Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow 2 – Pushing The Hack And Slash Genre Forward
Our interview with Enric Alvarez and Dave Cox was a split interview with a German games journalist. His questions are included as well, due to the interesting answers.
Anyway, onwards! Go read.
NowGamer: With Lords Of Shadow 2, what were the main things you wanted to focus on?
EA: This is our chance to do something that has never been done before, which is play with Dracula. I mean, Castlevania tradition, alright? So our main focus… I think the whole focus of this new take on Castlevania is explain things from Dracula’s perspective. From the very beginning, our intention was alright, we’re going to explain Dracula’s story but we need to start from the beginning. We need to start from the light and go to the darkness, right?
So we started with shadow, luminous day, sunny forests everywhere, that kind of stuff. But this time around, things are going to get very, very dark. I mean, this is the conclusion. This is what we wanted to do from the very beginning. So our goal is to tell Dracula’s story and to get a compelling, interesting and exciting story. This is our main goal.
European Journalist: Did you have any plans like this before Lords Of Shadow was a Castlevania game?
European Journalist: Lords of Shadow wasn’t a Castlevania game.
EA: It was. From the beginning. This is something the press got wrong. Sorry [laughs]
European Journalist: I remember the first press kit where it was called Lords Of Shadow.
DC: The reason why is because when we first pitched the idea, it was quite a radical departure from what people were expecting of a Castlevania game. So there was a lot of doubt within the company on whether it should be Castlevania or shouldn’t be Castlevania. When we showed the game at Gamescom, because we were showing Castlevania Judgment, we decided we weren’t going to overshadow that game. We were going to announce it as Lords Of Shadow because there was still uncertainty over whether it will be Castlevania or not. So we announced it and not longer afterwards when we showed it to the senior board members in Japan, the final decision was made yeah, go ahead. So it was risky.
EA: But from a development perspective, we never changed. Ever. The story was the same, the objectives was the same, it was all the time, the same. Even when at corporate level, there were points of doubt. That’s why I said this is Castlevania from day one. It is. Honest.
NowGamer: I remember there was cynicism from fans and media alike with Lords of Shadow. Do you feel more liberated now you’ve proved yourselves?
DC: To a certain extent we do feel justified, yeah. But at the same time, we don’t want to be arrogant about it. We had our own doubts when the game shipped. We weren’t sure if it was going to be accepted, so I can understand there was a lot doubts out there with a lot of funs.
But I think over time people got used to the idea that we’re doing something new with it and I think, for us, it’s been quite liberating to know that we can push things in a new direction. I mean, with Lords of Shadow 2 we’ve got a lot of surprises for the player, things that people aren’t expecting.
I think we’ve got our confidence now to introduce those things and not been afraid to do it because I think one of the important things about Castlevania being such a long-running franchise, it has changed. If you look at the original 8-bit games, you can see key moments in its history where it’s gone on a direction path. And I’m sure it’s going to happen again, in the future. Another developer will come along and have its own take on it. I don’t think we should be afraid to change it.
I think with Lords of Shadow 2, the game feels more confident. It’s very much its own beast. It comes under the Castlevania moniker but it feels like something new and original.
NowGamer: So was there a sense with the original Lords of Shadow, that you had some ideas you didn’t want to try because you were apprehensive about how fans would react?
DC: Yeah. Definitely. Lords of Shadow was a great game but it had its flaws and we were very much aware of those flaws ourselves. When we talked about bringing the next one out, we knew things that we wanted to fix, what we wanted to improve and what we wanted to add. And as I say, we felt more confident about it, talking about it, bringing those things to the table. I think when players play Lords of Shadow 2, I think there will be some shocked faces [laughs]
EA: When you see the Lords of Shadow from a certain distance, you realise the first game is completely different from the second one, Mirror Of Fate, which is completely different from the third one. So I think that this speaks loudly about our approach to development. We get bored very quickly, so we need to… for example, when we first sat down to think about okay, we could be interested in doing a Castlevania reboot, what would we do? We know the saga very well. Many members of the design team are hardcore fans of the old games but all of us, we wanted one thing – get far from that. Put the franchise in the 21st century. You know what I mean? Put the franchise at the same height as all the successful franchises today. So we were clear, it was our opinion, our take, but we thought we needed to inject some new blood. We thought exactly the same way when we were talking about Mirror Of Fate. We went okay, what can we do? The easy way is to do exactly the same thing, which is common in today’s industry because it’s less risky. If a lot of people bought your first game, you know a lot of people will buy your second one. You have until three or four until people start to get sick of that. But we went the hard way.
