Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is Spanish developer Mercury Steam's final Castlevania game.
Konami producer Dave Cox, who spearheaded the revival of the action series and its transition into 3D with 2010's excellent Lords of Shadow, said Mercury Steam doesn't want to be known as the Castlevania studio, and will hand the series over to another developer having released three games in its Dracula arc: Lords of Shadow, 3DS game Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2.
The series began with Lords of Shadow on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2010. Now, three years later, we have a 3DS game, Mirror of Fate, that acts as a bridge between Lords of Shadow 1 and Lords of Shadow 2, due out later this year.
Work on Mirror of Fate began just before the release of Lords of Shadow at a time when Mercury Steam executives were concerned the then 60-person studio would be shut down without a project to pay staff wages.
Cox suggested a handheld title, which would have been cheaper and quicker to make than a home console game, to keep the company afloat. The concept, which centered around Trevor Belmont, the child of Marie and Gabriel Belmont, was presented to the powers that be at Japan and Cox and Mercury Steam were given the coveted greenlight.
But, according to Cox, there was "absolutely" a danger of Mercury Steam closing down following the release of Lords of Shadow.
"That is the nature of game development," he said. "Look what's happened to [Darksiders developer] Vigil. Generally you do ramp up towards the end of a project and then you do let some people go. But, basically, we put everything into Lords of Shadow. The studio banked everything on it. It was, literally, if we don't have a project by the end of the month, we're finished."
At this point it hadn't been decided which handheld platform the game would release on. In the end, Mercury Steam settled on the Nintendo 3DS over the PS Vita (it did create a Vita prototype as part of its research) because of the 3D visuals, which afforded the designers the opportunity to experiment with a camera that shifted perspectives.
"The aspect of the 3D-ness, using the 3D camera and being able to take the camera into the game," Cox said of the possibilities it afforded. "Although it's a 2.5D game, we do take the camera in a lot. There are many fights later on in the game where you play in third-person. Jose Luis [Márquez, game director] and his team felt that was something we couldn't do as effectively with the Vita.
We put everything into Lords of Shadow. The studio banked everything on it. It was, literally, if we don't have a project by the end of the month, we're finished
Konami producer Dave Cox
"This is something that's quite hard to explain. Until you play the game in 3D you don't appreciate this aspect of it. But when you play the game in 3D the world comes alive. The depth of it comes alive. And when the camera comes into the world that's an effect I don't think you can see on any other console. That's what excited them originally."
Then, in a curious twist, Lords of Shadow launched to better than expected sales. Indeed it became the best-selling Castlevania game ever. Predictably, publisher Konami requested a home console sequel, which put Mercury Steam, which had already started work on the handheld game, in a tricky position.
"That was an oh f**k moment because we were thinking, hang on a minute, we need to expand the team," Cox said. "Getting bigger is always a bit risky for a development studio, because then you could lose control. You've got sixty people you know inside and out. You know what they're capable of. And then you get in another forty people. It's a whole different ball game in terms of development. That was a bit nerve-wracking at that point."
Cox admitted having to juggle the development of two games at once had an impact on the process. The headcount had to be increased, with staff arriving from established studios in the UK and the US. Staff were shared between the two projects, which remained fluid.
Then the story was fleshed out. While the Lords of Shadow series focuses on Dracula, Mirror of Fate would feature three playable characters: Trevor Belmont, Simon Belmont and Alucard. The story plays out in reverse, Memento style, with the final scene tying up the plot.
The combat wasn't right. The lighting wasn't right. The framerate wasn't good. So we delayed the game. We felt we wouldn't be happy putting the game out there like that
While the two-and-a-half year development has, on the whole, been smooth, Konami took the decision to delay the game to this year after a poor showing at E3 2012.
"We just weren't happy with certain elements of it," Cox said. "The combat wasn't right. The lighting wasn't right. The framerate wasn't good. So we delayed the game. We felt we wouldn't be happy putting the game out there like that.
"It's the same approach for Lords of Shadow 2. That's how we want to work. And Mercury Steam has its reputation to think about. They want to build a reputation. They know they're not at that Naughty Dog level right now, but if they're going to be at that level within the next 10 years then they need to put out real quality products."
Sony-owned Naughty Dog is a studio Mercury Steam hopes to emulate, and it is determined to do so without being labelled the Castlevania studio.
And so, Lords of Shadow 2 is "the conclusion to the story", Cox said. "As a studio Mercury Steam don't want to be the Castlevania studio. They want to make their mark on the series and leave their legacy and then let somebody else take up the torch. They want to do other things.
"I completely understand that. You can easily get labelled as the Castlevania team and they don't want that. They want to be a Naughty Dog type of studio where they have big triple-A titles and that's all they focus on. In order to do that they need to have another project."
What is that other project? Amid rumours of a Contra reboot, Cox is keeping his cards close to his chest.