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What Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 lacks in hype, it makes up for in ambition.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 may be among the least discussed AAA sequels of 2014, but it would be a mistake to attribute its small media presence to a lack of ambition. For Konami producer Dave Cox, Lords of Shadow 2 is a chance to perfect the Castlevania experience he and developer MercurySteam strived for with the original Lords of Shadow: One that successfully brings the franchise into three dimensions, while maintaining the gameplay elements that made the series into a classic. At the same time, LoS 2 breaks new ground with the first story in the series told from Dracula’s perspective. We asked Mr. Cox about the lessons he’s learned from his time working on all three Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games, and what the team did to make this game, their last for the foreseeable future, a noteworthy entry in the franchise:

ESC: While showing us a new section of the game, you were talking about how Lords of Shadow 2 was an “adventure game,” as opposed to an action game. Can you elaborate on what you did to make that transition and and why you decided to that?

DC: I think the original had an adventure element, but I think that we didn’t deliver that side of our original intention. That’s what we felt as a team. The hack-and-slash side of it was really good, but the exploration and the kind of finding new things – finding new items – that didn’t quite deliver how we wanted it. So we really felt that we needed to improve that and one of the ways that we do that is to give the player more freedom in terms of exploration. In the first game, it was very much a linear experience: It was level by level, there was loading in between each level, and it really took you out of the adventure aspect of it. It felt like we’ve taken you out of the world. It didn’t feel seamless, it didn’t feel whole.

With [Castlevania: Lords of Shadow] 2, we’ve freed up the camera so the player can look all around. We’ve the player the ability to go pretty much wherever they want. Obviously once they’ve explored an area it becomes available to them, so we do lead you down a path but that path becomes almost like a funnel, if you like. And then the funnel gets bigger, until eventually you can go wherever you want. And I think that’s really important: That’s something the other game just didn’t have. So I think for players to feel like they’re exploring: For them to find things all the time, to give them a reason to backtrack, to explore and to find new abilities rather than give it to them piecemeal, they can find it in their own way. That’s something this game does that other game [Castlevania: Lords of Shadow] didn’t.

ESC: This is the second game – third if you count Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate – in the Lords of Shadow series and you’ve said this is the last one, and the last Lords of Shadow title that [developer] MercurySteam is going to be working on. Do you think you’ve successfully brought Castlevania into a new genre? If you do, where do you think the series is going to go next?

DC: What we’ve achieved is we’ve made Castlevania more mainstream than it was. We’ve given it a new audience, if you like. Our goal wasn’t to change Castlevania beyond all recognition. Our goal was to evolve and progress as a studio; to bring the series to the mainstream and to do new things, but keep the core elements that make the series what it is. I think we’ve done that. Lords of Shadow went to become the biggest-selling Castlevania in history, which is, you know, no mean achievement. I think it went to prove that people were looking for something new from the Castlevania “genre.” So I think we’ve achieved that.

I think [LoS] 2 is delivering on the promise that we set up in the epilogue. I think that we said; “Ok, this is Dracula. It’s going to be set in the modern day.” I think that was quite a challenge but hopefully when fans see the game, they’ll see that we went further than they were expecting in terms of spectacle, in terms of story, in terms of gameplay, in terms of the visuals: We’ve tried to make every aspect of it better than the first game.
We’ve learned a lot from our mistakes: I’m not saying that we haven’t made any mistakes with one, we’ve tried to evolve and progress as a studio to deliver something new within the Castlevania genre.

ESC: Well you’re definitely doing that, especially with letting the player control Dracula. Did you feel any extra pressure, given that this is the first Castlevania story shown from Dracula’s perspective?

DC: Yeah, we felt pressure, but it’s pressure from ourselves because we want to make something really special. I think that, playing as Dracula, it had to be cool, it had to feel real, but at the same time we didn’t want to present a character that was just “the bad guy you face at the end of the game.” We wanted to present a character you could identify with. That was his story. In many ways it’s like Tony Soprano. This is a bad guy who does horrible things, but at the same time as player you need to root for him if you’re spend more than 20 hours finding out his story.

