In 2009 the developers who made the well received Wii game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories moved onto what promised to be a much larger, much more ambitious game for multiple platforms. That game was a brand new, single-player, story-driven Legacy of Kain, the kind of project fans of the vampire action series have clamoured for ever since its glory days on the PSone.
In 2012, publisher Square Enix cancelled the unannounced project, leaving a three-year black hole on the CVs of hundreds of developers who worked on it. These people are not – officially at least – allowed to say they worked on Legacy of Kain because of strict non-disclosure agreements. But, as is always the way, you can’t keep a good vampire story down.
Climax Studios is a work-for hire developer based in the UK city of Portsmouth. Its reputation is based on its ability to create games, many of which are ports, for publishers on time and on budget, with minimal fuss. It’s good at this, and is successful because of it.
The Legacy of Kain project with Square Enix was different. Here, the studio had been handed the keys to a beloved franchise created by current Tomb Raider custodian Crystal Dynamics. Now, that’s a similar deal to the one that spawned Climax’s Silent Hill games for Konami, but the expectation with Legacy of Kain was greater. This would be a multiplatform game that would launch on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – and maybe, if the stars aligned – on what were at the time mysterious next-generation consoles as well. The stakes were higher; the pressure well and truly on.
Climax’s plan was to create the new Legacy of Kain using Unreal Engine 3, which would free up the studio to focus on design and other non game engine bits and bobs. The team began life at around 30 people, but slowly grew over time to a peak of around 100 in-house.
People who worked on the game remember a banner that was hung over the development team. On it was the codename Black Cloth, and a strapline used as a guiding light: “If HBO made Zelda”. That was the big idea that had Square Enix executives so excited.
HBO, at the time, was famous for its groundbreaking TV shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and True Blood. HBO was a touchstone for a grittiness Square Enix was keen on. Zelda would be used as an influence for Legacy of Kain’s structure – a sort of open-world game that involved a hub-and-spoke design for dungeons.
“From the very beginning Square said it had to be super gritty modern, while still staying within the remit of this world,” says a source.
Climax’s Legacy of Kain might not have pleased the series’ most hardcore fans. “It wasn’t for them,” says a source. “They’re a very niche audience, really. [It was more] can we persuade people who play Call of Duty now to play a Legacy of Kain game? Which is harder. We want to see him more violent. We want to see him covered in blood. That was the feedback we got. Ergo, that’s what happened.”
That “gritty fantasy” pillar was reinforced amid the frenzy for HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which debuted in 2011. One person who worked on Legacy of Kain remembers the development team watching the first series agog.
Climax’s Legacy of Kain would be a reboot of sorts, although set within the timeline established by the previous games. This reboot, or reset, as it was called, was driven by the need to move away from the convoluted storyline of the original games. And so, Black Cloth was set hundreds of years after Soul Reaver.
At the start of the game, Asher, the main character, watches a play about the history of Nosgoth, performed in iambic pentameter to mimic the Shakespearean style of dialogue in the older games. In it, actors dressed as famous Legacy of Kain characters Raziel and Kain would tell their story in summary. This medieval-style murder play would act as a cool nod to the original series, and as a refresh for lapsed fans.
The main character was brand new to the series – a directive from Square Enix. At the beginning of the game, his pregnant wife is murdered. It sounds like an obvious set-up for a revenge story, but developers say that wasn’t to be the case for Black Cloth. Rather, the story had to do with The Elder God from previous Legacy of Kain games, who would pull the strings from behind the scenes, and a creepy vampire child called Saul. Saul, who was conceived by a vampire and a human woman, would be a presence throughout the game, and have a strange, almost psychic vampire nature to him. Saul would indicate a possible evolution for the vampires in the Legacy of Kain universe.
Climax hoped Black Cloth’s story would strike a similar chord the HBO shows of the time had: that it would feel big, involved, and packed with its own sense of history. Emperors and concubines and lies and deceit, a serious story worthy of a long-running, complex, multi-threaded TV show.
Climax perhaps went overboard here. Rather than go down the route of audio tapes that the player could listen to, it commissioned fancy motion capture and hand animated scenes in which the player would walk around echoes of the past. These echoes would play out like little vignettes. A huge amount of dialogue was written for Black Cloth – more than any previous game Climax had worked on. For a story-driven game such as Legacy of Kain, there had to be: Climax was shooting for a campaign that would keep players going for up to 20 hours.
Black Cloth begins with the player in control of a character called Asher – a human priest of a village. Gein, a Saradin vampire, kills him, doing the Raziel thing of eating his soul. But in doing so something unexpected happens: Asher wakes up after being killed and finds himself in control of Gein’s body. So, you’d play as a human character who, in true video game fashion, has no idea of the power at his disposal.
