The Castlevania series stretches back almost thirty years, with a huge number of titles having been released over that time. As a whole, it is considered a classic and is widely held as one of the parents of the ‘Metroidvania’ subgenre of adventure games. But time brings change. Although the series was a veritable powerhouse in the 2D era, the transition to 3D was not kind, slowly diluting the name and sinking it ever closer to an ignoble grave.
Three years ago, a new vision in the vaunted series was presented to the world. Developed by MercurySteam, in association with Kojima Productions, Lords of Shadow offered a rethink of many traditional elements and the best reception for a non-portable Castlevania since 1997’s Symphony of the Night. The protagonist was a previously unseen member of the Belmont clan, Gabriel, and his mission was to destroy the eponymous Lords of Shadow. There was also a wider range of enemies to fight than the typical vampires and werewolves. However, the whip, which acts as both a weapon and augmentation to traversal, was firmly in place along with the Gothic atmosphere and the presence of hidden collectibles.
For Lords of Shadow 2, the game’s engine has been completely redesigned, which allows for a number of new features to be introduced. Key among these is a more open world to allow for a less linear experience, as well as complete control over the game’s camera. Similarly, the combat system has been redesigned with two subweapons replacing the magic system. In spite of these changes, it is clear that the development team is not overly fond of the idea of messing with a winning formula. The core structure of the game as an action/adventure title remains largely unchanged.
Players will still be challenged with puzzles and platforming segments along with battles, which means that pacing and balance should not be too much of an issue. It has been stated that it is not a “true” open world. Rather, the map opens up over time while previously unlocked areas can be returned to at will. This makes it likely that it will adopt a ‘dungeon’ mentality at certain points to funnel players into these events. Such was the case in the demo found at the EB Expo last year, which was taken from the earliest portion of the game, and so may not be indicative of the final product. It has, however, been stated the game will not have any loading screens outside of the initial one, making it a seamless experience.
That aforementioned demo was also reminiscent of the first game in that players had to take down a massive Titan-like construct by climbing upon its body. It was a marriage of scale and scope that proved to be quite impressive. The combat system now works on a trinity of weapons. The Blood Whip is the most basic and straightforward weapon of all, offering a balance between speed and power. The Void Sword is slightly faster, while dealing less damage to enemies. Making up for this limitation is its ability to leech health from enemies, making it a truly useful addition to the arsenal. The third weapon is the Chaos Claws; slower and more powerful, they are also the only weapon capable of breaking through the defences of armoured enemies. Combat itself is founded on a two-button principle with one being a directed heavy attack and the other a ranged AoE attack. It all speaks of a scheme that has become standard, though few games can claim to pull it off so smoothly and convincingly, if my time with the game is anything to go by.
The unlocking of combos has been rethought as well. No longer will players have to purchase them by the spending of currency or experience points. Instead, they are unlocked more organically as the game progresses and repeated use results in mastery of them, which in turn increases the power of Gabriel’s weapons. It certainly is an interesting concept, though whether it works effectively remains to be seen. Other abilities that Gabriel gains access to include grappling stunned enemies to drain their life’s energy, control adversaries for a short time and turning into mist to get past enemies unseen or enter certain areas. There are also Relics to find and purchase, with varying effects including stopping and slowing enemies, or unlocking the full complement of abilities for a short time.
Several of these core abilities and weapons are introduced in the initial sequence before being stripped away in a trope that feels increasingly tired. It is explained here by Gabriel having slept for a thousand years before being re-awakened to combat a new threat. As worn out as the concept is, the quest to regain his powers should prove to be a lengthy and satisfying one, with the developers stating that Lords of Shadow 2 will be a longer game that its predecessor, which for many clocked in at around or in excess of 20 hours.
The ending of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow set up for this sequel by revealing that Gabriel was given a new life following his trials, and showed him living as the fabled vampire lord, Dracula, in the modern age. He was approached by an ally and informed that Satan was preparing to return and take his revenge. As a reward for helping to prevent this he would be cured of his immortality. It is roughly at this point that Lords of Shadow 2 begins.
Dracula has slept for centuries and he wakes in the modern age weakened and desirous of both regaining the powers that once he held and ridding himself of the curse of immortality. The latter is promised so long as he can vanquish Satan, but he can only achieve this by attaining the first goal, and so his mission begins. The key to it all lies in his castle, but getting there is no simple task. Standing in his way are Satan’s minions, as well as members of his former Order, The Brotherhood of Light. Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, are members of his own Belmont clan, including his son Alucard, who vociferously seek his destruction.
Lords of Shadow 2 holds considerable promise for a deep and multi-layered story, with the developers seeking to offer a more human portrayal of Dracula than the series has ever seen before. With a litany of characters all driven by their own goals, and most standing in opposition to Gabriel’s quest, it should prove to be a compelling experience hopefully fraught with emotional moments. With it also being MercurySteam’s final foray into the Castlevania franchise, it should bring things to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps that is raising expectations too high, though. The events of the first game were handled quite well, though it was hardly a bastion of video game story telling. Nevertheless, we can hope.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, for all of its additional bells and whistles and the changes that have been wrought upon its structure, is fundamentally more of the same of what the original game offered. The first game was a solid foundation, and it is only on such a thing that greatness can be built. In any case, it is shaping up to be a beautiful and polished title, and one can hope among the best action/adventure titles of 2014. For its incredible promise, it makes out list of the most anticipated games of this year. It is slated to release on the 25th of February for the PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Although no PS4 or XBO versions have been confirmed, it has previously been stated that the engine is scalable, so though unlikely they are not entirely out of the question.