Under the guidance of Hideo Kojima, MercurySteam created a fantastic universe in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It was gorgeous, well designed, and while this new direction for the series might not have resonated well with all long-time fans, in my opinion, it was still an outstanding game with its own merits. I was captured by the unique mythology and the diversity in each of the locations; I became engrossed in the combat and the thoughtful nature of the puzzles, and I especially enjoyed the narration by Patrick Stewart and its truly beautiful soundtrack. It was a positive experience for me, who prior to this game, had never played a Castlevania game before. I was not oblivious to its flaws, but as a stand alone title, it was arguably one of the better games of the last generation.
In 2011, the Lords of Shadow was followed up with an intermediary game called “Mirror of Fate”, which was first released on the Nintendo 3DS, and subsequently as a HD remaster on 360, PS3 & PC. Notably, Mirror of Fate was unique in the fact that it was presented as a more traditional “metroidvania” experience with a 2.5D world design. Overall, it was a positive experience for me, despite being held back by some mildly clunky combat mechanics and a thin narrative. In saying that, Mirror of Fate was still well designed in most other areas. The exploration was fun, the visuals and music were appropriately inspired, and the puzzles were thought provoking enough to keep me interested. Ultimately, with a common direction between these two games, I felt as if I knew what to expect from Lords of Shadow 2, and that was my mistake. In the words of Zobek, “You will cry bloody tears before this night has ended!”, which despite many promising ideas, is how I genuinely felt by the time the final credits rolled.
The narrative in Lords of Shadow 2 “technically” proceeds the events of Mirror of Fate, in which Dracula is at his prime and battling the Brotherhood of Light. However, this scenario mostly serves as a tutorial for the player, and is not indicative of the adventure you’re actually about to embark on. Subsequently, the main story of the game picks up after the ending of Lords of Shadow, where Gabriel has been revealed as Dracula and is awoken by Zobek in what appears to be the present day, to help him prevent the return of Satan. The modern premise is undeniably interesting, despite the fact the city is laughably called “Castlevania City”. However, after some interesting developments, the narrative is reduced to the typical trope of the “protagonist” recovering lost powers.
In my opinion, the modern setting doesn’t resonate well with Castlevania, and in turn, science labs and industrial areas provide dreadfully dull landscapes for a series so rich with mythology and lore. Fortunately, however, a large portion of the game also takes place within Dracula’s Castle, which is technically based within his own mind. In turn, this alternate reality allows for a lot more creativity in terms of locations and scenarios, as Dracula gets the opportunity to face against some of his old foes while trying to piece together a mystery that is linked to his wife, son, and the mirror of fate. A lot of the events tied to the alternate reality will throw back to events from both of the previous games, and ultimately, provide at least some satisfaction for fans. At first, Dracula is a difficult character to empathise with, but of course, becomes more likable as signs of Gabriel begin to manifest with time.
In essence, the main objective of working with Zobek to defeat Satan is a repeated premise which is only different in the fact that it’s set in a modern era. Instead of hunting the Lords of Shadow, you’re now hunting the three acolytes of Satan. It feels too familiar, and less interesting due to a boring setting. However, in saying that, the plot is redeemed by the personal tale in which Dracula struggles to regain his humanity while he travels through the alternate dimension of his own mind. During these sections of the game, players will learn a lot about his family, the darkness that binds him, and uncover a lot of mysteries surrounding his life as Dracula. There are also a few surprises, which add a positive spin on a narrative which could have failed. In truth, I am kind of dubious about the ending as it is not as final as I would have expected from the last game in the saga. I definitely anticipate DLC.
Lords of Shadow 2 is a game filled with lots of interesting ideas, perhaps too many even; with most of them falling short of their potential. I often appreciate when developers are willing to try new ideas, but not to the point of creating a disjointed mess. In the original game, each of the individual systems worked to compliment a primary vision, from the upgrade system to the chapter-based structure; it all made sense. This time, however, a lot has changed, and it’s hard to see how it was all supposed to come together. For example, the game is now based on an open-world design, which in my opinion, was completely unnecessary. In fact, apart from some optional item hunting, or seeking out an item salesman, it serves no purpose as there aren’t any actual side-quests or optional bosses to tackle. If anything, it impedes the flow of the game and is further overcomplicated with fast-travel rooms and pathways to Dracula’s alternate dimension. I appreciate the idea, but sadly, it doesn’t work in practise.
As far as main objective design goes, the first half of the game is all about regaining your powers; a trope which is used too frequently in this genre. As such, during the initial tutorial, you’re going to be teased with the potential of Dracula’s full abilities as you fight an epic battle against the Brotherhood of Light and a large robotic titan. However, after that point, you’ll be forced to take a complete step back to disempowerment; essentially, be prepared to run around Castlevania City at Zobeks instruction, regaining your gear/abilities and searching for the Acolytes. The game has this annoying obsession with hand-holding you to the point where it makes a lot of the exploration boring, whereas, at other times, it is so needlessly vague that it becomes frustrating. The biggest problem, however, is the fact that you’re supposed to be playing Dracula, and yet, for a lot of the game he is weak and frequently reduced to poorly executed stealth puzzles. “The Prince of Darkness” deserved better than this.
