched you up like Frankenstein and summoned a soul into you. It’s to be the last ditch effort pretty much to save this land from the darkness. And the darkness is pretty much this dark lord who has been resurrected and has just unleashed a fog cloud, imagine a black fog cloud with lightning inside of it. These little spirit bodies, they’ve taken the dead from the ground and have brought them back to life. Pretty much anything from the gothic horror era, like werewolves, vampires, and things like that. These are all a part of this darkness from this dark lord and he has ruined the land. There’s not very many friendly NPCs that will be in this world, but there will be a few and these will be a good way to get, a side quest, or a side task if that’s a better word for this type of game. And you know, these will, if completed, reward you with a charging stone that you can use to upgrade your weapon or an enchantment that you can bind to your weapon or a unique weapon itself or maybe just a health flask.

But there’s going to be multiple areas to explore. He really will start in the outskirts of this land, at the witch doctor’s hideout, and you will make your way through this ruined, decrepit old village, before making your way to a bigger town, something similar to the first town in Bloodborne, Yharnam. And then the kingdom, which is this massive gothic style castle, which is now taken over by the dark lord. So you’re going to make your way there, you’re gonna defeat all of his minions throughout, there’ll be optional bosses, some that you have to fight. And these bosses, they’re going to be similar to a boss battle in a Souls game, but it’ll feel more like a fight with Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, if that makes more sense.You’ll go around, explore the world, find everything you can use to gather your strength to do what you were brought here for. You really have no backstory that you know of. Your character, he’s just this soul, and so you start traveling around and try to do what the witch doctor brought you here for. We’re going to try to make the dialogues and things a little humorous with the interactions that you do have and you know, kind of develop this conjured soul who has no backstory throughout the game into this really fleshed out character, like I was speaking about earlier, you know, he starts with no memory of who he is or what he’s even doing here, but by the end, you feel really close to this character that has really developed throughout the game.

It sounded to me like the brothers had a very clear idea about what they wanted for the Conjured Soul. Considering the fact that the 2 man team had recently made the switch from a first person to a 3rd person perspective I was curious as to how that had affected their development process, so I asked Tyler if they felt like overall they were doing rather well and making good time on the project?

TB: It feels really good actually, most of the hard coding, mechanics, and things like that are 90% done. So there’s only a few minor things that need to be done, and we have a few things that we plan to implement. This is not going to be like a game breaking thing if we don’t get it in, but, you know, there’s a few things that we’re on the cliffs about putting in. But as far as our original idea, it’s pretty much ready to go. Just a few debugging issues, just finding things that break and trying to fix them, and then really just start fleshing out the world, and we’re ready to go. So I feel pretty good about the development process. I definitely see it getting finished, probably around this time next year for release if everything keeps going the way it is.

It was good to hear that the change in perspective had not negatively impacted the development of the project, and that sometime in this time next year we may be able to step into the Frankenstein shoes of the Conjured Soul and help rid the world of evil. While that did wrap up all of the questions I had prepared for the title and its development, before we wrapped up the interview I wanted to ask Tyler if there was anything that we did not get a chance to discuss that he would like to mention in the article?

TB: You know, having a day job means that this game is being funded pretty much entirely out of pocket. Finding the time to work on the game is a difficult task. You know, lighting, for example, in a game is extremely difficult to capture the feeling that you want, and having a limited time, like we already have, you can spend an entire week of your free time that you have just trying to fix something like the lighting. Luckily, we’ve managed to already have done that ahead of time. These past six months or so, we’ve been doing things like that, but it’s just, you know, a real appreciation for those indie devs that really have something, that aren’t able to do this full time. It just really shows the effort that they put into doing what they love, their passion. It’s just something that I’ve really grown to appreciate. Now that, you know, we’ve started doing the same thing.

All I could say to that was “Amen, brother, making games is hard as hell”

TB: It is difficult, but, you know, hopefully, it’s something that will pay off. If it doesn’t, then it’s not the end of the world. Our goal is to make a game, not necessarily to make this our career. That was just going to be a reward if it does become successful. But it’s always been our dream to make a game. We’d love to make games for a living. But yeah, right now, we just want to get this game out here, and hopefully people will enjoy it.

With that, I thanked Tyler again for his time and let him To stay up to date with Black Knife Games and see what developments they conjure up for Conjured Soul, be sure to follow them on their Twitter page, and of course, if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in ghoulish, gruesome gaming, then head back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features!