Lords of Shadow 1 was a come-out-of-nowhere, put-a-studio-on-the-map gem. MercurySteam dug the fangs of modern tech into the neck of Konami's 8/16-bit adventures resulting in a supercharged take on those simpler times. It was a linear action romp in the vein of God Of War, but shot through with a bleak Gothic beauty and Patrick Stewart delivering enough ham to fill a deli counter. We loved it, many of you loved it, but some of the hardened 'vania core didn't. It's in trying to get that last lot on board that LoS2 may have bitten off more than it can chew.
It starts with a great reminder of MercurySteam's strengths. Dracula sits besieged in his castle, with a never-ending tide of meatlings offering ample opportunity to get to grips with revamped combat. Or should that be vamped-up? The artist formally known as Gabriel Belmont still favours swirling whip attacks, only now it's a solidified cord of his own corrupt blood. Likewise, the first game's light and shadow magics evolve into standalone weapons: the health-sapping Void Sword and the armour-melting Chaos Claws. Both feel familiar under the thumbs, even as they inflict all-new pain.
Mankind's push on Dracula's abode offers a scale and variety the first game took hours to warm-up to. In 30 minutes you've slain would-be assassins, fought an angelic boss, scaled a castle-sized steampunk titan (continuing to fight said angelic boss as you go), puked up a hilarious amount of blood - the game loves the red stuff - and finished off that angelic wannabe once and for all. Most games fail to deliver this level of spectacle in their climaxes, let alone the prologue. Dracula, it turns out, is as fun to play as as he was difficult to kill in every Castlevania of old.
No sooner has this potent action force been introduced he's whisked away, plot machinations draining his powers and rendering him little more than a particularly malevolent raisin. It's a tried and tested hook: give a taste of Dracula running at full pelt, then force him to learn to walk again. Some abilities are imparted through prescribed story moments, others upgrades require mystical doodads hidden in the world. The latter often can't be found without the former - they're hidden tantalisingly in reach behind bars or on high ledges - forcing a fair degree of backtracking.
Older Castlevanias were often lumped in with Nintendo's Metroid due to this exploration (the 'Metroidvania' genre) and LoS2 feels closer to Metroid Prime than Symphony of the Night. Dracula doesn't level up, for one. Want to improve odds of survival? Sniff out health-bar gems. And, like Metroid Prime, its stiff difficulty means you'll need to. Drac even gets his own morph ball, with the power to possess rats and scuttle through vents. Hilariously, rat sections often end with the vermin being sacrificed in horribly violent ways.
Answering to the critics of the first game - those unhappy with an ashamedly A-to-B affair - sees MercurySteam leave its comfort zone. Exploration doesn't kick in properly until you regain the Chaos Claws at the four hour mark, and even then the openness wrestles with a desire to shepherd Drac through his story. Cutscenes yank him between locations, serving up the world as self-contained segments that give little impression of a cohesive whole. Doesn't help that the rubbish map screen only has two settings: 'microscopic room detail' or 'looking down from space'.
Castlevania City doesn't hang together organically. Unlike Arkham City - which also sings from Metroid's hymnbook - this is a linear world pretending to be open. Areas are built of wider fighting spaces connected by snaking corridors or platforming tasks. The game invites you into a world of gothic spires stabbing at the moon only to force Dracula into sewers and back alleys. Oh, and the elevators, pressurised doors and power generators aren't kidding anyone - we know a loading screen when we see one. Especially when we see one every four minutes.
The final nail in exploration's coffin is automated platforming. Everyone does it these days - from Nathan Drake to Lara Croft - but in a game that sells itself on the hidden potential of the environment, having big CLIMB HERE symbols negates the point. You walk into a room, look for a bat cluster - signifying a grip point - and follow the fixed route until you either reach a secret or... you don't. A later double jump reveals new verticality in previously visited areas, but it's still the same push-analogue-stick-to-win drudgery once you get up there.
"MercurySteam knows how to pace action, mixing common scraps with puzzles, platforming and kooky narrative asides."
Wonky world building and platforming so wooden you could stick it in Dracula's heart? Raises the question of why there's a juicy score of 8 on the bottom of the page. For all its failings, there's no suppressing MercurySteam's talent. Conceptually, this is fascinating take on Castlevania's gothic leanings, alternating between a metropolis grown from the ruins of Dracula's abode and the memories of his former home made flesh. Visiting this mind palace reveals art design as stunning as anything we've seen this gen. Almost seems a shame to dash harpy brains all over it.
And yet dash them you will. Lord of Shadow's combat may lack the speed of God of War and the depth of a Platinum brawler, but it has its own sense of righteous weight to it. Dracula's whip delivers whirling crowd control before making way for punishing lashes. Physicality extends to the swords and claws, the former stealing health with a quick snicker-snack and latter pummelling foes until armour glows red and shatters. That all three can be levelled up by mixing up attacks is a smart way to tempt us towards more obscure corners of the move list.
A big part LoS2's appeal is playing as Dracula. Throwing his medieval wrath at modern day military or feasting on the necks of dazed foes makes a change from cookie-cutter badasses. His tale is deliciously overwrought - the celebrity cast is competing in a scenery-chewing contest from the sound of things - and, bar one horrible moment early on (try to avoid spoilers), opts for gleeful camp. Well, as camp as he can be while slitting wrists to power ancient machines or squeezing hearts into his gob like he was drinking from a refreshing Capri Sun.
As proven first time round, MercurySteam knows how to pace action, mixing common scraps with puzzles, platforming (however brainless) and kooky narrative asides. Along with its kamikaze rat conundrums, LoS2 finds time for a chaotic game of hide-and-seek on a speeding train, a battle with possession and a beautiful moment where a tragic figure's back-story is filled in with a Dracula directed puppet show. Boss fights are typically sharp, requiring nimble-fingered play and rewarding aching digits with horrible QTE finishers.
Sometimes it misses the mark. Stealth sections won't give Kojima sleepless nights, turning the game into a trial-and-error puzzle as distract invincible grunts with a reduced moveset. And there's a special circle in hell for the sod who designed the maze section in the greenhouse. If earlier stealth was trial-and-error, this is trial-and-blind-luck; the last time a sequence made us this angry was carrying a very fragile bomb through Castlevania 64. Hey, guess it wouldn't be a true 3D 'vania if it didn't make you contemplate staking your heart with a biro at least once.
Would these hiccups have slipped through had the team been focused on the template perfected in the first game? Who knows. The true irony? The story is about a man brought low by listening to the advice of others. Just as Gabriel was wrong to answer the call of fate, so MercurySteam should know to tread its own course, instead of swaying to satisfy the Castlevania old guard. In trying to be all things to all people it offers less to those that loved it for what it was. Forget the dead family and vampiric curse - that's the true tragedy of this Dracula.
A hefty slurp of bloodied bombast, tainted by misguided attempt to please everyone.
- The gleeful gruesomeness of playing as Dracula.
- Gorgeous art design and lush orchestral soundtrack.
- Exploration is on-the-rails and at odds with action.
- The 'goat maze'. Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.