It's hard to think about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 without recalling its predecessor, the hack-and-slash reboot that took series loyalists by surprise. The original Lords of Shadow wasn't a bad game, but it flipped the tried-and-true formula on its head. Criticisms were lobbed at the fixed camera, the superfluous onscreen button prompts, linearity, and a large number of quick-time events. Despite the vocal detractors, the game sold well enough to allow Konami's Head of European Production David Cox and Mercury Steam Studio Head Enric Alvarez to continue their work on the Lords of Shadow trilogy. According to Cox, the first Lords of Shadow game is the best-selling Castlevania to date.
Despite its success, which could easily be interpreted as vindication of Cox and company's design choices, the team was still willing to change things up for Lords of Shadow 2. In my interview with Cox and Alvarez, it became clear that the biggest shift in their approach was the adoption of a free camera system. It opens the game up, allowing for alternate paths and greater player control, but by the sound of it, the change took a significant toll on their development process.
What do you think is the biggest change from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to Lords of Shadow 2, in terms of design?
Alvarez: The seamless world was the most challenging aspect, and the camera as well, and the new combat, and the story. Seriously, a bit of everything. We took Lords of Shadow and we thought, "Let's unfix the camera. Let's put much better facials, in a way that we can write down a much more emotional story. Now, let's get rid of the levels. Let's build the world as it is." Pretty much everything got its share of evolution. The biggest thing is, no doubt, the seamless world and the free camera because of the implications for the technology and also the design.
Cox: One of the risks of doing a free camera in a hack-and-slash game is showing the environment and all the enemies around you. We've tried to make the free camera so that you don't notice it. If you play the demo and you don't touch the camera, it feels like it did before, like a regular hack-and-slash game. Then those players that want to be able to move the camera can do it; then it becomes something they can control. It's a lot about exploration, but then there are some players out there that are skillful that are able to use their thumb for the combos while also moving the camera as well. But if you don't want to, you don't need to. We've noticed there are a lot of people playing who didn't actually realize there was a free camera in the game. It's a testament to the work the team did on the camera; it was something they really wanted to get right. Some players will be used to Lords of Shadow having the fixed camera; for them, they may think you've ruined it, but we continued to make sure it felt like a fixed camera game for those players that wanted to use it that way.
"Now, let's get rid of the levels. Let's build the world as it is…everything got its share of evolution."Alvarez: It's a big change. We started with the fixed camera for a number of reasons; then suddenly we get rid of it, and you might feel a bit alienated by it, but we think it's better. It doesn't make any sense to put on the table a proposal for exploration and we keep having the fixed camera. You simply can't explore, you know?
And combat was a huge risk. We want it as perfect as we are able to put it together. The camera is trying a lot of different things that not many other games try. Usually the hack-and-slash games that have a free camera put it very close to the character, because this way they are safe from a lot of problems. But we don't like that, because it detracts from the strategic component of the combat. I like to see enemies around me. I like to see enemies getting close to me from behind to try and attack me. And I like to have time to react. I like to defend or dodge, or just jump over the enemy and counterattack.
To have this, you need to have the camera in the distance. But the farther you put the camera, the more problems you have with collisions. You realize that hack-and-slash games have flat arenas, with no obstacles in the middle, because it's really annoying to have the camera collide with lots of things. We thought that we could solve it. Let's try to have complicated environments with hack-and-slash, which is something that hasn't been tried many times before. When we worked in this direction, we faced tons of problems and spent months developing this camera, which may look simple but is doing lots and lots of different things.
One of the strongest elements in Lords of Shadow was your ability to compose a scene with the fixed camera. How challenging has it been to capture those same moments when you don't have the ability to, say, pull the camera back?
Alvarez: You can't imagine. It has been a nightmare. As you were saying, with the fixed camera, it's not easy, but you know the player is going to be looking in a direction, and you can work in that direction. This time, however, we don't know where the player is looking, but we guess. I mean, you have a corridor. You're not going to walk backwards; you're going to walk in a certain direction. So we're pretty sure, at the end of the corridor, we can put an impressive vista. Or, for example, in a specific place where there's combat, you can guess that the camera eventually or sometimes is going to point in a certain direction, and we can put some towers in a vista, or the moon, for example. So, it's not impossible; it's not the same, but it's not impossible.
Before you went into production, were there thoughts about making it a next-gen or a cross-gen game? Do you think sales will be affected because of the upcoming next-gen platforms?
Cox: I don't, because I think that there's 70-million-plus people out there with [current-gen] consoles. Of course, the focus here at E3 is next-gen, but there are still some amazing current-gen titles.
We want to be one of the last of the current-gen that stands out. Of course, we talked about next-gen, but we were quite far along before the conversations with Sony and Microsoft came about. We had already built the engine again from scratch. It would have meant a lot more work and a lot longer development time. We've been developing this game for quite some time, because of all the changes we made to the original engine. We have next-gen in mind, in terms of our next project, but for this project, we're not planning to release it on next-gen.
Cox: We're done with Castlevania after this. We had a story to tell, we wanted to tell it, and we haven't got anything more to say. This is our take, our spin on Castlevania. It's up to other people to decide what to do with the franchise next.
So, you've had the story all along. Leading up to the final game, where you're ready to seal the deal, what sorts of things have driven you to perhaps alter the vision? Has it shifted at all from the original idea?
"We have next-gen in mind, in terms of our next project, but for this project, we're not planning to release it on next-gen."Cox: We had the bare bones of it; we had the arc. When we did the epilogue [for Lords of Shadow], we said to people that this is where we could take it. When we got the OK to do the sequel, we had to fill in all the other details. It's evolved slightly, but it has essentially been there all along. The major arc has always been done.
Are you excited for people to see the conclusion?
Cox: Yeah, we've always liked to surprise people.
Alvarez: It's the trademark of the studio. Lords of Shadow, if you remember, was filled with new content. We felt that we can't put out such a long game without significant and important content throughout the game. We like to put in lots of different characters, and we like to develop those characters, and we like to put them in difficult situations. It's going to be a game, in terms of pace, that's quite similar to Lords of Shadow. There's constantly something new around the corner: new character, new cutscene, new combat, new challenge, etc. The big plus is that this time, perhaps you don't go around the corner, because you saw an alley or you saw a ledge that you haven't tried. Perhaps that ledge will lead you to a completely new section that connects with the next level in a different way.
Cox: We like surprising people, and we think in Lords of Shadow 2 there are a lot of surprises. Hopefully we'll get people talking about the product again. That was the original idea with Castlevania, with the original idea in 2007, to get people talking about Castlevania again as a mainstream game. We think we've succeeded with the first game, and we want to continue with the second game. Once we've told our story, we want to move on to something else.
Alvarez: We promise you, you are not expecting many, many things.
Cox: If you look at Lords of Shadow, Mirror of Fate, and Lords of Shadow 2, the three games are actually quite different. They share some similarities, but there are new ideas in each one. We're not trying to create something that's mimicking the previous one.
Alvarez: If you look at franchises with many sequels, it's difficult to find a franchise that changes that much. The first game was fixed camera, the second game was on Nintendo 3DS, you know, 2.5 D. Next game, free camera and exploration and seamless world. What's going to be next? A football game with Dracula? (laughs)
Cox: A Dracula card game? (laughs)
Cox: Who knows?
Cox: I do.