Q&A: Developer Dave Cox talks “CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2”Books/Art/Culture,Features/Interviews,News Ken W. Hanley
When it comes to horror-adventure games, is there a legacy as reputable as that of the CASTLEVANIA series? The long-running video game franchise has let players explore its various corners and crevices, introducing new monstrous oddities while furthering its rich, Gothic mythology. The latest game in the series, the highly-anticipated CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2 (available now from Konami), builds upon its successful spin-off predecessor and finally lets longtime fans loose as one of the series’ most bloodthirsty arch villains, Dracula.
But will seeing through Drac’s terrifying eyes portray the vampire king in a different light, especially as he’s revealed to be the undead alter-ego of LORDS OF SHADOW hero Gabriel Belmont? That’s one of the many questions raised by this latest installment. FANGORIA spoke with game developer Dave Cox to learn a bit more about his take on the iconic character and his place in the newly expanded universe of LORDS OF SHADOW 2…
FANGORIA: In developing the sequel to CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW, what was the process of adapting the game to fan reactions from the first installment while still properly continuing the story?
DAVE COX: I think the first thing we wanted to do was address the feedback that fans had given us on the first game. There were things about the first game that I thought we had done really well; the combat, for example. But there were things that we thought we could have improved on, such as the exploration aspect. So that was one of the first things we needed to tackle, and it became very clear right away that we needed a new game engine so that fans could visit a world that was seamless and had a free camera to look around. The fixed camera from the first game wasn’t really conducive to exploration.
That was quite a challenge, but was important to us because most of the feedback we had gotten was, “I think this game is amazing, but I really want to explore this world.” In many ways, we felt that we had failed with the first game because it didn’t feel like a world; it felt like going from level to level, with loading at every stage. You’d get narration to break up the loading and then you’d go on to the next stage, but if you had to go back, you’d have to reload that stage. It took you out of the world, so to say, and if you’re walking down a set path, you’d say, “This world looks so amazing, but I can’t look the other way or look around,” which also took you out of the game.
So that was something we really wanted to nail down and hopefully, when you play the game, you’ll see that you’ll be able to look around, which helps exploration a lot. Also, because there’s no more loading, it will feel seamless, as if you’re actually there, and that was something that was absolutely crucial for us to achieve. There are a lot of different people who like a lot of different aspects about CASTLEVANIA, and one of the main things for us was to keep the core concepts of CASTLEVANIA intact. But we weren’t afraid to try new things to bring the series forward and bring the series more to the fans of LORDS OF SHADOW, rather than the old school fans.
We want the old school fans to come with us, but really, we have a new fanbase to build upon and we want them to be excited about the promise we gave them on getting to play as Dracula and to play him in a modern day setting. That was something fans really liked about the end of the first game, and we got a lot of feedback saying, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to see how this is going to pan out. I can’t wait to play in a modern city.” And we wanted to deliver on that.
FANG: By building this new world and growing along with the story, did that give you more opportunities to deliver information uniquely and explore Dracula’s new powers?
COX: Yeah. I think we knew Dracula needed more abilities and had to be a more powerful character than Gabriel Belmont had been previously. Gabriel Belmont was a holy man on a quest, and was a powerful character in his own right, but if you’re playing as a vampire, you want to be doing vampire kind of shit. You want to turn into mist, fight people, glamour people; players want to do all of the cool stuff. So I think in having that bigger exploration aspect and being able to pace the story with the abilities you get as Dracula you get all the way through until the end. Like when you’re still getting new stuff and abilities even at hour eighteen of gameplay, [it] makes you feel you’re going on this journey from zero to hero, essentially. Having this seamless world and having these abilities given to you as you’re actively going out and finding them gives you more of a connection to the character.
FANG: Were you ever concerned about building the world too far into sandbox gameplay territory?
COX: We didn’t want to do the sandbox thing because I think that CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2 is a story-driven game. A big worry to us was making a game like BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY or GRAND THEFT AUTO where you plop a character in a city and you get on with it as you slowly begin to find things. We wanted to have a slightly more structured side to the game, so that the story drives the exploration and not the other way around.
We wanted the game to feel linearly at first, and as the game opened up, you’d give the player more freedom to explore more areas, which is more like CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF LIGHT. In that game, you’d start off in a part of the castle and as you get more abilities, the castle opens up and you find yourself backtracking through old areas, but finding new areas and abilities within them. We wanted this game to feel more like that, or like a ZELDA game, where you start being led down a path and everything is kind of restricted, but as you play, everything becomes bigger and bigger.
FANG: Were there any aspects of traditional vampirism that you added to Dracula this time around that you weren’t able to previously?
COX: Yeah. We wanted to add the abilities that Dracula had in the CASTLEVANIA games before LORDS OF SHADOW. We wanted that to be familiar to fans and have him accurate to the powers he had as a bad guy in the previous games. At the same time, we wanted to do new, cool things with [the character]. The Spanish team [at developer MercurySteam] has a different history of vampires than that of America or the UK. They have a unique take on those things, based on the European cinema that had driven Spanish culture.
The good thing about Spanish culture is that they have Hollywood cinema but they also have Spanish-language movies, like the films of Guillermo del Toro, who makes fantastic Spanish-language films like PAN’S LABYRINTH, CRONOS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. They brought many ideas to the table on LORDS OF SHADOW 2, like the plague of rats. So there was plenty of stuff where it was like, “This is crazy. How can you do this?” They thought that it would be a really cool ability and it would help break up the hack-and-slash style gameplay.
