"Lone warrior battles supernatural creatures with a whip." As high concepts go, that's a pretty straightforward one - and a familiar one to anybody who's played a Castlevania game before. Konami's much-loved action-adventure series has been going for almost 25 years, and is now set to continue with PS3 and Xbox 360 title Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Producer Dave Cox describes it as being "quite a radical departure" for the series, being a game which is "more gritty, realistic and more modern-looking" than all of the previous instalments. But right from the start, developer MercurySteam has been sure to focus on the single sentence scrawled on the front of the design document: "Lone warrior battles supernatural creatures with a whip."
"That was really what we felt Castlevania was all about, right from the beginning," says Cox. "We wanted to take the series back to that core premise of what the first game was all about, and to make a game that was more akin to classic action platformers."
However, MercurySteam was still keen to put its own stamp on the series. "We knew we needed to make it competitive in visual terms, so we decided to do the game in three dimensions - which has been attempted in the past but perhaps not been so successful," observes Cox.
"The other thing we wanted to do was tell a story that made sense, one that players could jump into from the get-go, even if they hadn't played Castlevania before. And we wanted to make the main character much more of a real person."
Say hello, then, to Gabriel Belmont, who is a member of an organisation known as the Brotherhood of Light. He is sent on a holy quest to save the world from a dark force that's preventing dead souls from finding peace.
Chaos, death and destruction reign, and they get up close and personal when Gabriel's wife is murdered. He learns that three mysterious entities known as the Lords of Shadow are behind it all. It also turns out they each guard a piece of a holy relic with the power to bring people back from the dead. Naturally, Gabriel sets off on a mission to retrieve the relic pieces and rescue his wife's soul from limbo.
The trailer we're shown during the preview presentation says LOS features a "compelling and original storyline" packed with "power and gravitas", one which deals with "mature themes of love and loss". To get all this across MercurySteam has hired proper actors - Robert Carlyle plays Gabriel, Patrick Stewart makes an appearance as his mentor and Natasha McElhone popped into the recording studio too.
"We wanted a high-calibre voice cast right from the beginning, because we wanted to tell a very important, emotional story," says Cox. "Gabriel isn't your typical bombastic hero. He's like a real person, and you really feel for him, which differentiates this title from other games quite significantly."
Cox is also confident that LOS's unique visual style and polished presentation will help it to stand out from the crowd. As the footage in the trailer shows, this is gothic horror of the highest order - all crumbling castles, snowy graveyards, flickering candlelight and bloodstained flagstones.
There are brief glimpses of a wide range of enemies. Some are huge and vicious, some are agile and ethereal, all are properly weird and scary. The imagery is accompanied by an epic orchestral score, complete with swelling strings and thunderous organs. In short, there are plenty of elements here Castlevania fans will recognise, but they've never been presented quite like this.
The same applies to the game's combat system. As you'd expect Gabriel is armed with his trusty chain whip, especially handy for linking hits together to weaken enemies' defences. He's also got a combat cross which is good for blocking, and secondary weapons such as flying daggers and holy water.
Picking up the controller, Cox shows us how it's possible to combine all of these weapons to devastating effect. Gabriel hacks and slashes his way through hordes of enemies with a series of fluid movements, seamlessly despatching them in a shower of gore.
Lords of Shadow also features a magic system. As you smash objects in the environment and defeat enemies you collect magic and you can choose how to channel it. For example, you can use light magic to set up a health buff so that each time you whip an enemy, some of your own health is restored. You can also combine light magic with your secondary weapons - using holy water to create a temporary shield, for instance.
Shadow magic is all about dishing out damage. Collect enough of it and you can perform some spectacularly powerful combos. Which, let's face it, sounds like more fun than health buffs and temporary shields. But in reality, says Cox, "Most players use a combination of both types of magic, and use different strategies depending on the different enemies they face."
Every so often you'll be forced to fight Titans, colossal stone monsters who can only be brought down with large amounts of wit, skill and patience. And some excellent platforming skills, as you have to climb and swing all over the beasts in order to reach their weak spots.
"With the Titan fights, we wanted to have areas where players have to use everything they have learned up until that point, and put it all into practice in one huge battle," says Cox. The battles take place in real-time and aren't punctuated by any pesky quick-time events. "That was a conscious choice. Personally, I don't really like QTEs. I find them a little distracting. I prefer to feel like I'm in control."
The Titan fights aren't the only areas of the game where good platforming skills prove useful. Cox shows us another level set in a clockwork tower (an iconic image for Castlevania veterans), where Gabriel must navigate his way around a perilously high set of spinning platforms.
Luckily he's extremely acrobatic, and able to swing on ropes, stand on pillars, balance on beams and jump wide gaps with ease. Those with serious dedication will want to spend time exploring every nook and cranny as each level is packed with secrets, collectables and power-ups.
No Castlevania game would be complete without plenty of puzzles to solve, and Lords of Shadow isn't about to break with tradition. The examples being shown today are brainteasers in the classic style - Gabriel must move mirrors to direct beams of light which open locked doors, for example, or align a set of crystals in the correct sequence to pull down a set of spikes.
According to Cox, the balance of action, platforming and puzzling is "about even" in Lords of Shadow, so expect to do just as much thinking as running, jumping and fighting.
Don't expect to do much hiding, though. Hideo Kojima may be helping out with the game's development, but it doesn't sound like there's any chance of him trying to sneak a bit of stealth gameplay in there.
"He's got more of an advisory role, so he's looking at the game from afar more than anything else," says Cox. "He always says to me, 'Dave, you're the producer, it's your project and it's your call. You don't have to do what I say, I'm just here to help you.' But when Kojima-san gives you advice you've got to take it seriously, really."
So what kind of advice does Kojima-san give? Put more cardboard boxes in, perhaps? "Haha! Funnily enough, there are a few Kojima in-jokes in the game. But he's more about mentoring us. So, when he first saw Gabriel, he said, 'You need to look again at your main character, because your story is so important and it's such an emotional trip.' "He said he couldn't identify with this bombastic, muscle-bound hero, and that we needed a more human character.
"So we started changing Gabriel. And Kojima said to us, 'You know, we work on Snake constantly. Even up to master submission, we make little tweaks and changes here and there.'"
But even with Kojima's help, MercurySteam has a tough challenge on its hands. The Castlevania series has been around a long time and it's got a large, dedicated fanbase. How concerned is Cox about the reaction to all these fancy new changes?
"Some of the fanbase aren't going to like it, no matter what we do. We've accepted that," he says. "But most of those who remember the classic games will feel right at home here. The more we reveal about the game, the more the core community seems to get on board with what we're doing. And there are lots of nods, winks and homages for Castlevania fans in the game, especially with regard to the music.
"But at the same time we want to broaden the appeal, not just appeal to the core group. In that respect we're not beholden to them... I just wanted to bring the classic gameplay of Super Castlevania IV to a 3D game, and make it contemporary and exciting and give it a cool story. Hopefully that will appeal to the fanbase as well."
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow could well have widespread appeal, judging by the atmospheric presentation, flashy combat, fluid platforming and smart puzzles we've seen so far. With a bit of luck, this could be the most fun lone warriors have had battling supernatural creatures with a whip for some time.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 this autumn.