Chris Solis, with our friends at Gamer Talk TV, recently conducted an interview with Dave Cox, head of the UK studio at Konami Digital Entertainment and Producer of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series.  He discusses the development of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate and some of the game design decisions that happened along the way.

Chris Solis: It’s a pleasure. If we could just start with, your name, your title, and the game.

Dave Cox: I’m Dave Cox. I’m the head of the UK studio at Konami Digital Entertainment, and the producer of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series.

CS: This is a 3DS game and that’s pretty interesting since the predecessor was on consoles. Why the transition from console to handheld?

DC: Basically when we finished Castlevania the Lords of Shadow, we didn’t really know what we were going to do next. We certainly didn’t know what kind of reaction we were going to get or whether the game was going to be a success at all. So when we were talking with the studio about what’s next, the idea about doing a handheld came up. So we sat around the table and we talked about which handheld it would be, 3DS or Vita (we looked at both systems).

The visual idea came about because there was a part in Lords of Shadow where we were going to reveal that Marie and Gabriel had a son. But we already had this  big twist at the end, and we thought it’s going to be one twist too many. So we discarded the idea from Lords of Shadow, but then it came up again for the sequel. Let’s explore the idea of there being a son to Gabriel and where that can take us. Shortly after we started that discussion, we started the development of Mirror of Fate.

Then Konami said we needed to make a sequel to Lords of Shadow. But we had already started the handheld development at that point. We had an over-arching story in our minds, when we originally designed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow but we honestly didn’t think we’d get the opportunity to do it. You commit everything to what you’re doing and just hope for the best and luckily, we got the opportunity to do it. So at that point we were going to finish the story and we had some ideas about the middle part which is on handheld. So, we said, where can we take this?

We wanted to have multiple characters because, somebody in the room had said: ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we made a sequel to Dracula’s Curse’. As in, all of the other Castlevania games never happened and this was the next Castlevania – Dracula’s Curse had been released in the ‘90s and then suddenly we were going to make this sequel. That idea kind of stuck. We thought multiple characters, Trevor & Simon, and that’s kind of how it started.

We had already committed to doing the handheld and it really came down to getting the game up and running on both the 3DS and the Vita. The team was just excited about the 3D possibilities of the 3DS. They looked at the game and they said, yeah it looks cool on Vita but, man look at this! Look at what we can do. We can put the camera in the world and it looks like a miniature diorama. And they got really excited.

CS: I can see their excitement in even just the background of the game. With the 3D off, I think that normally I would argue there’s a lot going on. But with the 3D, it allows it to separate.  You can put more detail on both planes and it’s very noticeable.

DC: Yeah, you can see how different it looks in 3D as well. That’s the thing you try to explain to people because suddenly the levels sort of come alive. And that’s what really grabbed the developers’ attention. And that’s what made them really excited about the 3DS and when you’ve only got the option to make one game. We didn’t have the team size to make two games so we couldn’t do Vita as well. We pitched it to the big cheeses at Konami and we decided on the 3DS because we wanted to do it for the 3DS.

CS: That’s interesting! Let’s talk about the combat system. I feel like when I played the game, it’s a combination of what I expected in classic games like Symphony of the Night and also a splash of fighting games. How did you guys come up with that system?

DC: I’m glad you said that, because all of those things were sort of in our minds. Our original intent was obviously to make a sequel to Castlevania Lords of Shadow, because we’d taken a step in that direction. We didn’t want to disappoint people that bought that game and give them something completely different. We wanted to move forward and we wanted to give them something that felt like an actual successor. At the same time I think Lords of Shadow is a great game, but it’s a flawed game. There were things in it that we weren’t happy with when we shipped the game.

You have a postmortem when you finish development. You sit around the table and you evaluate the good and the bad. Some of those ideas started to work their way into Mirror of Fate. Let’s improve the exploration. Let’s make it so there’s more exploration in the game since it’s not a linear experience. It’s more of a game where players can backtrack and go wherever they want. You try to balance satisfying the new fans of the series and please the classic fans at the same time. That’s what we’re trying to do. I think Mirror of Fate is a closer game to the classic games but still has the modern sensibility that Lords of Shadow had.

CS: In terms of the parts that felt fighting-game, was that a tool to bridge it together?

