The 35th title in the Castlevania series, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (LoS2) is almost upon us, and I had the opportunity to spend some hands-on time with its latest build. I found it to be a dark, gritty game, with some pretty disturbing themes and a plot that invokes the names of some of the most well-known mythical figures (or real ones, if you’re into such things), but if you’ve played the first Lords of Shadow (Los), this won’t be anything new to you.
In fact, the game picks up right after the post-credits scene from the first LoS; if you haven’t finished that game but you’d like to do so without having the plot ruined for you, please skip the next three paragraphs as they contain spoilers.
Zobek, the mysterious Lord of the Necromancers who manipulated Gabriel Belmont into pursuing the God Mask in the first game was seen in modern times promising the clearly-tormented Gabriel that he would free him of his immortality in exchange for taking up the fight against Satan. Satan, apparently, is angry at the defeat he suffered at Gabriel’s hands during the events of LoS and his subsequent thousand-year banishment from Earth, and on the eve of his banishment’s end – hence the modern setting – his acolytes are preparing for his return. Zobek needs Gabriel to disrupt those plans, lest they both end up as Satan’s playthings for eternity.
Gabriel is no longer Gabriel, however: he is now a corrupted shadow of his former self, a blood-sucking vampire called Dracula. Gabriel’s bitterness at his betrayal by Zobek and the Brotherhood of Light led him down a dark path which, when amplified by his immortality and power (both obtained at the end of LoS’s Resurrection DLC) turned him into the God-hating, blood-drinking abomination he appears as in Lords of Shadow 2.
It’s a deeply ironic twist on the Belmonts’ story, as their role in the Castlevania series has always been that of vampire hunters, and the various incarnations of Dracula their nemesis throughout the series. But now we know just how the Belmonts and Dracula are connected – he has been one of them all along.
Lords of Shadow 2 starts off with Dracula at full power, which he unleashes against waves of soldiers in what amounts to the game’s tutorial section. Gamers are introduced to the three weapons he has at his disposal: the iconic Castlevania whip (now called the Blood Whip), a vampiric “Void Sword” that steals health from his enemies and some really cool-looking flaming gauntlets called Chaos Claws, which are used to smash through shield-wielding enemies. I found that to use Dracula’s weapons effectively required a surprising amount of strategy, as simply mashing buttons turned out to be a sure-fire way to lose. Defeating enemies often demanded that I switch tactics on the fly, as there was no one-size-fits-all method of dispatching them.
Adding to the player’s range of combat options is an alternate fire mode that launches projectiles. The Void Sword can freeze water, enemies and other highlighted objects that open up areas that are otherwise out of reach, while Gabriel also has Shadow Daggers that can wound enemies from a distance and smash out-of-reach locks. Switching tactics often is pretty much essential to victory, and it keeps combat from being boring and repetitive.
Punctuating the fights were some pretty cool boss battles that required a combination of deft manoeuvring and clever strategy to pass. The general character design is really good, too, with a lot of creativity apparent in the moves and looks of the opponents I faced, making each new one a wonder to behold and require specific tactics to defeat. Many of them are butt-ugly as well, but fascinating to look at nonetheless. The boss in the first modern-day mission was particularly memorable thanks to her monstrously-ugly reptilian head and super-fast moves.
As enemies are defeated Gabriel earns experience points, which are used to upgrade his abilities. He can improve his weapons’ effectiveness and his pool of health and Focus (the magical energy used to power some of his attacks) in this way, which is needed as enemies get progressively tougher. It’s a simple, well-explained upgrade system that anyone who has picked up a game in the last ten years will easily get their heads around.
Nimble Fingers Required
The Castlevania series has its origins in the platforming gameplay of games from the mid-to-late eighties, and LoS2 is just as jumpy/swingy/fall downy as befits a game with its history. When not fighting enemies – and occasionally even during fights – Gabriel must jump, climb and scramble over environmental obstacles that are moving or changing or both in order to proceed, and the few I saw in my time with the preview code were absolutely spectacular.
The first section of the game culminates in a gorgeous cinematic fight with one of the Brotherhood of Light’s Paladins, who is trying his best to take Dracula out as Dracula scrambles over a huge mechanical robot thing that’s destroying his castle. It was a spectacle the likes of which I’ve seldom seen in a game, and I was amazed at the jaw-dropping visuals the developers were able to coax from the PlayStation 3’s eight year old hardware.
In fact, LoS 2’s graphics are stunning everywhere you look, from the character design to the Gothic architecture of Gabriel’s castle to the modern-day city’s look and feel. Everything is richly detailed and the colour palette a nice variety of hues and shades, resulting in a game that doesn’t appear washed out or overly brown/orange/grey.
The game then moves into modern times, where Dracula/Gabriel’s centuries-long sleep is ended by Zobek and he is given the bad news about Satan’s imminent arrival and told where he must start his quest. He is quite weak, however, and must spend the first mission doing more sneaking than fighting, going so far as to possess rats to get around the level rather than by engaging enemies directly. Stealth in a Castlevania game is not quite what I expected, but it worked well and it fits with the game’s story when it’s needed, so I wasn’t unhappy at its inclusion. It also doesn’t last very long, and felt complementary to the combat-heavy sections.
Once past the first mission, the game really opens up and shows off its open-world design and stunning, detail-packed environments. I found myself often exploring the world with the free-moving camera just to take it all in, and over the course of the game’s first few hours I found a good balance of exploration, puzzles, combat and stealth that kept things ticking along nicely.
The story is also quite compelling, as it essentially puts two incredibly evil beings, Satan and Dracula, on a collision course. I didn’t see any of Satan in my time with the game’s preview code, but I am intrigued as to how Dracula/Gabriel is going to take him down a second time.
Just a warning, however: if you’re even remotely religious, you will find a lot to offend you in this game. The developers pulled out all the stops to make a gritty, mature game that doesn’t pull any punches, so you’ll see guts and gore galore, demons emerging through puddles of blood, some pretty creepy blood rituals and explicit scenes of violence at just about every turn. I would say this definitely isn’t a game for the faint of heart, and I’ve only seen the first three hours or so.
That being said, going on what I have seen so far of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (and not being a religious man), I’d say the game is looking to be an excellent follow-up to the well-received original, and a really good reason to hang on to your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 for now.
Look out for it in shops from the 28th of February; it will be available on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.