At GDC this year, we were able to sit down with publisher Versus Evil to check out its 2023 slate. Versus Evil is an independent video game publisher with a reputation for publishing critically acclaimed indie games, including the Banner Saga franchise.
We met the team in a hotel in San Francisco just across the road from the hustle of the show floor. Among the titles on display was Stray Souls, developed by Jukai Studio, and we took the chance to interview the team in an exclusive chat after the conference.
“Versus Evil reached out to us when they came across our Steam page,” explains CEO Artur Łączkowski. “From the start, we could tell that they were extremely passionate about the game.”
Stray Souls is a psychological horror game inspired by the likes of Alan Wake. It features boss battles reminiscent of Silent Hill or Resident Evil, and it’s all rendered in photorealistic graphics using Unreal Engine 5.
The story revolves around Daniel, a young man who inherits a house on his 18th birthday, only to become entangled in a web of eerie occurrences caused by his family's occult past. It thrusts you into a foreboding world where the focus is less on action-heavy gameplay and more on unravelling a sinister mystery.
The game features a mix of puzzles and combat – you can choose to fight or flee from enemies, and there are a variety of options for how to progress through the game.
After the commotion of GDC, CEO Artur Łączkowski and audio director and lead writer Pete Wicher give us more details.
Tell us a little bit about Jukai Studio – it’s pretty new, so what’s its background and experience?
Jukai Studio solidified near the beginning of 2022, with founding members Artur Laczkowski and Pete Wicher coming together to develop Stray Souls. Artur comes from working with Bloober Team on The Medium and a few other titles, and Pete has worked with a number of indie teams as a sound designer and composer since 2015, most notably composing the original score for the game Visage. Our passion for horror was how we met in 2019, and eventually, that blossomed into a good friendship and the decision to start developing our own games.
How would you describe your company culture? What are the principles you live and work by?
Jukai is a Polish studio with team members around the globe, and as such, we accommodate for different time zones. We strive for excellence in everything we do and recognize that discipline and hard work are what get us across the finish line each day, but that’s not to say that we don’t put our families first, as well as finding time to share a laugh between team members. Oh, and dogs! We love dogs and would be lost without our furry companions!
What inspired the creation of Stray Souls? Are you all fans of horror games and films?
Stray Souls was born from the iteration of a number of prototype scary games, and the best parts of all those games came together to become the game we are working on. We’re all fans of the horror genre, in both games and film, and each member of the team brings their own unique flavour to the mix, which helps us not get stuck in any ruts while developing ideas.
What’s the secret of a truly immersive horror experience?
Every element in the experience should work in harmony with each other. Sound has to elevate the visuals, and gameplay has to be fulfilling and entertaining. We aren’t sure if there’s a secret formula for the perfect experience, but if there is, it probably has to do with finding balance in all of the ingredients!
How does Stray Souls differ from other horror titles on the market in terms of gameplay and storytelling?
There are quite a few things that we’re proud of with Stray Souls. It isn’t a walking simulator and thus shares a lot more DNA with classic survival horror titles in the variety of gameplay that it contains. Regarding the story, we recognize that many of the elements are supernatural or paranormal, but we’ve kept our core themes as grounded in reality as possible. We wanted players to feel something for the characters in this game, even the ones with questionable motives, and so we’ve done our very best to make their interactions as realistic as possible.
One of the biggest challenges for any indie is originality. It’s up to the studio to offer players something fresh and fun in order to rise above the crowd
You’re using Epic's Metahuman technology in the game. How does this new technology help enhance the horror experience?
In keeping with our desire to make our characters feel realistic, the Metahuman technology has allowed us to do something not commonly seen in indie games, and that’s the realistic expression of emotion. Our goal was that players could see the fear on Daniel’s face when he is confronted by each new development along the way.
Can you talk about the randomized systems in Stray Souls and how these contribute to the replayability of the game?
We use randomization in Stray Souls to provide a unique experience each time a player starts a fresh game while keeping a strong narrative core throughout the game. Things like key items and resources move around to keep players on their toes, while in certain areas, the weather will shift, which can dramatically alter the difficulty of enemy encounters. It looks really cool too!
The games industry is having a tough time this year. What are the big challenges ahead for indie studios?
One of the biggest challenges for any indie studio is originality. Even during tough times, there are standout ideas that can grow into fantastic gaming experiences, and it’s up to the studio to do its best to offer players something fresh and fun in order to rise above the crowd.
Stray Souls will be out later this year. Find out more about it at the Versus Evil website. Versus Evil also demonstrated Tamarak Trail, Lil Guardsman and Broken Roads at GDC this year.