Konami and Mercury Steam Redefine Castlevania's Traditional Formula
Enric Alvarez and David Cox sit down with a group of unruly game journalists to discuss the upcoming 3DS Castlevania, Mirror of Fate, at E3.
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We were lucky enough to sit down with Konami's David Cox and Mercury Steam's Enric Alvarez at E3 to discuss their upcoming 3DS sequel to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, but not before we got some hands-on time with the game first. After tackling the demo, we were left with many questions regarding the game's direction, and they were more than happy to set us straight.
Obviously you guys are trying to incorporate the old style of Castlevania gameplay with a little bit of your own flavor. Apart from making a side-scrolling game, what other things are you incorporating to bring the classic elements back to Castlevania?
David Cox: What we're trying to do, with the success of the first game, we have people we need to satisfy who have really enjoyed what we've done, so we're developing that and making that more interesting. In terms of combat, for example, we're making that more interesting, but a lot of the audience said they want more in terms of exploration, so that's something that's going to be in the game, that we're trying to improve. Lords of Shadow Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2 will be much more focused on exploration. Having been vindicated with the most successful Castlevania ever released, we feel that were going in the right direction, and a lot of fans have asked for this, so we're trying to meet fans halfway, but we're not trying to make a Metroidvania. We're trying to take Castlevania forward. Both titles are very much set within the Lords of Shadow universe in the sense of the gameplay, but I guess you will see more kind of Castlevania-y elements coming into the mix. Certainly with Mirror of Fate, with the maps, people might be fooled into thinking we're making a Metroidvania. We're not looking to make a Metroidvania, but we are taking some influences from those styles of games. I guess for us, it's something more similar to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, where we want branching paths and multiple characters. That's kind of where we're coming from with Mirror of Fate.
How exactly are you moving the series forward? I know you are still doing a classic kind of Castlevania, but what mechanics, what little bits are you adding that will take it to the next level?
DC: Well combat, for example. They are much more combat-focused games in the Lords of Shadow universe, so we're very much focused on the combat-specific games that can be played, giving the player the weapons and the tools they need to take out enemies. Giving them points, so when they defeat enemies, they get experience that they can spend on more combos and more abilities. We'll have a very similar structure to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, where you have a travel book, you're going to buy new things and new abilities, but also with the exploration aspect of the game you can find new weapons, new secondary weapons, restock your items, and all of that, and it gives you a reason to explore the castle more. So I guess in some ways it's a meeting of the two worlds, if you like. The other big focus for us is the story, the characterization of the characters. The whole purpose of doing the Lords of Shadow saga was to focus on Dracula as a character. In the old games, he was just at the end of the game. We were like who is this guy, what's this character all about? That's kind of the reason we got into this, you know, Dracula is the center of this universe in our games and the Belmonts kind of circle around him. Lords of Shadow 1 is sort of "Dracula Begins," if you like. Lords of Shadow 2 will be the end of the saga where you play as Dracula and you know there will be a conclusion. Mirror of Fate is more focused on Belmonts and their relationship with Dracula. So in that respect, we are going to try to focus on the emotional element of the characters, which is something perhaps that hasn't been focused on in previous Castlevania games before.
You're talking about all the stuff you are building up and on, but what are you taking away or leaving behind from the first game that looked great on paper, but fans ended up complaining about?
DC: Well, you say that, but it's the most successful Castlevania ever released, so there are a few people moaning about it, but… [Mercury Steam dev interrupts]
Enric Alvarez: I think that what we're doing is improving on aspects that, for example, exploration, in Castlevania Lords of Shadow, you've got to reload specific levels to reexplore them. Both in Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2, exploration is going to organically grow from the structure of the game, you know what I mean? So no need to load--just go. I think that more than doing things well that we did bad, I think that what we're doing is more like, OK, here, we think that can be better right now. Of course it's a matter of opinion, but I think that we are building on the base, on the foundations of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. If you've played the demo downstairs, it feels very much similar, but from a different perspective, and with the great addition of the 3D, it feels like a diorama. The combat feels familiar for people who played and liked Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Both in Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2, exploration is going to organically grow from the structure of the game.Many longtime fans of the series are going to be attracted to the new perspective, but there were some elements when I was playing the demo that seemed to differentiate from the past games, specifically, if there was a lantern or a candle, you couldn't actually whip that and get a subweapon recovery item, and likewise, when there was a low-level enemy like a skeleton, it took maybe four or five hits to take them down. I'm assuming this has a lot to do with the emphasis on getting new abilities and making it feel rewarding. Are design decisions like this final, or are they still in development?
