From his earliest representation as a master manipulator in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to his more action-oriented appearance in 2004’s Van Helsing, Dracula has always been characterized as something brutal, ruthless, and wholly evil, making him arguably one of the most recognizable and dangerous antagonists of all time. As the primary antagonist of the Castlevania franchise, he has challenged gamers over the course of decades to rise up and strike him down, if they’re tough enough.
Now, finally, the tables have turned, as we get to play as the creature that haunted our childhoods. We get to embody the physical manifestation of evil. Theoretically, it should be incredibly gratifying to handle the so-called “Prince of Darkness.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the all-powerful Dracula we know and hate. It’s a weak, morally confused husk, and that’s about the best way I can describe Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (PlayStation 3 [Reviewed], Xbox 360, PC)
Released: February 25, 2014
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 starts off well enough. After a lengthy exposition cinematic, you’re thrust right into the tutorial. You tear your way through grunts and battle across the expanse of Dracula’s castle in a pretty huge action setpiece. Then, as soon as you’re getting into the groove of things, boom, you’re teleported hundreds of years into the future where Dracula is now a withered, old man. And surprise, surprise, he has conveniently lost all of his powers and memories.
As soon as you come to terms with this, you become a lackey to Zobek from the first game. He gives you a simple mission to find Satan’s acolytes on Earth and destroy them before they can summon him. In return, Zobek promises to kill Dracula and free him from eternal life. And, like an obedient dog, Dracula agrees. Reminder, this is Dracula, a character who, in almost every incarnation, can possess souls, manipulate minds, and summon inhuman strength. Yet, here he is submitting to the wills of others with very little argument.
In all fairness, he’s not entirely subservient. He broods about it a bit. He’s quite good at brooding, actually. But it’s not cool brooding. It’s “nice guy trying to seem cool” brooding. Which I suppose makes sense, since the Gabriel part of Dracula is essentially the paragon of niceness, but it fails to leave a meaningful impression. The last thing I want out of Dracula is a Dracula who feels bad about it. The tutorial sets up a perfect frame in which to place a morally depraved, incredibly powerful Dracula, but the developers abandon that, apparently thinking it would be better to present a weak, morally conflicted, anachronistic Dracula.
Across the meaningless plot, Dracula will feed off random scientists, then later spare a man who just tried to kill him. He will trade spit with a buxom lady vampire, then seconds later embrace his wife. He will operate advanced machinery, despite having been asleep for centuries. Among all of this, he will also take every opportunity to let people know that he works alone, and then spend the next five minutes working together with another character. Dracula simply makes no sense in his own game.
Lords of Shadow 2’s structure is split strangely between chapters in a modern-day city (built around the remains of Dracula’s castle) and chapters in which you actually explore the castle itself. The city segments clearly take place in the “present,” but it’s unclear when the castle sections occur. They’re often referred to as memories, but when you return from them, you’ll retain the items and powers you picked up, so all bets are off. The castle areas are certainly the most fun and show off the best looking levels.
Comparatively speaking, the city levels aren’t really bad, per se, but they are boring. I love the idea that a whole city was built over top of Dracula’s castle. In practice, however, the architectural nuances don’t tend to come across well, and as a result, they just feel boring and uninspired. A friend commented that this design choice seemed akin to I, Frankenstein. In practice, I still say Lords of Shadow 2 handles the anachronism better, but that’s not saying much.
You really shouldn’t go into Lords of Shadow 2 expecting good pacing, either. The first few hours are slow, but that’s forgivable because the first few hours of a game are usually the training wheel stage. After a couple of hours, things start to pick up, but every now and then it’ll hit a snag. This mostly occurs during climbing sequences or stealth areas. The climbing sequences tend to be boring and needlessly complex. Bats signal ledges you can jump or climb to, but the bat animation looks confusingly similar to another visual cue. It also doesn’t help when the bats appear offscreen, don’t show up at all, or appear on entirely different ledges than the ones you’re supposed to climb to. That last one is my favorite.
As for stealth areas, the gimmick is that you can transform into a pack of rats. If this is an allusion to the famous scene from the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, then I have to give the development team credit. However, a clever allusion does not necessarily make a good mechanic, especially here. Occasionally, you use the rats to navigate hazards and manipulate the environment, but most of the time you just use them to walk past a couple of big guards that invariably kill you in 2 or 3 hits. Seriously, you will never be strong enough to fight them. The legions of Hell are dispatched relatively easily, but you can’t take down a few big guys in thick armor.
After 4 hours or so, the game just starts to feel like an exercise in going from point-A to point-B, and then fighting a boss there. Pacing at its absolute worst.
Still, I have to give credit where it’s due. The combat system is deep and rich. You can get by with basic button mashing, but you will be rewarded for mastering more complex combos. Animations are slick, smooth, and can often be easily cancelled. Enemies telegraph attacks well, but they’re still formidable.
There are three weapons available, including your basic whip, a void sword (low damage, but restores health), and chaos claws (high damage, breaks shields, but slow). Switching between them is instantaneous, so the flow is never interrupted. The weapons operate on magic, which you can only refill through limited items or building up combos. Most of the time, this is no issue, but there is one enemy type that will shield every second attack, making it nearly impossible to build a combo. If you don’t have any chaos magic before you go up against them, you’re pretty much screwed.
In terms of defense, Dracula has both a block and a dodge move. Interestingly, the dodge does not give you invincibility frames like many other hack n slash games; you’re vulnerable the whole time. I actually like this choice, since the block and dodge are easy enough to pull off, but I wish they had been assigned to different buttons.
The sad thing is, despite all my complaints, I still enjoyed the game well enough. The visual design is not as interesting as the first, but there’s some great scenery in the castle areas and the orchestrated soundtrack is equally impressive. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 also goes out of its way to encourage exploration, even if the game itself is open-world in name only. MercurySteam actually put in some subtle “Metroidvania” aspects, surprisingly, but they’re not enough to make me want to trudge through the joke of a campaign again.
I think the moment that summed up my whole experience was a stealth mission in which I had to sneak through a courtyard, avoiding a mythical beast. Stepping on leaves alerts him to your presence, and the leaves are placed in such a way that you have to step on them. You can ring bells to distract him, but sometimes he will flat-out ignore them. I died more in this area than any other place in the game, even more than the following boss battle which was the easiest in the entire game.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is certainly a mixed-bag of a game. You may occasionally pull out something wonderful, but more often than not, you’ll get something dull and disappointing.