Genre: Action / Platforming
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 6 = Fair
MercurySteam’s tenure on Castlevania has been interesting. Instead of adding new characters and expanding the lore, the Spain-based studio has instead attempted to recast the franchise’s history in a way that bridges the narrative gaps between the earlier releases. Through Lords of Shadow and Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, players followed the origins of Dracula and those who have sought to end his reign. The finale turns things on its head by having players take control of a reawakened Dracula, weak from his long slumber and possessing few of his powers. Reuniting with his old enemy Zobek, Gabriel is told of Satan’s impending return and that he is the only one capable of saving mankind. In return for battling the Prince of Darkness one last time, Zobek will grant the one thing that Dracula desires: death.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 opens up strong. An exciting cinematic of Dracula battling an army of Brotherhood of Light soldiers culminates in a dramatic takedown of a massive mechanical goliath, which is followed by a brooding Dracula awaiting the impending flood of brotherhood soldiers as they smash their way into his throne room. In this playable section, Dracula is in his prime, armed with and fully skilled in the use of a Shadow Whip, life-syphoning Void Sword, and guard-breaking Chaos Claws. A new dash used for both evading and knocking down enemies has him outpace his attackers, while perfectly timed blocks send them stumbling back, open to a counterattack. For the coup de grace, and in the ultimate display of the vampire’s monstrous powers, players are able to finish off weakened soldiers by gouging out their necks and bathing in their blood. The quicker pace, the varied combat, a controllable camera, the de-emphasis on quick-time events—feasting on an enemy takes a single button pressed during a generous window—and the combination of skills and powers makes for an impressive and exciting beginning.
Then things take a small dive. After a somewhat clunky fight to the top of the magic-infused mechanical giant from the opening cinematic, a flashy battle with a great-looking golden-armor-clad soldier sees Dracula being propelled into the future. A boring, ugly future.
The Dracula of today is a weak, feeble creature that is only capable of sustaining consciousness through a brutal sacrifice made by Zobek. In a grim first-person sequence, the player shambles towards a terrified family, huddled in a corner and trying to pound, beat, and beg their way out of a locked room. It’s a surprisingly powerful moment, and it does a superb job in emphasizing the beast within Dracula. Their end marks the beginning of the resurgent dragon, who begins the slow process of reclaiming his lost powers and the fear once felt by those in his presence. Almost as important, it’s also emblematic of the game’s seesaw design, which sees thrilling and engaging moments conflicting with other sections marked by poor pacing, uneven implementation, and a grinding tedium.
The new adventure centers on Dracula having to draw out and defeat three acolytes, children of Satan who are preparing the world for his return. It is only after centuries of Dracula’s absence that they begin to act, as Satan himself feared the dragon’s retribution. In the course of tracking down the acolytes, Dracula will reacquire his lost arsenal, along with the skills associated with each weapon. The combat system is similar to previous releases with experience points earned by defeating enemies and destroying various items throughout the environment unlocking new moves and upgrades; experience is also earned per move the more each is used, and once mastered, that pool of experience can be transferred to the skill’s associated weapon to level it up. Depending on how much time is devoted to exploring and eking out experience points, it’s possible to make it through the game without unlocking all of the skills, though that isn’t necessarily a problem, given the sheer number of attacks spread throughout the three weapons. It can take a few hours to build up a solid base of moves for each, but this will cause few problems thanks to an array of relics and items. Each weapon has a long-range attack—the whip throws knives, the sword a freezing ice shard, and the claws an explosive ball—but there are also swarms of distracting bats, a mist form for avoiding attacks, and a variety of relics. Depending on the relic, Dracula can have all abilities unlocked for a limited time, a short window of unlimited magic, or the guidance of a dodo bird that perches near secrets. Relics can also allow for a clock that slows enemy movement and releases experience with each landed hit, and cause him to transform into a dragon, which initiates a cinematic of a powerful area-of-attack spell. The wide range of attacks and abilities set the combat apart from the rest of the game, as it offers a cohesive experience that the remainder lacks.
However, despite the strong combat system, the balance has been altered from the original Lords of Shadow. Encounters seem less frequent and are spaced oddly. Additionally, the hordes can often limit the role of the weaponry with their respective requirements, often making the sword and claws useful only when necessary as opposed to standard go-to equipment. Enemies can also frustrate due to poor implementation; in particular, the steampunk-style flying guards and groan-inducing unimaginative gun-toting demons turned many encounters into a slog. Combat worked best with one to three melee-oriented enemies at a time, but frequently, one or two long-range enemies would be thrown in that would pepper the area with bullets from over half a screen away and cause Dracula to bounce around, as bullets are inexplicably capable of causing him to fall back before he even recovers from the first hit. Bouncing around three times before being able to recover feels cheap, and having that scenario play out several times over the course of one session is enough to require a break.
