By trying to do too much, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 has created an unholy menagerie of unbaked ideas.
Not everyone liked MercurySteam’s revival of the Castlevania franchise. Such decriers are largely those who felt that the in-house development studio at Konami led by Igarashi were perfectly fine without the need for a reboot. The series has gone from many different genres, with its most famous incarnation being the Metroidvania style. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was mainly criticised for being derivative of the immensely popular games God of War and Shadow of the Colossus, not really focusing on being unique in anything other than setting. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 marks the end of MercurySteam’s involvement with the series; but while the first was a flawed gem that divided a fan-base, the second game in the franchise has major issues that may unite them once more.
In merely describing the introduction to Lords of Shadow 2, we need to establish that the true ending to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is widely known, so if you haven’t finished that game you should probably not look at anything regarding the sequel. Gabriel Belmont has taken the title of Dracula, after being betrayed by his so-called friend Zobek and defeating Satan in mortal combat. A thousand years have passed, when Zobek approaches Dracula to ask him to stop Satan’s resurrection in return for an end to Dracula’s curse.
As the last in the Lords of Shadow saga, the narrative tries to tie up every single possible loose end imaginable, resulting in a potentially convoluted mess. Your focus will dart sporadically between hunting acolytes, to trying to find an antidote, to finding pieces of the Mirror of Fate. Constant interruptions hurt the pacing, especially when the sole point of the sequence is to get the ability from the castle world required to pass an obstacle in the urban world.
MercurySteam’s world in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was one of immense grandeur, both in production and design. Lords of Shadow 2 maintains the production values with impeccable performances from its cast (especially Patrick Stewart as Zobek), but with the new urban sections, the design doesn’t quite fit the bill.
Each location is modern, but not spectacular to look at compared with the castle sections that combine gothic decor with the dream-like splendorous views. This contrast is immensely jarring as a result, almost feeling like two different games. We’ve come to expect that the classic Castlevania music isn’t going to be present in this new interpretation, but what we got is a mixture of beautiful scores and semi-futuristic tones that don’t quite match any setting.
Credit where credit is due, in the options menu amongst Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pleasing checkboxes such as displaying numbers when hitting things, there is the option to turn off QTEs. Given that was one of the most hated new additions about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, this is a godsend of a compromise.
In fact, for better or worse, there seem to be a lot of compromises present. Reusing lines from the terrible Symphony of the Night English dub is pretty cheesy, but mercifully this is the only place it occurs and oddly has no correlation with the rest of the plot. The appearance of Alucard prompts the game to recount the entire plot of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirrors of Fate in one scene, a decision that seems ill-fated for those interested in playing the HD version on consoles.
A lot of Lords of Shadow 2 involves beating up monsters and platforming sequences, which fundamentally are unchanged from the first game in how they work. Switching between the life leeching Void Sword and shield shattering Chaos Claws powers, while blocking and dodging and whipping your way to victory, are paramount to success and are thankfully a lot easier to get used to this time around. By collecting souls, you can invest in new attacks or upgrades for existing ones.
You can also upgrade your weapon by mastering techniques by constantly using them, incentivising using every trick in your arsenal. Sub-weapons complement this fast paced spectacle fighter and for the most part the combat is a highlight. Platforming is mostly jumping between highlighted points, serving as a means to explore rather than a focus.
An Aria of Sorrow
While the sequel is a marked improvement on the fundamentals of the Lords of Shadow saga, there are some issues. Exploration can get confusing at times, particularly when you are required to go through Wolf Portals. Waypoints do keep you on the right track, though their vagueness is oddly welcoming for a game where exploration is half the fun. Just expect to be referring to maps a lot when trying to figure out where to go.
Lords of Shadow 2’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t just have one type of stealth gameplay, but two. Sneaking past Golgoth guards that resemble decaying Chaos Terminators from Warhammer 40K, is generally a mundane chore despite the abilities to distract with bats, turn into rats, or possess unsuspecting AI.
However, it is the other stealth sections that are the worst offenders. One example mid-game involves you trying to avoid a boss while traversing terrain littered with leaves. Should you step on them; the boss will immediately head for you. Should he find you, he will beat you to a pulp, spawning you right at the beginning of the section. You are able to distract him with bells, but the aiming to throw daggers at these bells is so precise, that he’ll probably find you as you’re lining up your shot.
Stealth sections are ill-advised at the best of times, but when the very next thing you do is a boss fight with your former pursuer, it renders the entire sequence redundant.
Another grievance is the loading times when travelling between Wolf portals and continuing after a game over screen. The latter in particular will haunt you with Dracula’s menacing glare, as if he is saying “don’t mess up this time”. The loading times feel like punishment for doing something wrong, rather than being there for the sake of it; its generous checkpoints are a welcome asset, but the damage is already done. Combined with these stealth sections where being detected is a death sentence, this is particularly disheartening.
However, there are times when Lords of Shadow 2 has moments of inspiration, like the entire Toy Maker section that follows the infuriating stealth section described before, as it gives you a delightful change of pace before the most unique boss of the game. It’s these instances of greatness that only highlight its flaws like the bats showing where to go next. More often than not, the urban sections bring down the rest of the game compared to the Dream-like sections, because they’re more likely to have these pace-breaking stealth sections.
By adding stealth sections to the spectacle fighter/Shadow of the Colossus/open-world 3D exploration mix, Lords of Shadow 2 doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It’s by no means awful, with a refined combat system that satisfies more than the first game, combined with some standout locales and set pieces. It doesn’t help that the game is over 15 hours long, meaning that all the sections that fail could have easily been cut out and it would have made the game significantly better!
There is talent behind this franchise from the development side and the Hollywood cast does well to bring the series to life, which is why the issues present are so painful to point out. MercurySteam have now finished their time with the Castlevania franchise, meaning a potential return to the old guard and style. It’s clear there is talent within the studio, so if they should take something away from their time with Konami’s key franchise, it should be that idiom that “less is more”. Lords of Shadow 2 throws everything and the kitchen sink at you, which is a sadly intimidating prospect.