On a positive note, once you hit the mid-point of the game, the structure changes considerably, with a lot more of the game taking place in Dracula’s alternate reality. It’s almost as if the team suddenly realised they were meant to be developing a Castlevania game, and for several hours, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was great to revisit some locations from the previous games, and in general, there was a much healthier balance of combat, exploration and puzzle solving. I wouldn’t say this was Castlevania at its best, but once you’re over the hump, you’re more likely to find some enjoyment and see it out to the end. Notably, it’s shorter than its predecessor, but given my bipolar enjoyment of the game, I think 11-12 hours was enough. One aspect of the design which I did think was outstanding was the players ability to customise the experience. For example, the player can turn off quick-time-events, and add RPG-esque elements such as damage counters and life bars. I really appreciated this!
It’s evident that Lords of Shadow 2 was a playground of experimentation, and this is consistent with the gameplay mechanics also. For example, in the beginning of the game there is a scenario where you control Dracula from a first-person perspective. I suspect this was used to emphasise the impact of becoming Dracula, and in my opinion, it was likely one of the more successful ideas. However, other ideas such as the many stealth sections in which you have to turn into a rat or possess people in order to progress feel awkward and not very fun to play. In truth, mechanically, there isn’t anything that is especially broken; it just feels as if everything serves to disempower the player. Although, I would like to highlight some of the thoughtful puzzles in the second half of the game, as well as several interesting boss battles. If not for these positive qualities, it would have been mediocre at best.
In essence, the combat system is very much like its predecessor, but with a different arsenal of abilities given Gabriel’s shift to the dark side. And yet, for some reason, despite its similarity and a more in-depth upgrade system, it also never felt empowering; even once you had upgraded all of the abilities. It’s certainly functional, but there were also a lot of needlessly frustrating moments. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what felt off about it, because, on one hand, I suspect it could be the design of some of the enemies, but on the other, I also don’t think the moveset is quite as balanced as last time. In fact, in one of the co-op sections of the game, I couldn’t help but feel a little taunted by one character who possessed Gabriel’s old set of abilities. In turn, it frustrated me that you could not attain the double jump until close to the end of the game, and it also highlighted the complete absence of the grapple. It’s not a bad system, but I would be stretched to say I enjoyed it on a mechanical level.
Graphically speaking, Lords of Shadow 2 is fantastic despite a few minor inconsistencies. For the most part, it looks great, and it runs surprisingly smoothly on last-gen hardware (which was a PS3, in my case). However, in terms of art, a lot of the modern settings are dreadfully uninspired, and it almost feels as if they completely forgot the soundtrack during the first half of the game. In my opinion, Mirror of Fate had a beautifully haunting soundtrack, as did the original Lords of Shadow. As such, to have that element of the game missing almost felt as if a piece of its identity had been removed. Fortunately, this, like many other aspects of the game, are mostly redeemed once you make it to the second half, which more often than not, took place within the alternate reality.
One thing I always look out for in a game which is so rich with fantasy, is the design of the creatures and the monsters. In the case of Lords of Shadow 2, there are a lot of generic and boring enemies which recur throughout the main game; especially in the modern section of the world. However, I would also like to highlight the incredible character design that went into a lot of the primary monsters, creatures, and bosses. In saying that, I also feel inclined to highlight one particular section of the game for it’s presentation, because, in my opinion, it was genuinely outstanding. That scenario was an encounter with a character called the Toymaker, which subsequently, involves several fantastic set pieces, interesting character designs, solid voice acting, and the most satisfying puzzle/battle of the entire game. Overall, it’s very good looking, albeit held back by a few dull elements.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a game that tried to pursue too many ideas, and in turn, couldn’t implement any of them particularly well. In my opinion, the modern setting just doesn’t work, and the open-world design only serves to needlessly complicate player exploration. In fact, everything about this game feels as if it’s constantly working to disempower the player, and this is a poorly suited match to the idea of playing as Dracula. Going in, you’re going to have to be prepared to trudge through many tedious missions to regain your powers before things get interesting. However, if you can stick with it, the second half of the game will deliver a lot of fan-service, and leave the modern world to spend more time chasing mysteries in an alternate reality. This is where it started to feel like a Castlevania game again, and while it’s still not at its best, it will be worthwhile for fans of the saga.
Note: This review was based on the PS3 version of the game, and provided to us by Konami via Mindscape Asia Pacific Pty Ltd.