Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

After MercurySteam’s 2010 release Castlevania: Lords of Shadow left me not only underwhelmed but wholeheartedly angry at the state of the Castlevania franchise it was with sincere trepidation that I put Lords of Shadow 2 into my disk tray. I was frank and brutal about the previous game but I stand by what I said. I should not have been worried though – MercurySteam have fixed everything that underdelivered three years ago and Lords of Shadow 2 is the best game I’ve played for two years. Gabriel Belmont and everything I associate with him is gone. Dracula is the new playable character and playing as the bad guy brings a wind of change.

To start, I think it’s important to reiterate the kind of gamer I am. If you were to ask me what my favourite sort of game is I would reply with a game which manages to craftily span several columns; I like third-person adventure games which encourage exploration, include neat combat, tell a good story in a well-realised world and have a strong emphasis on character development. A game which is able to tick all of these boxes without compromising in any area is practically guaranteed to make my list of favourites. I’m often heard referring to these types of games as “PlayStation-style” as I think the PS and PS2 spearheaded this genre with postergames like Klonoa, Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Sphinx & The Cursed Mummy, Primal and Beyond Good & Evil in a time where Nintendo were developing their casual bent and Microsoft were culturing the hardcore FPS and Driving scene. I am also a real horror fan so if the game includes horror themes then I’m keen as mustard. The Last of Us, the Soul Reaver series, Darksiders, the recent Tomb Raider and historically the Metroid series are perfect examples of games I absolutely adore. An obvious franchise to add to my lists of likes is Castlevania, which is probably why I was so butthurt about Lords of Shadow not living up to my expectations. I can’t help but feel personally exonerated from my displeasure though, it’s almost as if MercurySteam addressed every issue I personally had and developed a game that they knew I would love.

Firstly the game addresses my dislike of fixed camera angles. Gone are the DMC-esque “cinematic” angles and instead a more contemporary third-person camera is substituted. Secondly, the game takes place for the most part in Dracula’s Castle! I lamented the lack of castle in the first game but the sequel addresses this in a phenomenal respect. After the events of the first game, the Mirror of Fate 3DS interquel and this sequel’s introductory sequence Dracula is left rather powerless and spends the majority of the game rebuilding his strength and regaining his magical possessions in the hope of defeating Satan (yeah, the actual Satan) before he has a chance to be unleashed upon the world. Straight off the bat the game feels like a modern Symphony of the Night with the customary first chapter illustrating how badass Dracula is with this full skillset before unceremoniously losing all his abilities and gear. The castle performs as a central hub to the game – exploration of the castle is essential to Dracula re-finding his magical artefacts and rebuilding his strength and in true MetroidVania fashion different areas of the castle are inaccessible from the offset, meaning players will have to return to these parts once the requisite abilities have been (re)learned. The exploration and traversal of the castle is made all the easier for having full control of the camera and rather than feeling like a slog, the game lends itself naturally to a few hours of exploring off the beaten path in the aim of improving Dracula’s odds. Finding upgrade gems and other bits and bobs works pretty much the same as in the previous title but in fact it’s all a little slicker and a little sharper, meaning more time can be spent actually playing the game – a game which is in fact rather deep and surprisingly satisfying.

Combat seems to have been considered with only a few small changes made bring the title up to speed. The combat in the first title was one of the best bits of the game and LoS2 has built on that just as much as was needed – at its core it’s still just a monster whip-em-up but a few small additions have been made for the game to gain a voice. Rather than just swapping between light and dark magic a lá Gabriel, Dracula instead calls magical weapons into play which perform just differently enough to make them worthwhile. The Void Sword is this game’s equivalent to light magic with its attacks seeping energy from Dracula’s enemies and adding their health to his own. An extra level of depth is added here as the blade is imbued with the power of ice; top-level combos and special projectiles are able to freeze environments and enemies alike and can offer a level of protection to Dracula. The shadow magic equivalent comes in the form of the Chaos Claws, which also replace Gabriel’s dark gauntlet. These claws can be summoned at any time and are imbued with the elemental power of – you guessed it – fire which enables Dracula to break enemy armour and shielding as well as launch deadly fireballs. Unlocking combos works practically the same as in the first game by buying them with gained XP but there’s another level of depth to this in the form of combat mastery. Mastery forces the player to mix up their attacks by delivering further XP and upgrades to the weapons (standard whip included) based on the range of attacks delivered. To master each weapon players will need to complete a certain number of attacks with a wide variety of combinations which if nothing else drives spontaneity and improvisation. At worst it delivers a grind to get ‘dem achievements but that’s no sin in this day and age. Switching between the standard Shadow Whip, Void Sword and Chaos Claws is vital to get anywhere in this game and doing so is clean, tight and beautiful to watch. I have nothing bad to say about the combat in the game – the range of gribblies provides ample opportunity to expand from your usual bread-and-butter combos and at no point did I find the fighting opportunistic, cheap or repetitive. Gathering orbs is still somewhat of a bore but I found it less so this time around, perhaps a happenstance of expectation. Bosses seem to have been addressed here too, with not so many being a pure slugfest but some requiring a little use of the grey matter and requiring use of the environment or a specific combination of abilities. Bosses also play an important part of the story too with each of them having a role to play in the telling of this tale. Without spoiling the story, the second to last boss is a fantastic nod to the Castlevania vintage and is probably the strongest peg from which the story hangs.

