Over nearly three decades and dozens of games, the Castlevania series has let players battle through iconically fragmented gameworlds and crack the Belmont family’s whips against Dracula. Now, with Lords of Shadow 2, the biggest, baddest vampire of all is yours to control. The shift from implacable archfiend to playable hero changes everything about him, though, and that’s where this game’s troubles start.
The vision of the Prince of Darkness presented in Lords of Shadow 2 lacks — no other way to put this — bite. MercurySteam try to portray Dracula as both a fearsome predator and a sympathetic human.
This sequel picks up several lifetimes after the first Lords of Shadow game, which saw its hero Gabriel Belmont lose loved ones, co-opt the power of an ancient demon and repel Lucifer’s bid to oust the Almighty. Gabriel started calling himself Dracul/Dracula somewhere along the line and entered into a centuries-long slumber. His absence has emboldened acolytes of Satan — who influence humanity from the shadows — to summon him back to earth. Awakened in a modern day city built on the foundations of his castle, Dracul enters into an uneasy alliance with old foe Zobek. Zobek promises to end Dracul’s curse of immortality in exchange for help to stop Lucifer once more.
Lords of Shadow 2 tries to locate its emotional core in the wife and son Gabriel lost while fighting evil in God’s name. It also gives the character a huge grudge against his Former Employer up in Heaven. But neither of these ever pull you in to caring about what happens as the game goes on.
Visitations from his dead son Trevor transport Dracul back into a dream of the past where he retraces old paths in his former castle and regains former powers. These sequences are also where Dracul expresses some regret and grief. However, it’s all a confusing mish-mash of well-worn clichés from pop culture storytelling and game design. Dracula’s ghost wife is saintly and self-sacrificing, even in the afterlife. His son is a glum and enigmatic tour guide to Dracul’s memories. The lead character never comments on being in the modern world and doesn’t seem to care much about the demonic plague that overruns Castlevania City. (Just a plot device, dear; don’t get all worked up.)
His rants against an unjust God come off as just so much wanna-be-edgy posturing that doesn’t justify itself. Why redemption? Why grief? Why the pose of blasphemy? Big questions that seem folded in because the game’s creators wanted to have Deep Observations, but don’t really play out in a satisfying way. That facileness — combined with weak attempts to shock with sexual and religious imagery splattered in cutscenes — makes it hard to care about the proceedings
Players spend time in two connected worlds in CLOS2, Castlevania City and Dracula’s own displaced palace. They connect at specific parts of the map and you can wander around off-path in the gameworld. The execution generally holds true to the time-honored ‘Vania principles of recursive exploration and progress: go get another power/item to get to that other place you couldn’t get to before.
But the level design all too often makes exploration a boring chore, with areas that look frustratingly similar and pathways that are obnoxiously obscured. In the latter part of the game, I fought off wave after wave of respawning enemies while trying to get at an exit obscured by a vertical pathway I’d used before. Cool, I must need to go there again, right? That’s what Castlevania games are all about! Nope. The place I needed to go was behind the ladder I was climbing like an idiot for 20 minutes. Either point me at the right place or not, CLOS2; don’t half-arse it and throw an endless wave of big demons at me at the same time.
What does work about Lords of Shadow 2 is the mix of abilities and combat options made available to you. Much is made about how weak Dracula is after his long nap. You start off the game with stealth, sneaking around as a rat, possessing unaware enemies and distracting them with swarms of bats. You don’t feel like the terrifying predator of the ages but, as you acquire skills and upgrades, you get to a sharp edge of prowess.
Like in Mirror of Fate, Dracula wields elemental powers in LOS2. His icy Void Sword steals enemy life energy with each strike and the fiery Chaos Claws provide powerful heavy attacks. The projectile attacks related to each can help you get around, too, either by freezing water for climbing or exploding obstacles to new areas. he combat and boss fights conform to the overly familiar strike/parry/dodge template, with dodging and ability switching thrown in. The overall flow of enemy engagement can feel choppy but at times but it’s not clumsy.
Lords of Shadow 2‘s biggest shame falls on the game’s stealth elements, which at their best are uninspired. At their worst, the sneak-past-enemies portions of the game are broken, hampered by systems that just don’t work.
Midway through the game, you’re supposed to sneak past minor deity Agreus from one end of a garden to another. Sounds easy, no? The projectiles never locked on to the hanging lamps I was supposed to hit to distract him and Agreus’ omniscient AI always caught up with me no matter how far ahead of him I got. What should been 10-15 minutes of tension turned into 4-5 hours of silent screaming. I haven’t been as frustrated with an apparently broken chunk of gameplay since the infamous Star Destroyer sequence from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Yes, it’s that bad.
Moments like that — and hitches where cutscenes don’t trigger, leaving your progress stuck — make Lords of Shadow 2 feel barely finished, shoved out of the door on wobbly legs and mandated to find an audience for itself.
It felt like I spent more time in the city than the castle environs, which is understandable as a contemporary urban environment is supposed to be part of the appeal here. But what you might have been hoping for — seeing the Prince of Darkness chomping on random pedestrians and causing waves of panic — doesn’t happen. This isn’t Dracula inside GTA IV. It’s not even Dracula in Mafia II, to name a recent open-world game where the city felt half-baked. Castlevania City is dry as a bloodsucker’s last victim, devoid of any bustle or character. And that’s problematic because the city is supposed to stand in for what Dracula supposedly seeks to protect: the self-directed fate of man, free of rule from a capricious Higher Power and Satan below. But, in delivering a hometown that feels so hollow, Lords of Shadow 2 finds yet another way to make Dracula feel like a generic also-ran.
Despite the attempts to make him relatable, the Dracula here isn’t touchy-feely. He’s lethal, aloof and celestially powerful. But what he isn’t is a creature of legend. CLOS2‘s Dracula doesn’t ever feel like it taps into the subconscious dread that’s accrued since Bram Stoker synthesized a bunch of vampire folklore into a late 19th century novel. He’s not a seductive metaphor for submerged desires or the invading outsider who upends society. Worse still, he doesn’t feel connected to the melodramatic big bad of the 2D side-scrolling Castlevania games. That guy was a jerk. A distant, condescending jerk. You never got the sense that he was all sad inside. It seemed he’d left any trace of his humanity long behind and that was what was most fascinating about him. Lords of Shadow 2’s biggest hook s also its biggest pitfall: by turning its signature villain into its newest hero, the game robs each role of its flavour. All you get is a grumpy antihero who doesn’t stand out enough from any of his peers.
You’re thrust into a world where being Dracula doesn’t really mean anything. He’s just a guy who fights real well. Well enough to have run off Satan, yes, but your name isn’t whispered in fear. In fact, it’s been forgotten. You may as well be Dante, Kratos or Ryu Hayabusa, for all it matters. Those guys have proven their ability to hypnotize audiences into offering themselves over to their charms. This Dracula, however, doesn’t deserve your blood, sweat or tears.