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The Next Level In Gaming

Warning: While the *major* plot spoiler for Lords of Shadow is pretty hard to avoid, just thought I’d warn you that there will be spoilers for the first game here. You have been warned!

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Of all the games at Eurogamer Expo this year, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 was the one I was the most excited about. Coming seemingly out of nowhere at the hands of an then-unknown developer (Mercurysteam) the original Lords of Shadow blew me away in terms of sheer scale and the level of quality that permeated all the way through. Putting aside my concerns for the future of the series as a whole (the potential death of the 2D Castlevania series which has gone quiet lately), Lords of Shadow was an incredible take on the Castlevania lore and was well deserving of a sequel. Ending with a huge teaser for what was to come, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next for Gabriel in this new timeline.

Of course, assuming you’ve read my spoiler warning and accept the fact that you can never un-read this, you’ll be aware that the end of Lords of Shadow left us with the massive reveal that Gabriel Belmont is in fact Lord Dracula himself, in a mind-blowing scene of an immortal Gabriel crashing out into the streets of the modern world. The major questions this opened up were – “Will we still be playing as Gabriel in the sequel?” and “If so, what will this mean in terms of gameplay?”. Well, the answer to the first question is yes - we will be playing as Gabriel, in all his vampiric glory – and the demo at this year’s Eurogamer let me finally find out the answer to the second.

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The demo started with our hero (or should that be anti-hero?) alone inside a lavish room within a castle, presumably his own. Gabriel was not alone for long though – soon enough, armoured warriors invaded the room. In a great bit of Castlevania fan-service, Gabriel throws an empty chalice to the ground and smiles, happy to accept his challengers.

While Dracula isn’t known for using a whip, Gabriel retains his signature weapon in the form of the Blood Whip – initially combat was very familiar, with Gabriel sporting many of the same combos available in the first game. As with the first game, the combat’s weight feels great, with each hit feeling satisfying, and the parry system returning to open enemies up for counter-attacks.

However, it wasn’t too long until the new combat features started to appear. If an enemy is stunned, Gabriel can now grab them in order to feed on them. This fills some of his health, and also his Void/Chaos meters. Very much like the original game’s Light and Shadow magics, Void focuses on restoring Gabriel’s health, while Chaos power is used to inflict major damages and break down enemy defences. However, while Light and Shadow magic simply altered the properties of Gabriel’s whip, Void and Chaos power are instead attached to alternate weapons.

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First up, I was able to get my hands on the Void Sword. By tapping a shoulder button, Gabriel changes his equipped weapon – any icy-blue blade now in hand. I was curious to see how swordplay would feel given that the first game solely used the whip, but I instantly felt comfortable with the weapon. Combos work in much the same way as the Blood Whip, but the weapon heals you for every hit you land on an enemy. However, using the Void Sword expends its meter, so you have to use it tactically, much like the old Light Magic system.

Similarly, the Chaos Claws act as the “Shadow Magic” of the game. As well as augmenting Gabriel’s strength and opening him up to a set of close-and-personal combos, some enemies wield shields that make them tough to damage. These allow you to smash through shields, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Of course, I’m sure both new weapons will be built upon with new attacks as you progress through the full game, so I’m excited to see how their move sets will be expanded. My initial impressions are good, though – the combat feels very much in line with the original, just fleshed out further and showing more potential.

Once the enemies were dispatched - Gabriel soaked in blood by this point – I was able to progress out of the room to be treated to my first platforming section. While Gabriel’s climbing was at a steady speed in the original game – which worked well for a feeling of scale - it’s immediately clear that his new abilities have made him a lot faster and more dextrous. Using the analogue stick to move, you can quickly navigate from ledge to ledge, climb up large surfaces using small footholds, and swing hand-to-hand across hanging hooks on the ceiling. While this works well and feels good, I did have a couple of times when I wasn’t quite sure which direction I should be heading in next – but the allows you to tap a button to highlight available routes to travel. For the most part though, it’s fluid and looks good, with a more cinematic feel than the original.

