Part One – Hands-On
Lords of Shadow 2 opens with a combat tutorial couched inside a flashback. Dracula, seemingly at the height of his power, seems fairly nonchalant considering his castle is under siege by an army that wants his head. It’s only as his enemies reach the throne room that Drac deems the threat powerful enough to get Dracula out of his seat and into the fight.
At first (and maybe second) glance, the combat of Lords of Shadow 2 immediately looks and feels very similar to the original and, by extension, the God of War series. After a few minutes of approaching it that way, relying heavily on dodge-rolling and button-mashing, it became clear the combat encourages a different set of considerations. The dual magic system, where weapons and abilities are branded Chaos or Void, returns and certain enemies will require players to switch between the two: Dracula can break down knights sporting large shields using slower, stronger Chaos weapons. Dracula can also revive himself slightly by biting his weakened enemies. Most importantly, players can (and should) block and parry enemy attacks, rather than rolling on the floor like a maniac. Figuring out the timing needed to block and counter automatically demands a higher level of focus than a pure “beat-em-up” action game.
After taking down a few waves of knights and nailing down the combat basics, Dracula heads outside to find his castle being torn down by a giant siege robot that, acting as both environment and enemy, begs for another the God of War comparison. Drac shows off some run-of-the-mill climbing mechanics as he scales and dismantles the weapon while avoiding projectiles and traps. Sprinkle in a few more combat arenas, and it’s clear that, while the game has a distinct play-style – one that’s more successful than its predecessors – this is not a game looking to re-invent the wheel.
Things get more interesting once the flashback comes to a close and we enter the modern era. Without giving too much away, years have passed since Dracula retreated from the world, presumed dead by his enemies. He’s no longer the powerful vampire lord we just controlled, but a sickly-looking, grey-haired bag of bones. (You know exactly what I mean if you’ve finished the first Lords of Shadow) Since his supposed demise, Castlevania has fallen apart and a 21st century city has been built up and around the ruins. After making it very clear that Dracula is still very much a villain in the larger scheme of things, the weakened Lord of Shadow finds a reason to finally come out of hiding.
Before he can achieve his goals, though, his first order of business will be getting his strength back. Dracula’s quest for power sends him to an “abandoned” laboratory where he must employ (gasp) stealth to sneak by and deceive enemies deemed too strong for him to fight head-on. Rather than risk frustration by creating what a cover system for what seems like a secondary, the game adds a set of contextual abilities for stealth situations: In one sequence, players shape-shift into a rat to hide from a hulking, mini gun-toting guard, then possess him to open a locked door. Though the stealth sequence was thankfully brief, the tutorial language guiding players through suggests there may be a few of these sequences sprinkled throughout the game.
Part 2 – Hands-Off
Though game is very structured in its opening hours, LoS2 does allow players to wander the world more freely further down the line. In addition to our time playing the game, we were shown a small slice of the game from “about 10 hours in,” according to producer Dave Cox. (Cox says the game should take at least hours to finish.)
By this point, Drac’s gotten his groove back so he’s free to wander the modern Castlevania city. Though Lords of Shadow 2 features a modern setting, the world Dracula inhabits doesn’t resemble any real-world city. Instead, Dracula stalks an world that would be described as post-apocalyptic in almost any other context: Twenty-first century features like buildings, factories and roads that are plugged into the ruins of Dracula’s castle, kind of like grass growing through cracks in a sidewalk.
At the point we’ve dropped into, Drac has already picked up the ability to transform into mist, opening up new areas. In addition to its classic use – phasing through grates and other sets of bars – Dracula can cross be blown across large gaps by turning into mist while standing next to a large fan.
While running around stumbles on… Well, at least they look like robots, giving Dracula gets a chance to show off his more fully realized arsenal. The mist form, for example, has some practical application in combat, letting players phase through enemies to dodge their attacks. In addition to learned skills and combos, Dracula can collect single-use potions like Stola’s Clock, which slows times for enemies, and the Enraged Demon potion, which fills up his magic meter. After toying with them for a while, Drac decides to finish his opponents off, so he activates a talisman – another single-use item – to transform into a giant dragon and wipe everybody out.
Though the game seems incredibly combat-heavy, it does occasionally rely on puzzle-solving to break up the action: In addition to looking for players to use abilities creatively, a story-intensive narrative puzzle – Players are asked to use puppets to tell the re-enact of the Toymaker, a victim of Dracula’s past villainy, based on the story being told. It explains the two characters’ relationship just in time to prompt a very traditional multi-stage boss fight. Even with a brand new setting, Lords of Shadow feels familiar: At its best, the game feel comfortable and engaging, but 20-hour games will likely feature its share of low-points, and those will probably get dull very quickly.
With only two months left to go, it’s still hard to say whether or not this game achieves a 3D Metroidvania experience worthy of a series that spawned the term. For now, the safe assessment is; God of War + Tomb Raider = Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. If that formula sounds appealing, then this is a game worth getting excited about.
Intrigued? Check out our interview with Producer Dave Cox for the inside scoop on Castlevania.