Dracula Bites Back: MercurySteam Boss Dave Cox On ‘Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate’ And ‘Lords of Shadow 2’

When I reviewed “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate” earlier this week, I warned fans of the side-scrolling “Castlevania” games of recent years that they shouldn’t come in expecting the huge amount of exploration found in post-“Symphony of the Night” 2D titles in the franchise. That was deliberate, MercurySteam boss and “Mirror of Fate” producer Dave Cox told me, citing “Dracula’s Curse” as his team’s main point of influence.

MercurySteam have their heads down now developing “Lords of Shadow 2“–what Cox promises will be the U.K. studio’s last “Castlevania game, so we talked a bit about shepherding the franchise through a new continuity, going back in time over and over with Trevor, Simon, and Alucard, and the next-gen ambitions of “Lords of Shadow 2.”

MTV Multiplayer: Why tell this story on a 3DS instead of a console version?

Dave Cox: We wanted to do a game on handheld and that was clear, right after we finished “Lords of Shadow.” We didn’t know if that game was going to be successful or not at that point. “Lords of Shadow” had just been released, it got good reviews and all that, but we didn’t know if it was going to sell. We certainly didn’t know we’re going to do a sequel. So we thought: let’s do a smaller project on handheld. That’s where the idea came from, really.

We looked at the Vita and the 3DS because those were the two choices for handheld at the time, back in 2010, and I mean both systems could easily do it, but we were more excited about the 3DS and what it could do. We thought this is the system we want to go on.

“Lords of Shadow” obviously did really well, sold really well, and [Konami] asked us to do a sequel. And at that point we were already doing a handheld game, and we wanted to bridge the gap between the first and second game so we wanted to do a story that was self-contained and that you could play without playing the original game, but we wanted there to be an overall arc that goes across “Lord of Shadow 1,” “Lord of Shadow 2,” and “Mirror of Fate.” So we introduced story elements within the “Mirror of Fate” game that would reach across back to “Lords of Shadow,” but didn’t necessarily have to—you wouldn’t have had to play “Mirror of Fate” to enjoy “Lords of Shadow.” That was our thinking at that time.

Multiplayer: And mechanically, even though it’s 2D, you tried to keep “Mirror of Fate” in line with “Lords of Shadow,” right? Some of the controls and moves are pulled straight from “Lords of Shadow.”

Cox: We set out to make a game that fit into the “Lords of Shadow universe,” that’s much more combat-focused than the older “Castlevania” games were. Using combos and that sort of thing, we set out to make a game that felt like it belonged in the same universe, and that it would draw the same people.

We wanted to please the people who had never bought a “Castlevania” game to before to say, “Oh yeah, this is what we were expecting.” But at the same time, as I mentioned before, we wanted to homage and give nods to the older games. It was very important for us to respect what came before and to bring those elements into the “Lords of Shadow” universe—we didn’t want to lose the identity of what we’ve built with “Lords of Shadow.” In some ways, it feels like a “Lords of Shadow” game, but in a way it has a lot of elements and feels like one of the older, 8-bit games, like “Dracula’s Curse” and things like that.

We wanted to make something that felt more like a sequel to “Dracula’s Curse.” If nothing had come out after that game, and Konami asked us to make a sequel now, that is how we approached it from the design side as more of a branching pathway type game. We wanted to take the elements that were really popular and really cool from that game and put them into this game without going back to all the “Castlevania” games that came before.

Multiplayer: Did MercurySteam ever feel the need to work within the continuity of the older “Castlevania” games?

Cox: No, we made a break with lords of shadow, you know, we had taken a lot of risks actually, it was a bold move what we did with “Lords of Shadow,” we severed a lot, cut a lot of old ties to the existing series. We got accused of making a kind of “God of War”-style game, but we didn’t look at “God of War” and say, “We wanna make that kind of game.” Instead, we really just wanted to replicate the old games in 3D.

