Lords Of Shadow’s brief history is as bold as it is bizarre. MercurySteam’s reboot of the series began by ignoring ten centuries of established Castlevania continuity and was controversial enough within Konami that it required Hideo Kojima’s seal of approval to shepherd it through production. The game’s ending saw the hero revealed as Dracula, a twist explained months later in two largely unpopular downloadable episodes, which producer Dave Cox would describe as “a mistake”. Further critical plot points appeared only in a sequel that was available exclusively on 3DS, despite the original game appearing on PS3 and 360. Now the third Lords Of Shadow – of course named Lords Of Shadow 2 – casts players as Gabriel-Belmont-turned-Dracula, God’s chosen warrior in a war against Satan conducted here in the 21st century. Is nothing about Castlevania sacred?
“Hell, no,” says Cox. “We needed to make a change, so we did. The Castlevania series wasn’t going anywhere, sales were dwindling and it was appealing only to a very small hardcore base of fans. That’s how franchises die. The success of [Lords Of Shadow] proved to everyone that there’s life in the series yet and that people could accept us going in a new direction, and we can do that again. We have to take these risks if Castlevania is to survive, otherwise it’s just going to be like Mega Man.”
In a way, the Lords Of Shadow trilogy has mimicked the evolution of Castlevania, but on its own greatly accelerated timeline. Where the first game was a linear whip-and-dagger slasher in the style of the NES and SNES games, Lords Of Shadow 2 is a gear-gated open-world adventure that has more in common with the game that put the ‘vania’ into Metroidvania, Symphony Of The Night.
Lords Of Shadow 2 begins centuries ago with a glib throwback to Dracula’s most famous line (“What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets”), a siege on his castle by the Brotherhood Of Light’s cross-bearing armies, and a fight against a titan several times larger than anything Belmont fought in the first game. It’s an entire stage in itself. Dracula climbs up the chrome-plated mechanical man, fighting enemies with his full suite of vampiric abilities and using enemy fire to shatter the bolts holding the machine together. As sheets of armour fall away, new paths open up and he climbs between spinning cogs and clanking gears on his way to the magical gem animating the monster from atop its shoulders.
This is a Dracula at the height of his powers, with access to his health-leeching Void Sword and armour-breaking Chaos Claw as well as the default Bloodwhip, which takes the place of Belmont’s Combat Cross. But that’s not to say the vampire shares the same weakness to holy objects as Bram Stoker’s creation. You are not, as some might fear, the bad guy. To prove it, Dracula grips a crucifix near the prologue’s end and explains that holy weapons cannot destroy him, because he is, in fact, God’s chosen one.
But perhaps a century has passed since the events of Lords Of Shadow, so this is also a weary Dracula, a creature tired of immortality and of the constant attention of holy warriors, but forced to wait for the moment when he’ll be needed. It’s a shame the message about his divine patronage hasn’t reached his son, Alucard, who fights on the side of the armies raised against Dracula and finishes this introductory section by slaying the vampire lord, stripping him of his powers and putting him to sleep for centuries. And so our protagonist awakens withered and emaciated in the 21st century to find Satan on the verge of conquering Earth, which is exactly where Lords Of Shadow left off in its epilogue.
“We pay a lot of attention to the progression of the player,” says creative director Enric Álvarez. “We left people with an insane cliffhanger at the end of Lords Of Shadow, and lots of people just want to enjoy the story again. At the same time, we want to do some things differently, so we’re giving people more freedom to re-explore the world and find new areas, and this is a big change for us. Lords Of Shadow’s world was cool, but it was separated into artificial levels; that’s a common thing for videogames and people accept it, but this time we knew we wanted a more organic game. That means a game with no loading times, where you can go from one side of the world to the other at any point. It meant we had to completely redesign the engine to retain our production values and our incredibly high memory consumption and still handle streaming and freedom of movement. It was very difficult.”
More difficult still was designing the world and the mechanics Dracula uses to explore it. Camera control has been handed to the player – at the cost of further stress on that new engine – and Dracula’s three vampiric weapons have added depth to the original’s simple combat system (see ‘Mastery of the universe’). The platforming has also been improved, less as an obligation to Castlevania’s legacy and more as a vital tool to explore Dracula’s ruined castle and navigate the walking puzzles that are Lords Of Shadow’s titan fights. And then there’s the city – the first modern metropolis to appear in any 3D Castlevania – which is surely Lords Of Shadow 2’s best chance to infuriate Castlevania fans.
Álvarez puffs out his cheeks when asked about the challenges of designing the Gothic cityscape that accounts for half the game’s world. “Well,” he says, “that’s something we could sit down with a beer and talk about for hours. It was a huge challenge. A huge challenge. We struggled with it for a long time, and yes, it’s a modern city, but we’re making it a Castlevania city as best we can.”
There’s a slide in the studio’s presentation that Álvarez highlights as being “the first vision of the city” after countless failed attempts. The look is modern and steely but dark and fantastical – it’s Chicago by way of Bayonetta’s Vigrid, with pseudo-Medieval growths erupting from every surface.
“This is not New York,” says Cox. “This is a city we’ve designed to be very much in keeping with the Castlevania universe. You’re going to see Gothic architecture, gargoyles, stained-glass windows. It’s a unique world.”
The game’s castle and city hubs occupy exactly the same footprint – two vast circles into which MercurySteam has crammed a world’s worth of variety. A quick glance at the maps over a designer’s shoulder reveals towering spires, treacherous cliffs, dense woodland and suspicious open spaces, which seem all too welcoming for another titan boss fight. It’s not just a large world, but a world so dauntingly huge that you can’t help but pity the team tasked with filling it with content. Lords Of Shadow was a colossal game; its sequel will be even larger and longer.
“Every two minutes there’s something new,” says Álvarez. “There will be a new enemy, a new environment, a new boss, a new something. It’s Hell on Earth for us, because the more unique stuff we put in the game, the more unique stuff you have to make. It’s a nightmare, but at the same time you feel confident [that] people will appreciate it. We’re always trying things that are different and people have responded.”
The response to the first game in 2010 made it Konami’s most successful title in North America that year and its second most successful game in Europe, where Pro Evolution Soccer is always its top seller. Castlevania has returned to be one of Konami’s strongest brands, so Lords Of Shadow 2’s final sacrilegious act, which isn’t another kick in the lore or yet another fan-baiting distortion of a famous character’s origin, comes as a surprise. It marks an ending. Contrary to all modern videogame series logic, Lords Of Shadow 2 finishes the trilogy and its story with a full stop. If MercurySteam works on a next-generation Castlevania, it’ll have to be with a new Belmont, a new Dracula and a whole new world. In Lords Of Shadow 2, Dracula will cut a deal with Death, defeat Satan, presumably make peace with his son and wrap up all the trilogy’s loose ends. Going from start to finish in three years is surely a record for a successful series, and for MercurySteam Castlevania has been a remarkable success.
“We trusted in a quite simple idea: that people will recognise and reward quality and care,” says Álvarez. “I think that this is the best for the new one as well. Whether it sells or not may be based on any number of things, but all we can do is put an honest and surprising game on the table. If you make a game that treats players with respect, a game where you’re not going to play a trick on them with a few spectacular sections and make the rest of the game super-generic, a game that’s honest, [then] that’s the best you can do.”