In 2010, Konami took a chance on the obscure Spanish development studio MercurySteam to create a reboot for one of the most adored and quoted game series ever. While Castlevania: Lords of Shadow went on to become a popular seller and was admired for its storytelling and action, it was a also a polarizing entry among fans of the series.
Now, the developers are back with their next and final title in the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series -- and they fully intend on leaving their mark on the franchise. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is daring, shows the clout that the developers earned from their previous outing, and also marks the first time we'll get to play as the infamous Dracula.
Destructoid was invited out to play the first few hours of the game, where we also had some time to chat with game producer Dave Cox. We got to see firsthand what it took to bring this iconic character to life, and how the developers at MercurySteam plan to make the series relevant again.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3 [previewed])
Lords of Shadow 2 does well to try and ease players back into the action. In the opening level of the game, which takes place in the past during Dracula's prime, his castle is being raided by humans looking to vanquish him in the name of God. This epic and fairly ambitious area serves as the tutorial, where players learn the ins and outs of the combat and traversal gameplay. The controls are largely untouched, but feel much more tight and responsive than the previous game.
Eventually, the Prince of Darkness succeeds in wiping out the army of Paladins and their man-made titan, but not before being surprised by the appearance of his son, Alucard. This sets the stage for what follows in a story that transcends the bonds of family and time itself.
Immediately after the twist ending of Lords of Shadow, we find Gabriel Belmont, now known as Dracula, in a weakened state. After his resurrection from his defeat in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate by the hands of his own kin Simon Belmont and Alucard, he ventures out into the modern world looking for answers. With the promise to free him of his immortality by Zobek, a central villain from the previous game, Dracula must reacquire his powers and strength to defeat the army of Satan and prevent his return to the modern world.
It's clear that everything in Lords of Shadow 2 is going for a much darker tone, and far more personal storyline. As the end of the former Belmont's story, MercurySteam plans to tell an uncompromisingly dark and sinister tale of redemption. And when it gets dark, it really gets dark. That includes placing players in positions that would disturb and trouble many. When Zobek realizes that Dracula won't last long in his weary state, he places the Prince of Darkness in a secured room, along with a frightened and helpless family of three.
From here, players enter a first-person view and must go about slaughtering and feeding on each of them to replenish the Prince of Darkness’ powers. As you can imagine, this scene is very tough to stomach, let alone play through -- and the game pulls no punches as killing off one member of the family will cause the others to panic and become paralyzed with fear. It was sickening, painful, and heartbreaking to witness; however, this scene is incredibly effective in illustrating that Dracula is NOT the good guy of this story.
I can already tell this sequence will be controversial, and may cause some to feel conflicted about the main character, but this was something that Konami and MercurySteam were very sure of conveying in their story.
"That scene caused a lot of discussions between us and the marketing guys, as they believed we went too far," said Producer Dave Cox while discussing the feeding scene. "But we thought this wasn't going to be a Twilight or True Blood vampire, this is going back to what vampires used to be. Scary, evil. This is a character that has feelings and has emotions, but this is a guy who is not afraid to do horrible things."
Not long after restoring his powers, we regain control of Dracula and must explore the modern world. As we progress further with our playthrough, things begin to open up. Gone were the awkward and jarring chapter breaks from the previous games, replaced with a more organic, natural flow. More and more, the linear progression faded and we were presented with choice and room for exploration. This title is not a simple improvement over the original, it is an evolution from years of design work and refinement that attempts to create a world that is alive and without limits.
As many fans know, the original Lords of Shadow moved away from the famous Metroidvania style and flowed in a more traditional linear progression and focused heavily on set-piece moments scattered around the various levels; his of course was the first thing that MercurySteam wanted to do away with.
"We wanted to present everything seamlessly," said Dave Cox while discussing the world design. "In the beginning it's a very linear experience, but as you progress and explore the world it becomes more and more open. We did a lot of research with the fanbase, got the fans involved and asked for their opinions about what they wanted to see for the sequel. Almost every single person said they wanted to explore more and return to previous areas for new content."
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 sees a return to the open-ended approach in the vein of series titles following the Metroidvania design formula. While the developers were keen to move away from that label, they sought to evoke the same level of gradual open-world progression and exploration seen in titles like The Legend of Zelda and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Lords of Shadow 2 takes things much further by including the connection between two unique open worlds.
Yes, there are two open-world settings to explore, each one possessing a unique setting and content such sidequests, NPC characters to interact with, and lore journals to collect. While fans might anticipate callbacks to the inverted castle of Symphony of the Night, the two worlds presented are wholly unique and independent from one another.
As Dracula's Castle is set seemingly in the past, you'll encounter enemies and allies alike from that time period. The enemies range from humans, to the undead, that use traditional swords and magic to battle Dracula. Moreover, the layout of the castle represents a classic gothic style in keeping to series aesthetic. However, things change once Dracula is within the open world of the city.
In the modern day, Satan's army has taken to the abandoned and derelict streets of the city, utilizing more advanced means to battle Dracula. These include giant robots, firearms, explosives, and power armor for the weaker minions.
