Bad moon rising: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 preview

Gabriel: First Blood.

When the much beloved Castlevania legacy was handed off to Spanish developer MercurySteam (Clive Barker's Jericho), with Kojima productions supervising, there was a lot of backlash. Many complained about it eschewing the open-ended exploration that had become a series mainstay since 1997's Symphony of the Night and accused it of being a God of War clone. Others, like myself, remembered the series from its earlier, linear days and appreciated it for what it was. It may have owed more to Kratos than Alucard, but for my money, it was better than Sony Santa Monica's flagship mythological hack-and-slash.

I admired its combat mechanics, magic system, varied boss fights, and stellar art direction, but I couldn't help but agree with the sentiment that a less linear game would be even better. Now MercurySteam is marrying what was great about its first foray into Castlevania with that exploration we all know and love.

Unfortunately, Konami's E3 demo shows none of this. In fact, it raises concerns that it may have broken some things that already worked.

Rather than demonstrate this new approach to level design, the E3 demo shows off the highly-anticipated sequel's ultra-linear, combat heavy tutorial stage. We catch up with a newly goateed Gabriel Belmont, who - like Spock in Mirror, Mirror - we can tell is evil this time around by his new facial hair configuration. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, his monumental castle is being attacked by a colossal wooden golem that resembles a sentient wicker man. For reasons even less clear, Gabriel dramatically marches onto his balcony to recite the series' most laughably notorious line "What is a man, but a miserable pile of secrets?" to no one in particular. Wait, what?

The borderline nonsensical script was always Lords of Shadow's Achilles's heel, though, so I'm willing to overlook such silliness in favour of some solid combat, but that too is curiously lacking in the demo.

The biggest change we see this time around is how the magic system has been overhauled. In the first Lords of Shadow, you collected orbs off enemies by maintaining unbroken combos to build up your "Focus Meter." These orbs could then be absorbed into your light or dark magic meters: the former allowed you to siphon health off foes, while the latter granted more damaging blows.

This time out, instead of light and dark magic, you have the Void Sword and Chaos Claws: colour-coded weapons that bring on similar attributes as its predecessor's magic system, only they also come with their own move sets. For example, enemies with shields will be most vulnerable to the Chaos Claws as Gabriel uses them to bash through their armour. I find this worrying. One of the great things about Lords of Shadow's magic system was that you could tailor it to your liking and use whichever type of magic you preferred against any enemy. With some foes only vulnerable to certain weapons, it could significantly limit your combat options much like the obnoxious colour-coded enemies in DmC: Devil May Cry (which obsessive fans like me will recall became especially irritating on that game's harder difficulties).

Elsewhere, you can regain your health by drinking blood from weakened foes. Simply tap the grab button when they're flashing, then hit the following prompt at the right time and voila! Demon bloody mary! At a good few seconds, this animation lingers a little too long, but that's not necessarily a problem. Part of me also thought the same thing about Raiden's extended spine-squishing animation in Revengeance, though after five playthroughs it never did.

One new addition to the combat repertoire is the "Mastery system," in which you can level up your weapons and abilities by performing newly acquired moves enough times. This should encourage players to muck about with their full arsenal, though sadly this isn't in the demo.

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All you need is blood.

Instead, I'm relegated to beating the stuffing out of these wimpy knight-looking scrags. At one point a flying gold-armoured guardian starts launching flaming arrows at me while an endlessly respawning swarm of goons attacks me until the camera zooms in to suggest that I lure my adversaries' bolts into the locks of a door, allowing passage to the next section. It all feels a bit 2004.

As for the colossus himself, he's mostly scene-setting for the level than a proper boss. As with climbing the titans in God of War 3, this section looks great, with epic camera sweeps and scripted set pieces spicing up my traversal, but its ultimately an aggressively linear jaunt to the next throwdown. You do climb faster this time around as you merely hold down a shoulder button to briskly swing across handholds as in Donkey Kong, and the QTEs have been streamlined to allow you to hit any button when prompted, but it's all window dressings for a rather dated design.

Despite this underwhelming first impression, Lords of Shadow 2 could still be a good game. Heck, it could even be a great one as its predecessor nearly was. But this demo showed it off in the worst possible light. Maybe that's due to its immense scale. It's difficult to show off a sprawling world and complex combat system in a mere 20 minutes, and a 30-plus hour game can be forgiven for a slow opening sequence. It's also worth noting that Lords of Shadow's first 15 minutes seemed similarly lacklustre when I first demoed it at E3 2010. After all, vampires aren't exactly known for being early to rise.

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