2010’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow took a lot of liberties with the sacred Castlevania name, not the least of which being a focus on action and linearity akin to games like God of War or Devil May Cry. But for all it did differently, the original Lords of Shadow did a whole lot that was right as well, with monstrous set pieces, whimsical environments and level designs, and exhilarating boss fights, one after another. With the long-awaited sequel, Lords of Shadow 2, developer MercurySteam put in place a wonderful premise for more lofty action segments and breathtaking exploration: a playable Dracula in a modern-day city. But while Lords of Shadow 2 takes things in a new direction over its predecessor, with a more open world structure and stealth elements, do these changes work for the series like they did the first time around? Or do they simply just suck a big puddle of blood?
For as crazy and convoluted as the Castlevania story has gotten over the years, the narrative in Lords of Shadow 2 is actually one of the game’s biggest strengths, and I was always so completely captivated every time there was a cut scene going on. The game starts out with a lengthy recap of Dracula’s fall at the hands of his own kin, Simon Belmont and Trevor Belmont (the vampire Alucard), which played out in the spin-off game Mirrors of Fate. We then have a several hundred-year jump from the events of the first Lords of Shadow, as Gabriel Belmont reawakens as a defeated and severely weakened Dracula, on the night of Satan’s alleged return. Dracula’s old “pal” Zobek informs the Prince of Darkness that in order to stop the forces of evil once again, he’ll need to find and eliminate both of Satan’s acolytes, who have taken up positions in the real world, posing as things like pharmaceutical employees.
Blood plays a huge role in Lords of Shadow 2, and you will constantly find Dracula slitting his own wrists to open doors or activate switches, as well as biting the necks of enemies to replenish his health. Admittedly, the storyline is a bit of a stretch at times, and there are a lot of smaller things that seem to have been ripped directly from the first game: from identical menu screens to parallel story elements. But there’s no denying that it’s still a fun addition to the Castlevania canon, and the many twists along the way will always keep you on the edge of your seat (or your coffin). And above all else, it forms the basis for what should have been a unique new setting for Castlevania fans. It’s just a shame, then, that such an amazing and refreshing premise for the Castlevania series (actually playing as Dracula in a modern-day city!) falls a bit short of almost every expectation when it comes to the actual gameplay.
This time around, MercurySteam strayed from the linear and level-based design of the first game for a more open world approach. Players will move back and forth between the modern-age City and the ancient ruins of the Castle by using several wolf emblems found at fixed locations. Unfortunately, this has the strange side effect of making the game world feel incredibly smaller and claustrophobic than the first game, as all of the variety has been stripped away in favor of monotonous and similar-looking areas. There are no more shimmering green forests, autumn fields at sunset, or staggering ice fields. Instead, everything takes place in muddy factories, dreary side streets and sewers, and tons and tons of industrial elevators. I guess you might say it’s a bit more like a true Castlevania experience now, but that’s no excuse for everything just looking plain and ugly.
Worse yet, the ways in which these open world elements are handled make the process of backtracking for exploration and finding collectables extremely cumbersome and unenjoyable. Even though you’re playing as the all-powerful Dracula here in Lords of Shadow 2, you still need to relearn all of the skills you had acquired by the end of the first game in order to access certain areas (in typical Castlevania fashion). The problem is that the game map is positively awful, with unhelpful and segmented sketches of rooms, and no option to view the entire thing all at once. There’s a restrictive fast travel system of sorts that crops up around the midpoint of the game, but getting to where you want to go (let alone even finding it) is never all that easy. The “world map” is also a joke, as it simply just gives you a list of all the areas available to you (four areas in the City and another four in the Castle), and how many secrets you still have left to find in each.
The combat itself remains largely unchanged from the first game, with the same “light” and “shadow” battle mechanics reinstilled in Dracula’s Void Sword and Chaos Claws. One nice addition is that now Dracula can achieve “Weapon Mastery” skills through using each one of his combo moves for a certain amount of time. This is certainly a great way to encourage players to experiment with their growing set of upgradable moves, rather than just mashing buttons repeatedly. Also new is the bigger role of relics during battles, which help you fight by adding a certain modifier boost to your already impressive arsenal of weapons and skills. One relic gives you unlimited Void and Chaos magic for a short amount of time. Another relic replenishes your health completely. And still a third lets Dracula turn into a magnificent black dragon and obliterate any enemy who happens to stumble in his path.
Unfortunately, these battles will be largely broken up by horribly clunky stealth areas that make up the majority of your adventuring in the City portions of the game. There are many moments in the game where Dracula will need to maneuver around giant gun-wielding patrol guards in the present day, and you’ll accomplish this by distracting enemies with bat swarms, transforming into a rat and scampering through air vents, and sneaking up behind the patrols to take possession of their bodies and open locked doors. These segments pop up way more than you would like, and they often slow down the pacing to a crawl, resulting in quite a confusing and lopsided action experience.
Now of course, that’s not to say that Lords of Shadow 2 never has its moments. There are several explosive set pieces and boss battles that really showcase the breadth of creativity and passion that MercurySteam has given us before. From the opening tutorial which finds Dracula taking down a massive hunter mech that’s bent on destroying his castle, to an extended boss fight on a speeding train that’s interspersed with several platforming segments, these instances will make you yearn for more of the same, stylized action. There are even some downright beautiful moments to be had here as well, thanks to a handful of tension-wrought reunions with a few familiar faces. However, nothing is quite as mouth-dropping as many of the events in the first game, like battling the colossal ice titan or venturing deep into the Necromancer’s Abyss.
For as clunky as the presentation is in Lords of Shadow 2, the game’s actual performance doesn’t fare much better. I experienced game-freezing bugs on several occasions during the animation of Dracula’s blood-sucking finisher move while playing on PS3, and the loading screens are long and frequent every time you need to reload a checkpoint. The loading screens themselves are also pretty ridiculous too, as you’re forced to stare at a shirtless rendering of Dracula pondering where he’s at in his current mission so far, before snapping his head to stare right in your eyes once you hit start to get back into the action.
So in the end, while Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is still a fun game to play, and is a must-have for die-hard fans of the series’ crazy history and lore, the game sadly misses the mark on a number of occasions. The new open world design is encased with rigidness, confusion, and uninspired environments. The map isn’t much better, and the back-and-forth City/Castle foundation upsets the pacing at regular intervals, thanks in no small part to the incredibly out of place and just downright boring stealth sections. While the actual combat mechanics and a few thrilling boss fights manage to save face a little (with a series of unlockable challenges that later boost up the game’s longevity), there’s still no getting around the fact that playing as Dracula feels like one big bloody chore.