Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

CastlevaniaLordsOfShadow2

This dark sequel to 2010’s generally underrated Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is everything a sequel should be. It continues the story, looks better, has better camera control, more depth and has far fewer quick time events. If there is a downside it is that the story does expect that players have played the first game despite a short cinematic that fails to catch new players up. Even if a couple of the references go over their head, anyone playing this game should look forward to a long game filled with memorable visuals, brutally messy cutscenes and a solid combat system. (Beware that some spoilers about the end of the first game lie ahead.)

Lords of Shadow 2 takes place almost immediately after the shocking cinematic that follows the conclusion of the first Lords of Shadow game. Gabriel Belmont was a prime example of The Brotherhood, a religious order of knights that fought for the glory of the divine in the middle ages. His journey to destroy the Lords of Shadow and their vampire and werewolf minions is chronicled in the first game. Sadly, by that game’s end Gabriel is triumphant against evil but is denied the love of his wife and learns that he can never see her again. It is a bittersweet ending that fades to a sad black. After the credits a dark scene is revealed. A hooded figure, in modern day, pries the boards off a long abandoned cathedral. He levitates his way to an obscure chamber dominated by a throne and a pale, immobile figure. The man tells the seated corpse-like man that the forces of evil have gathered once again and that it is time he comes out of the shadows to deal with them. He also says “I was surprised to find you here…Gabriel.” The being jolts forward at this and a flash of lighting briefly reveals that the once proud knight has been twisted into a monstrous ancient vampire who replies: “Don’t call me that. Eu sunt dracul!”. Translated: “I am the Dragon!” or, alternatively, “I am Dracula!”

That’s right. After playing through dozens of games killing and rekilling Dracula and all of his minions, players finally get a stab at playing the dark lord himself in Lords of Shadows 2. Anyone that wants to see exactly how he goes from knight of good to one of the worst villains the world has ever known will have to play the DLC to the first game and the semi-sequel, Mirror of Fate. Gabriel/Dracul is not, as he could easily have been, a sympathetic anti-hero, but is actually the villain the Dracula character has traditionally been. The sole iota of humanity left in the elder vampire is the memory of love he has for his dead wife and his son, Trevor, a singular emotion that is at odds with the rage and darkness within him. A theme that could get very emo or Twilight very fast, but is prevented from doing so by having these conflicts play out in boss battles that take place in some sort of weird inner-blood/alternate reality/past setting that the game will frequently shift to.

The modern setting of the game where the Dragon will fight against the forces of the devil is a city that is built on the bones of Dracula’s ancient castle. With his deep connection to this once imposing stronghold, it makes sense that DracGabriel has a deep connection with the past and would keep returning to it, whether it be magically or mentally. There is never time enough for the story to focus on how sad the thousand-year-old vampire hates his immortality as the game moves at a steady pace. Whether by design or accident, the display of a brief tender moment with Trevor or the ghost memory of his wife followed by twenty minutes of Dracula ripping enemies apart and relishing in the warmth of their blood perfectly drives home that the main character is an arch-monster with one last shred of goodness. Dracula in this game is a far more interesting character because of this conflict than the one-dimensional, constantly angry Kratos. Lords of Shadow, both of the main releases, will invariably draw comparisons to God of War, and at least in the story and presentation department, I find it superior.

It is worth noting that the Lords of Shadow series takes place in a separate universe than the decades old Castlevania series. This serves to add to the tension as it seems like anything can happen because there is no need to preserve or pay respect to the old continuity (it is a bit like the Ultimate Marvel universe in that respect). If Dracula needs to do something he has never done before, then it can happen because all of those old games don’t matter for Lords of Shadow 2 and nothing has to be preserved for the next game. As in the first game, Gabriel is battling the forces of darkness, the ultimate form of which was shown to be Satan himself. I appreciate that they do not call the big bad guy something plain or safe like “The Dark Lord” or “The Destroyer,” when everyone knows what they mean to say, and instead call the baddie S-A-T-A-N. Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum, is the big man upstairs. There are many references to G-O-D (the one they talk about on Sunday), a being that Dracula several times states how much he hates as he believes God was responsible for the death of his wife. It was not that long ago that games with themes and characters like that would not be released in the States (i.e. Shin Megami Tensei) because it makes some people uncomfortable. To be fair, it probably makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and even more so to play as a character who would happily burn down every church he comes across. Again, between the unmistakably Christian setting and the almost unashamed murder of innocents, the developers clearly wanted to make a game where players are playing the unholy villain. The singular consolation is that Dracula is at least a little better than Satan, the ism of evil. Part of the draw of the tale is, naturally, to see whether or not there can be any redemption, though there is certainly no guarantee of it. This is such a classic Christian theme it would have been very odd not to use divine and demonic names and characters drawn from the Bible.

