Shining a Light on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

By Robert Zak on at

What are your most vivid memories of Castlevania? Burly Simon Belmont swinging between chandeliers by way of his multi-purpose whip in Super Castlevania IV, perhaps? How about the distinct colour palette of the original game that was so much grimier than anything else for the NES? You might have one of the heroic, catchy background tunes of yore Vampire Killer or Bloody Tears stuck in your head. Or maybe you just snigger at the campy dialogue of Symphony of the Night while holding it up as the most important, quintessential Castlevania there has ever been.

Or you may well be wondering whether Netflix's Midas touch will work on the upcoming Castlevania series.

Whatever springs to mind, MercurySteam’s 2010 reimagining of Castlevania as a 3D hack-and-slash adventure probably isn’t it. On the one side, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was shunned by devout ‘Vanians who deemed its linear all-action approach and new story as heresy. On the other, it was dismissed as a God of War ripoff by those too young to remember that Castlevania: Lament of Innocence did God of War nearly two years before God of War.

But for all the requisite internet-era shit-slinging that MercurySteam had to put up with for reinterpreting a loved franchise, the Spanish developer did a great job: telling an intriguing cross-mythological tale of good vs. evil that took its hero Gabriel Belmont across a crepuscular world filled with werewolves, witches, ogres and chupacabras. The latter aren’t depicted as the rabid dogs of Mexican folklore, but mischievous pickpockets who play hide-and-seek. For MercurySteam all myths, whether from Castlevania’s world or ours, were open to reinterpretation.

During a studio visit to Madrid (to check out MercurySteam’s new game, Raiders of the Broken Planet), I spoke with MercurySteam co-founder Enric Alvarez and producer Dave Cox about Lords of Shadow; what inspired them to take the series down this route, Hideo Kojima’s involvement, and how they would’ve made the game given the resources of the current generation.

With the moderately well-received Clive Barker’s Jericho being their biggest game to that point, MercurySteam felt the pressure of working with Konami one of the industry's traditional powerhouses. “Politically, for a Japanese company to give their beloved franchise to a westerner was quite radical,” says Cox, who worked for Konami at the time.

Both he and Alvarez credit Hideo Kojima, who was brought on as a producer for Lords of Shadow, with being the perfect mediator. “Kojima was able to filter what was coming out of HQ in a good way,” Cox says. “Kojima Productions showed us their technology, how they did animations, stuff like that, but overall he felt the team should be free to make their mark on the series with minimal interference. He’s been in that position, so he knew how to make things click.”

A 3D action game may have seemed a risky pitch, but it was a direct response to what Konami was looking for. DS games aside, the series had been stagnating for some time, with consistently poor sales suggesting that maybe the Metroidvania format was no longer suitable for a modern, mainstream title. “Konami felt it needed something different to appeal to a new audience,” says Cox. “They felt that they couldn’t carry on doing the same stuff as it was a dwindling, if passionate, audience. Konami’s brief was ‘We need you to take it in a new direction, and don’t be afraid to do it’”.

Not that Lords of Shadow did away with that Castlevania spirit: instead, it revitalised it. The series has always see-sawed somewhere between a B-movie and kitsch campiness, paying tribute to horror movie history by pitting its heroes against mummies, werewolves and Medusa heads without feeling obliged to explain how all these things fit together. Lords of Shadow applied this cross-referential silliness to myths and fairytale rather than cinema, but melded it all together into a more coherent whole than the disparate stages of older Castlevanias. Even the menus, bestiaries, map and pause screen, with their storybook-by-candlelight presentation, served to unify trolls, scarecrows, witches and chupacabras into one harmonious tale. For the first time, Castlevania felt like a tangible world.

On his quest to take out the titular lords, Gabriel traverses the ruins of ancient civilisations that seem to range from Khmer temples to Greek town squares, despite ostensibly being set in Southern Europe. While the game wisely steers clear of Greek mythological monsters (they clearly expected the whole ‘God of War clone’ thing) it does feature Pan, the ancient Greek god of nature who in serving an unnamed old God (fuck it, let’s just say it’s Cthulhu) aids Gabriel, and turns into a kind of winged Silver Surfer when you have a showdown with him. It’s veritably absurd.

Fairytales fuse into this mythological mish-mash. In one great sequence Gabriel visits the higgledy-piggledy treetop house of Baba Yaga, the witch of Slavic folklore who offers guidance in exchange for a blue rose, which here you retrieve by being shrunk down into a music box and solving a puzzle (with the box playing none other than ‘Vampire Killer’ from Simon’s Quest). Concurrently, Gabriel is allied with Zobek, founder of the Brotherhood of Light, a decidedly Christian Templar-like organisation committed to defending Earth from Satan. Despite its more austere style, Lords of Shadow still has that postmodern mash-up spirit of its predecessors, while knowingly or not offering a pithy commentary on the transience of myth and religion, with different ideas overlapping, supplanting and colliding with each other.

