Sure, their 2010 reboot of the classic Konami franchise had its rough edges, but gorgeous design and robust combat systems were enough to quiet naysayers who believed a 3D Castlevania couldn't be done right.
So then we've a sequel that could easily be more of the same. And that's true to a point. There's still the tight fighting system and exploration. But these have been magnified, expanded. The rest twisted, changed, altered. Even in the opening hours we play the game's scale and scope seems huge. There's a real sense we've just scraped the surface.
If the original Lords of Shadow was the studio remaking the level-based stylings of the earliest Castlevania titles for today's audiences, the sequel - technically the third LoS entry after 3DS release Mirror of Fate - is the Spanish development team using the Symphony of the Night-era titles as their template. (They even cement the connection with one of the game's most infamous lines of dialogue early on.)
As much as their first title only used the franchise foundations as basis though, their re-imagining of the interconnected, freely explorable world is magnificently different. There's a nod to Symphony's dual castle by way of time travel, LOS2's early surprise reveal to being partly spent in the modern day realised in-game as Dracula era-hops within the castle grounds to access new routes and areas.
It's not as grand as two different versions of the castle overlaid on each other. You can only jump back and forward at specific points, and those areas are clearly flagged, but the transfer does drop you into very different surroundings and challenges.
The modern day city glimpsed in the game's earlier teaser trailers is accessible to a point. Its explained that its built upon the ruins of what once was Dracula's castle, and so you'll travel to different districts, but still effectively remain 'in' the castle - imagine castle wings doubling as entire districts.
So it's far from open world - pathways are still more multi-stranded corridors than sandbox, spilling out into magnificent open areas that are riddled with as of now inaccessible locations and smaller sub-quests. But the story conceit gives you a sense of scale to the vampire's domain, whilst allowing the illusion of a sprawling world but keeping the gameplay and story, as tradition, within the walls of one building.
Environmental puzzles still factor. Unlocking doors while fending off beasts, and in one highlight of the demo, directing a huge multi-linked platform to various platforms to rescue a prisoner and access the exit.
This early on, the settings seem distractingly rich in visuals. A gigantic cave with spewing lava pits, navigable stalagmites, titan-sized machinery and a multitude of platforms and walkways is a vista worth soaking in. But we spend a few minutes getting lost in trying to work out where to go; there may be a map and waypoint, but the 3D aspect a little harder in translating direction when the level design is so sprawling. But so it was with the Metroidvania games until we learnt the castle's layouts through continual travel; it's a different feel here, but not an unfamiliar one.
The same can be said of combat. The studio lay out the tough love from the game's dramatic opening, set in the past as you fend off an army from conquering your castle. Climbing a multi-levelled Titan feels stupidly epic for what's not even the fifteenth minute since the game's Start screen, and the first boss, the winged golden warrior teased in released screens, is bloody tough. Multiple unrelenting attack routines that require continually adapting counter styles. Come his defeat, our fingers are trembling, our brow coated in sweat. It's fantastic. The following two boss fights, and even a few optional multi-foe battles, prove this isn't a one-off difficulty spike. You'll get nowhere with mindless hack 'n' slash here.
Mercury Steam have built massively on their original combat set. As is series' tradition, you loose and then need to reclaim all your powers, which forms the backbone of the initial quest line, but soon enough you're splitting your time in battle across the Void Sword, Chaos Claws and standard whip attacks, as each have particular skills useful for tackling different enemies.
Each weapon has its own upgrade spread in the returning journal, Castlevania's ever-beautiful menu system. Upgrades can be bought with XP. You can also further upgrade every particular attack, repeated use building a vial that can be exchanged when full to strengthen that attack further. To look at all the attack chains and unlocks in total is to be dizzied at the potential.
If there's one tarnish to all this it's the camera; while the team promised you'd never have to manually move the now-free camera as the game did a perfect job of playing director, there was the odd time during combat that we needed to yank it round when fights got too close to walls. Hopefully it's a niggle being ironed out in these last few weeks before the game's finished for release.
While depowering Dracula gives good reason for him to explore his home (and run into a league of iconic, demonic figures nicely remoulded to Mercury Steam standard in what's the weirdest Friends Reunited ever) its does mean the team dabble in an odd collage of purely-stealth sections directly after that bombastic opener. You wonder whether the studio is directly referencing - even parodying - Metal Gear Solid.
We only play the barest handful of these short sections, set in the modern world directly after Dracula reawakens. It's different gameplay again, your lack of strength forcing you to transform into a rat to avoid detection from gun-totting guards that look to be on loan from Quake II, and possess scientists to enter restricted areas. Are there more to come, or is this the studio's replacement for what'd be basic, unsatisfactory combat until you get your weapons back? We're eager to know.
As are we regarding the overarching storyline. Post-siege opener, a series of hand-drawn sketches and voiceovers fill in what's happened between the then and now. The story filler does well to brief you on the details of side-sequel Mirror of Fate. It rebuilds the Belmont Vs Dracula mythos (while introducing the LoS version of one of the franchise's most popular characters) to such a degree that you feel the need to applaud.
But if the team are making their concluding chapter about Gabriel Belmont's redemption, they're not making it obvious. Lords of Shadow had Belmont tracking down and killing the Lords of Shadow to try and resurrect his dead bride, and in the process damned his soul, wrestled power from Satan himself and became the blood-sucking monster that'd be known as Dracula. As we're reintroduced to him he shows no mercy in slaughtering the soldiers sent to oust him from his kingdom.
After the opening and a jump forward in time, an emaciated Gabriel replenishes his body's strength in the modern day through a horrific - playable - first-person moment as he consumes a young family. It's hard to find empathy for the once noble man now he's fallen so far. But maybe that's the trick; he's the lesser of two evils in Lords of Shadow 2. The tease of the story arc is that Dracula's been resurrected to stop the return of Satan.
It's a compelling tale, and built as it is on one of the biggest adventure titles we've seen, with one of the most robust fighting systems we've played, it's an easy sell in this game-starved time of the year. We're compelled to see, now freed from the shackles of having to prove themselves worthy of the franchise, just how twisted and huge Mercury Steam make their exit from Castlevania.