Heroic gents emphatically bang on a massive pair of wooden doors while we watch Mr. Main Chap finish up his drink. Lords of Shadow’s protagonist has had a rough time since the events of the first game, and seems to have developed a penchant for blood.
I’ll keep the full recap out of the mix, but when it comes to the first game let’s leave it at this: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a surprisingly brilliant action game that offered value-for-money that shouldn’t be balked at. At the point at which you’d forgive most games for tipping their hat and wrapping things up, Lords of Shadows threw two hats into the air only to reveal <i>eight entirely new hats</i>. Long games usually bore me to pieces, but the generous variety and quality on show easily puts the trudge of most action games to shame. Force yourself through the awful swamp intro and Lords of Shadow soon becomes must-play stuff.
As a debut game from a fledgeling studio it knocked me for six, and I’ve quietly been wondering ever since then if Mercury Steam can pull it off twice. Early impressions seem bloody and impressive. Ticking off box one, you <i>feel</i> like a vampire. There’s an incisive and nasty edge to the combat that reflects the overall change in tone, and that puny mortal dodge-roll has been swapped for a red misty teleport thing. Oh, and you can drink people’s blood.
After you’ve done that, they explode. This inexplicably mushy mess is one of many details that raise a smile, ramping up the vampire whimsy with adolescent gore that left me quietly stoked. It isn’t all aesthetic flair, either. One of my favourite bits so far is a tiny detail that I almost missed: dodge directly towards an enemy nearby and the impact of your body will make them lose their balance. It’s satisfyingly tricky to nail, but teases the same loose threads of potential that all truly brilliant action games need.
Combat in games like this can frustrate for three reasons: the system itself is wonky or broken; fights are too difficult to regularly survive; you’re constantly aware that you could be playing <i>better</i>. All of the best action games tend to skip the first two and settle on the third. In recent years the Batman games have provided the perfect example - you’ll rarely die when you mess things up, but in those moments <i>you don’t feel like Batman</i>. That’s, it turns out, is punishment enough. Lords of Shadow 2 is less forgiving but also similar - when you’re getting roughed up by a handful of mortals the only frustration comes from personal shame.
Just like Lords of Shadow before it, this doesn’t feel like the kind of game that hides power and progression behind XP unlocks - most of what you’ll need to master is there at the start, it’s just a case of knuckling down until you’re an unstoppable vampire bastard. The ludicrous stuff you’re granted at the start isn’t something you should get used to, however - after the pleasantly ludicrous intro you’ll see most of your weapons and power stripped away in classic “this-is-a-video game” fashion, but I’m confident that the gear I used wasn’t what made the demo entertaining.
Instead of throwing you up against foes made of butter, the tutorial gives you a life-stealing sword that can top up your HP with just a few swings. In addition to this blue blade and our standard weapon, we also have the tried-and-tested fiery red gauntlet thing that lets you break enemy shields and generally cause grief. In keeping with the first game’s brutal introduction, LoS2’s tutorial doesn’t treat you like a muppet - perform the actions expected of you quickly and you’ll rattle through the tasks at an alarming rate, letting you to dive into the meat of the pudding.
Details like this might seem needless and drab, but you can tell so much about a game’s intentions by the attitude with which it handles a tutorial. Crucially, this isn’t one that’s been made for idiots. Jump into Lords of Shadow 2 without decent experience with the genre and you’ll likely see yourself getting kicked in the teeth. Action game fans should start rubbing their hands gleefully.
Smashing up angelic templars in the game’s ye-olde flashback is suitably draculicious stuff, but I’m fascinated to see how the modern bits are handled. Most of the sequel takes place in a modern day city - albeit one that’s been twisted by the vampiric guff that dwells within. I’m interested to see how they handle this context whilst matching the variety of the first game, but the demo’s finale is a ridiculous assurance that Mercury Steam still has the power to surprise: after gradually scaling the gigantic colossus that’s rudely been smashing my castle to bits, I put an end to the man-made monstrosity with a technique that no-one sane could have forseen.
That’s right kids: vampire vomit. After exposing the crystal that powers the machine, an impressive stream of gloopy vitae chunders forth from Gabriel’s gob. The crystal melts, the siege colossus falls, and I leave the demo with a grin and a nod. If you didn’t love the original game you’re unlikely to get on well with the sequel, but you’re also unlikely to get on well with me either. Go on, scarper. I don’t like the look of you. If you’ve not played the first game, it’s homework time. It’s got Patrick Stewart in it. Sold.