Combat is nevertheless a high point, but the same cannot be said of the game’s stealth segments. Playing either as a rat or a possessed enemy, players will circumvent obstacles by sneaking through vents or walking past unsuspecting guards to access restricted areas. This makes more sense in the beginning, when Dracula is still recovering from his slumber, but increasingly less so as he becomes a force powerful enough to frighten Satan, which is something I don’t think I can stress enough. The sequences are also too similar in both look and approach, and feel shoehorned into a game that wasn’t designed for them. After making their way into a room patrolled by guards so strong that Dracula can never confront them, players must then sneak behind one of the world’s many crates or barrels to distract one of the armed monsters with a swarm of bats in order to get close enough to possess the other. If the guards are ever made aware of Dracula’s presence, or he gets too close to one that’s being swarmed by bats, it takes but a few hits to bring down the man that terrifies Hell. The only bright spot of these portions is the shaky walking animation the possessed have as their body slowly breaks down, with their fellow guards and scientists looking on unaware as their coworker is suddenly seizing up every step and struggling to stay standing. The variety they are supposed to provide is much better served by the platforming, because, despite their short length, they do little more than bring any momentum to a sudden halt.
One stealth section in particular stood out for its poor implementation, as well as an example of the game’s narrative inconsistencies. Agreus is enraged at the loss of his brother Pan and wishes to punish Dracula. Knowing that Dracula desires the Mirror of Fate, Agreus throws it high into the sky, right into the talons of a passing bird that takes it to a tree inside of a nearby cemetery. The player must now sneak through this area without rustling the numerous leaves that are strewn about, lest they alert Agreus, who, already on Dracula’s trail because of his scent, will close the distance at a run, which initiates an insta-death cutscene. Some bells are noted as distractions, but I found him to actually ignore them much of the time. To avoid the leaves, players must jump over them, turn into mist, or hang off the sides of raised graves and leap between their edges. The controls, which are fine for the less-stressful platforming sections, aren’t always responsive here, as I couldn’t always get Dracula to drop from ledges in time. After making their way to a switch, players then open a gate that allows them to access the top of the tree, where Dracula faces off against Agreus. Aside from being incredibly tedious, so much of the encounter and its setup doesn’t make sense. If Agreus wanted to fight Dracula and could kill him so easily, why not do it immediately? And if he can kill him so quickly, given that he does so with a single blow inside the cemetery, how can he be so easy to defeat on the top of the tree? It’s all so unnecessary and contrived that even the cool character design can’t save the sequence from being a complete write-off. Then again, I’m not sure “Dracula avoiding leaves” could possibly be the foundation for anything other than what we’re given.
Lords of Shadow 2 is really at its best when it’s reminding the player of its predecessor. The sections that take place in the drab, poorly constructed modern setting serve only to shine a light on the much better portions that take place in Dracula’s castle. Here, players will be able to platform amidst some gorgeous architecture while exploring areas that actually have character. Shifting back to the modern city is a harsh buzzkill, with its odd and haphazard design. One particularly frustrating moment left me looking for a door for almost 15 minutes. After reaching the front of a building, a small cutscene played to show a trail leading towards my destination, which was also highlighted on the mini-map. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find where to go. Giant enemies respawned constantly, which left me only a minute or so to explore between fights. During one bout, I knocked an enemy under an overhang, where instead of exploding as it should have, the creature jerked around, froze in mid-air, and then disappeared. I took pains to avoid that area, not wanting to freeze the game, which had already happened once before early on, only to find that my destination was actually just to the left of that very spot. The gated entrance was flush with a wall that ran into another building, and was so tucked out of sight that the map’s waypoint was of little help. Situations like this hamper the semi-open-world design and make the new emphasis on backtracking a chore, instead of to harkening back to the series’ roots of tantalizing with hints at progress, rewards (e.g., gems to increase overall health and magic), and the satisfying sense of discovery.
An especially strong element, and one that isn’t always the case with the series, is the story. Actually, the story itself is fairly basic, but the delivery is exceptional. Patrick Stewart reprises his role as Zobek, and while he’s always welcomed, some lines were a little flat. However, from beginning to end, Robert Carlyle is fantastic as Dracula. As the story winds through Gabriel’s grief at the loss of his family, his rise as Dracula, and his inner struggle to overcome the dark forces within, it managed to hook me more than I’ve ever been to the character. A new Belmont also seems to have a lot of potential and made a great addition to the cast, and depending on how much this lore becomes canon, I’d like to see him make future appearances. Another interesting addition is wave-based Kleidos challenges that become unlocked once a set number of items are recovered. Having to meet the various requirements in order to fully complete each challenge makes for a great showcase for the combat system, and tackling them made for a nice break whenever the game began to drag.
This ebb and flow is the only constant in Lords of Shadow 2. It’s strange that so many aspects of varying quality exist within the same game. The moody beginning, with its early gut-wrenching but wonderfully realized character-building sequence, fast-paced battles that feel as good if not better than the best in the genre, and some amazing architecture feel out of place next to the banged-together city blocks and unnecessary, out-of-left-field elements clumsily shoehorned in. The original was by no means a perfect game, but it did offer a great launching point, which somehow resulted in a sequel that managed to go nowhere while trying to go everywhere.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 built upon its predecessor in many meaningful ways, but it frequently stumbles whenever attempting something new. Comparing the segments set within Dracula’s castle to those in the modern city shows a clear difference in approach. For example, at one point, a challenge within his castle tasks players with setting up a marionette show to lure out a boss, a scenario that features lovely set designs, a novel task, and a great narration. In contrast, the modern-day setting features a sequence where Dracula must ignite a giant propane tank to ride it from one building to another. The gulf in quality between the old and new is significant, and an abrupt and unsatisfying ending doesn’t help. Series fans should consider a rental, but newcomers should check out the original instead.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)