For the third one, we went even further. We completely redesigned the engine based on what we though the game was going to be – free exploration, no loading times, free camera and an immensely enhanced combat system. All this, if you put this in an Excel spreadsheet, it’s risk, risk, risk, risk. But this is the way we do it but I think it’s going to pay off. I think people are going to appreciate that.
I don’t think Lords of Shadow fans will feel alienated by this. I think they will feel ‘look, this is much better’ or perhaps after the initial shock when they realise ‘oh I can turn the camera!’ then they will accept it because the same game is there but very much enhanced. I mean, much better than it was.
DC: We listened to the feedback from the fans, the critics…
EA: Some critics [laughs]
DC: Some critics! And our own feelings and we knew there were some things that we could have done differently, that needed some work and we’ve tried to improve it. I think when you play the game, all the criticisms of the first game have been addressed. I really think that. I think it’s a much better game for it. I think Lords of Shadow 2 is going to be a big, big improvement over the first game. I think if you like the first game, boy, you’re going to like the second one.
EA: It’s not your regular sequel. Not at all. You’ll see. I promise.
NowGamer: Is it a driving game?
European Journalist: How open is the open world? How often do you have to go back and forth?
DC: The word open-world has a certain connotation these days. You think GTA, you think that kind of open-world. It’s not open-world in that sense. What we’re trying to do is create a heavily story-driven game and we want to lead the player down a certain path. A lot of players, they’re not interested in exploration. They just want to go through the game, they want to find out what happens to Gabriel, they want to find out Dracula’s story and they want to end it, walk away and play Call Of Duty or something, I don’t know.
There are certain players out there though who, as they’re playing through, they’ll go you know what? I don’t want to do this. I really thought that environment back there looked awesome. I want to go back there and re-explore. We want to give them the opportunity to do that. So as you explore the world, it becomes bigger and bigger. And as it becomes bigger and bigger, you think you know what, I don’t need to follow the main mission. I don’t need to go forward. I can go back, I can go left, I can go right, giving players that freedom that they didn’t have in the original game. In the original game, it was very much a linear game.
We wanted to make that experience of exploration seamless. We wanted it to feel like you weren’t going from level to level or area to area. It feels like a seamless world. So I would say it’s more… mmm, I don’t want to say because if I say ‘oh it’s like this game’ next thing you know, it’s the headlines in all the press. It’s not like GTA but it is a game that opens up gradually and becomes more and more seamless, so by the end of the game you have this huge city that if you travel from one end to the other, it will take you a very long time.
It’s not open-world in the sense that we’re going to plonk you in the middle of the city and then you’re going to find things to do. That’s not it at all. The beginning of the game is still very linear. But slowly but surely, as you play, it opens up. I think there’s a point in focus testing and play-testing, people suddenly realise actually you know what, I can go this way! It’s quite liberating to players suddenly realise It’s not like God Of War where you’re always going forward or Uncharted where you’re always going forward. You can actually go back, you can go left, you can go right, it’s a liberating experience.
EA: This little detail, which Dave just said, has a lot of implications for the technology. Because you know the quality standards of these kind of games… Lords of Shadow 1 was quite a graphically intense game. If we are to keep the same intensity, it’s a very good thing that players can’t go back like, for example, God Of War or Uncharted. Why? Because when you’re here in this section and you’re about to cross to the new section, you can load the new section and forget about the old section. But what happens if you’re in the middle of those sections and your main mission is in the new section but you change your mind and you say I’m not interested, I’ve just seen a corridor, where does it lead? The engine goes crazy because it doesn’t know which section to load. I’m not kidding. That is, and keeps being, a pain in the arse for us.
DC: It’s worth pointing out, this is quite… I wouldn’t say revolutionary but it’s not been done in a hack and slash game before. If you look at our competition – God Of War, Devil May Cry, those kind of games – they’re very much linear experiences. You don’t really have a world to explore. We’re doing something different in the hack and slash genre. I think fans will appreciate that. It was a big criticism of the last game, the exploration aspect. We wanted to make it more interesting.
EA: Let’s say that, in this game, we tried to put the same weight on the story sections and the exploration. This is the hard thing. This is the difficult thing. Many games they have the story as priority over exploration or the other way round but there’s always one section that suffers, you know? So we tried to make them equally important. This, from a development perspective again, puts us in a difficult position because the open-world has certain problems and story-driven games have different problems. We have both. So we have to deal with both problems – the problems of putting the required quality in a single-player story-driven game and the problems from when players are free to explore. From a development perspective, you have to come up with different solutions and sometimes both solutions conflict? It’s been quite an intensive experience.