DC: What we're trying to do is create a unique take on the Castlevania universe. We're not trying to make another Castlevania game that's like all the others; we're trying to do something new and something different here. You do get replenishments for your secondary items from barrels and chests, so you don't whip candles, but you do get your hearts, if you like, from those environmental objects. I think one of the things that we're trying to do is make something that's stand-alone, that has the essence and feeling of Castlevania but is new. That's really important to us. We're not looking to remake, or retry…when I say I'm influenced by Castlevania IV, I'm not saying I'm remaking that game, but there are things from that game that I really like, and I'm incorporating them. What's important to me now is that we address the fans of Lords of Shadow. The fans that bought the first game, you know, what do they want? They want more of the same; they want to know about the Belmonts, they want to know about Dracula, they want more of the cool combat that they've had. I want to give them something that they're going to be attracted to. At the same time, I want to bring over some of the fans that might not have liked it. I want to bring them in too. There's always going to be people, you know, that don't like what we do. You can't please everyone all of the time, and we would be crazy to try and do that, but what we're trying to do is leave our own mark on the series. When people look at Lords of Shadow 1 and 2 and Mirror of Fate, when it's all said and done, I think they'll have a better perspective on what we've tried to do here in terms of the series itself. And after that, we'll pass the torch on to someone else and let them bring their creative vision to it, let them do what they want to do with it. This is going to be something that's kind of unique. Let me say that if you liked Lords of Shadow, you are going to love Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2.
How closely entwined are the two universes in Lords of Shadow 2 and Mirror of Fate?
DC: Lords of Shadow 1 focused on Dracula as the main character, how he became Dracula. Lords of Shadow 2, you play as Dracula, and it will be the conclusion to the story. Mirror of Fate is more about the Belmonts and their relationship to him. You know, why is it they have to go against him--what is their curse? We're trying to answer that question within that separate universe.
Why did you feel that needed a separate game, to do the Belmonts. Is it just such a totally different story?
DC: It's integral to the actual plot of the story. We already had the end of the story mapped out. That's why we included the epilogue in the first game. We obviously didn't know if we were going to get to do another one. We put that in there to basically say, look, this is where we would have taken it. Luckily the game did very well, so we get to do two extra games, and we knew the story from the get-go. We knew there would be family history between Dracula, Trevor, and Simon, so we wanted to tell that story. I think it's worth pointing out that each story, although they come within the Lords of Shadow universe, they are sort of self-contained, so there is a story within each one that the player can play if they want to when they pick it up without having played the previous ones. But if you play all three together, you're going to have a much richer understanding of the characters' motivations. I think in Lords of Shadow 2, Dracula will be a character you can sympathize with and understand. You may not agree with what he does or you won't agree with his motivations, but you can understand how he got to that point.
So with Lords of Shadow 2, can we expect the games to follow up on the epilogue in the first game, or are you going to adjust things as you see fit?
DC: I can't say at this point, sorry. It will be a very satisfying conclusion to the saga, that's for sure. We want to go out with a bang. Let's put it that way.
Do you expect some of the same voice actors to come back as well?
DC: Yeah, as well as some new ones.
When you say go out with a bang, you mentioned earlier that you want to hand this off after Lords of Shadow 2 and Mirror of Fate. Is that a strict limit on your involvement with the series?
EA: Imagine as a gamer you are playing the same game over and over again. As developers, we feel the same. As we said, we are trying to tell a story. It's like a book--it has a beginning and an end. We don't want to bore you with more of the same, over and over. Of course, Castlevania doesn't belong to us, so perhaps other people will take the torch and bring it to an even different place. Once this is over, then we can go on to do the other things that Mercury Steam wants to do.
