There was once a time, not long ago, where the idea of a third-party studio rebooting of Castlevania as yet another inferior 3D action game, as opposed to its beautiful and portable 2D counterparts, was considered akin to the series’s death sentence. The industry then had to eat a lot of crow watching Castlevania: Lords of Shadow coast on to sell multiple millions of copies, and become the best selling and best reviewed title in the series since Symphony of the Night. All this happened under the watchful eye of Dave Cox, series producer on the Lords of Shadow saga, who’s been steering Mercury Steam in the right direction since being handed the project, and now, with the series about to bring the story of Gabriel Belmont to an actual close in Lords of Shadow 2, I chatted with him about the unexpected Castlevania reboot’s success, and what to expect for its hotly anticipated sequel.
How many times did you guys cackle behind the scenes having Robert Carlyle, of all people, actually say, “What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets” [from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night]?
Oh, we did have a laugh about that, because Robert was just, like, “What the fuck is this?” We just told him, “It’s for the fans, they’ll appreciate it.” We did it a couple of times, and it wasn’t until we took it to Comic Con that he saw how much impact that had, and a few of the others as well.
Yeah, I noticed the armored gold boss in the intro has the “Die monster, you don’t belong in this world” line.
Exactly. Little things like that. We do love to do it if it actually fits, and it serves a purpose of letting them know the people making it are still fans of the series at heart.
Even after the first Lords of Shadow, is it still that important to stay within what fans expect as opposed to taking the concept further out than the previous games?
I think we made the decision on Lords of Shadow to just never be afraid to do new things, and try to make a game that people aren’t expecting. We prefer that in fact. Like the scene early on in the game, when [Gabriel/Dracula] has to kill a family to recover his strength. How did that make you feel?
That moment’s harsh, even with a starving vampire for a protagonist.
Yeah, exactly, it’s this “What the fuck” moment. But, I like doing that. We did that with the epilogue for Lords of Shadow too, where it was partly because it was what we wanted to do with the story, but we wanted that reaction. One of the reasons Castlevania’s remained popular for so long is because it’s evolved and changed, and not been afraid to change. If a series stays the same for too long, you end up with a dwindling audience. We wanted to do something new and unique for this universe. Kinda like Marvel’s Ultimates, just that we’re reimagining Dracula instead of Spider-Man. We wanted to reimagine Dracula, we wanted to reimagine Trevor, Alucard, monsters, and enemies. We wanted to keep the core concepts of the series but present them anew. What made us super proud is that, different as it was, people actually bought into it, got what we were going for, and actually enjoyed it. When Lords of Shadow released, even we were surprised by the level of success we got. We expected to be successful, we didn’t expect to be the best-selling Castlevania game of all time. It wasn’t expected, and it was our justification for what we did, the risks we took. As a series, you could end up making an entire game just for the fans, and it’s important to keep them onboard, but it’s equally important to broaden the appeal. That was the mandate we got from Japan: to make Castlevania mainstream again, for today’s gamers.
Has there been a lot of input from Konami this time around or has it been a completely clean slate?
That’s one of the beauties of working for Konami. I’ve been working for them for about 17 years now, and they do give you carte blanche as a producer—creative carte blanche, anyway—to fulfill your vision. Even from [Hideo] Kojima, when he got involved in the first one, he was very clear, that “this is your baby, you run it how you want to run it, you do what you need to do.” When time came to do the next one, he was like, “You’ve already proven yourself. Go forth, do your thing.”
In terms of what Mercury Steam has been able to do with these titles, creatively and technically, have they hit the wall just yet with what they’re capable of on current-gen hardware? I mean, once you have a game needing two discs…
The 360 version’s actually one disc, this time.
We’ve learned a lot. [laughs] That’s the thing about game development: You make a lot of mistakes. Lords of Shadow, we made a lot of mistakes. Sixty people made that game. We thought the game as a whole was strong. It was good, well-received, but as a team, we thought, “We could do better,” and we’ve attempted to do that on Lords of Shadow 2, especially on the exploration side. Going from area to area in the first game, with the Patrick Stewart narration, was actually a cover up for the game taking forever to load. A lot of people like it, and I think it works, but having a world that feels seamless, where you can go wherever you want, and there’s no loading. You never feel like you’re ever leaving the world, but still part of it at every turn, that’s something we’ve always wanted for this title.
And you’ve been able to do it on current gen, which is more impressive. The game looks really, really close to next gen as it is.
Yeah, and the game runs a lot smoother as well. We had a lot of frame rate problems on the previous game. Mostly because, the things we were doing were just draining memory away. This new engine, when we built it, we built it from scratch, and built it specific for the things we knew we wanted to do on this title. So, it’s definitely pushing the boundaries of current gen, and it’s a testament to the development team learning what they did between these two games.
From minute one, you’re playing as Dracula, you’re playing as the series’s big villain. How do you keep from going too far beyond the point where the player still empathizes with him, wants to play as him?
I think it’s a balancing act. It’s similar to something like Breaking Bad, with Walter White, a guy cooking crystal meth, or Tony Soprano, who’s probably one of the most evil men on the planet, but by the end of The Sopranos, you still root for him, not necessarily as a hero, but as a character.That’s what we’ve tried to do here with Dracula, to make him a nuanced character. He’s an evil man, who does evil things, but you can identify with him, you can feel sorry for him. He’s still got humanity in him. When he’s talking to Trevor, there’s a father’s love for his child. We tried to portray him as a real person. That was Robert’s contribution, what he brought to the character. He said, “I don’t want to portray him as constantly evil or angry.” He certainly gets angry in the game, but he’s determined, soft spoken most of the time. We wanted to portray him as a real character. So, it’s a balancing act, but we still wanted to push it a bit.