DC: Because when you’re exploring, you want things to happen. You don’t want to be running around an empty level with nothing to do. You need to give them other things to do. You need to give them things to find. You need to give them secrets to discover. You need to give them enemies to fight. So that presents it’s own challenges.
NowGamer: You mentioned how in terms of hack and slash, this is fairly open and has the exploration aspect compared to the likes of God Of War and Devil May Cry. I think the reason those games are linear is so they can focus on delivering spectacle…
DC: That’s right, yeah.
NowGamer: So how are you combining the spectacle and exploration aspects? Have you found extra horsepower in the console that the other teams have? Is it the expertise of the team?
EA: Well, we discovered an unused chip in the PlayStation and we said “oh my god” [laughs] No, it’s been a real problem. What you said is very important. Because from the get go, we knew this was going to be one of the main challenges we were going to face in development. That’s the best I can say. We knew from the beginning and we have been dealing with that the best we can.
You remember our first game, which was Scrapland, was not similar but it featured a real open-world but it also had quality. As a studio, we won’t cut corners, even if I don’t think players won’t notice it. Sometimes I think it’s a problem but anyway, it’s not new to us. For many people, Mercury Steam just came about when Castlevania was released. But we did Scrapland and then we did Jericho with Codemasters which was kind of… not very good.
DC: Technical term [laughs]
EA: Sorry, I’m being honest. That’s my opinion, of course. But Scrapland was a very good game. We already dealt with all these things – how to make a big world impressive, good looking, how to manage lighting, how to improve the quality without spending CPU, GPU power, how to implement proper radiosity, it’s second nature to us. So all of those things were improved in Lords Of Shadow 2
Lords Of Shadow 1 we didn’t need it. Why? Because the fixed camera… look, in development, you just do what you need. Alright? It’s wise. Otherwise it will take you 10 years to make a game. So this time, we needed to look in a different direction in terms of lighting. Lighting is completely different to Lords Of Shadow 1. It’s much more powerful but at the same time, it’s more GPU friendly. Lots more pre-calculated stuff existing with real-time without any problem.
Metals look like a natural reflection, you have a natural reflection in marble floors and so on. There are lots of tricks to make the game look at least as good as Lords Of Shadow 1 and I think this looks much, much better. At the same time, you have to deal with the problem of the free-camera system that doesn’t allow you the luxury of putting all the lights in one direction… I could be talking about this all day [laughs]
DC: From a publisher perspective, it’s all down to the talent of the team. The thing about Mercury Steam is this is a team has been working together for a very long time. They know each other, the main partners of the company all run the main departments of the company. They know what they’re good at and what they’re not so good at.
They’re able to focus on making the game look fantastic and really great and they’re some of the best artists I’ve ever worked with, honestly. Some of their art team is amazing. I think it’s that talent that shows through. They’re a small development team but they’re able to produce games that are up there with the best. I saw their potential and now we’re really seeing it, especially with this game. It’s doing many things on current gen that look next-gen, in many ways. So I think the leap for us to next-gen will be easier.
European Journalist: Do you also have choices in the game that affect the story as well? Can you decide to kill an enemy for example?
DC: Not really. We have a story we want to tell. That’s always been there right from the get go when we started Lords Of Shadow. We already it already mapped out how it was going to end. There are choices you can make in the game that can affect how certain things will happen, yes, of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be an interesting game. But storywise, it has its conclusion.
EA: You have to think of it in the following way. The quality we are aiming for isn’t compatible with that feature. Why? Because let’s say, I don’t know, you can kill an enemy or not, right? If it was a bombastic cutscene with sophisticated facials and tons and tons of work. We spend literally months doing a cutscene. Now just imagine we have three ways of dealing with that, we need to do three cutscenes. The way to do this is to decrease the quality in exchange for quantity.
Many games that play this card, they don’t aim for the quality we’re aiming for, in terms of narrative. Even from a movie perspective. We took our cutscenes as if they were a movie. There are three hours of cutscenes in this game. Now imagine these three hours are nine hours because we have to offer two options for each situation. So from the beginning when you put on the table, let’s explain the story with plenty of decisions, you can’t go this way. You have to go a different way. For example, with a more integrated conversation system – honestly, it doesn’t make any difference. Or with automatic lip-syncing and the rest of the facials, you can write down a complicated script and offer many, many options. We didn’t go that way. We decided to explain story as best as we can with cinematographic values, you know? Like Robert Carlyle performances, Patrick Stewart, etc.