John Wick Hex and the return of cel-shading in games

This week, Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone) announced that he’s working on a game based on the John Wick films, called John Wick Hex.  Described as ‘fight-choreographed chess’, the game takes the film’s trademark fight sequences and is translating them into a strategy game, which sounds cool enough. However, it’s the gorgeous art style that’s really got me excited and recalls a time when games were all about cel-shading.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, check it out below.

John Wick Hex’s art immediately reminds me of the likes of XIII, a noughties game that used comic book styling for its thriller setting.

Cel-shading is technique that takes 3D graphics and makes them appear flat, for a hyper stylised effect that mimics the look of comics. I’m guessing the processing power of Dreamcast  and PS2 was the reason why this was the console generation saw the rise of cel-shading and ran with it.

When Jet Set Radio (A.K.A. Jet Grind Radio) launched, in 2000 on Dreamcast, it’s jagged, cartoony graphics were fresh. It was the perfect style to reflect the skater culture and graffiti gameplay within the urban setting of the game. Jet Set’s aesthetic sat in stark contrast to the quest for realism seen in contemporary games like Tomb Raider, Metal Gear and Dead or Alive or driving games like Gran Turismo.

The preoccupation at that time was with the best reflections and textures and flowing physics on hair and clothes. Cel-shading threw textures out of the window, in favour of flat colours and often heavy black outlines.

Following on from JSR, a little studio called Ubisoft Paris released XIII, a stylish shooter based on a bande desinee (Franco-Belgian comic). Once again, the cel-shaded graphics delivered a style that set itself apart from the mainstream.


XIII was doing story-driven before that was a thing. It took the story of an amnesiac who wakes up on Brighton Beach, with nothing but a key and a tattoo as clues to his identity.  Not the most original opener for a story, but when it’s told using comic book style panels, punctuated with onomatopoeic words and a sepia colour palette, what’s not to love. And just as cel-shading has its renaissance, it’s no surprise that XIII is getting a remaster for PC/Mac and console, including Switch. I’m ready to revisit this cel-shaded classic.

Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe followed hot on the heels of XIII and JSR, with bright, brash colours, plus a bullet time, time rewind mechanic. Don’t be fooled by the fun, cartoon graphics though, Viewtiful Joe was hard.


Capcom really embraced cel-shading in the noughties, with Killer 7 next in its suit of titles. Suda 51’s stylish, on-rails shooter used even more stylised graphics. The trademark of Killer 7 was its cinematic camera angles with elements of Tarantino tinged with a dark, supernatural aspect that only Suda 51 can add.


Another Capcom entry into the cannon was Auto Modellista, which is just a driving sim with cel-shading. It couldn’t get much more noughties than that. But the party was soon over. Okami, another Capcom release, was really the last big cel-shaded game of this era.  Developed by Clover Studios, Okami was a beautiful flop, so it’s fitting that it marks the end of the classic cel-shaded games era. But as we know, that’s not the end of the story, as Okami has since had an HD release on PS3 and PS4, XboxOne and Steam.

Of course, cel-shading didn’t really go away, although there was a period in games, when everything was the colour of rust and hyper-realistic textures seemed to be the only goal. Those were dark days, when I yearned for the energy and stylishness of cel-shading.

Games like Gearbox’s Borderlands series and The Walking Dead, from Telltale Games brought back a more highly textured form of cel-shading. It still had the classic black outlines, but allowed for more expressive faces. This style became the trademark of Telltale games.

Fast forward to today and the upcoming release of John Wick Hex, alongside Sable, another game that takes its influences from bande desinee. It looks like cel-shading’s back and my long wait is finally over. How do you say ‘vindication’ in cartoon?

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