One thing about hack-and-slash that I found a bit annoying was that you were just slamming on the square button the whole game, and that’s not fun. We wanted to bring up new types of gameplay. So you have the stealth area where you have to take over enemies, you have the rat plague gameplay, you can use bats to distract enemies, and there is other stuff later on in the game that you can do, but I’m not at liberty to tell you about. By adding those elements to the game, we’re doing some things that haven’t been done in a CASTLEVANIA title before or, for that matter, other vampire titles.
FANG: CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2 has an excellent voice cast, which includes Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart, Jason Isaacs and Natascha McElhone. Was it important to populate the game with actors of such high pedigree?
COX: We wanted to have a game that delivered an emotional impact. The first story was a tragic tale of a man who set out to bring back his dead wife, but made the wrong choices. [Gabriel Belmont] is not inherently a bad guy, and we wanted to achieve something with Dracula that hasn’t been done before by giving him conflicting emotions. He’s a guy who does bad things, but he does them because he thinks they’re the right things. He feels he’s been betrayed and he needs to set the world right.
So you’ll see moments of tenderness within our Dracula. He’s not going to be some guy who is like, “Ahhh! I’m angry at the world and I’m going to kick ass!” He’s a character that the player can really identify with. They might not agree with what he does, however.
FANG: Speaking to that point, there’s a part early on in the narrative where Dracula does something incredibly horrific. It’s quite an audacious and risky move on your part.
DAVE COX: When we presented that scene to the marketing department, they said, “What do you think you’re doing?!” But we told them, “It’s important to remember that this is a vampire, and he has to feed on the blood of others.” As you play through the game, you’ll have other moments like that one. That moment very well might shock you, but you also may feel sorry for Dracula as well, because you can empathize with him and you want him to win. It’s a bit like THE SOPRANOS, where Tony Soprano is an evil bastard, but you’re also rooting for him.
FANG: LORDS OF SHADOW 2 is going to be the last game of this particular spinoff series. For the future of the CASTLEVANIA games, has there been talk of returning to the main narrative or just continuing into more side stories of that universe?
COX: With the LORDS OF SHADOW games, we wanted to tell a story about Dracula, and at the end of LORDS OF SHADOW 2, there’s a real conclusion to that story. After that, I’ve done my job and I think the future of CASTLEVANIA is up to others to decide. I want to move on to do new things, I think MercurySteam wants to go on to new things, and if someone wants to come on and revisit the LORDS OF SHADOW universe, then great, they should do it. But if they want to go back to the old timeline, or to do something else, that’s why CASTLEVANIA has been able to stay relevant for 26 years. New people have come in and they’ve defined what CASTLEVANIA is for a new generation. I hope that whoever comes next would bring their own creative mind to the game.
FANG: Vampire culture has certainly made a major comeback in recent years in various forms and mediums. Was it important to make this Dracula particularly violent and savage, as to separate it from lighter vampire fare?
DAVE COX: Well, vampire mythology is something people have been talking about since medieval times and even before that, and it’s come through in all forms of movies and TV since, so we never really picked one portrayal of Dracula and say, “That’s what we want to do.” Obviously, there were vampire films we were influenced by, like NEAR DARK, which I like because it’s quite brutal and shocking. Those guys are nasty and I think you feel that with our Dracula, too. I also like Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula because you could empathize with that character as well but, again, he was nasty and very creepy.
We wanted that kind of Dracula, one that’s creepy and shocking but one you can also identify with. We didn’t want a Black-and-White Dracula or a Bela Lugosi style portrayal; we wanted something nuanced. We want players to be like, “Is this a good guy? Is this a bad guy? I don’t know, but I’m interested in this character and I want to see where they’re taking him.” So, we had many influences, like TRUE BLOOD, in terms of what we see in modern vampire horror.
Vampires in movies, culture and literature fascinate people, and with our vampire, I think we’re going to see new things. That’s what excites me, and I’ve never played a game where I can turn into a plague of rats.
FANG: How did you approach uniquely personifying other classic horror figures, such as Satan and Medusa, in LORDS OF SHADOW 2?
COX: With every character in the game, even a boss character like Medusa, we’ve gone back to the myths. So with Medusa, we go back to the three sisters, whom we meet throughout the game and the story culminates with Medusa as you know her. So when you fight a boss, you feel like you know them. We brought back Carmilla from the first game, where she was a nasty vampire, but we see her in her human form as a seductress, and you’ll play through her story, which is ultimately a sad one. It’s almost like every character has their own tragedy, and back to your question about the actors, we needed people who could portray that range of emotions, whether it be despair, anger, or even quieter moments that would give them much more depth.
FANG: The Dracula of LORDS OF SHADOW 2 appears to look much more like a human-esque vampire, as opposed to other monsters in the game, which often appear hulking or surrealistic. Was that visual divide intentional?
COX: We have several human-like villains, such as Zobek, Carmilla and even Satan himself. We wanted Satan to be really nasty character. I was perhaps least happy about how Satan was portrayed in the previous game. I thought it didn’t come across how we envisioned it. This time, he really comes across as a powerful, monstrous piece of work. We wanted to have big, hulking enemies and boss characters because that’s one of the things the series is famous for and it’s something people really like about the CASTLEVANIA series. But I think the human-like villains will be more memorable because those are the ones you can identify with and can hold a vendetta against; like Zobek, whose face-off has been a long time coming.