Reviews

The Art of Castlevania – Book Review

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Publisher: Titan Books
RRP: £29.99
Edited By: Martin Robinson

As gamers we see the finished product on our screen, and often fail to appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into its creation. We argue and bicker on the Internet while somewhere else a developer is simply sitting with his head in his hands, possibly soaking his keyboard with tears. Amidst interviews and behind the scenes, art books give us another way to glimpse the world of development and cultivate a deeper appreciated for our chosen hobby.

Which is why I’m here to chat about the Art of Castlevania, and why it should be sitting on your coffee table.

The book weighs in at a meaty 192-pages, featuring work not just from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, but from across the entire trilogy with qoutes from various artists and other members of the developmental team used to shed light on the creative process that gave birth to the very game that I played and reviewed not long ago.

A foreword written by the three lead artists at MercurySteam opens the book with style, followed by a fantastic 5-page introduction which talks about how Lords of Shadow came to exist as a reinvention of a beloved franchise. Indeed, the introduction even briefly touches upon the topic of how reinvention and change does not come easily to the videogame world, a fact that any gamer will surely be familiar with when we see so much backlash against reboots or even small changes to established series. Bringing back something like Castlevania was always going to be a dangerous move on Konami’s behalf. There could be no sacred ground, no element that could not and should not be scrutinized and changed if needed, and the end result was a stellar adventure.

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This book takes us on a grand tour across all three games in the Lords of Shadow trilogy, presenting us with a mixture of conceptual pieces, sketches and more, all of which, without fail, demonstrate that MercurySteam have some seriously talented artists working for them. The first Lords of Shadow has truly stunning visual design, and the recent Lords of Shadow 2, despite its many flaws, also managed to conjure up some outstanding vistas and character designs.  Naturally the book’s art opens with lead character Gabriel, detailing aspects of his design and weapons before moving on to his alter ego, Dracula, and then the Belmont family, whose history reads like a perplexing episode of Coronation Street, but with more blood. Here we get the chance to appreciate both the many differences and many similarities between Gabriel and his final form, Dracula.

“Designing Dracula was a complicated task – we did a lot of tests. But at the end we realized that we wanted to stay close to Gabriel. First because people who loved the first game will want to keep playing with the same character. And second because this way we can make an easy connection between Lords of Shadow 2 and the first game. Players will have the nice feeling that they keep playing with Gabriel, but with a twist.”

From the turbulent history of the Belmont clam, who presumably could do with some serious counseling, we move to a section titled Allies & Protagonists, which needs little in the way of explanation. Here characters like Pan, Satan and Zobek are on full display along with the Titans, with the entire section spanning a whopping 39 pages. Not everyone gets as much attention as one might like, such as Pan who gets a brief piece of text and three, relatively small drawings, but once again it’s a fascinating section with some wonderful insights.

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“There have always been enemies in Castlevania from Greek, European and Japanese mythology. In Lords of Shadow we wanted to have a more European flavor, because obviously it’s coming from a European development team. That’s obviously what we grew up with, and we wanted to depict some of the classical monsters that had appeared in Castlevania games in a truer sense.”

We then flow into the 27-page Supernatural Bestiary which delights in depicting the many enemies and strange foes that appear throughout the games, including two of my favorite drawings in the entire book that show the Toy Maker and Agreus in all of their glory. Oddly this section of the book offers no direct qoutes from the developmental team, rather there’s just a few snippets of simple text that doesn’t really shed any light on the designs shown. That’s a real shame as there’s some unique creatures which deserve to have their creation talked about.

The book draws to its inevitable close with a substantial 43-pages being devoted to the many jawdropping environments and locations seen across the series, with the final 8-pages dedicated to the modern age seen in Lords of Shadow 2. The former contains yet more stunning examples of MercurySteam’s eye for beautiful environments, proving that they know their stuff when it comes to epic, fantasy landscapes and gothic architecture, while the latter paints a more interesting modern age than what we ultimately saw in the game, which felt uninspired.

“Lords of Shadow is a very sunny game. This was done on purpose because it brought a sense of Gabriel’s journey from the light to the darkness. We wanted the first levels to be sunny, and very luminous before becoming progressively darker.”

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In a strange way reading the Art of Castlevania and admiring its many beautiful pieces of artwork is a sad experience, because the various qoutes from artists and designers layout their vision in clear terms and serves to remind just how often that vision didn’t manage to transfer over to the final Lords of Shadow game as well as it deserved. This is not the fault of the many talented people who so clearly poured their heart and soul into creating such absorbing art, but rather of the game’s messy design. Ideas, concepts and plot elements never get conveyed as well as they’re explained in this book. Theirs a passion and love within these pages, a level of detail and attention that is never truly conveyed in the game, except in those wonderful moments when you revisit Dracula’s castle and are once again greeted with spectacular visuals. And if nothing else that along would make this book a worthy purchase, to see the vision and effort that went into making the finished product.

There are, of course, a couple of notable flaws worth talking about. As beautiful and breathtaking as so much of the work presented in this book is, there are plenty of times where I found myself wishing for more sketches to be included that show how the artists came to the final design to provide more insight into the process. Likewise there are times when I found myself wishing that they would talk a little more in-depth about why they chose to do certain things, and how they eventually settled on the look of a character or location. As someone with a obession with videogames that borders on the insane I want to learn more about the fascinating world of game developement, and books like this provide tantalising but ultimately shallow glimpses into the visual design process.  What communications we do get from the developmental team are often superficial at best, while much of the artwork features the final designs, leaving me to wonder what the iterative process was that eventually spawned this finished masterpiece adorning the page. Take Gabriel, for example, who the team reveals began life with a far more barbaric image before morphing into what we see in the games at the advice of Kojima. It would have been great had we gotten to his first incarnation and see how he progressed, but his section of the book only shows his final design.

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But it must be remembered that this is an art-book, and not an in-depth look at videogame developement, which renders some of my negativity moot. Had the team at MercurySteam been allowed to talk more about the reasoning behind certain visual elements then the text to actual artwork ratio might have become a bit questionable. And even in its current form your undoubtedly going to glean some fascination insights from the book, such as how Gabriel’s visual transformation was largely due to Kojima or how his method of fighting was deliberately stylised to give the impression that he had learned his repertoire by watching someone else. And it goes without saying that with the artist’s labor displayed on a static page you’ll get to appreciate the level of detail far more than when playing the game, where such things are often hidden by the action.

A wonderfully put together book, the Art of Castlevania is a fantastic read for anyone with an appreciation for game design and art, not just of the trilogy itself, though for obvious those who have stuck with MercurySteam’s Lords of Shadow titles from beginning to end will draw far more satisfaction from these pages.

The Verdict: 4.5/5
A must own for series of the fans, Titan Books have put together a brilliant book that is damn near perfect.  

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