From there, Black Cloth’s Zelda influence would be clear: a huge, Hyrule Field-esque overworld would present itself. The main character would be able to run twice as fast as a cheetah sprints, once all the sprint boosts had been unlocked, in order to traverse its vastness. The Zelda-inspired design meant the player would go into a dungeon, kill a boss, get a new power, then move on into another dungeon, all of which would be linked to the overworld.
You would see Gein as a constant presence, a bit like – SPOILERS! – Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden to Edward Norton’s unnamed protagonist in Fight Club. Gein was this other character who would talk to you, but no-one else could see him. You would play a human in Gein’s body right up to the end of the game, when things changed.
The comparison here is with Elizabeth, Booker DeWitt’s computer-controlled companion in BioShock Infinite. Climax developers remember watching BioShock Infinite’s impressive 2011 gameplay reveal – the one that turned out to not be quite like the game that ended up coming out – and being blown away by its ambition. This was the video in which Elizabeth created a tear in spacetime to show a Revenge of the Jedi movie in Paris. “We were like, well, that’s what we’re trying to do,” one person who worked on the game says. “And we were all like, Jesus, wow.”
The HBO link to Black Cloth went deeper than the high level concept. Initially, Black Cloth’s main character, Gein, looked like Omar from The Wire, people who worked on the game say. Over time, and as a result of Square Enix focus tests, he morphed into someone who looked more like Pharrell.
“Everything with Square Enix is focus tested to within an inch of its life,” one person who worked on the game said.
“They focus tested the way the character looks? Would you like him to look softer or harder? Do you like this name? Do you like these powers? We discovered, oh yeah, they like how he looks, but perhaps you could make him have longer hair?”
One of the things some people have wondered about Black Cloth was whether Kain, the series’ star, would be playable at any point. He was not. Square Enix wanted a Legacy of Kain game with a new character, or, as one person put it, “none of the old baggage of the old series”.
Square Enix also wanted the new Legacy of Kain to be “idiotically easy”, at least compared to the previous games in the series. As a result, Climax inserted plenty of hand-holding into the game world. The game’s “main path” would be clear, and take most players around 10 hours to complete. But Climax wanted to add in secret areas that were not telegraphed, areas designed to offer a half an hour of diversion, a mini-dungeon that may go unseen. “We love the Zelda games and we love secrets,” one developer says.
There was a tension here, developers report. Square Enix wanted triggers for every area in the game, triggers that would alert the player to a point of interest. Climax created a compass and a map for the game to help guide the player. If you clicked in the right thumb-stick, the game would show the player where they’re meant to go.
Black Cloth was designed as an 18-rated game – that is, it was meant for adults. It was packed with violence, nudity, swear words and dealt with adult themes. Sony’s gory God of War series was used as a reference point for what the developers could get away with. And so, for many people at Climax, creating a game for adults meant creating a game that assumed a certain skill level. Square Enix had other ideas.
“They wanted a game that was almost insultingly simple in parts,” one developer says, “so it could be played by people who hadn’t really played games before. Which, you know, if you’re buying an 18-rated game, in theory, you’ve probably played games before. Your first game is never going to be Legacy of Kain. But there we go.”
Climax also included a fair amount of puzzle platforming, which was in keeping with the series’ past, particularly Soul Reaver. Some sections involved shifting valves and required the player combine their abilities with environmental navigation. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is mentioned here as inspiration for these 10 or 15 minute long puzzle platform sections. But like navigation, Square Enix wanted puzzle platforming to be easy-going, and not too much of a challenge.
The combat was inspired by Rocksteady’s wonderful Batman: Arkham Asylum (a game published by Legacy of Kain rights holder Eidos, which Square Enix had bought in 2009). Black Cloth would have a similar flow – fluid third-person brawling, but faster, and with a variety of finishing moves.
And then there’s the multiplayer. Here’s where things get particularly interesting. Sources differ on the intention for Black Cloth’s multiplayer. One source says it was always meant to be standalone. Another says it was always a part of the main game. What is clear is that it was developed by US studio Psyonix, long before Rocket League became the phenomenal hit it is now.
Nosgoth, the multiplayer component, was set between the original Legacy of Kain games and Black Cloth, in part to give more context to the history of the main game, and in part to act as a bridge between the two, and it saw release as an Early Access title. Climax developers remember meetings with Psyonix developers where they shared ideas.
As it turned out, Square Enix ended up cancelling Nosgoth, too – years later, in 2016.
