Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate Preview
Producer Dave Cox tells us about the second game in the Lords Of Shadow Trilogy Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate
Trevor Belmont: Skeleton Hunter
The latest in the legendary Castlevania series, franchise reboot Lord Of Shadow may have been a critical and commercial success, but it remains one of this generation’s hidden gems – an action adventure to rival the best the genre has to offer. A sequel is due on big daddy consoles later this year, but before then we have the second part in the trilogy Castlevania Lords Of Shadow: Mirror Of Fate, a 3DS title that squeezes a 15-20 hour adventure into Ninty’s handheld. To find out what to expect from Mirror Of Fate and gleam a few insights into Lords Of Shadow 2 we spoke to writer/producer/Castlevania super-fan Dave Cox.
A warning before venturing any further, this interview contains frequent references to a HUGE twist at the end of Lords Of Shadow. Proceed with caution.
Dave Cox: not half as scary in real life
SFX After the success of Lords Of Shadow at what stage did you decide to make a handheld title?
Dave Cox: What happened was we finished Lords Of Shadow and there was a period where we didn’t know what we were going to do next. The studio itself needed a project, otherwise it would have meant laying off staff and maybe even closing the studio. So although Lords Of Shadow hadn’t come out at that point we still weren’t sure what kind of reception we were going to get. We’d done something fairly radical with the series and we weren’t sure what people were going to say. So Enric [Álvarez], the studio head came to me and said, “Dave, we need another project and we need it quick, otherwise we’re gonna close.” And I said, “Right, maybe a handheld title would be something we could get going pretty quickly.”
We’d had this idea at the end of Lords of Shadow where Gabriel and Marie had a child. We were gonna include that in the original game, right at the end, but we already had this big twist to the story where it’s revealed the main character you had been playing had been the bad guy, had been Dracula, and we thought this additional twist would have been a twist too many, so we left it on the drawing board. But when we came to talk about the handheld game that was the core idea, they’d had a son and the son went on to find out more about his father. So we got the project greenlit, and started development, then Lords Of Shadow came out and was a massive critical and commercial success then the guys in headquarters said, “We need a sequel.” And we were like, “Well, we’ve just started making this handheld game and we haven’t got enough people. Shit” So we had to rethink. But it’s a nice position to be in. The Mirror Of Fate game had started to take shape at that point.
We always had the beginning and the end of the saga. We’d always had Lords Of Shadow being Dracula Begins and Lords of Shadow 2 being the end of the saga, but we didn’t really have the middle. We thought Mirror Of Fate could fit that role. Although the Lords Of Shadow series is focused on Dracula as a main character, we thought Mirror Of Fate could be about Dracula’s relationship with the Belmonts. So although he is the focus, he’s not the main focus. It’s about the Belmonts and why it is they’ve got this blood feud. In the early days of Castlevania it was all about a Belmont going to the castle and killing Dracula at the end and there was no back story at all there. What we wanted to do was tell that back story and give a reason why it’s the Belmonts and also give a perspective on Dracula as a character and how he got to where he got to, how he became this bad person.
Did the entire Lords Of Shadow team work on Mirror Of Fate?
We made Lords Of Shadow with 60 people, which is not a big team at all. Mirror Of Fate we had a core team of about 20 people, but the beauty of it was once Lords Of Shadow 2 came about we took on more staff and then we swapped staff over on both projects, so we took some people from the art department, we took some of the lead level designers and used them as we needed. But probably, I guess at its biggest, there were about 30 on the Mirror Of Fate team. There’s about 100 people at Mercury Steam. But it’s a fluid thing, it’s not something where you have 30 people on it all the time, it moves. Sometimes we’d have 10 people on it, sometimes we’d have 15, sometimes 25, it depends on the projects and the tasks that needed to be done.
My chain’s bigger than yours
After re-imagining Castlevania as a 3D game, what were the challenges of taking it back to a 2D space?
