The first Lords of Shadow was a pleasant surprise. It succeeded where previous 3D Castlevania games had failed by offering a thoughtfully crafted fantasy adventure game with creative monsters, mesmerizingly beautiful set pieces, clever puzzles, and visceral combat. All its sequel had to do was build on that foundation and lore, tighten up the controls a bit, and keep throwing interesting enemies and puzzles my way. Instead, what developer MercurySteam did was throw us violently into the present day, tack on some stealth mechanics, and wrap it all up in a horribly convoluted story.
Read on for my review of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2.
Clearly, I’m not burying the lead here. This game is a disappointment. It’s clunky, its mechanics lack the polish fans expect from a AAA game released at the tail end of a console generation. What makes this game particularly disappointing is the multiple times I can see the first Lords of Shadow hiding under the visage of this sequel. Every so often, usually when I’m combating one of its clever bosses or traversing a fantastical locale, I catch a glimpse of what could’ve been.
It’s frustrating. MercurySteam is a talented developer, and in some small ways, this entry is superior to its predecessors. The whip combat is more responsive this time around, the special effects — especially the gore, for all you gorehounds out there — is used in some neat ways. The environments can be beautiful and unfamiliar, but those feelings are largely restricted to the “past,” because the dreary industrial look of the present is entirely unappealing.
Story-wise, if you haven’t played the first Lords of Shadow, this is going to be a difficult game to follow. It jumps between different timelines, and even though I beat the first game twice — though I never played the 3DS entry, Mirror of Fate — I found it tough to understand what’s going on. The gist of it is Dracula, formerly known as Gabriel Belmont, has awakened hundreds of years after the events in the first game, where he defeated the Lords of Shadow only to be cursed as the immortal Prince of Darkness.
In the present day, Zobek (voiced by the always wonderful Sir Patrick Stewart) warns him that Satan is planning to return, and he’s using his acolytes to get the job done. Unfortunately for Dracula, a gaggle of Belmonts as well as his son, Alucard, are all looking to end him for being a dick so long ago.
The story isn’t terribly complicated, but the way its explained over the course of the first hour of the game could’ve used a defter hand.
There’s still plenty to love about this game, such as the combat, which has seen some refinement. You’re introduced to Dracula’s suite of weapons early on, only to have them taken away in true Metroidvania style. The whip offers fantastic crowd control, the Void Sword steals the life from enemies with each strike and its ability to freeze objects makes it useful for solving puzzles, and the Chaos Claws are slow, but they deal a lot of damage, making them perfect for beating down a single enemy.
The enemies are still top-notch. Either I’m rusty at this or MercurySteam has imbued the AI with a little more cunning, but I found that each fight challenged my skills. Dodging is weirdly fun, and a well-aimed one can knock down an enemy. If you’re more adept at this game you can utilize Dracula’s more advanced arsenal of moves, like parrying enemy attacks. I was rarely able to do it, but that only made the feat more rewarding when I did.
Then, almost always just as I start to notice that I’m enjoying my time with it, Lords of Shadow 2 zigs when it should zag. I’m all for an unpredictable game, but not like this.
As an example, not long after the demo ends, we’re introduced to a new stealth mechanic. Apparently, Dracula lacks the power to take on some gun wielding space marine looking things — for reference, if the Strogg from Quake merged with a StarCraft Marine, these guys would resemble the result — so because they’ll end him in about three hits, he has to use his new arsenal of powers to distract with swarms of bats and transform into a rat to scuttle past them.
For some reason, Dracula is only able to transform from the dark corner of one part of the room. It’s a silly, underrealized mechanic that feels horribly out of place.
In contrast to its often challenging nature, this is a ridiculously hand-holdy game. Tutorials and tooltips appear often and largely unwanted, and I almost immediately grew tired of that annoying ringing sound it makes when a “helpful hint” appeared. For the first hour of the game, the solution to every puzzle was spelled out for me, most often through a slow, panning camera that showed my path or an object of interest. Video games that treat the player like an idiot are a pet peeve of mine because they teach us nothing.
The player won’t learn a thing if you hold their hand and guide them through your puzzles. A better way to go about that would have been to slowly introduce each new mechanic — instead of just tossing in one after the next like Lords of Shadow 2 does — and have the player to learn how to use it through a puzzle or arena fight before introducing the next mechanic.
For the most part, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a less cohesive game than its predecessors. The art, combat, and beautiful score offer brief moments of brilliance, but in an effort to shoehorn new mechanics, this feels more like a patchwork of several great ideas that are never thread together as tightly as they should be.
The Final Word: Lords of Shadow 2 is an exercise in frustration. It could have been so much more — it should have been so much more — but instead we’re left with a hugely disappointing end to what started out as a promising trilogy. This is for diehard Castlevania fans, otherwise, give it a rent.