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Interview: Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 is not a 'me too' sequel

By Shaun Prescott on Thursday 30th Jan 2014 at 3:37 AM UTC

It's not often that a sequel to a successful new series aims to change tack as dramatically as Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2, but Spanish studio MercurySteam is not a typical operation.

Despite good sales and near unanimous praise from media and fanbase alike, MercurySteam and publisher Konami weren't entirely happy with the 2010 title. Chief among the concerns was the game's linearity, which felt totally out of step with the Castlevania brand's legacy.

In the below interview, Konami producer Dave Cox discusses how MercurySteam has opened up the Castlevania universe anew for exploration, and reveals the nature of the game's modern, open world setting.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 will release for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on February 27.

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There's a huge contrast between the first Lords of Shadow and this sequel - now it's an open world, there's a free camera and you've moved into a modern day setting. Was there much anxiety among the team, departing so much from the template?

Dave Cox: Not really. I think our overriding goal was not to bang out a "me too" sequel. It would have been very easy for us to just cash in and just put something out a year later. We really wanted to address what we felt were some of the weaknesses of the previous game, and to deliver on some of the things we wanted to do with the previous games that we weren't able to. We wanted there to be a much bigger exploration aspect. Because the first was very linear and had a fixed camera, it wasn't very friendly to exploration. We realised that our technology studio would need to be rebuilt from the ground upwards.

"People say to us 'is this a Metroidvania style game,' and I suppose in hindsight looking at it now, there are elements of that."

In many ways we had a lot more confidence this time around to make some changes and to do some different things because of the success of the previous game. We were much more nervous with the previous game than with this second one, because we didn't know how people would accept the new Castlevania. Luckily for us it was well accepted and got a lot of critical acclaim and went on to be the biggest selling Castlevania game ever, which surprised everyone on the team.

There's more confidence now, and a sense of vindication. That made us want to push the envelope in all aspects of the new game.

Just how open will the open world be in Lords of Shadow 2? Are there parallels to other games you can draw?

When people say open world they generally think games like Grand Theft Auto. It's not really like that. I would say it's more akin to a Zelda game, where you start off in an enclosed area and the player is lead by the story, and as the player explores the world it becomes more open and it becomes bigger, with more aspects of exploration and more things to do. It opens up slowly; it's a gradual opening up. We don't plonk the player in the middle of New York and say "get on with it".

One of the weaknesses of an open world game, I suppose, is that story can take a back seat. We didn't really want to do that: we wanted the story to be at the forefront because that's what we wanted to do, a story is really important to the team. We decided to take that approach instead of the GTA approach.

It sounds like that's staying truer to the history of the series as well: the old Castlevania games worked in much the same way.

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Yeah, I mean it wasn't a conscious decision to do that. People say to us "is this a Metroidvania style game," and I suppose in hindsight looking at it now, there are elements of that. But I wouldn't say we've tried to model it on something like Symphony of Night, because it's very different. Certainly there's more scope for exploration and more scope for backtracking than there was in the original game, so it is closer to the classic games in that respect.

Lords of Shadow 2's city is a mix between modern urban and old European architecture. Was it difficult for the art team to gel these contrasting aesthetics together?

We wanted to have a city which felt like it belonged in the Castlevania universe, and I guess when we were talking about the modern setting there was the fear that we might end up with a common New York. But you only need to look around in Madrid to see the type of architecture that sits alongside the modern: you often have courtyards, gargoyles, statues and very old buildings right next to very new buildings. That inspired the team to make it feel like a European city, but an imagined one.

The castle and the city [in LoS 2] are built around one another so that it's almost like one large homogeneous area. The castle has influenced the city in many ways: you see turrets, gargoyles, statues and stained glass windows mixed in with the architecture. It was definitely a challenge but we're quite proud of it: we think it's quite unique. We didn't want it to look like Gotham City and we didn't want it to look too modern: we wanted it to have its own identity.

Is there any anxiety that with the release of the next-gen consoles, LoS 2 may lose some of its momentum?

We did consider bringing it to PS4 and Xbox One but we put so much work into the tech and so much work into the game, and we were almost coming to the end of development when we started to talk about that. It really would have meant taking a couple of steps back in order to bring it to those consoles, and everyone agreed that it would be fitting that it came out on the systems where it started. We'd rather finish it on the current gen systems.

I don't think there's any anxiety, and I know there's a lot of hype surrounding the next-gen consoles and it's very exciting, but there's still a lot of people out there who still have PS3 and Xbox 360s looking for a high quality action adventure game. I'm hoping it won't get overlooked and I'm fairly confident fans of the first game are very loyal.

There will be side missions in this installment. Can you give an example of how these will work?

They're not really missions as such. There is a story and you follow the story, but if you're playing the game and you decide that you don't want to follow the story and you want to go back because you have this ability, for example the 'Mist' ability, and you remember seeing some gratings in a previous area you might want to backtrack to see what's in there. It's not structured in terms of main versus side missions, it's much looser than that.

"It's always annoying when someone has something to say and they just keep saying it, so the studio decided at the very beginning that this would be the final one."

One of the things that you can do early in the game is explore: you can go back to the castle or go back to the city. Once you get an ability like Mist you start to realise that there are lots of places you've been to, right from the beginning, that contain avenues you can now explore. Down those avenues you'll find items, abilities, enemies and even boss fights that will trigger once you've gone back to that area with that specific ability.

For example: there is an area where you fight a stone golem, and then you get the Void Sword. The Void Sword has its own ice projectile, which allows you to freeze waterfalls. Now you can go back and freeze previous waterfalls you've seen, climb them and have a look around. It's all about rewarding players for having a look around.

What's in the future for MercurySteam now? Is something totally different on the cards?

The studio definitely wants to move away from the Castlevania series. They felt like they've made their mark and had something to say. It's always annoying when someone has something to say and they just keep saying it, so the studio decided at the very beginning that this would be the final one. I think with the new generation of consoles there's a lot of possibilities and opportunities and the team is looking forward to moving on to those things.

We've always felt that the Castlevania series was really a torch being passed to us. We knew we weren't going to have it forever, and we knew we'd have to pass it on one day. I guess that day has come, and I just hope people look back on the Lord of Shadows series and the story of Dracula with fondness.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 will release for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on February 27.