Last weekend Ripten brought you brand new footage from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.  Then, in an excerpt from our interview with producer David Cox, we told you just how Hideo Kojima was involved with the title.  Now, we’re telling you literally everything we’ve learned from our hands on time with the final build of the game and our full interview with Mr. Cox.  Are there spoilers ahead?  Yes.  But only enough to whet your appetite for destruction.

As I arrived for “Lords of Shadow Boot Camp” in NYC Last Wednesday I was greeted by Konami PR and brought into a room filled with HDTV’s and PS3′s, all running Lords of Shadow.  “What build of the game is this?”  I asked.  “Oh, it’s the final version” they replied.  “Holy hell!” I blurted out, “I’d better start playing!!”

And play I did … On and off for six or so hours, only stopping periodically to hang with the devs, drink with the PR guys and gals, and goto the bathroom.

I played til my eyes burned and my fingers went numb, and then I played some more.

Futhermore, after playing the living hell out of the game and spending some quality time with executive producer David Cox, I believe that I can absolutely tell you damn near everything you will need to know in order to decide whether or not Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is for you. (Hint: It is)  So lets get into it, shall we?

Not a remake, it’s a reboot.

Lords of Shadow is not a remake of any previous Castlevania game, nor does it tie into any previous game.  Gabriel is indeed a Belmont, but how he fits into the family tree is not known at this point.  Mr. Cox has proclaimed that to him, Castlevania has always been about Belmonts fighting creatures of the night, and by golly, that’s what Gabriel does, and he does it well.  There has not been a successful 3d Castlevania to date and even the most hardcore Castlevania fans (myself included) have been skeptical.  David was aware of this and decided that the only way to make this title truly stand out was to start from scratch with a new Belmont and a new story.  If anything, it let Mercury Steam open up far more avenues creatively than simply doing a remake would have.

The Story (SPOILERS)

Lords of Shadow stars Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light. (He’s a Paladin!) This brotherhood prevents the innocent from all things wicked.  The Lords of Shadow (three super beastie baddies) have made it so the souls of the dead cannot rest in peace.  Now this would be all well and good, except that Gabriel’s wife Marie has recently been murdered and her soul cannot rest.  Better yet, each of these Lords of Shadow contains a piece of a mask that some say can bring the dead back to life. (Splatterhouse?)  Anyhow, our crusading hero is now off to find these Lords of Shadow to find answers and settle the score.  Gabriel himself is a tortured soul, a man of honor, a white knight, and an expert at slaying all sorts of evil.  Once you get your hands on the game, you will see just what sort of character Gabriel is.  He is not a blank canvas, he is a richly painted portrait of a man. One with depth and emotion.  One clearly influenced by Kojima-san.  Speaking of characters, let me inform you (if you didn’t already know) that Lords of Shadow contains more Sir Patrick Stewart than you can shake a bottle of holy water at.  Not only does SPS (totally what he should be called) serve as the narrator of the game, but he also portrays a character named Zobek within the game.  Zobek is a fellow member of the Brotherhood and aside from appearing at certain key plot points he also fights alongside you as an AI companion during certain chapters.  Needless to say, the presence of SPS in this game only elevates it further into the realm of the epic, as his voice work is always magnificent.

Sir Patrick Zobek

What else do we know of the story?  Well, we know that it is long.  25 or so hours spread over 12 chapters and 50 some odd levels.  David Cox has promised one hell of an ending that consists of a 14 minute cutscene.  Does Gabriel live or die?  Does Dracula appear?  Does Alucard appear?  Does Sephiroth suddenly appear and kill Gabriel’s wife . . . again!?  Who knows!?

Jason Isaacs (who you may recognize as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) is credited in the game as a voice actor for an unnamed character.  One can only assume he plays a major role, perhaps he is the final lord of shadow?  Perhaps Dracula himself!?  (I’d bet on it)

Is This The New Dracula?

Only time will tell.  But what I can tell you is that you will not simply skip over the cutscenes in this game.  Just as you wouldn’t skip them in Metal Gear Solid or God of War, you will watch intently as these brilliantly directed scenes only help to move along the story and narrative of the tale of Gabriel Belmont and the Lords of Shadow.  Epic storytelling awaits you, you can quote me on that.

The Combat

Enter the Combat Cross.  Gabriel’s weapon of choice.  Part holy relic, part chain whip, part stabbamajig, this thing does it all.  Basically it will feel as if you’re playing with a one-handed version of Kratos’ blades of chaos.  But that’s not a bad thing and trust me when I say there is more to it.  I’m just trying to convey the feeling you get when handling this bad boy.  The whip play is visceral and satisfying and due to the experience system, you can upgrade your attacks and develop your own style of play.  I myself became very fond of  a jumping downward chain slam attack known as the “Guillotine”

Now, let me explain a bit further.  As you kill enemies, they will drop yellow orbs, these orbs give you experience and you can then spend that experience in your skill book.  (A book which is very well detailed with awesome hand drawn art may I add)  You can add combos to your attacks, unlock all new attacks, and even upgrade your secondary weapons.  That’s right, classic secondary weapons like throwing daggers and holy water are back.  You don’t need to pickup little floating hearts to keep them in stock however :-) enemies will drop them for you.