During the span of 10 minutes, our session saw Dracula battling waves of Paladins while exploring and completing side-objectives in his castle, and then transporting himself back to the modern day where he battled Lycans and Satan's Acolytes controlling mech suits complete with missile launchers. It was mind-blowing to say the least. You'd think something so different stylistically couldn't work, but it does.
In many ways, the developers at MercurySteam sought to make a sequel that solved all the issues and criticisms of the original. As they were hampered by technical limitations for the first game, they spent the first nine months of development crafting a brand new engine to handle the scope and vision of their epic story. One of the benefits of the new engine allowed for the inclusion of a fully controllable camera.
One such issue that has thankfully been fixed was the severe frame-rate issues of the original, which were often times below 20FPS during gameplay. With the performance of the new engine, the game now runs at a solid 30FPS without visual hiccups hindering the experience. With the solid frame rate, players can marvel at the stunning art direction that evokes the series' past while showing a new spin on the classic style.
Although many of the new features present in the game may put off some fans, at its core, Lords of Shadow 2 is functionally the same as its predecessor -- yet it includes far more depth and content. In particular, the talent at MercurySteam wanted to include a larger focus on skill and variety to experience. One such area that benefits is the combat, which is more refined and tighter than ever.
Though Dracula's powers are vast, he will still need to utilize dodging, blocks, and other strategies to wear down his enemies. The focus system from the previous game returns, where performing efficiently in combat can earn magic power to fill up both Light and Dark magic meters.
"It's a thinking-man's hack-n-slash," Cox explained. "That's how I've always described it." A key element that MercurySteam wanted to include in combat is a greater level of variety and focus on tactics. Dracula is now armed with three central weapons, including his iconic whip. The light magic-focused Void Sword can freeze enemies and heal the Prince of Darkness' wounds, and the dark magic-powered Chaos Gauntlets can break enemy defenses with flame attacks.
Like the original game, the use of light and dark magic plays a key role in combat. With both forms of magic, Dracula can heal himself and increase attack power of his moves. As the sword and gauntlets require light and dark energy to work, there is greater incentive for players to utilizes Dracula's offensive and defensive skills to exploit the benefits of the focus system.
The Prince of Darkness also possesses an arsenal of relics to assist him in his fight against Satan's Acolytes and the Belmont clan. As a more advanced version of the sub-weapon system, relics function on a cooldown system and are powered by Dracula's blood energy.
The daggers make a return in the form of the shadow daggers, but a brand new relic called Stola's Clock allows Dracula to manipulate time. During combat he can create a temporary circle on the ground where time is slowed along with anything else in it. This allows for some interesting chances for combos and crowd-control.
It's pretty easy to become overwhelmed, unfortunately not for all the right reasons. While you have a number of options during combat, the action can get hectic and visually busy at points, which can become a distraction. Hopefully, the developers can tone it down a bit before release.
It's not often you're playing as Dracula -- the vampire in fiction -- and the developers wanted to truly make players feel as if you were controlling a supreme creature of the night.
"We wanted to tell Dracula's story, we wanted to present a character that had depth and depiction and wasn't just another Bela Lugosi depiction of the character," said Dave Cox. "From the previous Castlevania titles he was a one-dimensional character. We wanted to present a character that had shades of grey."
In addition to his prowess in combat, he possesses many unique and interesting abilities that take advantage of his vampiric status. The fan-favorite Mist form returns and lets players enter special areas and evade waves of enemies while traversing through the world space. Another skill is Possession, which allows players to control the minds and bodies of enemies for their own benefit.
Surprisingly, stealth can be a much better option when traversing through new locations. As some enemies possess skills and items which can prove fatal to the Prince of Darkness, it's best to get the jump on them whenever possible. During an early segment from our session, Dracula snuck his way into a massive pharmaceutical factory controlled by Satan's army and came across a special enemy utilizing modern weaponry. Using his powers, Dracula possesses a small rat and sneaks past this foe to use a special stealth takedown to enter its body and venture further in disguise.
Of course, when things get too tough in a fight, Dracula can call upon his powers to transform into a dragon and unleash a massive attack on all nearby foes. Unfortunately, while you don't control this beast, you do get to watch a short but satisfying cutscene of him morphing into a massive beast and unleashing his fury.
When you view both games side by side, it's clear that they both contain different design philosophies and ideas. While one game was limited by technology and time, the developers found no constraints for the sequel and were left unshackled by the past. In many ways, and if I may be so bold, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 represents the Symphony of the Night of the Lords of Shadow series. In terms of sheer expansion and game-changing elements. It's like night and day. So to speak.
In a year with so many heavy hitters, it's best not to underestimate MercurySteam's new and final entry in the Lords of Shadow series. With a campaign spanning over 20 hours, improved world design, and a strong reverence for the source material that's still not afraid to tell its own story; Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a title to watch out for.
Even in the first few hours, its ambitions could not be contained by the tutorial and opening segments. Konami and MercurySteam certainly have a winner on their hands, and this game is poised to become one of the biggest surprises of 2014. As this is the conclusion of the Lords of Shadow storyline, they have every intent to make sure it will not go out quietly into the night.