Castlevanias one of those series that seems, like its toothy antagonist, to have been around forever. From its humble beginnings on the NES, almost every system thats come after has played host to the eternal grudge match between the Belmont clan and Count Dracula. From simple arcade-style actioners to intricate RPG-like affairs (as well as a number of 3D experiments), weve seen all kinds of games bear the legendary title over the years: some of them peerless classics, others less so.
With the series in a rut, following several well-received but samey DS games and a truly bizarre beat em up, it was left to Spanish developer MercurySteam to reboot the series a la Batman Begins and kickstart a new direction for the famous franchise. The result, 2010s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, was a success on many levels: a focus on straightforward action gameplay, a hugely polished graphical style and a commitment to story and character. Trouble was, it didnt really feel much like a Castlevania title, and as fans of the series will tell you, its important to get Castlevania right. Gone was the schlocky Hammer Horror feel and insanely catchy tunes, replaced with a darker, more adult, and more 'mature' approach - much like every other game of the time.
The game followed Gabriel Belmont, a noble knight of the Brotherhood of Light, trying to end the rule of the three nefarious Lords of Shadow, which involved traversing castles, swamps and even alternate dimensions in a quest to beat the baddies. What this meant for the player was level after level of combat set against jaw-droppingly spectacular backgrounds, with occasional Quick Time Events (where you have to tap the appropriate button at the right time) used in fights with huge enemies known as Titans. Possibly the biggest complaint for fans that there was little to no exploration involved. For a series that was known for placing as much focus on exploring every last corner of huge environments as it did hacking down mermen and zombies, this linear action-driven approach felt like something was missing. Turns out MercurySteam was listening.
Having seemingly taken a good deal of fan input on board, and following a side-scrolling sort of sequel on 3DS (the average Mirror of Fate, which has since had an HD release on PS3 and 360), MercurySteam is back with Lords of Shadow 2, the culmination of the Lords of Shadow story - and its certainly looking good. Following the events of the first game (and in particular its unexpected twist ending) the new game plants you squarely in the leather boots of the prince of darkness himself: Dracula. Hes on a revenge mission against the biggest bad of all, Satan, who deceived him in the first game.
As a 3D action game at its core, combat is a big part of Lords of Shadow 2. Our blood sucking anti-hero seems to have made enemies of just about everybody, including the evil-vanquishing Brotherhood of Light as well as Satans armies. With attackers coming from all sides then, its lucky that Dracs armed to the (pointy) teeth. The standard weapon is the Shadow Whip, which should feel familiar to fans as it functions similarly to the Combat Cross of the last game. Clever use of the Shadow Whip allows Dracula to collect enemies blood to build up his focus, which in turn powers up his other forms of attack: The Void Sword and Chaos Claws. The Void Sword replenishes health with use, which can come in handy, while the Chaos Claws are flaming gauntlets that can smash through enemy defences with ease. Switching between the three seems tricky at first, but with a bit of practice youll be juggling them all, maintaining focus and wiping the floor with huge enemies like stone Golems and armour-clad knights of the Brotherhood. Despite varying weapons and combos on offer, it wont all be hack and slash though, as the first game found time for some headache-inducing puzzles, so wed be surprised if there was no puzzle element in the sequel. Hopefully though, theyll be better integrated into the gameplay, rather than self-contained challenges.
Compared to the first game, Lords of Shadow 2 offers much more in the way of player control, with an adjustable camera, and much more opportunity for exploration in the games two distinct landscapes. Making use of a whole new graphics engine, built specifically for this game, Lords of Shadow 2 is taking a more open world approach than its predecessor. Ditching the linear setup means that the environments (Draculas huge castle back when hes at the peak of his powers, and the modern-day city he wakes up in) are crammed with secrets to seek out, and are begging to be explored. At first the modern setting might not seem to fit very well with the Castlevania vibe, but were told that the city will incorporate Gothic elements along with skyscrapers think Batman: Arkham City with but with more bite.
This new focus on exploration also means that one of the series key features can make a return. Dracula can change into a variety of alternate forms, allowing him access to areas that at first seem unreachable. Taking a cue from PS classic Symphony of the Nights Alucard (who appears in this game too), Dracula can assume the form of a swirling mist in order to float past enemies or reach new places. Sometimes enemies will drop handy items too, like a jewel which allows Dracula to freeze certain parts of the environment, possibly revealing new routes. Theres a degree of back-tracking to be expected too, as once new abilities are discovered there will almost certainly be reason to revisit earlier sections to see if anything new can be discovered with different skills. Its a design which has worked many times in the past, and particularly well for the Metroid and Castlevania games, so its good to see it make a return here.
The original Lords of Shadow was intended, in part, to bring Castlevania back to the forefront: reinvigorating a tired franchise, and drawing in new players more accustomed to button mashing action games like God of War or Devil May Cry. While it may have overstepped the mark a tad last time, Lords of Shadow 2 looks to be a huge step beyond, and should feel more like an original game than a mish-mash of genres, from what weve seen so far. Set to be MercurySteams last Castlevania outing, were betting that theyve gone all out to produce a fitting end to their story, and a meaty action game for us to sink our teeth into. Keep an eye out for the game when it hits the shelves at the end of the month - but make sure you check back soon for a full review.