Picking up where MercurySteam’s content-crammed action adventure left off, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 steps things up a notch with a darker, more thought-provoking chapter in the series which focuses on cult blood-sucker Dracula as he battles against Satan’s acolytes and The Brotherhood Of Light across two very different settings: a modern city and his own Gothic castle.
For those who played the first Lord of Shadows game, and for those who didn’t, there’s a decent refresher of events that leads up to the present day where 11th century Knight, Gabriel Belmont, now known as Dracula, is resurrected and yearns to be released from immortality. A deal is made between Dracula and his old ally Zobek, who agrees to help him battle against Satan in return for his death and freedom from eternal life.
At this point, Dracula is weak and needs his strength back, so Zobek offers him a family to sacrifice. In a shocking scene, one of the first things you witness is Dracula killing a mother in front of his daughter, which introduces the dark nature of the game with quite an impact. Despite the blood-bath of killings that follows, the story soon provides food for thought, leaving you wondering whether his mission is about redemption or revenge and whether Dracula really does actually want immortality.
The story is entertaining and well-paced with some slickly produced cut-scenes that brings the best out of the star-studded cast of voice actors, including the return of Robert Carlyle as Gabriel Belmont, who does a tremendous job at adding flavour to Dracula’s character. Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of the cigarette-smoking Zobek is also a highlight as we get to learn more about his character and why he’s so keen on helping out Dracula.
While the narrative kept us hooked to cut-scenes and hanging on every word from the mouths of the game’s two main characters, the soundtrack also plays a major part. An atmospheric, rousing musical score manages to change the emotion of scenes with the likes of brooding piano solos during bouts of exploration adding a dreamy feel, while percussion-driven crescendos ramp up the tempo during tense, frenetic battles.
However, it’s the gameplay of LOS 2 that takes centre stage with a more open-world feel helping to add depth and variety, as well as give players an enticing backdrop to explore. Indeed, gameplay consistently entertains throughout the well-paced, twenty hour-plus campaign with some tactically-engrossing combat, slick platforming sections and rewarding exploration, which also features welcome bouts of stealth play, puzzle-solving and the rewarding hunt for collectibles.
Combat revolves around Void and Chaos powers which replace the magic system from the previous game. The Void Sword allows players to gain health with each strike, while the flaming Chaos Claws can be used to break defences and smash through structures. This leaves players with a dilemma, deciding whether to fill up either their Void or Chaos metres with collected blood orbs. It’s purely a tactical decision as players are required to switch between weapons often depending on the situation and the enemy types they face.
There’s an intuitive feel to the combat system thanks in part to the free-roaming camera, but mainly because the controls are superbly mapped to the DualShock, with all the buttons, the triggers, and the D-Pad needed to pull off a wide range of moves. Blocking, rolling away from enemies, and switching between a wide range of attacks and powers soon becomes second nature, yet the combat scheme is enjoyably in-depth and the enemy A.I. puts up a real challenge.
Each of the two powers has over 30 combos associated with it, and as you master them and kill enemies, Dracula earns more XP and becomes more powerful, unlocking more devastating moves and weapon upgrades. These are chosen via skill trees in the sub-menu where you can spend points on honing your skills in certain areas, perhaps choosing to power-up in a specific ranged attack or choosing powers that help with crowd control. The skill system is in-depth and there’s a real sense of progression as Dracula grows in strength. The downside is that the sub-menu could have been simplified and designed in a more attractive way; as it stands it seems rather dated, bland, and a little too complicated.
Nonetheless, there’s much fun to be had out of Dracula’s many abilities and plenty of satisfaction to be reaped from ripping the hearts out of its indescribable menagerie of monsters, executing blood-thirsty finishing moves and utilising some of the major powers and items. Secondary weapons, such as Chaos Bombs and the Shadow Dagger, can be used for ranged attacks while powerful items, such as the Talisman of the Dragon, trigger a cinematic scene where you morph into a dragon and immediately destroy your enemies. Relics can also be found or purchased from the Chupacabra Shop, allowing you to trigger the likes of regeneration potions or perhaps unlock all skills for a limited time.
At no point does LOS 2 feel like a button-masher during combat as there’s a significant amount of options available in combat and real reward for varying your attacks, thanks to the skill system that encourages you to master your weapons. Such is the depth of the control scheme, and with the different strengths of the Void and Chaos powers, players will find themselves switching powers on the fly to take on different enemies and using a variety of combos to experiment and find out what works the most effectively. For example, you might use the Chaos power to break through the shield of a Stone Golem, switch to the Void Sword to send out an icy blast to freeze him and then rush up close with a rapid direct combo to take advantage of his inability to move.
There’s good enemy variety too in terms of both look and behaviour, from aggressive flying Harpys to heavily-armoured Stone Golems. A.I. is sharp with increasingly challenging battles and a varied bestiary that mixes up enemies who have both short and long range attacks and various states of armour or maneuverability. The highlight, however, comes from the boss battles against the likes of the three-headed gorgon, where you need to work out weak spots, switch between powers, and disable the boss before jumping into a cinematic set-piece by climbing up its body and delivering the killer blow.
The Void and Chaos powers are also used outside combat to work out environmental puzzles. One of the many fun things to do in LOS 2 is to explore new areas, and you might use the Chaos power to shoot out a flaming Shadow Dagger to switch off a power line so that you can climb up a building or freeze a waterfall with an icy blast to reach the next area. It’s extremely smooth traversing the walls of the castle or leaping over caverns, and the platforming sections provide a welcome change of pace after a long hard-fought battle. Many of these sections require perfect timing to get past traps such as pipes that spray hot water, so trial and error is sometimes called for, which can be frustrating. However, the platform sections add flavour to the overall experience and make LOTS 2 feel much more than a generic, one-trick adventure.
Aside from the mass of combat moves, there are also stealth sections which give players the chance to use vampiric powers. For example, you can sneak up behind an enemy and totally possess them and take over their body, which comes in handy for some of the puzzle sections where huge guards block your path and you need to bypass a door’s security system. There’s also the chance to conjure up a swarm of bats and send them towards enemies to create a distraction or morph into a rat to scuttle through the grates into the sewers in order to work a way out. The stealth sections add further variety to the game, although a little later on these sections get repetitive and a little monotonous.
As if LOS 2 hadn’t already got a huge bag of tricks up its sleeve, the open world means there’s also plenty of opportunity to explore, and it’s worth doing so thanks to hidden relics, extra XP, soldier diaries and pain orbs which increase your Void and Chaos metres. LOS 2 isn’t the best-looking game on PS3 by a long shot, but level design is excellent and exploring the impressive back-drop of Dracula’s mansion and its huge, towering Gothic structures is a real highlight.
Whether you’re summoning swarms of bats, morphing into a sewer-scuttling rat, or executing Satan’s beasts with a range of devilish moves before you squeeze every drop of blood out of their beating hearts, being Dracula is cool and it’s fair to say that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 delivers an entertaining campaign that is hard to put down once you start. Quite simply, this is the most fun we’ve had killing monsters since carving up freaks with God of War III’s Blade of Exile.