While you obsess over your new Xbox One or PS4, there's a new reason to dust off your 360 and PS3. That reason is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, the sequel to arguably one of the most ambitious titles of last generation, as a little-known developer tried its hand at a classic — and popular — video game franchise.
The first game wasn't perfect, and developer MercurySteam knows this better than anyone. That's why Lords of Shadow 2 feels so different, yet still so firmly embedded in Castlevania lore.
What has producer Dave Cox and his team honed in on to make Lords of Shadow 2 a must-have this February 27? Read on to find out!
MMGN: The first Lords of Shadow was a big risk and in many ways you guys nailed it. But for me the game never quite felt firmly embedded in the adventure genre. There were some things holding it back. In the transition to development for Lords of Shadow 2, what have you focused on that was in the first game (or not) that you felt needed to be overhauled for the sequel?
Dave Cox: I think that in many ways we wanted to emphasis the exploration aspects and make it more of an adventure game. The first one was a grand adventure but it got a lot of comparisons to God of War and those sorts of games. I think that’s a little unfair because it has a lot more to it than that. It’s an adventure game with a hack-and-slash combat system bolted on. In Lords of Shadow 2 we wanted to really beef up the exploration aspect because we felt that was a weakness of the first game.
MMGN: Does that mean making the game less linear and more open? My experience so far after only a few hours definitely has a more “open” feel to it.
Dave Cox: The first game was very linear, going from level to level, following the story like he was on a quest. We wanted to have something that was a bit more like a Zelda game, where the story starts off and the story needs you, and as you explore the world it gets bigger and bigger, and as you get more abilities it allows you to access new areas and find new things, and discover new enemies. So those were the feelings about what Lords of Shadow 2 would be. I think that we felt that we really didn’t want to bang out more of the same, because that was the temptation.
The first [Lords of Shadow] was a grand adventure but it got a lot of comparisons to God of War and those sorts of games. I think that’s a little unfair because it has a lot more to it than that - Producer Dave Cox
MMGN: Was there much pressure from Konami to get a sequel done following the first’s commercial success?
Dave Cox: The top guys at Konami were like, “We need a sequel”, and I think they were thinking that it would be a year and we’d have something out, but we really wanted to address some of the criticisms and things that we felt we could improve upon. Having a free camera system, more of an open world for players to explore, tightening up the combat system, giving players reason to use their abilities, making it feel more refined, fixing framerate issues, maintain that beautiful art style to help it run smoothly. All of these things went into the mix and we realised that it was going to be quite ambitious. But we like changes, and hopefully when you play the game it’s quite a step up from the first game.
MMGN: Making a game about a character -- Dracula -- that is iconically known within Castlevania circles as the villain must have led to some division among the fanbase. What has the response from series fans been like?
Dave Cox: The initial shock when the first game was released passed really quickly. Some gamers followed it over time and what really drove its success was word of mouth and recommendation. It was actually the most successful Castlevania game ever released, which was a real surprise to us.
MMGN: How did that initial shock change over time though? Was it more of, “Yeah, this is the Castlevania I love” or, “It’s different but I like it!”?
: That initial shock of the change went along a lot easier, and lot of the fans were on board. My feeling right now is that, talking to fans, is that they’re very excited about where we’re taking it. They understand that this is a different universe and take on Castlevania, that these characters are abit like Marvel Ultimate: new interpretations of established characters.
MMGN: There’s certainly a deep lore there to delve into, so it was a big risk to take. How did you hone in on Dracula as the main character for the series?
Dave Cox: I think people have got over that (initial shock) and are looking forward to what we do with the characters. Being a Castlevania fan, Dracula to me was always a ghostly kind of character, with his evil laugh, popping up at the end of the game. There was no real depth there. So when we were coming up with the concept and what we could do with Castlevania, we asked, “What can we do with this character?” But he’s actually really interesting. He’s a vampire, but how did he become Dracula? What’s his story? So that’s what we wanted to tell. With Lords of Shadow 2 we’ve taken that a lot further. Yes, he’s evil, but what is evi? Yeah, he is evil. But he has compassion. He has love. He has forgiveness. That’s represented with his son and his wife.