Black Cloth’s journey to cancellation is complex, but on a surface level there are two points of view. One is that the game simply wasn’t good enough to compete with similar games that were doing the rounds at the time. Another lays the blame at Square Enix and its mismanagement of the project.
Developers recall frustration at the feedback process with Square Enix Europe, which produced Black Cloth out of its London office (the same one that managed the likes of Just Cause 2, Kane & Lynch 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution).
People who worked on the project remember showing Square Enix producers a build of the game, then, a week later, being sent 60-page Word documents packed with criticism, or, as one source puts it, “all the shit that was wrong”. “And we’d be like, why aren’t you talking about this? And also, we don’t necessarily see it.”
Sometimes people from Square Enix would come into the Climax office to play the latest build of the game. Here’s a story from one source:
“We’d built agility test areas where you could test all the powers and all of the skills and everything else. I remember having one meeting that was unbelievably infuriating where we sat for hours and we watched this guy from Square – one of the external producers on it – playing this area over and over. It wasn’t an area designed to ever be played by the public. It was an area designed to show off skills.
“He’d have got builds at Square that we would have expected you would play. The control scheme wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t far off Assassin’s Creed’s control scheme, really. But watching somebody attempting to play it and just not getting it… that was quite infuriating.”
“They didn’t seem to know what they wanted the game to be, which was a fundamental issue,” says another source. “A lot of it seemed to be a case of, you show us cool stuff, and we’ll tell you when it’s the cool stuff we want.”
Climax also struggled with the game on a technical level. Builds did well to hit 20 frames a second, particularly on the PS3. Many of the issues were the result of the game running two versions of the world at the same time. The player could shift between two realms at will and at any point in the game.
“That was such a resource hog, to the point where it was almost a really stupid idea, because there’s just no making it work,” one developer says. “You could have done it on next-gen, but it was never going to be something that would run within the memory limits of PS3. We just about had it working on the Xbox 360 properly.”
Amid the production, producers at Square Enix expressed concern at the sales performance of similar games. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Darksiders had both launched in 2010 and, despite going down well with critics, failed to set tills alight. Sequels for both launched two years later and bombed. The open world action adventure genre Legacy of Kain has positioned itself in was dying. “If you look at those games, they had a pretty good art style, an okay name, and reviewed well,” one person says, “and if they can’t sell more than a million…”
Would the Legacy of Kain name have driven players in their millions to the shops? Would it have the same pull on PS3 and Xbox 360 as it did on the PSone? Some of the developers of Black Cloth doubted it would. In fact, at one point in development, a name change switch from Legacy of Kain to Soul Reaver, the latter of which was used more recently for games on the PS2, was mooted.
But even tougher comparisons were to be found in other games that had taken the open-world action game genre to new heights. Chief among them was the Assassin’s Creed series, a blockbuster title made by hundreds upon hundreds of people.
“People started to say, why does this Assassin’s Creed have what looks like better animation than your game?” one person who worked on Legacy of Kain says.
“When your answer is, well, Ubisoft employs 800 people to work on it and we’re on a tight budget, you’re in a pickle.”
Going into 2012, Climax, which had ramped up production to 100 people, had “grey-boxed” most of the game. A “vertical slice” – game industry terminology for a playable build of the game – had been sent to Square Enix. This was approved, developers say.
The vertical slice offered around an hour’s worth of play in the open world, plus five or six of the dungeons. Animation was near final. All the scripts were written. Motion capture had been done for a handful of the dungeons. And an impressive cast had been hired for voice over work: Asher, the human character, was played by Andrew Tiernan (Ephialtes of Trachis in movie 300); Gein by Ramon Tikaram (Ferdy in This Life); the emperor character by Howard Charles (Porthos, The Musketeers), and Lydia, another major character, by Viva Seifert, who went on to star in Her Story – the work of Climax alumni Sam Barlow. Climax considered Legacy of Kain around 50 per cent complete.
Meanwhile, two trailers had been made by Square Enix’s CG department. One of these, below, shows Gein walking into a puddle (the video was uploaded by NeoGAF user Mama Robotnik, who has done extensive research on Dead Sun). There was a more elaborate trailer that was to be used to reveal the game – and its final name: Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun – at E3 2012. It was never shown.
Puzzled Climax staff were told “this isn’t the right time” for Square Enix to show the trailer. “Internally, we absolutely hated the title,” one person said.
“I don’t know anyone on the team who liked it. Because it’s shit and it says nothing and it means nothing. In the game, the Sun isn’t dead. They liked the fact it was a play on ‘son’. Okay, there is a dead son, but it just happens at the beginning of the game. It’s not like it was a thing that had huge resonance.”
