Dracula 2014

No, it's not the title to a new film based on Dracula 2000, it's the return of Gabriel Belmont from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Now if you've been on a total media blackout for the game, I suggest you look away from the following few words. Gabriel Belmont is Dracula, the Prince of Darkness and the Lord of Shadow. Konami has returned with a slightly different take on their Lords of Shadow game, replacing the linear progression of levels and tightly woven story of Lords of Shadow, with a sprawling hub world and Darksiders II style exploration.

Does it work? Yes and no. The game feels somewhat lacking compared to its predecessor, yet it's still a fun and at times, really brutal gameplay experience packed with a ton of bad guys to destroy and a whole slew of new fighting tactics to employ.

Read on and find out what's new and what's familiar with the second and final part of Gabriel Belmont's story!

Once upon a Time

Fans of the first game's story will find that Lords of Shadow 2 picks up where the first game left off, hundreds of years have passed and Gabriel has become Dracula. The story is a little wilder than the first time around, yet it stumbles in places and the pacing feels off somehow here and there. Regardless of this though, it weaves a decent enough tale that you learn the history of the Belmont clan and more importantly find out what happened to several key faces from Lords of Shadow, including Patrick Stewart's Zobek.

The story seems to struggle though in-part due to Lords of Shadows open-level design, in many places there's no clear idea of where you need to go to progress the next bit of Dracula's tale. Thankfully, these parts are actually few and far between and for most of the time the game flows from one element to the next with a decent pace.

The cut-scenes are well directed and the dialogue does a good job of evoking that Lords of Shadow feel.

Control Yourself

The biggest issue I have with Lords of Shadow 2 is the new free camera, whilst it tends to keep the action framed quite nicely for the most part, there are times when Dracula is backed into a corner and the camera manages to lose focus on the scene. This often results in a severe loss of health since the enemies in this iteration, even the smallest grunt, are capable fighters and can shave huge chunks off the health bar very quickly. Blocks and counter-attacks return, with a wider array of skills this time around to compensate for the power of the new enemies - yet the enemies seem to be able to block a lot more of Dracula's attacks now, as well as trigger their own unblockable moves with such a fierce regularity that it becomes nigh-on impossible to keep a decent combo chain going, let alone build up focus, a key meter that allows the enemies to drop orbs.

Just like in Lords of Shadow, these orbs can be used to power the magic types which are chaos and void.

Void is used to power the void sword, and chaos empowers the chaos gauntlets. The void sword can be used to stealth health from enemies, the chaos gauntlets are capable of breaking armoured foes and their shields. However, as a downside, the amount of orbs you can get from a conflict is based on your focus meter - and as previously mentioned, that meter dies the moment you're hit. So orbs can be few and far between when you really need them. Items can be used to give you unlimited magic for a short time, but these have to be triggered in combat and when you're being pummelled by six bad guys who are knocking you from pillar to post - it's not easy.

Dracula's attacks can be stopped by the enemy very easily, and even his unblockable moves aren't actually effective when the enemy guards and the weapon just pings off them breaking your stride.

As you kill the enemies in Lords of Shadow 2, you get a money style xp system that rewards you with points you can use to buy new skills, upgrade skills and purchase items from an in-game shop opened later on. You can upgrade the void sword, shadow whip (Dracula's default weapon) and the chaos gauntlets. You can also generate mastery in a skill sphere by performing that move until you hit 100%

Once you reach 100% you'll be able to empower the weapon with extra bite, so that the weak shadow whip, void sword and chaos gauntlets gain a significant boost. Of course, by the time you get these boost, the enemies have already stepped up their game and often make Dracula feel quite impotent.

You never quite feel as much of a badass as you should, there's always something that'll break your combo/focus and hammer your health down in seconds. Then of course there are the Golgoth guards...

Golgoth guards provide the somewhat superfluous stealth sections to the game. Sections that feel totally out of place, saved only by the fact that for most of them Dracula can use shadow pools to transform into a red-eyed rat and enter gratings and so forth to circumnavigate the zone. Without these moments though, the stealth parts of the game fall flat and you're treated to an exercise in frustration more than fun.

Dying results in Dracula being reset back to a checkpoint, or sometimes the start of the room when you're dealing with stealth sections of the game. There are also a few that take place prior to boss fights and are really annoying if I'm going to be honest.

To try and help Dracula out he has some powers and items at his disposal, items can be bought or collected from bad guys. Powers are unlocked as part of the story progression, including the dragon medallion, which has the same effect as the demon from the first game. 5 dragon scales empowers this medallion and lets Dracula unleash a massive area attack that damages everything in the zone.

He can also take on mist form (often useful in stealth) and summon a cloud of bats. The bats can distract Golgoth guards, enemies and are mostly used in stealth areas. Dracula also has shadow daggers, thrown weapons that use blood to power. These can be transformed into ice projectiles (void magic active) and chaos bombs (chaos magic active) and are often used to solve traversal based puzzles.

