Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
The best thing about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was that it didn’t play like a typical Castlevania game. While the side 2D Metroidvania format worked well for the outstanding Symphony of the Night and a plethora of anime influenced handheld titles, the series needed to change drastically if it were to survive. Taking cues from God of War and Uncharted, and putting the star power of Hideo Kojima to good use, the ballad of Gabriel Belmont was a surprise hit back in 2010, even among the die-hard Castlevaniacs. Considering that the series was renowned for resurrecting the world’s most famous vampire game after game, MercurySteam have upped the stakes dramatically for the sequel. In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, you’re not long the vampire hunter – you are the dragon; you are Dracula.
After being ousted from his castle during an absolutely action-packed tutorial mission, the game fast forwards to the moment when we last saw the tortured soldier of God-turned-vampire Prince of Darkness. Malnourished and weak, he hides away from the world in an abandoned cathedral while the world evolves around him. That is, until he receives an offer he can’t refuse from his old nemesis Zobek, Lord of the Dead. In exchange for being granted with eternal death - something the human in Dracula craves - he must help Zobek eliminate the acolytes of Satan before they can summon their master and bring about the end of days.
Giving a human side to Dracula adds some depth to the game, as the excellent Robert Carlyle returns to voice the lead with sorrow and dignity. But the story is where the game begins to unravel and become unnecessarily over-encumbered. All too often are there references made to the now canonized 3DS sequel Mirror of Fate, which will have been overlooked by most home console owners. Even the storybook introduction at the start of the game only fills in a few gaps, while the story rapidly tries to back pedal across key moments with overlong cutscenes, exposition and dream-like teleportations to Dracula’s past in the castle. It’s enough to keep you hanging on until the bitter end, but the conclusion doesn’t come close to having the same bite as the first.
The one positive from Dracula’s struggle with his inner demons is that the return trips to his castle, the true heart of the Castlevania series, are playable and make up some of the best sequences in the game. Even if the walls are covered with gargoyles and the floors are stained with blood, it feels like a holiday compared to the grim, cold and rather plain modern city setting where most of the game takes place. It often feels like two Castlevania games have been spliced together at times. Set pieces in the castle, such as the encounter with the Toy Maker or Dracula’s hunt for the Mirror of Fate really stand out when compared to the drudgery of running around a boring city.
MercurySteam’s attempt to create an open world doesn’t exactly go according to plan either. It was never going to be a sandbox game, but it doesn’t even bear any resemblance to the lively yet dangerous Gotham City in the Batman: Arkham saga. Nor do we get the illusion of openness like other adventure games such as Uncharted or the modern Legend of Zelda titles. Castlevania City as it’s known is very restricted in comparison, and feels more like a 3D take on the 2D Metroidvania formula as if it were painted by Escher.
The game loses all sense of gothic heritage whenever Dracula is traipsing around pharmaceutical plants and weapons manufacturers. It’s unclear why Satan would have an antidote at the ready when he turned the kingdom of men into demons, nor does the perpetual search for fuse boxes really lend itself to the genre. Even the many enemies used as combo fodder are uninspired, with a number of them looking like they came from the cutting room floor of Clive Barker’s Jericho, also developed by MercurySteam.
In contrast, the creative juices must have been in full flow for the dozens of titan-sized bosses that stand between you and eternal rest. They may not take a lot of skill to destroy, it’s not exactly Shadow of the Colossus, but they are fascinatingly grotesque and provide some truly shocking moments of body horrors. Blood pours out of every orifice as you slash your way to victory and send these beasts back to Hell. Some of them are even given little back stories, revealed in the scrolls of dead knights, conversations with other creatures or even through a puppet show for one particular boss.
It seems strange then that there’s one particular enemy in the game that Dracula won’t touch with a barge pole, void sword or even with the trademark Belmont whip. The armour-clad Golgorth Guards feature in what appears to be Castlevania’s attempt at adding stealth to Dracula’s already abundant bag of tricks. Perhaps Hideo Kojima rubbed off on them a little too well by this point. Dracula can transform into a pack of vigorous vermin or into a puff of purple mist in order to slip by unnoticed. If that fails, then alternatively you can send a swarm of bats as a distraction before possessing them altogether. While these are traits commonly attributed to the Dracula mythology, they don’t really make much sense and often become irritating. Dracula’s ability to attack is disabled during these times which seems particularly odd given that the Golgorth patrols are nowhere near as big and ugly as the bosses.
What makes that even more frustrating is that the combat is probably the best part of the game. True, it may absolutely reek of God of War, but what’s not to love about button bashing the blood from your enemies as you whip up combos and drink the life from them via a Quick Time Event-powered finishing move? By using Dracula’s speed and agility to dodge attacks, you can collect magic from downed enemies and use it to fuel two vital additions to your arsenal. The Void Sword is not only essential to absorbing health during times of need, but can also freeze parts of the environment for you to clamber upon. The Chaos Claws come in handy when you need to destroy something blocking your path, whether that be a closed door or an enemy with a shield.
Blocking is also an essential part of the game, and the addition of a full 360-degree-camera to the game make it much easier to defend yourself from an incoming onslaught. If you haven’t quite mastered the controls, which are a hell of a lot easier to get to grips with than the first game, then there are a number of power-ups that can turn the tides of battle against you. One of which involves collecting four pieces of a talisman that turn you into your namesake; a large fire-breathing dragon that will drastically cripple some of those more persistent acolytes. It’s not quite as awe-inspiring as it sounds (I used it once in the entire game) but alongside the transformations, the agility and of course the blood sucking, it’s good to see so much Dracula lore crammed into one game.
The fresh take on the series in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow seemed to introduce enough fresh blood to resurrect what seemed to be a dying brand. The sequel unfortunately pollutes that bloodstream with an infection caused by too many ideas and too many cut corners. As far as single-player experiences go, there’s plenty of meat on the bone thanks to exciting combat and some interesting boss designs. However, any sense of resolution or redemption in Lords of Shadow 2 becomes lost amidst poor storytelling and unsurprising plot twists. If this Dracula seeks eternal rest then as much as we’d love to see him stay alive for one more adventure, perhaps it’s about time a stake was put through his heart.