In the far corner of the PAX Rising showcase area, tucked away from the bombastic sounds and sights of the rest of the show, a lovely young man is passionately explaining his demo to another passerby. It’s barely past nine am, most of the other exhibitors and press members all have that bleary-eyed haze over them as we all adjust to three days of video game extravaganza. Still, in spite of the hour, this one man is unmistakably pumped to be showing off what he and his team have been working on. After just a few minutes at the booth, it’s not hard to see why he’s so animated about it – Ailuri bears the makings of something special and Vivink Studios seems more than up to fulfilling that potential.
If you’re anything like me, the first thing you’ll do when you see Ailuri is let out an audible, ‘naww’.
I hesitate to call it such but the developers have essentially weaponised cuteness to attract players to their game – a wildly successful tactic if the crowds at their PAX booth were any indicator. The titular character, a small red panda named Airluri (pictured below), was plastered all over the display and it’s difficult to not see why -he’s downright adorable. I had the chance to catch up with Liezl, an artist at Vivink about some of the choices made when designing the characters and world of Airluri and had my earlier suspicions confirmed. “Ailuri was designed as a red panda because they are adorably underappreciated mammals” Liezl says, “but also because of their conservation status. It gave more purpose to the character…bringing awareness was decided when Ailuri was created”.
The accentuated features and whimsical glow serves to both draw you in and disarm you, allowing Vivink to educated the player and raise awareness of the plights that face these beautiful endangered species. It’s a noble goal and an ambition that Liezl and the team are more than eager to fulfill; the demo I played featured a heavily forested area but later stages will be different, allowing the game to highlight other endangered animals and even flora. None of which were chosen haphazardly, as Liezl puts its “When it comes to choosing the species, a balanced variety of scientific classifications, their level of concern and their habitats”
Environmental preservation is a particularly pertinent message in 2018, especially from a team based in Australia. Our land down under is currently facing a litany of issues, such as the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, and we have our fair share of lost and endangered species. So it’s fitting that Vivink has taken up the task of raising awareness, even if it is quite the heavy cross for a game to bear. Exactly how successful Ailuri will be remains to be seen but there is a boatload of heart invested in the game and the intentions alone deserve credit.
Playing Ailuri it’s evident that things are in an early stage but the foundations are solid and the future looks bright.
Currently in Alpha, the demo begins with a beautifully animated cutscene in which Ailuri is separated from his parents and is forced to venture out into a dangerous wilderness to find his path. The game plays as well as many contemporary platformers, with Airluri traversing the world by clambering up surfaces, choosing between branching paths, swinging around with a grappling system and even getting into skirmishes with other creatures that roam the world. Despite only being in Alpha, all of these elements feel good, especially the grapple which utilises a loosely defined physics rule to lend it a sense of fluid movement and fun.
When designing the world and gameplay Vivink took inspiration from a wide variety of sources, some of which you’ll immediately recognise just by looking at the game but others may surprise you. Liezl speaks of a spectrum of inspirations, noting that the team studied each one for “artistic technique, engines used, mechanics and design choices. Ori and the Blind Forest made a big impact in the beginning, but also amazing games such as Hollow Knight as a comparative, Unity made, hand drawn game, Yoshi’s Island for the fantastic sprite work and level designs, Rain World‘s astonishing procedural animation and the game’s ability to create a living and breathing world..”.
When looking to the East, however, the inspirations become a little more abstract; of course, there are traces of Mario’s DNA is almost any platformer but when designing the levels themselves, Vivink referenced a “Kishōtenketsu-like technique”. If you’re scratching your head at that one, don’t fret, I was too but the thought behind following a Kishōtenketsu ethos is sound. The technique refers to the classical structuring of Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives in which a four-act structure is used and it is damn well fascinating. Further reading is highly recommended here but safe to say it gives Ailuri a very interesting hook.
Like many of the smaller titles featured in the PAX Rising area, Ailuri isn’t shy about the help it has received along the way. Vivink have received support from other development teams, according to Liezl “Eagle Island and Adventure Pal team’s advice and fantastic art combined helped build Ailuri to where it is today”. Paired with the assistance of the AIE Incubator Program, Vivink has been able to craft a beautifully hand-drawn experience with Ailuri and its noble messages about nature conservation are sure to strike a chord.
Ailuri is currently scheduled to release in late 2019 on Steam with a possible Switch/Xbox One port on the cards.
You can follow the game’s progress on Twitter @VivinkArt and be sure to check back here for more coverage of this adorable title.