That was the biggest challenge: Making a character you could identify with but, at the same time, he’s a nasty piece of work. There’s a part early on [where Dracula does something] unexpected that’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable. We like to surprise people: The epilogue did it in the first game, and I think there are a lot of those kind of… We call them “WTF” moments, where people go; “woah” and it makes you question who Gabriel is, who Dracula is, as a character and I think it does that very well because there are moments when you’re playing and think; “Yeah, he’s this badass. I’m super-powerful, I’m cool.” And then you turn around and [do something awful] and you think; “I’m bad. I am actually a nasty piece of work.” But there are other moments with Trevor, his son, where he’s gentle, he’s kind, and I think that makes him seem more like a real person. I think bad people don’t necessarily think they’re doing bad things.

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ESC: The present-day environments you’ve shown from the game are clearly modern, but have a distinctly gothic influence that intentionally keeps the game feeling “Castlevania-like.” Can you talk about how you merged those two styles?

DC: One of our big worries was that having a modern city setting would make it seem less like Castlevania. When we designed the city, we thought; “so basically what’s happened is that the castle fell into ruin, but it still exists, so the city is built around the castle. You find that a lot in european culture. Like Madrid, for example: Castella, the region [of Spain where Madrid is [located], is literally “the land of castles,” and you tend to find modern technology – modern buildings and modern architecture – are built around castles. We tried to make the castle and the city kind of integral to each other, and you find in the game, as well. You could be in one part of the castle, then you walk out and you’re in the modern city. You get the feeling that it was all built together.

At the same time, keeping it imagined city was really key, I think. Putting Dracula in Times Square: It wouldn’t have worked, You know. It would’ve felt weird. It wouldn’t have felt right, so we wanted that felt like it belonged: Stained glass windows, gargoyles, the kind of things you’d expect to see in a Castlevania game.

I think not being afraid is really important when you’re working on a series like this. Being held back by the past and trying to make a game that tries to fit the conformity of what people expect from Castlevania would be a mistake. Making brave decisions, taking risks, that’s what makes people excited. When they play the game, they’ll go: “Wow, this is amazing. I wasn’t expecting this.” Exceeding people’s expectations all the time. I might be wrong, but I think that’s how you get players interested in what you’re doing.

ESC: I would agreed with that, definitely. Speaking of feedback; what do you think was the single most important lesson you took away from making the original [Lords of Shadow]?

DC: Pacing. It was something in the first game that, in hindsight, I felt we could have trimmed the game slightly and had a better pace so that throughout the adventure you were getting something every step of the way. I think with [LoS] 2, we have a much better pace. Although the game is 20 hours, it’s 20 hours where you’re always getting something every five minutes, and you’re building up to a climax that needs to deliver. When we planned out everything, the pacing was there. There are moments in the game where it’s guieter, but there’s always something around the corner: a new ability, a new cutscene, a new story element, a new puzzle, a new area to explore. There’s always something the player can do. And even when the player goes back, there are new things for them to find. So when you get the mist ability, for example, you go back to an area and realize: “Oh, those bars were there and couldn’t get through it but now I can.” And now there’s a whole new area to explore with new enemies. That’s something we learned from the previous game: To get the pacing tighter.

ESC: Similarly, can you talk about how bringing the principles and mechanics of the original Lords of Shadow to a portable platform in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate have, in turn, affected your design sensibilities for Lords of Shadow 2?

