The most infamous vampire in the world has largely been treated one-dimensionally. Dracula is typically known to be a bloodthirsty monster who craves the blood of innocents. When it comes to the Castlevania series, there’s also the added caveat that he fancies sitting on a throne atop his enormous monster-laden castle while sipping wine and thinking of sly things to say to the person who comes to kill him. Konami and MercurySteam’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 attempts to give Dracula more depth than ever before – a feat that becomes more plausible thanks to the fact that the player directly assumes the role of Dracula for once.
The game’s setting is split between a modern day city built upon the ruins of Dracula’s castle and an initially unexplained parallel world where the castle is in its prime. The parallel castle is the far superior portion of the game. The modern city, carrying the incredibly unsubtle name of Castlevania City, is bland and uninteresting. Dracula mostly crawls around sewers, wanders derelict alleys, and explores dank facilities. However, the dullness is exacerbated when juxtaposed and compared with the vibrant environments offered by the parallel castle world. In there, Dracula is constantly surrounded by enticing and flavorful gothic architecture. The parallel world also comprises surprising environmental variety aside from the expected gothic interiors, playing host to a lava-drenched zone, snowy mountain peaks, and even a tranquil greenhouse. Backed by strong artistic direction and an impressive graphics engine that is powerful enough to keep the frame rate consistently high, Lords of Shadow 2 is simply top-tier in the visuals department. And even though the modern city’s environment is uninspiring for a fantasy game, it still does its part by looking great.
Castlevania City and the parallel castle world are essentially mirrors of each other. Both cities are divided into four quadrants. But gone is the chapter select style of the first game. Lords of Shadow 2 adopts a more familiar Metroidvania style, where Dracula begins as a wimp with next to no powers, but slowly accrues new weapons and abilities as he progresses. Abilities like Mist Form and Double Jump (done in an original way via demonic wings sprouting from Dracula’s back) open up new exploration possibilities and encourage players to backtrack to collect health and magic upgrades.
Gameplay-wise, big improvements were made from the original Lords of Shadow. Before, Gabriel’s only weapon was his whip. He had light and shadow magic, but those simply enchanted the whip with new properties. Now, Gabriel – or Dracula – replaces light magic with the icy Void Sword, capable of freezing enemies and draining their health for its master. The fiery Chaos Claws, replacing shadow magic, have innate guard-piercing abilities and deal the most impressive damage out of Dracula’s repertoire. The sword and claws each come with unique move sets. The sword uses graceful swings (or as graceful as an angry vampire lord can get) and pinpoint stabs to make short work of enemies. Conversely, equipping the claws cause Gabriel to adapt a primal berserker stance as he punches and slashes foes into ashes. Both are a spectacle to behold, not to mention highly effective. Of course, the whip is still the standard, go-to type weapon – since it’s all Gabriel can use when his magic reserves are depleted – but disappointingly, the whip’s moveset is entirely the same as it was in the original game. You might think his ascension into lord of vampires would teach him some awesome new tricks, but the only change is that the whip is now made out of his hardened blood and its appearance reflects that (rather than extending from a holy cross). And that has no gameplay repercussions.
Defeating enemies grants experience points, used mainly for purchasing new skills for the whip, sword, or claws. Each weapon has a plethora of skills that require certain button inputs to activate. Even so, it’s sometimes habitual to fall back on the simplest of combos. To combat this bad habit, Lords of Shadow 2 introduces the Mastery system. It dissuades players from relying on the same moves all the time. Using a healthy variety of moves often allows the player to make steady upgrades, and their reward is increased damage output and a new bit of flashy aesthetics added to the weapon.
Enemies come in the typical archetypes. There’s the lightweight fodder that arrive in large numbers, but can easily be dispatched with area attacks. Then there are the higher priority targets, the smarter and tougher ones that can block your attacks and throw out their own against you relentlessly. Some perseverance and devastating combos from Dracula, though, and they’re a threat contained. One exception exists, sadly: Golgoth Guards, who look extremely out of place in this game. They don impenetrable armor and huge guns as if they came straight out of Doom or another sci-fi first person shooter. And the worst part is that they are invincible – Dracula can’t kill them in combat, pathetically enough. These monsters are responsible for most of the game’s poor stealth sections – sections that break the game’s pacing, and much like the Golgoth Guards themselves, feel incredibly out of place. After the prologue, the game even begins outright with a stealth section featuring these guys. But at this point in the game, it made sense – Dracula was weak after just waking up. Still, these sections continue throughout the whole game, even after Dracula becomes a fire-spewing badass capable of punching the hell out of huge (and artistically amazing) bosses. Despite how out-of-place these sections are, and how they make Dracula seem less impressive, they’re not very difficult. The player just needs to remember all the abilities they have at hand to get through (hint: Mist Form is the savior among vampires).
Overall, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is fun when it concentrates on what it does best: battling monstrosities using Dracula’s array of powerful abilities. The stealth sections are an obstruction to the pacing, weren’t necessary, and just don’t feel as though they belong. In the end, a playthrough to finish the story with 62% overall completion took about 15 or 16 hours, a decent length in the action adventure genre. While exploring Dracula’s psyche and making him out to be a more multifaceted character than ever before was fascinating, the finale to the game provided no real payout. Keep in mind this was supposed to be an end to an entire trilogy (Mirror of Fate on the 3DS came out in between Lords of Shadow 1 and 2 and ties them together plotwise), but the ending just falls flat on all accounts, disappointingly. In the end, the game is still worth it for the experience of playing as one of the most sinister fictional characters of all time: the true prince of darkness, Dracula.
Hopefully, fledgling developer MercurySteam can take the valuable lessons learned from their first completed game trilogy and do even greater things in the near future. One of their smartest decisions this time around was allowing the option to disable quick time events altogether. Pure genius - they have what it takes.