The production team had pushed for a different name: Legacy of Kain: Savage Messiah. Square Enix rejected it because it felt uncomfortable using the word “messiah”. “You’re making an 18-rated game about a vampire in a fantasy world who kills people,” one person says. “No-one’s going to get arsey and think you’re talking about a Christian god. Square did their polling and told us what it was going to be called.”
Square Enix, like many other publishers at the time, used a service that predicts a Metacritic review average. Black Cloth was tracking at an 80 average. This was under Square Enix’s expectations, which had targeted a Metascore of around 85.
Some of the people who worked on the game, however, thought an 80 Metascore, based on the vertical slice it had submitted, was a good return. The hope was that with more development time, it would reach the target Square Enix had set, and thus trigger a bonus payment from the publisher.
“And then all of a sudden we just started hearing rumours that essentially it was done,” one person recalls. “We started to come into work and people were getting called into offices and being laid off.”
And then there were wild sales expectations. At the time, Square Enix was a publisher that had what most consider to be unreasonable sales targets for its games. In 2012 – the year Legacy of Kain was canned – the Tomb Raider reboot came out. It sold 3.4m copies in four weeks, which was not enough to hit the game’s sales target. Hitman Absolution sold 3.6m units and failed to hit sales targets. Sleeping Dogs sold 1.75m and also disappointed.
Square Enix’s financial year would go on to be a disaster. Net sales and profits were significantly lower than expected, in large part due to a restructuring of its game business that was itself sparked by lacklustre sales of its console game portfolio. Company president Yoichi Wada was unceremoniously replaced.
The cancellation of Legacy of Kain must be seen through the lens of Square Enix’s catastrophic console business at the time. Here was a game it didn’t really know how to sell, a game that it believed wouldn’t blow gamers away, a game that had already cost tens of millions of dollars and would cost even more to get to market, a game in a genre that was dying…
“In fairness to them, I don’t know how you sell that game,” one developer says. “When you’re talking about a game that isn’t stupidly mainstream, that isn’t man on cover with gun, yes it is a hard sell, and yes, your expectations of sales figures are probably wrong.”
The cancellation of Legacy of Kain hit Climax hard. It found itself in the bizarre position of working to fulfill milestones on a game that had already been cancelled, just to bring in enough money to keep the studio going.
“There was a period of a few months where Square was withholding payments where it was pretty much, if they don’t pay it, Climax would have to let everyone go,” one source reveals.
“Everyone got the feeling something was wrong,” says another source. “A few people got let go straight away. But it kept going. Then we started hearing rumours the game was done. We were told by the Climax producer we had to carry on working because we still had to hit milestones. Square wasn’t paying us, and if we didn’t hit milestones then Square would withhold further payments, even though the game was cancelled. It wasn’t for very long, but for long enough that it was irritating.”
Climax knew Legacy of Kain was cancelled mid-May 2012, sources say, a month before its fancy reveal trailer was supposed to make a big splash at E3.
“Everyone was wrecked,” says a source, “and genuinely upset about it, because it’s a thing people cared about.
“As much as it was a game you were hired to make by somebody else, we genuinely did think we were making something cool.”
Climax staff were told Square Enix canned the game because of financial reasons, but we’ve heard there were concerns about the quality of the game Climax was building and a refusal to listen to feedback. There are two sides to this complex story.
“It had its problems,” one person involved in the development on Climax’s side admits. The issue here is that Dead Sun might have been too big a game for the studio to cope with, that it had grown into the kind of production even the likes of Ubisoft, with all its financial might, often struggles with. It was too ambitious for Climax, which didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of staff to play with. As one source says, the development team never managed to grow to a size capable of realising Legacy of Kain’s ambition in a time-frame that would have been considered reasonable by Square Enix – nor to the quality level gamers expected.
Climax boss Simon Gardner sticks to a statement he issued Eurogamer back in 2013, when news of the cancellation first emerged.
“Many games never see the light of day for lots of different reasons, especially over the last few years where business models and markets have been evolving rapidly. We continue to have a good relationship with Square Enix.”
One source who worked at Square Enix’s London office tells Eurogamer that from the publisher’s perspective, Climax was chosen to develop the game because “they’re cheap”.
“They said they could do the game for £15m,” said the source. “They had bitten off more than they could chew, and it wasn’t coming together.”
Apparently by the time the game was cancelled, Square Enix had spent around £7m on Legacy of Kain. It expected this to rise to £30m including marketing costs. “I really want to like this game but I’m worried it’s not going to get there,” the Square Enix source remembers of the conversations at the time, “and I don’t want to spent £30m to find out.”