We were lucky with “Mirror of Fate.” The expectations that came with Lords of Shadow” aren’t there, fans know what it is now. In that respect, I don’t think we need to look back at the past or try to replicate it, but we can branch out, and try something new, more interesting. Something dangerous with stories, characters. I used the analogy of comics with Batman and Superman: they’re all done by different writers and artists and that’s what makes it really exciting.

Same with this, we can re-imagine the characters, without the chains of what has happened before. So it’s a bit liberating.

Multiplayer: And the story jumps around a little in “Mirror of Fate,” right?

Cox: Yeah, you are playing the game backwards. You start off with Simon, then you play as Alucard, and you see how the interaction between those characters plays out, then you play as Trevor. And it’s a little like “Memento”—you play it backwards, and then at the end, you get the beginning. And that’s kind of a revelation, that’s the beauty of it.

We did it that way because we wanted to tell a story, like “Lords of Shadow,” that had an emotional impact on people. They aren’t expecting this, if you know what I mean. It’s all about fate and it’s all about destiny; the decisions the characters make will affect the other characters. So when Gabriel becomes Dracula at the end of “Lords of Shadow,” that has an impact on other people in the universe. Like his son, for instance—Trevor. And we’re trying to do explain the blood fued between the Belmonts and Dracula. That’s something that has never really been covered. You always explore the castle as a Belmont and at the end you kill Dracula. We’re trying to tell Dracula’s story, that’s the overarching story as I was saying earlier.

We also want to explain to the player why it’s the Belmonts who have this feud. What’s this blood feud about? “Mirror of Fate” is trying to tackle that and tell that. Throughout the game players will meet Simon, for example, who is the son of Trevor, who will follow the path of his father, literally through the castle, and he’ll see places that Trevor had visited. But he’ll see those areas before you visited them as Trevor. So later on when you play through as Trevor you’ll be like, “ah, yeah! I remember now.”

It’s a backwards way of doing it, but the beauty of doing it that way is when you’ve played the game, you instantly want to do it again. All the nuanced little things that you missed start to make more sense. When you finish you’ll think it’s a wonderful ending, really emotional and when you play through again, you’ll see so much you missed. It has so much hidden meaning the next time through.

Multiplayer: If we could dig into Gabriel a little bit. Why do you think that gamer found him as someone they could really grasp onto in the first game?

Cox: I think because he’s a flawed hero. It’s a reflection of ourselves—nobody’s perfect. He set off with honorable intentions and made some bad choices, and he’s not necessarily an evil person, but he’s kind have gone down that path blindfolded. We can all relate to that and how it happens and taking one wrong steps can lead to so many different consequences.

“Mirror of Fate” kind of takes on those consequences beginning of the prologue. When Gabriel took the path he chose, it had an impact on his son. And the path that Trevor takes has an impact on Simon. And throughout history, each impact is based on the missteps of the people ahead of you. We explore that in “Mirror of Fate,” and it’s really exciting.

I think our Dracula isn’t a one-dimensional bad guy this time. Dracula, when you finish “Lords of Shadow 2,” you can understand how he got to that place. Even if you don’t agree with him, you can understand it, how he took those steps and how he ended up there.

Multiplayer: To what extent is the team playing the classic titles?

Cox: A lot. Monsters, characters, even stuff down to torches, they’re all pretty much inspired from those old games, we always as how we’re going to tackle a particular problem, and we always look at the original game first and say, “Did this come up? Do we have designs?”

For example, what to the bats look like in this game, what do the torches look like, that kind of stuff and we go from there. We’re always looking to those older games, especially “Dracula’s Curse,” because as we sat down we realized how similar it is, the characters, and that should, not be our copy, but–

Multiplayer: –Working from that template.

Cox: Exactly, yeah, and building from that.

That was ground zero and we just moved up from there. But not the newer games, really just the older ones. That’s where we really wanna aim for, we are all the older guys and we grew up with that. So that’s where we looked to and where we go for inspiration.

Multiplayer: Will we see these characters again, in other games or even comics or some other media?