One of the core things we liked about the idea of bringing it onto handhelds is we could do a 2.5D game. And one of the really cool things about the 3DS is you can play around with people’s perceptions of 3D and 2D. The 3DS is very good at doing 3D with a stereoscopic camera. One of the things that excited us about the project right from the very beginning was being able to put that camera in the world and create a third person game. So when you’re playing Mirror Of Fate there are lots of places where the camera comes in and it feels like a 3D action game instead of a 2.5D game. That was one of the big appeals.
One of the challenges was the combat system. Lords Of Shadow was very much a combat-focused game and we still wanted that to carry over with Mirror Of Fate. Making the combat work in 2D as opposed to 3D, that was quite a challenge because they have different things that need to be done. For example, area combat, when you’re in 3D and you’re [spinning the whip] you can keep enemies at bay, but in 2D it’s slightly different, so we designed the game so that could play the same role as it did in the original console game. So we have enemies coming at you from both sides in a 2D plane. We had enemies who could throw things at you, but if you used your area combat you could bounce those things back, you could keep enemies at bay, you could use that wider attack then go in and use you direct attacks. So it was very much trying to replicate that 3D combat system in 2D. It wasn’t easy, but hopefully we’ve pulled it off.
Did you draw from any particular 2D Castlevania games when creating Mirror Of Fate? I know you’ve spoken of Dracula’s Curse as having had a direct influence on this game.
We’ve always looked at the classic games and the 8-bit games. We didn’t want to replicate the last 15-20 years from 1997 onwards, we’ve had thsese Metroid-Vania games. We wanted to go back and use those classic games as inspiration and build from that, our idea of what Castlevania should be. The original Castlevania really is Castlevania in its purest form because that’s the first one, that was the original concept. So that’s very much a big inspiration on us. And also Super Castlevania IV, which was a remake they did for Super Nintendo back in the day, and that’s Castlevania perfected for me, being of a certain age, I grew up with those games, they’re the real inspiration. The Dracula’s Curse inspiration came from, sitting round the table in the design meeting and somebody said, “Why don’t we make a sequel to Dracula’s Curse?” And we all rolled about laughing and he said, “No, seriously. As if the game had been made back in the ’90s and there’d never been any other Castlevania games and we came out with this sequel 20 years later.” Then we started to think, “Well, hang on, Dracula’s Curse was a cool game because it had multiple characters, multiple branching pathways, it was the first to feature the exploration side of Castlevania, because it had been very much a linear game up to that point. Those ideas started to take hold in the team.
In this game we’re telling the story of Simon, Trevor and Alucard, but we’re telling it backwards, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento. So you play the game through and it’s not really until the final scene that everything clicks into place and the story becomes clear. And that’s when you want to play it again, to go back and go: “Hang on a minute, that cutscene, with those two characters, that’s suddenly loaded. I didn’t think it was loaded when I first watched it.” So that’s probably a strange way of doing it. The story can be quite confusing until you get to the end, but I think it’s quite satisfying as well.
Give us an ‘and, Simon
The nature of handheld gaming has changed dramatically thanks to smartphone gaming. Do you think there’s still enough of an audience for a lengthy handheld adventure game?
I bloody hope so! That’s the game we wanted to make. We wanted to make a game that felt like a meaty adventure. I remember when I bought the original Castlevania it was really just about the cover at the time. It was a silver box, as opposed to a black box that all the other Nintendo titles had. And it was that picture of Dracula and when I got it it was this huge, meaty game, it took ages to complete and it felt like “Yeah, this is cool!” And that was absolutely key. We said we’ve got to make this deep adventure game. It’s got to be lengthy, it’s got to be challenging. The fear is when people play on handheld they tend to play on the bus or on the train, they play and they stop. So we’ve designed it in such a way that it’s small segments, and there’s constantly saving so people don’t lose their place. We’ve given this exploration element to the player if they want to use it, but if they don’t, if they want to just play through the game and get the story and enjoy a straight play through as well.. we’ve given them choices, and I think that’s important when you’re playing on a handheld. Perhaps it’s an old fashioned way of making games, but we want to give players value for money. So when they play the game they get something out of it. They get payback in terms of emotion and the story, but they also get payback in terms of the gameplay that they can enjoy in the game. 16-20 hours is not something you see very often these days with handheld games.
