Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was an odd game. It plucked a longstanding, beloved, then-struggling series from the edge of irrelevancy, brushed off the vast majority of what series fans knew about it, and topped it off with a Kojima-tinged mindwarp of a narrative.
It was Castlevania, but not – the moody flair, god-and-demons motif and iconic character names were there, but they inhibited a foreign world that borrowed heavily from modern classics like God of War and Shadow of the Colossus. And Patrick Stewart. Patrick Stewart was in the game too.
But somehow, everything clicked. It was an original take on Castlevania, albeit one in a decidedly unoriginal game. What was there was done very well, and it was rewarded by becoming the best-selling game in the franchise’s history.
It’s been three years since the original, and sure enough, a proper console follow-up is now on the way. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 picks up where the first game left off, putting players in control of a weakened Dracula who seeks to regain his lost powers while fending off his eternal vampire hunting rivals/distant relatives from the Belmont family.
Konami is keeping mum on the Lords of Shadow 2’s narrative so far, but TG was able to recently play the forthcoming sequel and see whether or not this new Castlevania will be just as much of a radical departure from our expectations as its predecessor was.
It won’t be. Developer MercurySteam is still taking most of its cues from brutal, large-scale blockbusters like God of War, and the aesthetic here looks to be as grim as one would expect a game about the king of all vampires to be. This was all fine – not mind-blowing, but a solid foundation for the rest of the game to build upon.
TG’s roughly 20-minute demo is an admittedly small slice of gameplay, but it did reveal a game that seems largely concerned with refining the combat of the original, expanding its scope and introducing players to the dark side of its new protagonist.
And that protagonist is indeed very dark. The demo began with a slow-moving shot of the famous bloodsucker as he broods in an empty Gothic castle. He sits silently, staring into nothing, until a group of nameless knights storm his space. Then he takes out his whip.
The fighting in Lords of Shadow 2 was accessible, easy-to-learn, and challenging enough, but still felt a tad repetitive by the end of the demo. It’s like God of War, in other words. Dracula had three types of weapons he could cycle through with the bumper buttons, each of them designated as most effective against a particular type of enemy.
The franchise’s famous red whip does standard amounts of damage and works fine on any baddie, but as with the first game, our anti-hero carries both light and dark weapons. The Void Sword is the former — it’s a blue beaming blade that replenishes a small bit of Dracula’s health with each successfully landed strike.
The Chaos Claws, meanwhile, are big metal gloves that can wear down enemies wearing heavy armor. It’s a mix of fast-, mid- and slow(ish)-tempo fighting, and the demo mixed up the various types of onscreen enemies enough to make switching through styles quick and useful.
The biggest fix here is the now-adjustable camera, which can be moved around freely as Gabriel wreaks his havoc. That’s not really a “feature” so much as it is the game joining the 21st century, but it’s nice to see either way. The defense system is similarly simple, as Dracula can time a block at just the right time to open up his enemy for a deathly counter, or zip around the stage with a swift dodge command.
If the names of Dracula’s weapons didn’t give it away, Lords of Shadow 2 is very much a capital-V Video Game through and through. One wave of foes will show up, Dracula will take them out, and then others will appear, and then another, until the game decides it’s time to move on. There are rather basic platforming sections in between the battles, and they feel awkward next to the bloodshed. There are quick time events. There are onscreen hints. There are boss battles. There are setpieces.
On that last note, the second half of TG’s demo mostly took place outside of Dracula’s castle, eventually on top of a giant, moving titan. It was much like the Shadow of the Colossus-style battles of the original, with Dracula fighting waves of enemies on top of the titan’s body while the titan himself shook and slammed and knocked the baddies off of him in the process.
A frustrating platforming section in the middle of this quickly grew tedious, but all in all it’s still a spectacle to behold. The fact that there were zero loading times throughout the entire demo made MercurySteam’s work look even better. Even upon dying (TG missed plenty of jumps in the demo), reloads were quick enough to not feel distracting.
Lords of Shadow 2 is coming to current-gen consoles only, and it isn’t much of a looker, but a game like this is more dependent on its art style than anything else anyway. In that respect, the demo fit right in with the modern Castlevania style, with beasts and armored knights and blood and all the Gothic fittings one would expect. It didn’t look out of place.
There’s still plenty about Lords of Shadow 2 that TG doesn’t know much about. Konami has said that the game will have more of an open world, but the demo was as straightforward as it gets. The narrative will always be crucial to games like this, especially after the twists and turns of the first Lords of Shadow. It’s still unclear just how much variety MercurySteam will get out of the combat and platforming sections, and there is some potential for this game to grow wearisome after extended use if things aren’t periodically freshened up.
The biggest complaint TG had wasn’t with the simplistic mechanics, though – they’re not original, but neither was the last game’s, and they control smoothly enough to be fun. No, instead, our issue was that Dracula didn’t really feel like Dracula. He felt like Kratos with a red coat and longer hair. Yes, there’s a move that lets players replenish health by biting enemies’ necks and sucking their blood (it’s as brutal as it sounds), but even that was just another attack in this context. There’s no predatory or brooding feeling to Dracula once he’s up and fighting; he was just as vulnerable and beholden to standard action game conventions as any other video game anti-hero. That’s not a dealbreaker, but it could be a missed opportunity.
For now, at least. Konami and MercurySteam may have more tricks up their sleeves, and what they’ve presented so far is a sturdy foundation for the rest of a good game to be built upon. Whether or not Lords of Shadow 2 turns out to be just as much of a pleasant surprise as its predecessor, though, will be known when the game is released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC sometime this winter.