Interesting and compelling as the plot may be, the way it is played out in the game feels a bit disjointed at times. In the modern world Dracula will essentially go where the evil mage Zobek, returning from the first game and voiced by Patrick “Make-it-So” Stewart, tells him to try to stop the plans of the acolytes of Satan and kill them for good measure. Interspersed between sections of climbing on the ruins of the city and wandering through high tech complexes run and owned by the dark ones, Gabriel will seemingly return to the past, a time when his vast castle was the only structure for miles. Here, Dracula will traverse the castle while fighting his past servants and friends who are corrupted and threatened by pools of scarlet blood that will appear and cause them to sink into nothingness, only to emerge as a dark and twisted form which you naturally then have to beat into submission (this is an action game). Given that there seems to be no direct relationship to the Castle of the Past and the City of Today, it seems that these sections are a continuing metaphor for the corruption of Dracula’s vampiritic curse taking over his life and destroying his memories of anything good, played out by you in a very real way. It is effective but it is sort of odd to take a break from stopping Satan and the demons of Hell to have an internal moment where Gabriel literally battles his inner demons. Dracula at this point is such a being of dark magic in his place of power that it is unclear whether the “past” sections are in real life in 1000 AD as he travels to the past and encounters ghosts or if it is all in his head. More disturbing is that he cannot tell the difference.

The parts of the game that depict the ancient castle in all its glory are a marvel to behold. While not true for every new area, many times NegaGabriel will exit one part of the castle to see a massive, intricately detailed structure ahead of him, accented with banners and gargoyles, framed against a full moon. The rooms, once entered, are filled with candelabras and other abandoned furniture which can all be destroyed, sometimes revealing treasure or secrets. Old skeletons and knights in gleaming armor all want to take a piece out of the lord of the manor. In the modern setting Dracula will fight against soldiers and fifty foot piloted mechs in abandoned streets and sky scrapers. A demonic plague has been released in the city so players will rarely encounter civilians. No matter the era the bosses are detailed abominations whose larger than life attacks look impactful and will feel that way if they are not dodged. Some of the monsters glow with energy and shine with ichor as a nice touch. It is a visual treat that is no longer hampered by a set camera angle like the first game, as players can now use the left thumbstick to rotate the camera freely around Gabriel.

As a bonus to all of these good looks, they can be accomplished without the latest hardware. I reviewed the PC version and with an older card (GeForce GTX 560 Ti) was able to run the game at the maximum resolution with no compromises on the graphics settings. There may have been a brief hitch of a few frames when the game autosaved, which was barely noticeable. Some of the edges to soft textures, hair and ropes, may, in some of the lighting, look jagged, but mostly the game looks great. In fact, it looks better both in terms of visual technical achievement and character and environment design than all of the first batch of “next-gen” titles launched on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. To be fair, usually there are less than six creatures, including our villain, on the screen at any one time.

After taking in the sights players will switch between traversing ledges and climbing points and killing enemies. The climbing is fairly simple as the stick only needs to be pointed in the generally desired direction and occasionally pressing the jump button to reach far points highlighted by little clouds of squealing bats. The combat is identical to the first game with the exception that the powers of Light and Darkness are replaced with those of the Void Sword and Chaos Claws. For those that did not play the first game, this combat system is similar to God of War in that Dracula will swing a whip of – what looks like – blood and shadow around to kill enemies (it was a chain whip in the first game). One attack button is used to strike one foe and another to hit large groups of enemies. Sequences of these basic attacks can be strung into multiple attacks to do more damage and launch enemies into the air to open up even more combo options. Beyond the basic goal of killing the opposition, if Dracula does a variety of moves and does not take any damage, absorbable balls of energy will split off of the enemies which are used to power the aforementioned Sword and Claws. These have a limited amount of energy, can only be recharged at a few sparse altars, and are mostly juiced up through skillful killing. Using the sword drains life from an enemy and gives it to the vampire while the claws can destroy the shields of blocking enemies or segments of armor on larger enemies. These items will also enhance the daggers that can be thrown to hit enemies at a distance.

On the defensive end, when an enemy attacks Drac can either quickly dodge out of the way or block the attack. If the block is made just as the enemy hits, the attacker will be stunned very briefly and open to a variety of attacks. It can be confusing at first that both blocking and dodging are ruled by the press of the same button, the difference between a block or a dodge is whether the direction button is pressed. This takes a lot of getting used to and will likely result in having to replay the first few battles as you take damage from dodging when you meant to block or accidentally blocking an unblockable attack when you meant to dodge. The autosaves are frequent, which may be some consolation. And, because he’s a vampire, when smaller enemies are near death they will glow and stand around stunned, allowing Dracula to grab them to tear our their heart or neck and drink their blood, recovering a little health for his messy trouble.

To unlock moves, you will purchase them with points awarded for slaying enemies or sometimes in broken objects. The outlay of these moves is set out in skill trees for the basic whip and the two special weapons which branch out from basic moves to more advanced ones that require specific button combinations and holding the different buttons down instead of only tapping (mashing) them. As these unlocked moves are used more and more, the rune that represents that move on the tree will fill up with blood. When completed the energy from that rune can be transferred to the weapon itself, increasing its Mastery level. Filling this will eventually cause each of the weapons to level up, increasing the amount of damage it does. The goal of this system is to encourage players to experiment using different moves instead of the basic attack combo, which is effective, for the entire game. It is frustrating that the Sword and Claws are limited in their use because if Dracula does not have enough energy to power them, they cannot be used in combat and therefore cannot be leveled up. As a result, the basic whip will level up far faster than the other weapons unless you are just amazing at this game and can keep full Void and Chaos energy by rapidly attacking in different ways while not being hit.