Given your ambitions for the title were you ever tempted to make it for big daddy consoles instead?
Yeah, we were saying earlier, we could probably have split it up into three games, one for each character. One of the problems at Mercury Steam is we just don’t know how to make a short game. It’s the same with Lords Of Shadow, there’s probably a lot of content we could have cut, but because of all the passion, blood, sweat and tears you put into something every single element you want to keep in there. And it was the same with Mirror Of Fate. On paper it looked like a very short game and we were questioning the team saying, “Is this going to be enough gameplay for people?” but when it all came together after we iterated and iterated the ideas it ended up being this huge, epic adventure.
Trevor Belmont’s greatest threat: a door
For those who perhaps don’t own a 3DS, but played Lords Of Shadow are they missing out on the middle chapter by not playing Mirror Of Fate?
Each story in the Lords Of Shadow… I guess we’re calling it a trilogy now… each one is a self-encapsulated story, so Lords Of Shadow was all about bringing back your dead wife, going to get the god mask, and it had a real ending. It’s the same with Mirror Of Fate, you can pick up the game, play it and enjoy it for what it is and as a story it’s all encapsulated. There’s an ending, a very satisfying ending. But then you’ve got this arc that’s there in the background and if players want to investigate that arc and find out more and have a bit more depth to the characters; so for example if you play Lords Of Shadow 2, if you’ve played Mirror Of Fate you’re going to understand Dracula as a character much better. You’re gonna see how he got to that place. You might not agree with how he got there, you might not agree with what he does, but you can understand how he got there. And I think these other games can bring you that depth if you really want to explore it, you don’t necessarily have to.
What are the key ingredients for you that have to remain when making a Castlevania game, and what are the elements you felt you had more freedom to tweak or change completely?
We tackled doing a reboot like a comic book. Batman as a comic book character has lots of different writers and artists working on the character. Sometimes he’s appeared in different universes, there’s different “What Ifs?” about Batman, and that’s what makes the character interesting. Same with Chris Nolan’s Batman is very different to the comics and a lot of fans go, “Oh, that’s not Batman at all.” And I really like what Chris Nolan did with it, it’s bringing his take to it, and that’s how we approached this Castlevania, we thought, let’s re-imagine the characters, not be held up by what’s been done before. Let’s wipe the slate clean and re-imagine them and be brave in many ways and we took a few risks. You’re always going to get people that don’t like what you do, you can’t please everybody all the time, that’s for sure, but I think what’s interesting about Castlevania is because it’s such a long running series and it’s had so many iterations from so many different creators and producers you can play around with these things. And that’s one of the things I like about what we’re doing, it’s the story elements, because before I don’t think Castlevania had really strong story elements. Certainly not up to Symphony Of The Night, the classic games’ stories were very basic. I quite like the idea of giving these characters this history, backstory that makes sense, that feels real and bringing emotion to the story as well. We never had that as an 8-bit player. When I played Castlevania one, there was no emotion, it was just kick Dracula’s ass, that’s the end of it, so that’s something that’s unique to today’s gaming that we can bring to the series.
It was always important for us to have to iconic whip weapon. That was something that hadn’t appeared for a while and I always felt was synonymous with the series for me, as a player. The feeling of going into dark, gothic castles at night and whipping supernatural creatures, that’s really what Castlevania was all about for me, so keeping those core tenants in our re-imagining of the Castlevania universe has been really important. And I think when you play the game you can feel the classic elements, we’re not afraid to surprise the player, not just with camera angles or gameplay elements, but with the story itself. At the end of Mirror Of Fate, there’s a big surprise, I think, a twist that makes you question the whole history of Castlevania.