Cox: Yeah, yeah, it depends. You have this responsibility as a producer to carry the torch of “Castlevania” and you always hope what you do is successful enough to let you do more. You can’t take that for granted, you can only get one opportunity. At the same time, we want to do other things. But as long as people keep enjoying the games and buying them, we’ll continue to do it. Whether that’s in the Castlevania universe or somewhere else.

Multiplayer: Where’s “Lords of Shadow 2” development at this point?

Cox: It’s pretty far along. When the game is finished, it’s finished, so there’s no pressure on us for the moment to say it will be out X—there’s no date. We’re working towards a date internally, but there is no official date yet. This will be the last “Castlevania” game we do, and we want it to be special. We want to leave a legacy behind and have people see the “Lords of Shadow” trilogy and say, “Wow, these guys did something fucking amazing.” We want it to be left in the “Castlevania” history and leave a legacy and be proud. It’s great people get into it as well. If you get an opportunity to work on a project like this you have to take it with both hands and give it everything you can.

Multiplayer: What have you learned by not having to rush with your development time?

Cox: Yeah, with the first game, we were proud of the product but we found that it was flawed. You have to stop at some point and say, let’s finish it up and get it out there. You see the mistakes as the developer.

We felt that taking the linear approach wasn’t the best decision, but in 2007 it seemed like a good idea. The fixed camera, it served a purpose, we could focus on visual style and on levels like this, and exploration was a way we could have improved the game.

Any criticism we heard from outside about “Lords of Shadow,” we had already heard and talked about inside MercurySteam.

With more time between games, I think that you learn obviously, and ask what you can do to improve it by looking at mistakes you made. We spent 9 months, “Lords of Shadow 2” was supposed to address the things we thought were wrong with the first one and keep the things that were successful, the combat the visual design.

We want to really improve on what we did before and make people say, “wow, wow.”

Multiplayer: So if this is your last “Castlevania,” what is next?

Cox: We have lots of ideas and we don’t want to be known as the “Castlevania” studio. We wanted to do a good “Castlevania” game our way, but we don’t want to milk it. We don’t want to be doing them for the next ten years.

We started in 2007 and it’s, what, 2013? Seven years of development time for one product, if you like. We sort of see it as one product, the whole universe. We want to do other things—any creative person does—and our development team is super creative. We have some very talented artists and designers and programmers and they want to stretch their legs and prove that they are a great studio. Our ultimate goal is to prove we’re one of the best studios around and we’re helping our developers to do that. We invest in them and then try to support them as best we can, make sure the environment is right for them to do creative things.

Multiplayer: Could you talk a little about points of reference for “Lords of Shadow 2?”

Cox: [Laughs] If I say it is going to be like “this game.” everyone is going to say it is a clone of “this.”

Multiplayer: Okay, so more broadly, where do you have your heads at this point?

Cox: I think if you’re a fan of “Lords of Shadow,” you’re going to absolutely freak out when you see “Lords of Shadow 2.” It’s an improvement across the board.

Visually, our engine is doing stuff that is next-gen stuff, some of it. It’s astounding—everything we showed in the trailer was in-game and in-engine, there were no tricks. That is it, that is the game is ready for next-gen, so we’ve incorporated next-gen ideas and techniques to improve what we can do on this gen. This will be the last current gen-game that stands out in terms of visuals.

We are also taking a different approach, in many ways this game will be unexpected. People won’t be expecting the things we’re going to do with this character. It’s a very dark game and much more violent. It’s edgy; a few weeks ago we showed the game to some sales marketing guys in London and they said “We can’t do this, people are going to go crazy.” And we said, “Yeah, but this is Dracula. This is what Dracula does.” They said “You guys are really pushing the envelope.”

Dracula is the ultimate vampire and what do vampires do? They kill people. They drink their blood, doesn’t matter who they are and we don’t want our Dracula to be some kind of pussy. He’s a badass, he’s a nasty piece of work. This takes place 1000 years after “Lords of Shadow,” what happened to Gabriel after all that time? He’s changed and in “Mirror of Fate,” we’ll show you how he got to this place. How he arrived at ultimate evil.

“Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate” is available now for the 3DS.

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