- Editor's Rating
- Right mix of dumb fun and tactics in combat
- One half of world is a treat
- Soundtrack is superb
- Rips too much from better games
- Other half of world is a bore
- Atrocious stealth sections
Quick TakeCastlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 mixes well-worn action with inconsistent design choices and an ineffective narrative. It kills the momentum created by its predecessor, and should only appeal to those who are already in too deep with the series.
The first installment in Konami and MercurySteam’s Castlevania reboot, 2010’s Lords of Shadow, benefited from an endearingly inane plot and the simple novelty factor of seeing a classic franchise reimagined for modern times. The second, last year’s Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, at least tried to jam a mishmash of styles into one portable whole.
The third, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, suffers from a lack of ambition. It marks an unfortunate end to series that’s run out of crutches to lean on, and in the process, it manages to make a game in which Dracula battles Satan feel like standard procedure.
Lords of Shadow 2 would have been pretty damn exciting seven years ago. It follows the post-God of War action game formula to a T. A brooding and violent anti-hero, levels paced by a number of ‘kill rooms’ in which you bludgeon your way through groups of enemies, a combat system that’s ostensibly simple but deep for those who care to explore it, the occasional puzzle and platforming section to cool you down between battles, gimmick-based boss fights against mythical monsters, weapon upgrade trees, buckets of gore, zero women with agency – it’s all so predictable, but Lords of Shadow 2 has the lot of it covered anyway.
But okay, a complacent game doesn’t necessarily equal a bad game. The original Lords of Shadow borrowed heavily from God of War and its ilk too, remember, and it turned out just fine. Plus, it’s not like Lords of Shadow 2 doesn’t have anything going for it.
The core loop of bashing, slicing, blocking and weaving your way through hordes of foes is well-worn at this point, but it’s still stylish, primal fun. The combat here finds that sweet spot of being beatable for those who just want to spam an attack button, yet rewarding for those who are willing to be patient, learn their combos, and utilize all of their moves.
The idea of having two secondary weapons outside of your trusty whip, which can be used to refill your health and break down enemy shields, keeps the pace up and keeps you paying attention during each fight. And there’s still a gleeful satisfaction that comes with literally ripping out the hearts of those jerkwad monsters that have been beating you around for the past hour. Over-the-top power fantasies may be played out by this point, but they sell for good reason.
The reason you’ll be dispatching those baddies in such gruesome fashion is because, well, you’re Dracula. If you’ve beaten the original Lords of Shadow, this will make sense, but the sequel goes all in on the inner demons and motivations of the man once known as Gabriel Belmont.
Or at least, it tries. The game presents us with a Dracul who is resentful of the God that cursed him to a life of killing his own bloodline for centuries on end. He just wants to die, and he can — but only if he helps an old rival, Zobek, defeat the one being that’s preventing him from world domination: Satan. And so, to find eternal peace, you must first kill the root of all your evil.
To say all of this is heavy-handed is an understatement, but Lords of Shadow 2 never really tries to tap into the narrative absurdity that made so many fall for its predecessor. This is made to be a more personal, one-character story. But although MercurySteam tries to infuse the old vamp with some back bits about how his transformation affected his family life (hint: negatively), it never takes Dracula anywhere beyond the oscillating states of “stoic death machine” and “melodramatic sad sack.” He’s a bad guy, but then he’s not a bad guy.
There’s just very little depth to everyone here. There are a couple of nifty plot twists that liven up the game’s end, but Lords of Shadow 2 seems more concerned with dragging you across its open world than giving you something resonant.
That open world isn’t “open” in the Grand Theft Auto sense, but rather in a classic Metroidvania kind of way. It’s split into two parts: a gothic, modern-era city, and a gothic, medieval-style castle that Dracula visits in a sort of dream state from time to time.
Visually, the latter is by far the superior of the two. It’s actually varied, for one, taking you from Dark Souls-style caverns to some snowy building tops to the remains of an abandoned theater. It’s a stab at reimagining those old SNES dungeons, and combined with the game’s excellently moody soundtrack, it really helps remind you that you’re still playing a Castlevania game.
“Castlevania City,” meanwhile, is about as bland as a digital metropolis can get. Each of its four sections are assaulted by swaths of grey, and are filled the kind of generic factories, parking garages, and deserted streets we’ve seen a million times before.
It’s also much too confined, more of a long series of interconnected outdoor dungeon rooms than a sprawling urban arena. That tends to turn any fight there into a mess, as you’re given less room to dash around once your foes start simultaneously spamming unblockable attacks (which is often).
Outside of simply whipping up groups of creatures, almost everything MercurySteam asks you to do in Lords of Shadow 2 feels like a chore. Somehow, for instance, it thought it’d be a good idea to sprinkle some stealth sections into a game where you play as immortal demigod. Besides the fact that they’re seemingly included just for the sake of being included, these bits are nothing short of awful, either much too repetitive (have fun blinding the same guard thirty times) or mind-numbingly broken (have fun with the Dead Leaves).
It’s not that MercurySteam has to stick to a more traditional Castlevania template to make Lords of Shadow 2 work. The aforementioned theater section, for instance, has you following along the narration of a tragic play and ensuring each scene has the correct set pieces in place. That’s different!
But for every one time you see this game try and expand its setting or bolster its mood in new ways, you get ten mindless platforming sections and a forgettable setpiece in return. And for every time you’re allowed to scale titans, fight god-sized bosses, and use Dracula like the supernatural monster that he is, you’re also stuck turning gears to get through a door, and morphing into a rat to sneak by some dude with a gun. Sometimes you’re Dracula, man, and then other times you’re not.
That inconsistency is really the most frustrating thing about Lords of Shadow 2, and this rebooted Castlevania in general. This final chapter does attempt to do many things, sure, but the ones that show promise are soon overwhelmed by the hackneyed, illogical, and disposable. That Lords of Shadow 2 manages to feel bloated and empty all at once is an accomplishment in its own right – the body of an alright game is there, but its blood has been sucked out entirely.
This review is based on a pre-launch copy provided to NotebookReview by Konami. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is available now on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.