It’s going to be hard to talk about the story without spoiling this or any of the previous games but I will try my hardest to keep from spoiling the narrative for series noobs. Following events from Lords of Shadow, Gabriel is practically absent from this game, with gamers now controlling the Lord of Darkness himself, Count Dracula. If you’ve played previous games you know why – if you haven’t, go get the game or just spend some time on the Wiki. The way the Lords of Shadow continuity weaves itself in and around the established Castlevania storyline is really impressive; the inclusion of certain characters and bosses is fascinating to behold and really enjoyable to observe whilst neat touches like Bernhard’s Wing and further callouts to previous games just make me smile a little when I see them drifting past.
Gabriel may have prevented the ultimate evil from manifesting on Earth but given enough time, all efforts are reduced to nil. Over the many centuries, these evil powers have been biding their time and building their strength, ready to unleash horror upon the Earth. Acolytes of Satan have begun the preparation for his uprising and Zobek pleads with Dracula to help him save the earth. In a literal scenario of better the Devil you know Dracula agrees to join his effort as a Satan-run world would be worse for everyone, including our now-titular Lord of Shadow. Dracula then sets out on his quest to regain his strength and to fight this utmost of evils but in doing so must encounter his own past life as a human man and fight the often-literal demons of his past. Herein lies the interesting part of the story. Perhaps it’s not original, perhaps it’s not really that well-penned but the story was enough here to keep me playing. Seeing a human side to literacy’s most vilified fiend is an interesting experience and didn’t weaken Dracula’s posture of an ancient vampiric badass. Bram Stoker’s vampire king was a being wracked by anger, love and despair and Lords of Shadow 2’s Dracula is a creature of a similar nature. Whilst it may lack the chops of Beyond Two Souls it’s a well-realised and authentic tale told in an egregious manner and it certainly pulled me through the campaign.

Design-wise I feel the same. Nothing breaks new ground but the game is satisfying in every respect. Levels are spaced out nicely and the transitions between exploration and combat are much less obvious this time around with the exception of the obligatory stealth sections which we’ll come to soon. Exploration is aided by the inclusion of some elegant vampiric abilities in the vein of vampire stalwart Blood Omen. Being a millennia-old, immortal vampire monarch, Dracula has learnt a few neat tricks over the years which are put to good effect herein. Summoning swarms of bats to confuse and distract heavier units will allow Dracula to sneak by in his weaker state; transmorphing into a swarm of rats allows him access to small vents and pipes and to gnaw on electrical cables which can open doors; the ability to dissolve into mist gives the ability to drift through gates or up air currents and finally the savoir faire – to possess weaker-minded individuals by becoming a shedload of blood and pouring into these poor unfortunate bods. The poor buggers don’t live long with all that extra blood – most of their own blood seems to come pouring out straight away so Dracula must complete his task with them sharpish of they’ll simply disintegrate in a cloud of pink mist leaving our undead protagonist stood in the spot where they once lived. Awesome.
One thing I found particularly satisfying was the games considered and relentless approach to blood and gore. It seems every element in Dracula’s world is reliant on the spilling of blood – either his or somebody else’s. The obvious and most tropic of these elements is the draining of blood from special statues or defeated enemies in exchange for health – as I mentioned before the game breaks no new ground by including this feature but frankly I’d be disappointed were it not included. On more esoteric grounds Dracula’s whip is literally his own blood snaking out of his body, he throws daggers made of blood at people, doors are opened and ancient edifices are activated by offering blood to them and at one point Dracula vomits blood over some divine machinery to deactivate it; blood is the driving force not only of the game’s design but of Dracula’s world. This is further reiterated in the castle where the castle map seems to need about four pints of claret pumped into it to work. God only knows how much blood Dracula spills over the course of the game but that’s a tidy (if amusing) and consistent detail which makes his world seem better-realised. Rest assured though, he will draw more blood from his enemies than he will from himself.

All in all this game is a tidy affair. Whilst it doesn’t exceed in any one category it certainly doesn’t fail in any either. Every element which I look for in a video game is addressed herein to a standard well above average. There’s nothing that I would say is exceptional about it which is a shame but consider how far the series has come in so short a time. If I’d heard the hallowed timbres of Vampire Killer I might have awarded more points in excitement but all told there is nothing wrong with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and it’s certainly worth the price of entry. As we close down this generation it seems that as one of the final 7th-gen exclusives, LoS2 is fitting swan song for this generation and is a game I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. My fingers and toes are crossed that the next Castlevania game achieves the heady highs that this series has long deserved.