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SUBSTRATA: Open World Dark Fantasy – Artbook Review

SUBSTRATA: Open World Dark Fantasy – Artbook Review

by July 18, 2014
Artbook Review


Over their long history in the business, Udon Entertainment have published a sizeable library of artbooks and design compendiums based on pre-existing popular and niche franchises. These books ranged from The History of Sonic the Hedgehog which looked at the first twenty-years of the blue hedgehog to Summer Wars Material Book which delved into the creative mind of Mamoru Hosoda as he was producing the successful animated feature Summer Wars. But would there be any value in an artbook / design compendium based on a title that doesn’t even exist? Udon Entertainment has this week published SUBSTRATA: Open World Dark Fantasy to test that question… and the answer is… YES!

SUBSTRATA is the brainchild of illustrator Paul Richards, who as some of you may know worked with Vigil Games on Darksiders I / II among other titles. Last year we saw the downfall of THQ, and unlike other studios and series which were acquired by others, Vigil Games ended up disappearing alongside their parent company. Mr. Richards initially conceived the book as a way to reunite fellow artists from the company to work on at least one last project together. From there he managed to successfully form a team of over 80 creative minds to produce the tome, with artists who have not only been credited for work at Vigil Games but also Assassin’s Creed IV, EVE Online, Saints Row and Wildstar to name a few. It is an impressive feat having so much talent from various studios contributing to the one book.


SUBSTRATA would be considered more of an artbook than a design compendium, as while they provide short paragraphs on ‘pitch’ and ‘theme’ at the beginning of the book and some artists also provide short annotations, a great majority of the book is simply artwork. Evidently playing to their strengths in art and design, every contributor provides something unique to the “Dark Fantasy” setting, ranging from concept-like 3D designs to finalized 2D designs that could easily find themselves in a high quality video game release. To be honest, it is quite a shame that SUBSTRATA will likely never become a video game itself, as the artwork for characters, monsters and environments all provide insight into what could be a vivid and diverse game world given the right resources and development team.

Depending on how you initially approach this book, that last sentence could be a bit of a downer once you begin reading the book. It is clear at least in my mind that SUBSTRATA is a book containing the work of over 80 people contributing to the pitch rather than contributing to a world that already has the basics such as races, monsters and a game world already conceptualized. Instead, this book looks at pre-production concepts which in a real life scenario could then be approved or cut to build the world. I wouldn’t say no to a release of ‘SUBSTRATA 2′ in the future, which sought to further refine and detail the game world however.

While I will keep what I am referencing to a secret, as something for you to discover should you desire to acquire the book, but Page #239 is most probably my favourite. While there was plenty of fantastic artwork in the book, it is always warming to see something like that included, even if not necessary. I do in part say that to avoid actually choosing my favourite… far too hard to choose.


With much of the art given full-page features and the rest given ample space on a page, there was never any occasion while reading the book where I felt they poorly utilized the space they had. If there were one thing I most probably would consider changing about the layout, it would be separating sections of the book by the type of art (Character, Monster, Landscape, Other) rather than simply presenting all the designs by artist. While not a major issue, I think it would have helped the book flow better than switching between the different type of design every few pages.

SUBSTRATA was designed as a book to be about artwork from various authors alone, and therefore there wasn’t any additional extra content included in the book. But if you would consider it an extra, your purchase will help support charity! Udon Entertainment have confirmed that proceeds from the sale of SUBSTRATA will go towards the charity Gamers For Good which involves gamers doing some real good for the community.


As gaming over even the last few years have shown us, there are many creative minds embedded in the video game industry. But with many belonging to different development studios, most would never have the opportunity to work as one team to produce something special, built from their combined knowledge and experience in the industry. While there will ultimately never be any final product to come out of this, SUBSTRATA still turned out to be a fantastic read, with great artwork provided by some evidently great talent in the industry.

SUBSTRATA: Open World Dark Fantasy comes in at 240 full-colour pages in length, and is now available for purchase through online retail outlets in addition to comic stores, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other selected book stores.

Special thanks must go to Udon Entertainment for providing me with a review copy of this book.


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The Quick Brief

What happens when over 80 creators from the world’s top video game studios join forces to create the ultimate dark fantasy game? The answer is SUBSTRATA, a new art book collecting designs for the heroes, enemies, and landscapes of this hypothetical new game world…

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About The Author
Your average, perhaps slightly geeky 23 year old University student who spends his days studying but his nights watching, reviewing and reporting on video games, anime and manga. Has been writing for The Otaku's Study ever since it opened in 2006 as Sam's Anime Study.