Once you guys close the book on Castlevania, what other worlds do you want to create?
DC: Mercury Steam has a couple of really cool ideas that would be fantastic to work with. It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Contra, and I'd like to do something in that universe, but there are so many exciting possibilities. At the moment, all of our focus is on Lords of Shadow and trying to bring that legacy home. We want to exceed everyone's expectation. That's what we want to leave behind.
EA: If you remember the impression you get from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, we aim to maintain that freshness for the whole saga. That's our intention.
Are you taking advantage of the 3DS hardware in interesting ways, say, using StreetPassing, or making clever use of 3D during the game?
DC: There will be StreetPassing and other clever uses of the hardware, but at the moment we can't talk about that. In terms of using the 3D, one of the advantages this provides when making a side-scroller is avoiding the flat presentation and giving it a grittier look. One thing we really liked about the 2.5 presentation on a 3D screen is that it's very deep, kind of like a miniature diorama. Some of the boss fights end up giving you a different perspective with the camera. Giving that extra dimension brings something to the game, and that's what attracted us to the 3DS. Not to mention, as a fan of Castlevania, it's exciting to bring it back to a Nintendo platform. We actually built a brand-new game engine just to bring it to the 3DS.
EA: We've adapted the same engine from the first game because it worked so well on the PS3 and Xbox 360, but of course we had to adapt it to the 3DS, which was quite challenging. the internals of the 3DS make it a very special console, very powerful, but having two cameras instead of one changes everything. You have to be very wise when placing cameras, otherwise you'll cause headaches. The strange thing is that a 2.5D game works wonderfully in 3D, but even with the fixed perspective, the layers of effects are very pleasing. Even though many people switch off 3D when playing, we bet with this game, this isn't going to happen. People are going to be willing to play with the 3D because it's going to be a very satisfying experience.
DC: One of the cool features of the touch screen with the travel book is the added option of the huge map where you can leave notes for yourself of areas of interest. For example, if you play through as Simon, there may be a certain area that you can't get to because you need double jump. Trevor has double jump, so playing as him will open up whole new areas of the castle. Because you are playing as different characters in different times, things you did in the past will affect characters in the future when they reach the same point.
In essence, that sounds a little bit like a Metroidvania, in that you use a character rather than a tool or item to open a different section of the map.
DC: I'm afraid to say that we are borrowing some Metroidvania elements, because people are going to say, "It's a Metroidvania!" But it's not. We've taken on board some of the comments from our fans, and we are trying to mix them into our games and take them seriously.
In the same vein as taking advantage of the 3DS hardware, have you considered taking advantage of the Kinect or Move? I would think that the whip attacks would easily lend themselves to that.
DC: We did actually consider taking advantage of Move for the first game, but it ends up being more of a gimmick. You know, Lords of Shadow is 20 hours; you can imagine waving your arms around for 20 hours getting tiresome. I'm not really into gimmicks, and we didn't think it would work with the gameplay style we designed. It's like multiplayer. A lot of people said they might like that, but it's a character-driven game, and we really want to focus on that and not take the player away from that, so they feel the character's story and not feel taken out of it.
Is Mirror of Fate going to be comparable to Lords of Shadow in terms of length--say, 20 hours?
DC: Yes. We've got a big story to tell, so we want to cram in as much as possible. We want to give fans of the series something they would really enjoy.
Did the 3DS hardware present any limitations for your ideas? Did anything fall by the wayside simply because the system couldn't handle it?
EA: Well, it happens every day. Every day on the design table, you are throwing out ideas, and it's not a problem with the platform. These are the tools you are given. It's like painting and someone complaining about it not being 3D. It's a painting, so express your creativity with that. I think our approach is, OK, this is the platform we can do a lot of things with. Let's do that and solve problems. We are never going to complain that the platform is not powerful enough for our ideas. If it doesn't work, it's not the platform's fault; it's our fault.