Sales projections “weren’t great”, and so Square Enix cut its losses. “It wasn’t what fans of Legacy of Kain would have wanted.”
Bill Beacham is design director at Square Enix London Studios. Here, on the record, he discusses with Eurogamer the cancellation of Climax’s Legacy of Kain game, a game he was involved with from the start.
“Unfortunately in this case it wasn’t meeting our expectations,” he says. “It was a very difficult decision to take. Closing down any project is never easy, especially one where there was a lot of passion for and belief in it. But ultimately it wasn’t going to give us the game we were originally looking for. So we had to stop the project. It wasn’t the right game at the right time, basically.”
Beacham indicates the genre Legacy of Kain was in was less of an issue than the quality of the game, from Square Enix’s point of view.
“The public is less concerned about the genre,” he says. “They care about, is it a fun game? Do my friends like it? Is everyone talking about it? Ultimately, you just need a good game. And I think ultimately that was what we were seeing that we weren’t going to be getting.”
Climax reduced to a skeleton staff, comprised mainly of the core 30-person team that began work on Legacy of Kain three years prior. Pitches for new projects were created. We’ve heard whispers the team worked on a pitch for a new Silent HIll game for Konami, but that, obviously, didn’t go anywhere.
You might have seen leaked screenshots for a Prince of Persia game. That’s Climax. It was a pitch made using assets created for the cancelled Legacy of Kain, sources tell Eurogamer. Word had spread among the UK development community that Ubisoft was looking for a studio to build a 2D Prince of Persia game. Climax thought it could take one of the levels from Legacy of Kain, specifically a dungeon called Temple of the Whore Saint, turn it on its side, set it on a 2D plane, add in some platforming gameplay, slow down the animations, and rejig the graphics to make it look like Prince of Persia. “Boom,” says a source. “There’s our demo for it.”
On 8th April 2016, Square Enix and Psyonix announced the cancellation of Nosgoth, the competitive multiplayer game that was once intended to launch alongside Climax’s Legacy of Kain game. Nosgoth had failed to drum up enough of an audience for the numbers make sense.
It feels like a fully-fledged Legacy of Kain game is further away now than ever before then, with the brand cast back into the memories of those who remember its glory days fondly. Square Enix’s Bill Beacham tells Eurogamer there is hope for the series, but Legacy of Kain fans shouldn’t hold their breath.
“Making big single-player only story-driven games is increasingly expensive and you need to appeal to a lot of players to make that work,” he says.
“Any decision would be based on a thorough understanding of how that game would fit into the current marketplace. I know that sounds very corporate speak. I’m a massive Legacy of Kain fan. One of the reasons I went to work for Eidos in the first place was Soul Reaver. But at the same time, as much as the inner fanboy in me would love to see that game, I realise it’s going to cost a lot of time and money to make. So we can’t just appeal to a small group of fans, no matter how dedicated and how long they’ve been waiting. Anything that did potentially happen in the future would have to be a modern game while staying true enough to the sensibilities to be a Legacy of Kain game. That balancing act is a difficult one.”
As for Climax, it went on to make a PC port of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – ironic considering that was a series Legacy of Kain was competing with – and ports of Deadnation and Resogun for Sony. But the studio’s most high-profile project was for Ubisoft – the very same company it pitched a 2D Prince of Persia game to. That high-profile project was Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles, a 2D platforming twist on the Assassin’s Creed series. It’s not hard to trace the origins of the project.
Two years after Dead Sun was cancelled, Warner Bros. released Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game some might say is Legacy of Kain in a Lord of the Rings skin. The similarities between what Climax envisioned Black Cloth to be, and what Monolith Productions ended up releasing, are striking.
Legacy of Kain would have, in theory, released a few months before Shadow of Mordor, and so would have been in direct competition with a game that also had realm shifting, that also had a ghost friend, that also had a muddy green-brown open world, that also had a story where the wife was killed at the start, and that also had Batman-style combat. The two main differences, however, are worth noting: Legacy of Kain had dungeons. Shadow of Mordor had the Nemesis system. Perhaps executives at Square Enix looked at the sales success of Shadow of Mordor, which is set to enjoy a sequel, with a tinge of regret.
Meanwhile, there is still a degree of anger among those who worked on Legacy of Kain – anger at Square Enix for what they believe was mismanagement of the project, anger at the three-year black hole on their CVs, but most of all anger that a game they worked hard on failed to see the light of day.
Perhaps one day, like Legacy of Kain’s vampires, they’ll be given a second chance.