Talking of traversal, this is another area that's been overhauled and done well. You can now hold down the left trigger on the 360 version, highlighting a path that you can take to progress and showing you alternate routes when Dracula is climbing around like a madman.

The game also features QTE's, which can be toggled off in the menu (yay!) rather than slavishly binding you to needing to press the right button at the right time. More games with QTEs need to adopt this philosophy and it's one of the best options in Lords of Shadow 2.

So to summarise, the game's combat is smooth and responsive, brutal and even the smallest foe will test your brawler-tactic chops to the limit. Not as though this is a bad thing, I remember Darksiders rather fondly in that regard.

The game features hidden secrets, pain boxes hide away health crystals, magic crystals and there are more things to discover as you progress. Many areas can be revisited once you find the map rooms and even Dracula's castle of the past can be explored as long as you hold the wolf medallion.

Lastly the puzzles in Lords of Shadow 2 aren't really up to the same par as they were in Lords of Shadow. There are a few good ones, but most of the time it's really about getting to place A and ripping through hordes of monster B.

The game has decent auto-saves and gear gating prevents exploration too far off the beaten path.

Pretty Architecture Simulator

This is somewhat of an in-joke between several of us here, especially since the environments of the first game were so stunning. Lords of Shadow 2 looks nice, but it doesn't quite measure up to the grand design that was the first title. It's no slouch by any means and the frame-rate remains pretty rock-solid even when there's a lot going on, but for some reason the design doesn't quite fire my heart as much as Lords of Shadow did.

The aesthetics of the Castlevania City, where Dracula's Castle has lain dormant for hundreds of years flirts between gothic and modern and the melding of these two styles works in the context of the game. I thought it might be a bit jarring to see, but it's pretty good. It's in the interiors of some locations that are no more than corridor after corridor of generic modern style, that the game kind of stumbles in its design.

Past versions of Dracula's Castle on the other hand echo the grand nature of Lords of Shadow and elevate the game to something else. There are many grand vistas to see and the new free roaming nature means you can explore them for all kinds of hidden secrets.

Swish that Shadow Whip, Drac!

One area that the game really excels at are the combat and movement animations, really this is some seriously good stuff. The movements of every creature and enemy look fluid, Dracula himself is a force to be reckoned with once you get a good rhythm with the combat and pull off some of the more devastating moves. The boss monsters are particularly well animated and there's a lot of character to the NPCs as well, far more than was in Lords of Shadow.

It's a matter of Physics

There's a lot of weight to the combat system physically, there's a few physics based puzzles here and there that involve swinging from chandelier to chandelier. On the whole though, physics seems to be the driving force behind the battles - impacts feel solid and the counter strikes stagger enemies quite nicely.

A score and a half

Just as epic as the first game, the score for Lords of Shadow 2 is suitably paced with the on screen action and exploration. It's got quite a modern spin to it for many of the present-day areas and the past visits to Dracula's Castle are laced with the same kind of gorgeous dark soundtrack cues that pepper the original game's score. Good stuff!

Was that a rat I heard?

The sound design for the game is top notch, with a huge array of ambient and spot sounds combined with a great slew of different combat noises. I am pretty sure the voice actors also had a great time doing their pain responses, jumping noises, and other elements for the overall sound design. Again, great stuff and not a misstep at all in terms of audio glitching.

I used to be an Apothecary, din I.

I've long been a fan of many of the cast of Lords of Shadow 2, I mean, who can't love Patrick Stewart as Zobek and Robert Carlyle as Gabriel/Dracula (Belmont) - these two actors alone manage to elevate the game above the norm in this regard. They deliver their performances very well, and Robert Carlyle's role as Dracula is smoother in this game than it was as Gabriel in Lords of Shadow, having matured into the role. The whole cast does an incredible job with their scripts and the Toy Maker is a heartwarming, creepy, impressive performance delivered by Mark Healy (Vernon Roche from Witcher 2) and sets the tone for the boss battle perfectly.

All the world's a stage!

To go with the solid voice work, there's a pretty decent script. It falls in a couple of places, but manages to keep the same bombastic tone as the first game and in other scenes it manages to improve on the characters - especially that of Dracula, since through the dialogue with several characters from his past we get a better sense of what makes the character tick.

What is a man?

Lords of Shadow 2 then, is fun but frustrating, not quite as fantastic as the first game but still worthy of a place in the Castlevania halls of fame. Highly ambitious, engaging and with a combat system that's refined from Lords of Shadow regardless of the personal niggles I might have with it.

* Making it hub-based with more of a feeling of exploration may have killed some of the impetus the first game had in terms of story.

* The upgraded difficulty of the combat system, coupled with unblockable attacks by virtually every enemy triggering with a frightening regularity can turn it into a frustrating experience more than a fun one.

One thing it doesn't suffer from though is a lack of multiplayer, this game is single player and this is quite refreshing to see a title like Lords of Shadow 2 refrain from shoehorning in some half-arsed PVP style deathmatch.

Get the game if you want to see how the story of Gabriel Belmont ends, it's not a terrible game by any long shot.