Not long into the game you will learn the powers of light and dark magic.  This adds a whole new level to the gameplay.

Take a look at the UI above . . . in the lower left hand corner is your light magic, and in the lower right, your dark.  The middle bar is sort of a combo meter that fills as you perform attacks without taking damage, but we’ll get to that in a bit.  Light magic allows you to trigger an ability that I like to call “Light Metamorphisis” (It works like Alucard’s Dark Metamorphisis)  As long as you have light energy left while this is activated, you will drain health from enemies.  However, it does not last long and you do not get a ton of health back rom foes.  But trust me when I say that learning to use light energy at the right time is absolutely necessary if you plan on keeping your ass alive.  On the other hand, your dark energy bar will allow you to add dark fiery energy to your whip attacks and secondary weapons (Flaming dagger wave anyone?).  Striking a balance between using light and dark energy makes the combat thoroughly enjoyable and all of this in combination with your favorite style of whip play makes for some very satisfying combat.  Now, you see that bar at the bottom?  Well, like I said, as you perform successful attacks without taking damage, it will fill.  If you manage to get it completely full, then enemies will start dropping a ton of orbs.  Needless to say, it will behoove you to keep that meter filled, but bear in mind, you cannot use it while you have either dark or light magic activated.  They didn’t want to make it that easy on you.

There is also mounted combat.  That’s right, mounted combat.  After subduing certain large enemies (Trolls, Worgs, Spiders, etc) you will be able to perform a quicktime sequence and mount them.  This will usually happen when you have a long gap to jump or a wall to smash down or any other obstacle you simply can’t pass on your own.  Once your mount has outlived its usefulness, you can then strangle it to death and move on.  It’s all quite satisfying and fun.

That’s the main thing about the combat.  Any hack and slash 3rd person action game can get combat basics right, but it takes a lot for the combat to feel continuously fresh and satisfying.  With the additions of the different magics and unlockable skills throughout the course of the game, the combat manages to stay fresh as you build upon your own personal playstyle over the 20+ hours of solid gameplay.

Now, before I get into the platforming, I must mention another Belmont whom I met that day.  Veronica Belmont to be precise.   It takes a lot for a room full of gaming journalists to stop playing an epic game that they’ve been given the opportunity to see months in advance … but when Veronica walked in the room, I swear you could hear a pin drop.  Nearly every head turned and I swear even Gabriel himself broke the fourth wall and kneeled before Ms. Belmont.  Why am I bringing this up, you ask?  Why am I talking about Veronica Belmont when I should be talking about Gabriel Belmont and the Lords of Shadow?  Because I thought you’d like to know that this chick is the real deal. Not just another pretty face, Veronica can game with the best of us, never mind the rest of us.  I sat next to her and we spoke at length as she played Lords of Shadow for damn near three hours straight before her interview with David Cox (which will appear on PSN on October)  So impressed was I by this lady and how genuine and approachable she was, I had to put her in this preview.  I am also hereby demanding that she be put in the next Castlevania game. She is a Belmont after all.

Whip Not Included

Now, back to the game …

The Platforming

Think Prince of Persia, with a chain whip.  That’s about the gist of it.  Aside from the usual climbing, shimmying and jumping across ledges, Gabriel can also use the Combat Cross to latch onto all sorts of things.  You will soon find yourself swinging from platform to platform or repelling down cliffsides, only to have to jump off that wall and whip onto another ledge whilst in mid air.  Think of it as a really bad ass version of Link’s hookshot.  The platforming is solid on all accounts and downright fun when you get the Combat Cross involved.  The first time you rappel down a wall, push yourself off of it and kick through a stained glass window, you’ll most definitely be impressed by the mechanics of it all.  It breaks up the monotony of the combat sequences and also adds its own level of challenge and fun.  It’s never easy to do 3d platforming right, so my hats off to Mercury Steam for pulling it off.

Not only that, but in a game this size, simply going through the motions of each chapter may only net you 15% completion of each.  That’s right, finish a chapter outright, and achieve a whopping 15% completion.  The reason for that is that there is simply so much to see and do outside of just progressing through the story.  Some content you can only see once you are powerful enough or have the requisite skills.  Think of it like backtracking in Symphony of the Night, only in a fully rendered and lush 3d world.  There’s something for the casual and the hardcore in this game, believe me when I say that.

So, now you know how Lords of Shadow looks, and you know how Lords of Shadow plays … but what makes this game any different from God of War or Devil May Cry or Dante’s Inferno?  What truly makes Lords of Shadow a Castlevania game?  One that new fans and hardcore Castlevania fans will enjoy?  Well, instead of me bombarding you with another wall of text, how about I let executive producer David Cox talk about it?

