The latest iteration of the long-running Castlevania series (which now spans a total of 35 original titles) was met with resounding praise despite initial fan skepticism when Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, developed by MercurySteam and published by Konami, was first released back in 2010. Instead of rehashing the same old story that Castlevania fans had played through numerous times before, Lords of Shadow instead told an entirely new tale of stoic holy knight Gabriel Belmont and the action-packed journey that would lead to his fall from grace. Now, roughly four years later, MercurySteam is following up on the first game’s cliffhanger ending in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. But is Gabriel Belmont’s blood-soaked rebirth worth playing through?
The opening moments of Lords of Shadow 2 do a pretty impressive job of bringing players up to speed on the story while also introducing them to the game’s combat and movement controls. For those who may not have played the handheld interlude game Mirror of Fate, Lords of Shadow 2’s prologue brings players up to speed on the events that transpired during Mirror of Fate’s ending. As someone who played the first game but didn’t play Mirror of Fate, I was amazed at how complex the story of Gabriel Belmont and his lineage had become during the period between the first Lords of Shadow and its sequel.
I won’t reveal any major Mirror of Fate spoilers, but it would be hard to write the rest of this review while dancing around one major spoiler from the first Lords of Shadow so here it is: Gabriel Belmont has now become Dracula and in Lords of Shadow 2, he has teamed up with former ally/enemy Zobek to stop the evil lord Satan once and for all even as he is haunted by the memories of his slain son Trevor and wife Marie. The first hour or so of gameplay can be a bit confusing since it hops around between scenes from the first game’s epilogue and a gameplay tutorial that features an attack on Dracula’s castle but once Dracula re-emerges in the modern world and meets back up with Zobek, events move along at a more linear (although not completely straightforward) pace.
Fans of the first Lords of Shadow will quickly grow re-accustomed to Lord of Shadow 2’s combat and exploration elements. Dracula’s new blood whip, a “vampire-ized” version of Gabriel’s combat cross from the first game, allows the player to utilize a similar series of light and heavy attack combos and Dracula’s “void” and “chaos” powers, allowing him to use a life-replenishing sword and heavy-hitting gauntlets respectively, replace the first game’s light and dark magics. The secondary weapons from the first game have now been replaced by various dark powers such as blood dagger projectiles, a swarm of bats that can temporarily distract enemies, and other useful abilities.
While a majority of the game takes place in a dark and gloomy modern-day city, aptly named “Castlevania City”, which stands upon the ruins of Dracula’s castle, occasional visits from Trevor’s ghost pull Dracula into dreamlike sequences in which he must explore remnants of his old castle and defeat the roving monsters and spirits that have turned on their former master. The tactics employed by Dracula’s opponents aren’t too terribly complex, even the various bosses players must vanquish have fairly predictable attack patterns, but the large number of different powers and weapon combos players can unlock through the game’s experience point upgrade system helps keep combat somewhat fresh throughout the game’s lengthy story campaign.
While the combat is simple yet engaging and the various environments manage to capture that creepy Castlevania vibe, Lords of Shadow 2’s story is, for lack of a better term, an unfulfilling mess. It’s clear that the MercurySteam development team never could quite decide whether they wanted the player to see Dracula as an uncaring anti-hero or a tragic figure seeking redemption. The tender moments Dracula shares with the memories of his wife and son never feel that convincing (thanks mostly to over-the-top cheesy dialogue) and the complete apathy Dracula shows towards Zobek’s desire to save the world makes him even harder to sympathize with. If MercurySteam’s goal was to present a playable villain that the player could relate to, sadly it missed the mark by a very wide margin.
Another area in which MercurySteam grossly missed the mark was in its attempt to introduce stealth-based gameplay sequences into Lords of Shadow 2. Certain sections of the game task Dracula with sneaking through linear corridors past large lumbering guards. Getting caught doesn’t mean instant failure, though the guards’ powerful grenade launchers and Dracula’s inability to initiate combat during these sequences pretty much guarantees a game over is imminent.
The meager amount of tricks Dracula can use to elude these guards, such as turning into a rat or possessing guards who have their backs turned, aren’t enough to make these stealth sequences feel like anything more than a frustrating waste of time. One especially infuriating section, in which Dracula must avoid being detected by a boss enemy (getting caught forces the player back to the beginning of the section) feels particularly pointless since, once you actually manage to beat the section, Dracula just ends up fighting the boss anyways. I admire MercurySteam for trying to mix things up a bit, but trying to inject mandatory and often frustrating stealth gameplay into the game wasn’t the way to do it.
In closing, I’d say Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, while certainly not meeting the high pedigree that was set by its predecessor, is still worth playing for die-hard Castlevania fans who are eager to see the conclusion of Gabriel Belmont’s story. Unless you’re an extremely patient person, I’d recommend playing on one of the easier difficulty settings, perhaps with the optional QTE events turned off (though even those won’t make the stealth sections any more bearable). For those who enjoyed the combat and exploration elements of the original Lords of Shadow, there’s certainly more to love. But in virtually every other regard, be it story, new gameplay mechanics, or following through on all the promise the first game showed, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 sadly just falls flat.