What we tried to do was present a character that players would question. Am I rooting for the right guy? Is this the good guy? I think that’s really important. It presents a dark, gritty, mature player of evil, and we ask the player, “Is this a sign of redemption or is it not?” And we asked all the way through, all the way to the end of the game.
MMGN: Early in the game there’s a moment when you walk out of the Cathedral and into a gritty, modern city. During development were there ever moments when you stopped and thought, “No, this modern city is TOO modern. It needs to be more Castlavania!”? What sort of challenges did you face in that regard?
Dave Cox: It’s very important that we portrayed a city that fit the Castlevania universe. We were like, how can we make this feel like it belongs? If we put Dracula in the middle of New York City running down Times Square I don’t think it would work. We were looking for inspiration and it was right there in front of us in Madrid. Madrid is very old with old architecture, lots of castles in the middle of the street, you can drive down the street and there’s a castle right there next to you. Go around the corner and there are gargoyles.
It’s right here under our nose. So we used Madrid, took lots of pictures, and tried to design a city that felt like a European city, but one that also belonged in Castlevania. So what you need to understand is that it’s one place you’ll move through, but it’s so diverse, you’ll be walking through a city, down an alley, and then end up at the entrance of a castle or cathedral. So it feels like one area that fits together well enough that hopefully you won’t feel, “This doesn’t feel right,” and instead think, “This fits Castlevania!”
MMGN: What was the number one thing you guys thought absolutely needed to be refined to make Lords of Shadow 2 the better of the two games?
Dave Cox: Well there were actually two things. The free-camera system we felt was a hinderance to the exploration, and exploration was the second system we really wanted to improve. The first game had a fixed camera and that has benefits, which means you only have to design the corner of a level and fix the camera on that corner and that corner can look amazing, because it’s all the player had to see. But it doesn’t help you explore. In fact it’s a real hindrance. So we wanted a free camera system that gives you a real world, that allows you to use the camera to explore and search for things. One of the downsides of a free camera of a hack-and-slash game is that often it can get in the way. Sometimes the camera can really spoil the fun in the genre. It points in the wrong direction and that sort of stuff. A fixed camera gives you a great view, so it’s a real concern when designing a camera that we want to feel fixed, but is free if the player chooses to use it.
The camera will respond to your movement, and then move it back to the right position when you stop using it. It took us years to develop that system, let me tell you. But when you play the game, you don’t think about the camera. Nine times out of 10 players wouldn’t use the camera because they don’t need to, but that is a real achievement we’re proud of. And we have a more open world now. That was a real challenge, because previously we loaded level by level. It was really easy to do. But this game doesn’t load at all. You can go wherever you want and the game has to decide what to load. It’s doing it all on the fly. That’s something else we wanted to improve and work out to make sure the game was streaming and maintaining its frame rate, things that we didn’t worry about when making the first game. These are things that make Lords of Shadow 2 feel so different from Lords of Shadow 1.
It’s very important that we portrayed a city that fit the Castlevania universe. We were like, how can we make this feel like it belongs? If we put Dracula in the middle of New York City running down Times Square I don’t think it would work - Producer Dave Cox
MMGN: The industry is packed with sequels and quite often you see the same developer telling the same story over multiple games. The Arkham series obviously changed developers, but this is your third game with the Lords of Shadow series. Is it comforting to get to work on the same characters and story, as opposed to coming in half-way through and continuing someone else’s work?
Dave Cox: The same team made both console games, so it wasn’t an issue. The question is, what comes next for us? That’s really out of my hands because we’re done with Castlevania. For us it was a bit of a fear. With the first game we were doing something with an established franchise and making something quite radically different. We were a little afraid to push the boundaries too far with that particular game. But with the success of the first game, that fear kind of went away, and in many ways we felt a little bit vindicated. So it’s a much more confident game. We have pushed the boat out a bit, taken some risks. Things that players have never seen in a Castlevania game before. It’s a better game for it.
Surprising players is something we really like to do.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 launches on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on February 27.