No Rest for the Wicked: the spectacular evolution of Moon Studios’ graphics tech

No Rest for the Wicked: the spectacular evolution of Moon Studios’ graphics tech

Hands-on with the Early Access code.

No Rest for the Wicked is out now on early access, giving us our first glimpse at Moon Studios’ latest project. The developer’s prior offering – Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and The Will of the Wisps – turned the Metroidvania style of game on its head, offering a powerful, fresh experience that is difficult to forget. And now, four years later, Moon looks set to do the same for action RPGs with No Rest for the Wicked. Simply put, No Rest for the Wicked couples a stunning visual design with elements inspired by From Software’s Souls titles, Blizzard’s Diablo and even Animal Crossing – and yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

At its core, Wicked remains a game rooted in the Unity Engine but with a vast range of customisations transforming it into its own thing, hence the nickname – Moonity. This, however, is used only for the game’s presentation layer – the graphics you see on-screen. Moon has also built a new simulation engine – built on top of Exit Games’ Quantum Engine – to handle game logic, including a fully deterministic 3D physics system for networking, which No Rest for the Wicked will feature at a later date.

What makes this setup work well is the division between rendering and simulation – basically, input responsiveness is separate from frame-rate so, if you’re playing on a lower end platform, like a Steam Deck, at 30fps, the game will still feel as responsive as a game running at a higher frame-rate. The visuals, however, are striking. First and foremost, Wicked supports HDR on day one – this is important as we have largely considered Ori and the Will of the Wisps to stand out as one of the best examples of HDR in any game released to date. The HDR implementation is superb and just as intense and engaging as Ori. It makes a gigantic difference if you use an HDR display.

Digital Foundry’s video first look at the highly promising No Rest for the Wicked.Watch on YouTube

No Rest for the Wicked is presented from a top-down perspective like many action RPGs but offers a unique visual identity that elevates the presentation. We have often heard the phrase ‘looks like a painting in motion’ applied to games, but I feel this descriptor has never been more apt than here. No Rest for the Wicked genuinely does exhibit a hand-painted look – there are moments that resemble pre-drawn 2D backgrounds at first glance… until the camera begins to move revealing its true 3D nature.

However, making an isometric game brings with it some serious challenges. For example, how do you convey a sense of scale to the player while retaining visibility? This is one of the key features that the tech team at Moon focused on and the selected path is what it call sthe ‘curved world’. Inspired by Animal Crossing, the idea is that the entire 3D map is curved away from the player. By doing so, it becomes possible to see further into the distance. It required a full rework of aspects like culling, lighting, geometry processing and more. In addition, the lighting is entirely real-time now without any baking – this works in tandem with the dynamic weather and lighting system to ensure that the world is constantly shifting around you.

However, one of my favorite features is what Moon calls the ‘flashlight’ system – watch your character carefully and you’ll see a gentle light following them around. This is nothing new, obviously, but what’s important is how it influences pathing and shadows around the player – you can see how the light around the player results in deep shadows spilling out around you as you explore. From a visual perspective, it’s an attractive feature but what surprised me is how this is used to draw the player’s eye to specific parts of a scene.

Another key feature in building a strong atmosphere lies in the animation of world objects – specifically, things such as trees and cloth. The weather is a key part of this: the first area of the game takes place during a thunderstorm with a huge volume of GPU-accelerated rain particles blowing around. It’s entertaining to see what happens if you increase the volume of particles beyond realistic limits – it looks ridiculous, yet it remains performant. The detail is remarkable: as the characters battle in the rain, bursts of water can be observed emanating from their clothing as they animate. It really gives the impression that their clothing has become drenched and the intensity of their movement is forcefully flinging the collected water droplets.

This ties directly into the unified wind system which influences cloth and trees around you. It’s fully adjustable and dynamic, changing alongside the time of day and weather patterns. It looks especially cool around cloth objects, including outfits worn by characters. Speaking of physical interactions, Moon has also included physics simulation for small objects – such as rocks, pebbles and branches that react to your character as you move through the world. These small details are also influenced by events such as explosions. Then there’s the fluid simulation – this is applied to things such as water, smoke, fog and the like. You can see it here in this cutscene as the character breaks through the smoke. Beautiful.