In the following interview, he spills all the details about how he came to produce the Castlevania game he always dreamed of making, and how the damned thing actually got made.  Enjoy.

No Amount of Booze Could Get Him to Tell Me The Ending

DO:  Your first Castlevania title was . . .

DC:  As a product manager, I worked on Symphony of the night

DO:  Ah, my favorite in the series … before you came to Konami, how big of a fan were you of Castlevania and what was it like coming into the fold after this IP had already been so well established?

DC:  It was pretty exciting.  Not just as a game fan but as a guy who also worked in a game shop. I never thought I’d end up being a producer of a Castlevania title.  When I first joined Konami it was huge thrill to work on SOTN.  We didnt realize how big it was going to be. We didn’t know it would have this cult following and be considered a classic at the time.  We were a little worried, it was quite different.

DO:  Oh yeah quite different, it had RPG elements, it had no whip … it had swords, and you weren’t playing as a Belmont . . . you were playing as the son of Dracula.  However, Alucard may in fact be the most popular Castlevania character to date.  In fact when I play Harmony of Despair, sometimes I’ll end up playing with 5 other Alucards!!

DC:  Haha, yeah Alucard is a really cool character, and Symphony was a thrill to work on.  And that visual style has really defined Castlevania for the last 12 years.

So there’s a bit of trepidation about working on this title, simply because there is such a hardcore fanbase for the franchise.  When you do anything new you’re going to meet a bit of resistance.  Even internally from Konami.  We’d been asked to propose a new western style Castlevania that would appeal to mainstream audiences, one that’s going to broaden the appeal of the series.  Because it was really only appealing to a niche group of fans.  So there was a bit of trepidation there.  Our pitch was very dark and gritty and adult, and there was worry about that.  It took us over a year to even get the project going.  We pitched it a couple of times . . .

DO:  Well, there hasn’t been a successful 3d Castlevania yet.

DC: Absolutely, yeah, so there was a lot of worry about it.  We’d even been told to stop at one point. We submitted one last demo in LA which they liked and they said, “Ok, you can goto prototype, but that’s it.”

DO:  Was there any point where they loved what they saw but wanted to call it something else because they weren’t sure that this was the next Castlevania game?

DC:  Absolutely.  It was greenlit as a Castlevania title, but then we were told it was going to be an original IP.  We said, “Ok we can work around that, we’ve got a great game here either way.”  Then we showed it as Lords Of Shadow at  a senior managers meeting in Japan.  Kojima-san was in the room, all the senior managers were in the room. When they saw the game . . . you could tell there was a change in the room, you could feel it.  There had been some resistance up until this point, but once they saw what we’d been doing, they were finally on board.  It was after that meeting that Kojima-san came up to me and said, “I really like what you’ve shown today, I want to help in some way.”  Now, I thought it would end there, I thought he was just being nice.  So I went back to England and then I got a call from him saying he wanted to come to Mercury Steam and visit the team.  He got on board at that point, about two and a half years ago.  I was surprised when Kojima-san came on board.  He’s a bit of a geek like me. He could see us struggling a bit and just wanted to lend a hand.

DO:  What does his involvement mean for the title?  What does it mean having his validation on a game like this?

DC:  It was reassuring, but at times a bit scary.  It was reassuring because it opened doors and gave us freedom to do what we wanted to do.  Also, it’s my first big title so having his advice and mentoring on the project was invaluable.  At the same time it’s a double edged sword because of the fact that we’re a bit nervous when it comes to pleasing him.  We’d ask ourselves, “Is it good enough?”  Sometimes he’d say, “Well no you need to fix this or work on that“, and having his feedback was great.  Other times he’d say to me, “It’s your call, you’re the producer who fought long and hard to get it off the ground, i’m going to let you run with it.”

DO:  Gabriel was a totally different character before Kojima got involved, what was he like, was he like Kratos?

DC:  No, not like Kratos . . . Do you remember Schneider from the N64 game?

DO:  Sort of . . . really bad ass, kid of brash, a bit suicidal?

DC:  Yeah he was a bit like that, kind of this furry big armor, very brash, very one dimensional . . .

DO:  Gabriel seems very vulnerable, like a lost soul . . . but a man to be feared and respected just the same

DC: Exactly, exactly, and that’s what Kojima-san said was missing from our character design.  He said Gabriel himself needed to be worked on more.  He said, “you’ve got this deep and emotional and tragic story, but yet you’ve got this very barbaric character.” So he thought we should redesign Gabriel.  At that point we thought Gabriel was great, but he said, “No no no, you have to change him.” So we went back and turned Gabriel into much more of an everyman.  He’s not a one dimensional action hero anymore.  He’s much more of a real person now.  I think Kojima’s input on that really helped us, and you can see it in the character.

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