Mercury Steam proved able stewards to usher a ‘proper' Castlevania into the world of 3D exploration, reimagining the heart of the series with a tale of a doomed warrior damning himself on a quest to save his love. The knight became the Prince of Darkness, as the first Lords of Shadow concluded with Gabriel damning himself and becoming Dracula.
The classic Castlevanias - 2D multi-staged platformers - were inspiration for the studio's fresh look. Gabriel's journey may have taken him from pits to mountains, but every step was framed in the same linear stages as its 80s brethern. For the sequel, the developers give their take on the franchise's 90s renaissance, as it embraced the idea of one sprawling, interconnected map.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 takes elements of the first game to pioneer the style - Symphony of the Night - and mixes it in with the God of War series. So; expansive areas to explore and enemies that'll send a chill down your spine. A long and entertaining plot that will take you by the hand and guide you from area to area, that has both Robert Carlyle return to lend his voice to an angered Gabriel, now Dracula, and Patrick Stewart as his once mentor, now puppet master Zobek. And in keeping with the best traditions of the franchise, the music is some of the best we've heard in the field in a very long time.
The game feels more open this time around. You can turn off QTEs and switch camera angles. The first is a great design choice as there's some who find the inclusion of Quick Time Events intrusive and counter to the enjoyable precision of the game's deep combat system. Here's hoping more games will give us this option in the future.
The surroundings are extremely varied. You will experience the present as well as the past, industrial age factories, high tech operations and research labs, as well as Dracula's castle and Hell itself. Every area is emphasised by incredible detail, as well as fantastic lighting - next-gen systems be damned.
Lighting plays a big part in certain sections, as the game adopts a near-Metal Gear Solid parody as the depowered Count skirts rocket-launching guards by way of stealth and mutating into a rat to scuttle underfoot. It's an odd addition, but as it breaks up the combat at times it's a welcome one.
Unlike the previous game there are lots of areas you can explore freely. This is not to say it's open like a Legend of Zelda game, but at least you're given more room to roam and explore than the last time around. It simply doesn't feel linear, even if it is at times. A lot of the levels intersect, and several times we wound up in places we couldn't travel past as we simply didn't have the required abilities.
The combat system is very similar to the first game. You'll miss out on a huge element of the combat if you mash the buttons; successful dodges and combos deal more damage and are able to heal your wounds. You unlock new abilities that increase your strength. This includes new combos you can perform in combat, as well as unique abilities that open up new paths. You can also travel between several locations; you have to if you want to find all the secrets the game has to offer.
It's by no means a poor game, but there are flaws. There are areas when the path isn't clear - despite the studio trying to solve any issue with a light glow over the proposed direction, available with a button press - that force you to make a blind jump. It's partly a flipside of the game's incredible visuals; sometimes you can't see the route for all the background detailing.
And when you die, you're resurrected back to before that jump. And every time you miss, your health decreases, until you die proper. Yet upon reloading - a good minute's worth after navigating beyond the Game Over screen - you're right back to where you were stuck. Why is this necessary? It annoyed us in Zelda and it annoys us in Castlevania. It's as if the game punishes you by forcing you to endure the entire start up process over and over.
But this is us nitpicking. The game is massively entertaining, pushing the hardware to its limits. For fans of the franchise this is a worthy sequel, and for action adventure players, a game you need on your system.