The point is that the sheer amount of motion on display brings the world to life in a way that I found very impressive. It feels just as lively as the 2D Ori games yet manages to do all of this in full 3D at a larger scale while being significantly more interactive. What’s interesting is that, with Wicked being in early access, the team is still working on additional effects that aren’t currently in the game. For instance, Moon is experimenting with actual dynamic streams of water. There’s also a dynamic mud system in development where moving through thick mud actually displaces the terrain as you trudge through it. Hopefully these find their way into the game as development progresses.

An example of the 'curved world' technique that enhances draw distance.

An example of the 'curved world' technique that enhances draw distance.

The curved world system takes inspiration from Animal Crossing, literally curving the world to enhanced draw distances are you can see by looking yonder in these two shots. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

Really, though, this is just a taste of the visuals. There’s so much to discuss, from the painterly texture work, the rim lighting that integrates characters seamlessly into the world and all the other various tricks and techniques. It’s stunning.

Moving on, if you’re interested in checking the game out on day one, you’re probably also wondering about the options and performance. You see, while No Rest for the Wicked is planned for release on consoles in the future, the current early access release is available exclusively on PC right now. The options menu is incomplete right now – there are minimal visual detail settings to adjust while DLSS is in the works but not currently available. The game does provide aspects including a resolution slider, dynamic resolution scaling and HDR support. I particularly enjoyed the way the menu disappears while tweaking certain settings, allowing you to more visibly appreciate the changes being made by your choices in real-time. Crucially, this works with the resolution slider, for example.

As for performance, it’s still early days but the impression thus far is that Wicked is significantly heavier than the Ori games and there is still work to be done. I tested it on my main PC with a Core i9 12900k and RTX 4090 but I also tested it on an older Core i9 9900k system with an RTX 2060 Super, a Core i7 12800H laptop with a 3080 Ti laptop GPU – and even the Steam Deck.

A dynamic 'flash light' tracks the player, enhancing the nearby view. This light is disabled in this image.

A dynamic 'flash light' tracks the player, enhancing the nearby view. This light is enabled in this image.

A ‘flash light’ system follows the player at all times, illuminating the area around the player for better readability of the scene. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

What I found is interesting is that the lower-end systems all performed fairly well, delivering a mostly stable 60 frames per second experience, I would say. It’s in line with expectations and the requirements. It’s certainly not perfect as there are heavy areas where it dips but it’s fine. Steam Deck is currently being worked on – Moon captured some footage for me and it’s clear that performance is not quite there. It’s playable but there is work to be done here, of course.

The issue is that my primary PC did not fare as well as one would expect. The GPU utilisation was normal and correct but the game’s simulation was seriously getting hung up on my CPU resulting in sub-optimal frame-times that dropped the frame-rate below 60fps in areas near the borders of towns. I also ran into issues with stutters from time to time. This is something the team is trying to figure out right now as it’s possible that other users will encounter similar problems. In terms of performance, this is definitely the area where its Early Access status is evident. Of course, when looking at PC releases over the last couple years, it’s still probably in better shape than many non-Early Access games. Given Moon’s track record, I expect it to improve significantly as development continues.

Beyond technology, I also wanted to share some thoughts on the game design. No Rest for the Wicked definitely shares elements with Souls-style games. The animation priority, dodging, blocking and overall level of challenge feels relatively familiar but there are some big changes that result in something which feels unique for the genre. Firstly, the respawning of enemies is handled differently – they do not respawn based on your death. Instead, it seems to occur based on time. Secondly, health items do not replenish, you need to find and or make them, and you do not lose your experience either. Furthermore, Wicked features a proper town to explore with many NPCs to talk to – Sacrament is honestly a gigantic, multi-level city – not something you typically see in Souls-like games.

So that’s how I feel about No Rest for the Wicked so far, but I’ve got to stress that I’m really just scratching the surface. The game in its current state feels sublime and is extremely promising, but do bear in mind that it is in early access so don’t expect a full, completely polished game – but it will certainly be fun to see the reaction from users and how that feedback is integrated into the game. It’ll also afford players an opportunity to witness the development process in action – a chance to see No Rest for the Wicked evolve into its final form. Either way, while it’s still in development, it’s exciting to have a new Moon Studios game available and rest assured that Digital Foundry will continue to track it through its development.

Read More

Zaļā Josta - Reklāma