DC: The combat aspect of Lords of Shadow was something people really liked. They liked the strategic element of the combat. The mixing of the light and shadow magic. That was something we knew that we got right and we got to keep that because people really liked it. How can we translate that but subtly change it for different characters?  For example, Alucard is a vampire so he has these vampiric powers. We asked ourselves ‘how can we bring that into the mix as well’. So we built upon the light and shadow aspect that we had in the original game.

It’s been developed and improved and we didn’t want to make it too hardcore. We wanted different types of players because a lot of 3DS owners are not hardcore gamers. They’re much more casual gamers. We’ve simplified it slightly so the player still gets the orbs but they only have one magic bar. That magic bar gets used for their magical abilities. How they use those magical abilities is down to them, but they don’t choose where it goes. So we simplified it, but at the same time, we built the combo system and the leveling up using experience to buy combos. You don’t choose which combos to get. They aren’t unlocked automatically when you level up. So we made those kinds of design decisions to keep it fresh and make it more approachable for handheld gaming.

CS: Let’s bounce back to what you mentioned about exploration. The sense of backtracking and the sense of exploration has always been part of Castlevania. 

DC: Well, not always. Classic games were much more linear. It wasn’t until Dracula’s Curse that you had branching pathways. And the backtracking elements are more synonymous with the Metroidvanias (Symphony of the Night) and onwards from there. But we’ve always gone back to the original game because we see that as the pure birth of Castlevania. That’s when no other designers, creators, have put their ideas into it. When Castlevania was born, that was it. That was the idea. That’s the pure idea that we’re trying to go back to and take our inspiration from. Of course, we’re iterating just like Igarashi did and all those other designers did on the previous game. We’re iterating and adding our own thing, but it’s the pure idea that we will come back to.

I grew up with Castlevania as a teenager. It’s the original game that inspired me. How did wall sconces get designed in Castlevania 1? Let’s get a screenshot of a wall sconce. And oftentimes with Mirror of Fate we went back to Dracula’s Curse, because we decided to have multiple characters like that game. We wanted to have that aspect of exploration, where characters are going off on their own paths.

CS: Could you tell us a little about the progression of the game?

DC: You start off with Simon, and then you play as Alucard, and then you play as Trevor. You’re basically playing back in time, similar to the movie Memento. It’s not until the very last scene of the game that everything falls into place. You’ll be playing through the story and thinking, “Where is this story going? I don’t really know.” It’s not right until the very end, you’ll go, “What?!” And then you’ll want to replay again because the whole game is loaded with metaphors and moments of importance that you don’t realize are important until you get to the end. We want people to replay the game after their first play through. There’s no way you can play through the whole game in one play-through and get everything. If you could, if you knew exactly what you wanted to do, you can go back and replay those levels as Simon and as Alucard and as Trevor. You can replay those levels that you’ve already explored as that particular character. You can’t explore the whole castle. You can only really explore those areas, because it takes place in different times. It was important for us, as I said before, to improve the exploration side of things. We wanted to bring in more classic elements of exploration that people are familiar with and meld it to the more modern approach, the combat-oriented approach.

CS: Is there a note taking feature in the game and can you tell us about it?

DC: Yes, there are a lot of secrets and items in the game that you can’t get on your first play-through or until you’ve learned a particular ability. If you go through the beginning of the game, you’ll notice that there is a chest at the top where you need the rappel ability. Just leave yourself a note and you can come back later. Some things are marked on your map but some things aren’t. So that’s why we included that note taking feature.

CS: Some may see too much backtracking as a usability issue. Do you think this note-taking feature is a way to both make it more accessible and keep that depth that you’re looking for?

DC: Funny you should say that. I kind of agree with you. One thing we’ve done with the game is put in a teleport system. One thing we noticed with focus testing was that some players didn’t want to backtrack. They just want to get through the game, enjoy the story, and that’s it. I can totally respect that but a lot of players want to go back. That’s why we put the teleport system in to make it easier for players who did want to go back but weren’t really interested in exploring every nook and cranny.

And the note-taking system, again, is something to save time for players so that they can plan out what places they need to revisit. They can plan where they need to go instead of wandering aimlessly, thinking “Where do I go next?” Some people love to wander aimlessly. That’s part of their experience and they enjoy that. If they want to do that, that’s fine, but we need to give tools to players where they can play their way, whatever it may be. I think that’s always important when you’re making a game in development, that you allow players to play their way.

CS: Thank you very much.

DC: You’re welcome.