Alvarez admits that he wasn’t particularly schooled in the Castlevania series before being assigned Lords of Shadow, but he still referred to certain parts of it for inspiration. “Super Castlevania IV was the one we looked to the most,” he says. “It had that sense of adventure, that sense of discovery, even though it was a linear action game.” Even the map between levels, showing the hero’s journey, was plucked from the series’ SNES debut. While there are only so many similarities you can draw between a 16-bit 2D platformer and modern 3D action game, Alvarez’s point demonstrates that what ‘classic Castlevania’ means isn’t as clear-cut as some think. In the wake of Symphony of the Night in 1997, which spawned the ‘Metroidvania’ label, it became easy to overlook the fact that Castlevanias I, III and IV were all linear platformers, offering none of Symphony’s revered interconnected maps filled with locked doors, backtracking, and secret areas.

With time Symphony came to be so adored that it more or less came to represent the entire series — even though, with its campy anime-inspired stylings and open exploration, it too departed from what came before. “What Mr. Hagihara [director of Symphony] did was basically take things in a new direction,” Cox says. “He changed it from a traditional action game to RPG-style game with Rondo of Blood and Symphony. The torch was passed to him and he did his own thing with it, while doing what he thought was right for the series.”

So Lords of Shadow, with its inter-mission map (occasionally depicting endearingly schlocky shots of Gabriel treadmilling in the foreground while a marker on the map charts his path) and concise, funnelled level design need not be seen entirely as a break with the past, but a return to a specific part of it that had been omitted by Symphony. Judging by the exasperated way that Alvarez shakes his head when I ask about the reaction of hardcore ‘Vania fans to Lords of Shadow's departure from the Metroidvania format, not everyone saw it that way. “We knew right from the very beginning that certain people wouldn’t like what we were doing,” Cox says, with weary understatement.

It’s true that the levels in Lords of Shadow are linear, even by the standards of 2010 when it was released. On a technical level, they’re little more than corridors and paths that occasionally fork to offer a little detour to the same destination, but this allowed MercurySteam to focus on the presentation, which remains a treat to this day. Fixed camera angles are meticulously utilised to show off gorgeous vistas, haunting landscapes, and perfectly placed details that given scenes a painterly quality. In one of the earlier levels, for instance, Gabriel is wandering through a luscious forest, with sunlight twinkling off waterfalls and beaming through trees; at one point, the camera perches on a rock looking down over Gabriel, with a couple of birds sitting on the rock in the extreme foreground before fluttering away.

Later, Gabriel is descending into a pit, and the camera hovers high above him, with golden autumnal leaves drifting down in front of the lens. “It’s not a super-technological game”, says Alvarez. “But everything the tech, art, design, combat was designed to give a certain impression a fantasy tale. The fixed camera was very important to this.” Lords of Shadow is filled with these subtle artistic flourishes, each one enlivening the game’s 50 levels that span rich forests, ruins, mountains, caves and, of course, castles. It may not hit that Metroidvania buzzword of ‘exploration’ as such, but the sense of discovery and adventure that Alvarez talks about is palpable. This game feels like an enormous and scenic adventure.

The artistic precision, Alvarez tells me, was bolstered by the fact that Lords of Shadow was made almost entirely in-house (aside from Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart voicing Gabriel and Zobek, among a few others things). Even the engine was in-house rather than licensed.

“We don’t outsource a lot of stuff, because you lose your personality very quickly that way," says Alvarez. "So music, voice-overs, art, design, were all done here. Instead of building the game around an engine, we built an engine around the game. Each game has special needs, and doing this meant we didn’t have to sacrifice any control.” This meant that the tech folk building the engine at MercurySteam could hop over to the artists’ desks, see how they worked, then turn the valves on the engine to adapt it to them. “The different departments work very closely in development,” Alvarez adds. “One of the benefits of using our own engine is that our tech directors could adapt the shading systems, lighting systems and everything as we needed it”.

In the way of mechanics, Lords of Shadow was good if not astounding. It plucked elements from Shadow of the Colossus for some of its boss battles, namely the Titan fights where you had to climb your massive foes to reach their weakpoints. Its combat was your classic dodge-counter-combo action fare, with a larger movesets than the God of Wars, and a nice twist where you could activate a magic mode during which dealing damage yielded health, foreshadowing the much-lauded gimmicks later seen in Bloodborne and DOOM. Were he given the chance to make a Castlevania with the advancements of the current generation, would Alvarez have done anything differently? “A more open structure, but without losing the narrative flavour. A bit like Dark Souls 3,” he admits. “The last generation was not the right generation for this stuff”.

There is a whole lot more to the Lords of Shadow saga than its excellent yet divisive first game, such as the mis-direction of its two sequels and rumours of development troubles during Lords of Shadow 2. But talking about them would distract from a great first game that, for all its commercial and critical success as a game-in-general, never quite got its dues as a Castlevania title. The series had done linear before, it had even done 3D, yet Lords of Shadow remained, like Gabriel on his forlorn throne at the close, in the shadows: its legacy tarnished because of mediocre sequels, and the fact it had turned its back on the sacred Metroidvania realm.

Like the eclectic religions, deities, characters and creatures depicted in Lords of Shadow, Castlevania is a mythology, destined not for endless repetition but constant reinterpretation and reimagination. The series’ history shows that clear as day. So instead of bemoaning MercurySteam’s deviation from the Symphony formula, it’s worth remembering that there’s always been much more to this series than Metroidvania. Lords of Shadow is no mere footnote to Castlevania's history, but one of the very best games the series has produced.