In addition to these combos and a basic, almost useless, ranged attack, some enemies will drop items that allow Dracula to fully regain his health, slow down time or even temporarily grant unlimited magic. For the most part none of these items are needed to beat the game, but they certainly can make some of the harder fights with multiple enemies easier. Boss battles will end with the evisceration of the giant monster, sometimes accented with a quick time event where a circle will appear on screen and a face button must be pressed as another circle comes from the edge of the screen to envelope the first circle. The timing is the same on all of these so once you have mastered it, you should never miss one. Dracula will slice through entire enemies, behead them, tear their chests open to drink their blood. These finishers should make you very uncomfortable, especially if someone is watching you play this game and happens to see this stuff. You know they have made a gruesome cutscene when you have to explain to your loved ones that, look, you didn’t script this stuff, you’re just pressing the buttons to make the vomit-inducing hyper-violence happen. This game absolutely earns its ‘M’ for Mature rating.

Occasionally the dark rampage will stop and Dracul will have to stop and solve a puzzle. None of these are particularly hard or creative and there are usually scrolls from dead knights that contain a clue nearby. The puzzles are largely self contained and their sections moved within a fixed view and the components are controlled directly rather than a bunch of block pushing puzzles. There are fewer of these than the previous game and since most of them are not very memorable, that is OK. Additionally, there are a few mandatory stealth sequences, but they are quick and fairly painless. Sometimes they make sense–early on Drac is weak and cannot take on some of the monstrous fusing of demons and technology so he has to sneak by them, occasionally taking the form of a plague of rats and crawling through vents–and sometimes they feel like padding fluff. I remember one instance where I was tasked to sneak past some agent of decay, where being spotted or heard would result in a loss of some health and a return to the start of the sneak section, only to successfully move on to the next room and have to fight that same guy in a boss battle. It seems like I could have saved some time and just fought him in the sneak room. It cannot be said that the developer did not try to add some variety to the gameplay. However, it could be said that they didn’t need to.

As new powers are gained, such as the ability to briefly transform into a cloud of mist to go through locked bars and the Castlevania mainstay double-jump, players can return to already visited sections to discover the secrets that were previously barred to them. The vast majority of these are blue glowing Pain Boxes that hold a gem that will, once enough are gathered, increase Dracula’s health meter or one of his two magic capacities. I have no doubt that some people are going to run through this castle and city twice looking for every single one of these things, but for some reason unlike most games in the series I did not feel a huge desire to collect every little object. In part it is probably because none of these gems are interesting to collect as it is very clear what power is needed to get them, once you have the power, so the only challenge is remembering where they were the first time they were visible. I think the main reason the drive to get them all is not here is that the world is largely empty and easy to traverse. Castlevania games like Symphony of the Night and its successors have interesting maps and lots of jumping with quick combat that makes it fun to continually explore the castle. There just isn’t enough in this series entry to do when retracing the steps from room A to room B. In the previous Lord of Shadow game it was at least easy to retread the past as every section was broken up into chapters that could be quickly found and replayed. When everything was made into one big world, it just became harder and more tedious to navigate given the almost useless map. There is an overhead map and a few Map Rooms dotted around both the modern city and medieval castle which are effectively warp points, but neither address the basic problem that the castle is boring to explore when the only carrot is to maybe have six more seconds of Chaos Claws time.

Lords of Shadow 2 is not a very fun game when looking backwards for collectibles, but when players face front to drink the blood of Dracula’s enemies, it is an engaging, good-looking experience. It, like the first entry, is also a long one, clocking in about fifteen to twenty hours. That is roughly double the game when compared to other character action titles like Devil May Cry and God of War. In addition to the secret gems, players can collect relics that will eventually unlock the right to meet various combat challenges. Simply killing all of the enemies in these arenas is hard enough, but to fully master them players will have to meet special goals like killing all of the enemies within twenty seconds, not using the void sword and other daunting restrictions. These challenges are so satisfying to finish successfully that it is a shame they are locked behind finding them in the castle. Even without this optional, semi-hidden section of the game, Lords of Shadow 2 is a great game to play and behold. The sole caveat I would make in recommending it to everyone is that its story very much pulls from the first game. I would recommend you play that game and its DLC, both of which are worth playing – more for the story with the DLC – before tackling this game as much of the history and back-story is set in that game. All players can jump into the sequel and enjoy it, they’ll just get more out of the experience if they have played the first game before getting bloody.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Smart looking game
+ Fun to play the bad guy for once
+ A challenge worth meeting with a good combat system

Cons:
– Somewhat confusing for the main character to be referred to (as seen above) by multiple names in the game
– Relies very heavily on the first game and its DLC

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Konami
Developer: MercurySteam
Release Date: 2/25/2014
Genre: Action-adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.