GoldPaladin

As Gabriel bursts out into the night air, there’s a scene of chaos as the castle is under siege. His next opponent takes the form of a flying knight clad in gold armour, a Paladin within the Brotherhood of Light wielding twin swords. This was a sort of mid-boss, and combat was usual fare of trying to parry his attacks and get in your own when you can, balancing your Chaos and Void Weapons to hurt and heal appropriately. The scene was full of fan-service, with both characters spouting classic lines of dialogue from Symphony of the Night. It was perhaps a little shoe-horned in, but I couldn’t help but smile.

Before Gabriel could defeat his opponent, however, a huge hulking fist flew his way as the fight against the a giant titan began. Seemingly a sort of siege weapon made of wood, metal and powered by some sort of magic, the “boss” acts as a section of dynamic platforming. To progress, Gabriel must climb up the machine while it lumbers around trying to throw him off, avoiding falling off or being smashed into a wall. The section required timed jumps to get through some tough gaps such as moving between rotating cogs, though falling penalised me more in terms of losing a bit of health than any major progress.

Titan

Things are complicated more by the return of the Golden Paladin, who fires regular shots at Gabriel indicated by an aiming reticule. The shots can be easily avoided, but timing jumps between shots and between moving cogs takes precise timing – but I enjoyed it. Some parts involved standing on flat surfaces, with waves of enemies to defeat as you lure the Golden Paladin into shooting specific metal bolts on the floor to destroy objects that halt your progress. The whole thing ended of course, with Gabriel vomiting (gross) a load of blood into the hulk’s core and leaving it a smouldering wreckage.

While I feel that there’s a lot more to Lords of Shadow 2 than what I saw (most prominently the open world exploration aspects), I left the demo booth in high spirits. It’s clear that Mercurysteam have got another solid title on the way, and Gabriel’s transition to a bloodthirsty vampire seemingly couldn’t be smoother. Can’t wait for this one (though I’m going to have to…).

BONUS ROUND! Mini  Castlevania: Mirror of Fate HD  review!

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While at the booth, I was also able to get my hands on the upcoming re-release of Castlevania: Mirror of Fate. Originally on the 3DS, and coming to PSN and XBLA in HD form, the title takes place between the two Lords of Shadow games as the second part of the trilogy.

I wasn’t a big fan of Mirror of Fate. It felt like it tried to be too much and didn’t excel at anything – it tried to be like the classic side-scrollers but with a 3D-esque combat system, feeling less satisfying than either, and it tried to be both linear and exploratory in doing so I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the classics or the “Metroidvanias” - and I just wasn’t particularly fond of the game’s take on my childhood-favourite, Alucard. It wasn’t bad, per se, I just found it lackluster compared to the GBA and DS entries that I spent playing for hours on end back in the day.

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Regardless of my feelings on the original, I can’t really fault the HD makeover. The original game almost felt as though it struggled on a smaller screen, with detailed character models often shown from a far perspective. The HD edition doesn’t suffer from that, and visuals seem to be improved a little for the larger screen - allowing you to really appreciate some of the game’s more attractive scenes. On the whole, it does exactly what it sets out to do – it’s Mirror of Fate for consoles, and in terms of gameplay it feels much the same as the original, with controls mapping over naturally, and allowing the use of either the d-pad or analogue.

I struggle to recommend the game on its own merits, being one of my least favourites in Castlevania history (ouch). However, seen purely from a storyline perspective, it’s great that players without 3DS’s will be given the chance to see what the game has to offer and bridge the gap between games. And hey – many people seem to enjoy it. I’ll be picking it up on it’s Halloween release date (that’s 31st October, to clarify for um, zombies) for a festive gaming evevning, to replay its story in preparation for LoS2 and satiate my need to collect every Castlevania game ever.

- Leon 

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Leon On October - 11 - 2013

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