DC: With Mirror of Fate, what we tried to do was to create a game that felt like a throw to the classic Castlevania games. Trying to keep the Lords of Shadow vibe going, but giving it more of a classic feel so it felt like a sequel to [Castlevania III] Dracula’s Curse. That what we had in mind for the handheld. Making a handheld game was very different than making a game on this sort of scale. I think that one of the things Mirror of Fate is very good at is capturing the feel of Castlevania one, Super Castlevania IV, Dracula’s Curse, those kind of games. What I think it’s not very good at is trying to capture the “Metroid-vania” element of it. It wasn’t something we wanted to do. We kind of felt the pressure to do that kind of backtracking, but I don’t think it worked in terms of the combat and the Lords of Shadow side of things. If we were going to go back and do it again, we’d probably do a game more like Lords of Shadow, a third-person action game.

But it was fun and it’s got some really cool story elements to it, I think, that really tie into what we’re doing with Lords of Shadow 2. I think it very nicely covers the Belmont feud with Dracula and why it happened, which is very important, and makes a lot of the characters in Lords of Shadow 2 really stand out. Like Alucard, for example, why is Alucard against his father. I think it’s explained really well in Mirror of Fate. I think if you’ve played Mirror of Fate you’ll certainly have a deeper appreciation of the story in Lords of Shadow 2 than if you haven’t.
ESC: Moving on to a question I’m sure you’ve been getting a lot lately: The game is coming out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on February 25. At that point, the Xbox One and PS4 will have been in stores for about four months. Does that change your perspective at all? Releasing a “Gen 3” game in a “Gen 4” world?

DC: Not really. I think that there are still a lot of people out there that have what I call the “current gen” consoles – PS3 and Xbox 360 – and there will be a lot of people at Christmas who will get one of those consoles because you’re not going to find a PS4 or an Xbox One right now. From a commercial perspective, there is still a market out there. Of course all the talk is about next-gen, what it’s going to do, but I think Lords of Shadow 2 certainly stands up against next-gen titles in terms of visuals and in terms of content. If anyone’s looking for a game that’s going to give them a lot of depth on their current-gen console, I think this hopefully will deliver.

We deliberately didn’t want to go next-gen for a couple of specific reasons. The first one was because we were very far down the line. We did talk about it, but it would have meant doing a lot of the development again, and it would have meant a delay, and it would have meant working on the project for another six, eight, maybe ten months more, so we thought; “No, we don’t want to do that.” Secondly, we felt that a lot of the people who bought the original game will have a PS3 or an Xbox 360 and it would be nice to keep the series on that particular generation rather than try to bring it out on next-gen.

ESC: You’ve stressed that the game is pretty “full”: Is there anything that, if you had more time, you would have included or refined?

DC: No, I’m very happy with where we are with the game. As a developer you always want more time, because it means more polish. There are certain things in the game – the lighting here, characters clipping through the environment, that kind of stuff – that I would have liked to spend more time to polish up, but you’ve got to let go. Letting go of something is very difficult to do: All of the team is kind of reluctant to let this baby go, but eventually you’ve got to. I suppose it’s like a father and a child where eventually the child grows up and you’ve got to let them go. I think this game is ready for the world. I think we’re proud of what we’ve done. I think as game developers, as creators, you have to be proud of whatever you put into the market and you hope that people enjoy it.

ESC: As I mentioned before, Lords of Shadow 2 will be the last Castlevania: Lords of Shadow game developed by MercurySteam, what is your next step? Will you continue working with MercurySteam? Or maybe oversee whatever comes next for Castlevania?

DC: My next step is to, hopefully, work with MercurySteam on a new project with Konami. What happens next for Castlevania, I don’t know. That’s for others to decide. We feel like it was a torch that got passed to us and now its our turn to pass it on to somebody else. I think that whatever happens next, whoever comes next, they need to be free to do whatever they want to do with the series. They need to be able to make their own mark on the series. I wish them all the best, but I’m done. We’ve got other cool stuff to do.

ESC: So are you already working on that new project, I know you can’t tell us what it is, but can you say you are?

DC: Yes. I’m going to have a little holiday first but, yeah, we’ve started on the next project.

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Right before this interview we got the chance to see and play through a couple of sections of Lords of Shadow 2. Check out our preview to see if we think the game makes good on Dave’s promise.

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