Reinventing a classic series can always run the risk of angering long-time fans, depending how drastically they’ve changed the formula.
In the case of Castlevania, Konami allowed developer Mercurysteam to completely reinvent the 2D franchise with Lords of Shadow; while not the first time someone has tried to bring the 2D action-platformer to 3D, past attempts have at least retained the trademark aesthetics and mechanics unique to the series, whereas Lords of Shadow featured such a radical tonal and technical shift that one would have had to squint just to recognise any of the series’ trademarks beyond the title name.
Arguably, it was a commendable experiment that brought a darker and more serious tone to the increasingly campy and convoluted mythos, as well as a modern presentation consisting of gorgeous visuals, thunderous orchestral music, and one of the most memorable post-credits twists seen in the last decade of gaming. Despite some minor problems, there was enough intrigue in Mercurysteam’s reimagining to create excitement for the sequel. Unfortunately, a whole new host of problems in addition to those unfixed from the last game mean the company’s statement that Lords of Shadow 2 will be their last Castlevania game is almost relieving.
For those of you who have managed not to be spoiled by the events of the previous game, be advised that the rest of this review will discuss the events following the end of Lords of Shadow. Shortly after defeating the titular villains in addition to the most biblical baddie of all (Satan), hero Gabriel Belmont forsook his humanity and devotion to God and became Dracula, lord of darkness and long-time villain of the Castlevania franchise. It was a surprising twist that was immediately outdone by the teasing of a modern day setting where a withered and weary dark lord desires death from his immortal torment, and it is here where Lords of Shadow 2 continues the story.
The game begins with a promising prologue, where Gabriel repels a massive siege in his castle from an army of holy knights (as well as their giant robot and golden winged archangel – just because the game is no longer developed by a Japanese studio doesn’t mean it should forego all of its anime-inspired roots). Once Dracula ends the battle with a massive explosion that would make the cast of Dragon Ball Z proud, the story fast-forwards to the epilogue of the original game, where the fallen Belmont has awakened after centuries of slumber. His powers conveniently weakened as a result, Dracula must form an uneasy alliance with Zobek, the last surviving Lord of Shadow who masqueraded as his ally in the previous game. Utilising his vast resources and information, Zobek orders Dracula to seek out the newest threat, the Acolytes of Satan, who are preparing for their master’s arrival. Preventing the return of Satan will spare Dracula an eternity of physical torment as well as releasing him from his mental anguish, as Zobek vows to end his immortal life once and for all.
From a story standpoint, Lords of Shadow 2 does a fairly decent job conveying Gabriel’s undead torment, though the logistics of how his inner demons are causing him physical pain are never explained properly; in addition to meeting with the spectres of his family (including his son, who is both alive and older than how he appears in Garbriel’s mind), the ruler of Castlevania will often find himself wandering the halls of the titular castle at random, as well as facing off against many of his defiant servants. The idea of Castlevania serving as a sentient and malicious force that refuses to let Dracula leave its dominion is an interesting concept, but how and why it manifests is never explained, nor do we ever know if these encounters are mere hallucinations or some sort of paranormal entity.
Castlevania fans have been teased with the prospect of wandering around a semi-futuristic setting since Aria of Sorrow, but the wide open city streets and uninspired architecture serve only as a hugely missed opportunity. The majority of the time is spent hopping around conveniently-dilapidated structures that lack the satisfying building-scaling of Assassin’s Creed, as well as sneak around the endless corridors of underground labs. The Gothic and ruined look of the phantom Castlevania world is far more inspiring, and only further points out the inconsistent level design that permeates the entire game. By changing the fixed camera of the original LoS to a free-roaming one, much of the environments lack the intricate detail and care that made the original game often stunning to witness. There is also an odd perspective issue that occasionally makes Dracula appear far smaller than the rest of the game’s geometry, especially when standing in front of cars (which cannot be destroyed in any way, despite most of every other object being completely destructible).
On the plus side, combat remains as satisfying as it did in LoS, with further enhancements to make battles smoother and faster. The basics of combat are virtually intact, with two types of whip attacks (single-focus strong attacks and weaker area attacks) as well as a block and counter system that can deal even more damage when timed correctly. New to the game are the Void Sword and Chaos Claws, replacing the Light and Dark magic attacks from the original game, but otherwise serving the same purpose: the Void Sword drains enemy health and restores Dracula’s with every strike, while the Chaos Claws deliver slow-yet-powerful attacks capable of breaking enemy’s defences (especially handy against shielded and armoured foes). To use these alternating abilities, however, requires expendable energy that is collected only by maintaining the combo meter, which builds up with consistently chained attacks (and vanishes entirely the moment you suffer an enemy blow). The balance between strategic thinking and fast-paced button mashing results in a satisfying combat system, while the inclusion of special items (which can enhance Dracula’s abilities or hinder opponents temporarily) adds an additional element of familiarity among old-school Castlevania fans.
If only the developers did not drag down the satisfying brawls with routine and monotonous traversal and stealth elements! Yes, the dreaded S word has reared its ugly head for the first time in franchise history, and if you think Kojima might have interjected some of his expertise on the subject, you will lament in knowing that he had no involvement whatsoever in the sequel (versus whatever alleged input he gave on the original). In certain parts of the game, Dracula is forced to sneak around foes that he should otherwise have no trouble dispensing of. This is primarily done by interacting with shadow-marked spots that allow him to assume the form of a rat, which is about the most pitiful form the Prince of Darkness would ever assume. These rat segments typically consist of the same mind-numbing chores, such as chewing a nearby electrical wire, sneaking around glowing vents and…that’s about it. Other stealth abilities include distracting foes with a cluster of bats and then temporarily possessing them once their guard is down (to which you can then look forward to shuffling about like a zombie until you reach your required destination). These segments would not be so offensive if they weren’t so frequent.
Ultimately that is the biggest flaw with Lords of Shadow 2: an overindulgence of filler. Had the game been half as long, without having to engage in so many stealth situations, hopping around platforms (which, incidentally, are the worst platforming segments since Castlevania 64), the good parts of the game would have stood out that much more. This inconsistency of both gameplay and artistic design has been attributed to claims of managerial tampering over at Mercurysteam, which seems quite convincing when playing this uneven sequel. Even the music lacks the memorable Hollywood punch of the original game, while the voice acting is equally serviceable but also prone to characters infuriatingly repeating the same phrases over and over during boss battles and non-playable allies (one in particular reminds you ever ten seconds to go pull a switch, even as you are making your way to said switch as quick as humanely possible). If there is one element in the presentation that does remain pleasantly intact, it’s the character models used during cutscenes; lavished with detail, the facial features and clothing detail are a thing of beauty, whether the characters are living, dead, or some sort of demonic hell spawn. The boss encounters are also among the most exhilarating as they are exaggerated, and for those who have grown weary of Quick Time Events, the option to remove them entirely allow players to enjoy the violent finishes to each brawl instead of waiting for the right moment to push a button.
All in all, Lords of Shadow 2 is a moderate disappointment following the promising first game. Worse still is the incredibly unsatisfying ending, which entirely ignores all unresolved plot points and even the claims that this would wrap up the story for good (thus depriving fans of proper closure in the likelihood there will not be a third game). It’s an unfortunate conclusion to this experimental reimagining of Castlevania, but it still has moments that make you almost forget the wholly lacklustre parts. Just be certain to wait for the inevitable price drop.