"Vampires are boring." Well, yes. But these are probably not the words you'd expect Lords of Shadow 2's producer to be saying, given that he's in charge of PRing the latest Castlevania title. Which, if you haven't noticed, is all about vampires. Then again, Dave Cox isn't referring to his game's lead; more the wider representation and perception of them. Between Twilight and its many imitators, vampires have become safe. Now it's more about 'relationships' and 'feelings' rather than drinking blood and bringing the sort of fear to men that only the undead and Hull can provide.
MercurySteam's version of Dracula, on the other hand, is seemingly taking cues from the tortured/mental interpretation found in Gary Oldman's portrayal. After playing a substantial portion of Lords of Shadow 2, its version of the Prince of Darkness is more likely to be found slitting throats than sparkling. From slaying shambling beasts to killing a young family for their precious blood (in first person, you bastard), ol' Gabriel Belmont starts angry and gets progressively more pissed off from there.
"We wanted to remind you that you're playing the bad guy" Cox told me. "We didn't want to depict Dracula as a Bela Lugosi-type character, which is what Drac has been in previous Castlevania games. In recent films, vampires haven't been dangerous, or nasty or evil. We wanted a character that was [all those things], but one you could identify with as well."
Belmont's story is interesting. After becoming Dracula following the events of the original game, he takes a dirt nap for hundreds of years before waking up to presumably the world's worst hangover and, worse still, finding out that his tiny village has turned into a full-blown metropolis, with his castle in the middle of it all. Oh, and the forces of Satan are back, and his own son wants him dead. Which would be great, if only he could actually die.
So, another through the ages battle between good and evil then, albeit an interesting one. But it's the environments that are the real stars. Cox complemented MercurySteam as having "fantastic art direction", and it shows. From the opening, which depicts Dracula taking on golden-armoured holy knights and their fantastic smashing machines (which leads to Drac's castle getting an explosive makeover and some God of War-style climbing of large-scale enemies) to later encounters that have players exploring the surreal expanses found in and under Belmont's creepy, ever-shifting abode, Lords of Shadow 2's aesthetic impresses.
It also makes it feel like an adventure game at heart. So much so that, despite a heavy combat emphasis, I found myself far more engaged in exploring the castle and the surrounding (modern) city than beating up endless armies of the night. Dracula's stronghold has a real Dark Crystal/Labyrinth feel to it, an "illusory, dream-like quality" as Cox puts it. "There's an element of playing with Dracula's mind and thoughts."
Between rooms the palace shifts in both size, look, and atmosphere: from crumbling hallways lined with faded axminster to grand ballrooms via the fiery, clanking mechanical bowels of the castle, Lords of Shadow's environments are a pleasure to explore. The early narrative, which as mentioned has Dracula suffering the sort of grogginess you'd expect after oversleeping for centuries, nicely places both player and character in the same position: confused as to their surroundings and the various supernatural forces that now control them, scrambling to gain their bearings.
Throw in a much larger, more open world with the classic Metroidvania tactic of locking off certain areas until you recover your lost abilities, and there's potential for Lords of Shadow 2 to be an engaging, gigantic adventure, one that's constantly throwing interesting elements at the player. The early going may have you climbing the cavernous expanses at the building's core, but later on you'll freezing water streams to access locked-off areas and even directing stage plays to make sure a certain character gets his heart back. Yes.
So it's sometimes irritating when your travels are interrupted with yet more fighting. Not that the combat is bad – it's an interesting take on a well-worn genre and one that prizes skill and timing over straight up button-mashing. Dracula has light and heavy attacks as normal, but in order to build up various useful extra abilities he has to claim orbs from fallen foes to fill a 'Focus' meter. Getting struck before the bar is filled means you lose your accumulated orbs, and have to start again. Cue plenty of acrobatics via judicious use of the dodge button.
The classic whip returns, and is useful for all the reasons you'd think: crowd control, and keeping your enemies at bay. As ever, certain adversaries will require different tactics to defeat them: you'll juggle between the Void Sword, which replenishes player health (but is a finite resource that needs to be replenished) and the Chaos Gloves, which can crush enemy armour. There are also relics, selected from a radial wheel: players can freeze enemies, or use other powers to get the edge in combat.
Also of interest is the Mastery system. Attacking with a specific combo grants players XP, leveling up said move. Which is great, as you are always being rewarded for successful striking. But if you're the sort of player who likes to use one combo over and over, then you may find yourself running into trouble later on, as your other strikes will still be low-level. You'll need to carefully balance out which moves you're using, and how you spend your accumulated XP.
It's not the most exciting system in the world, but it does have an enjoyable – if somewhat unspectacular – rhythm to it. That said, the game is massive, and I only played a few hours of it, so I hope the Mastery system and upgrade trees become more sophisticated as it continues.
On the whole, however, Lords of Shadow 2 is looking very promising. Exploring the castle is a joy, and the introduction of a free camera and an increase in non-linear, seamless gameplay should ensure it's a step up from its accomplished prequel.