Originally announced in 2022, Digital Extremes’ foray into a new live-service intellectual property is Soulframe. The mainly Canadian developer is known for its work on the Unreal franchise, Dark Sector, The Darkness II, and Warframe, which has just celebrated its 10-year anniversary with TennoCon 2023. Soulframe’s conceptual design and inspirations are incredibly different from the studio’s past work–this time being heavily influenced by real-world cultures of color and by Studio Ghibli (in particular, Princess Mononoke), Earthbound, and Ico.
Soulframe’s gameplay is much slower than that of Warframe. Whereas Warframe is known for its action-packed, frenzied, double-bullet-jumping mechanics, Soulframe is more precise and grounded, where the weight of your attacks needs to be understood carefully from the start of your sword swing to the end of it. Encounters require a planned-out approach rather than going in with the rushed elegance Warframe is known for.
Soulframe will have you fighting several enemies at once with clearer and more animated indicators of dodging, strafing, and rolling away in these more intimate fights. “Off the bat, it really is a lot more forgiving than it looks. Our goal is to not make something that’s like hardcore Bloodborne-type combat. It is more methodical–[fewer] enemies on screen. You have time to think what you’re going to do–that’s less adrenaline, less shooting, obviously,” creative director Steve Sinclair explained.
In North American media, when aesthetics, designs, traditions, cultures, and influences are taken from real-world people of color, many studios tend to take these very entrenched real-world histories to then place them onto white characters. By doing this, they advocate for cultural appropriation rather than cultural appreciation.
Soulframe’s demo showed off not just our player character, an Envoy who is a person of color, but also an integral character the Envoy clashes with named Lady Deora, who is also a woman of color. Few games with a sole player character have characters of color interacting with one another, especially dark-skinned characters of color.
“Part of the idea is to create a space for Soulframe that isn’t already occupied,” Sinclair said.
Asked about the easily identifiable, but meticulous approach to the themes of spiritualism, environmentalism, and character designs like the racial backgrounds portrayed in Soulframe, Sinclair said, “And I think those cultural influences give us hope. We have a lot of Korean influences, things are named after ancient cultures, and in Asia. The lore of the world is building on these that are across the world–not just Roman Gods and Greek Gods. So really just trying to dig a little deeper because it is all there in human history, it’s just not been exposed enough, at least in our genre,” Sinclair explained.
Some of the media that are major influences on the development, themes, and environmentalism of Soulframe are Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli, and Ico. “[Hayao] Miyazaki obviously hates industrialization,” Sinclair said. “Miyazaki shows you the benefits and the power of [industrialization through] those women in [Princess Mononoke]. [These women] become leaders of that society. How do we balance those different ideologies? We, in earnest argue both sides of [modernity and nature] and let [players] interpret those [themes]. You never ultimately condemn each side. You make a good argument for both and leave it up to the audience–and respect their intelligence.”
Soulframe currently does not have a release date, but additional details will be shown at TennoCon 2024. This year’s TennoCon brought news that Warframe cross-saves are finally on the way later in 2023 alongside footage for Warframe 1999, Warframe’s newest cinematic expansion that looks to Metal Gear Solid for inspiration.
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