Video Game Review: Castlevania – Lords of Shadow 2

I had previously reviewed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on Bureau42, and I had meant to get around to the sequel for quite some time. I did do a partial play-through of the portable title, Mirror of Fate, but I ran into something of a wall over how the game handled porting 3D melee animations in a 2.5D environment. However, at long last, I have played and beaten Lords of Shadow 2, along with its DLC, and have some thoughts on the game.

The game picks up, after a brief prologue level to re-acquaint you with the controls, right where the stinger of Lords of Shadow picked up – with Gabrial Belmont/Dracula, now in the present day, and being called upon by Zobek/Death to help stop the resurgence of Satan. While Lords of Shadow took some structural cues from the more linear Castlevania titles of the 8 and 16-bit era, like the original, III, IV, and Rondo of BloodLords of Shadow II takes its structure from the more expansive and explorative titles like IISymphony of the Night, and similar titles.

Lords of Shadow II puts you in a larger, more expansive world, where the new powers you pick up over the course of the game unlock new areas for you to explore, both in the progression of the game’s narrative, and in terms of getting collectibles that will boost your health, and the mana for your two different weapon types.

As with Lords of Shadow, the style of the combat is very much in the vein of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, with the player going through various combat environments, and fighting a variety of enemies that require different tactics to beat. Quickly timed counters for some attacks will build up your super gauge which will, in turn, lead to enemies dropping orbs that can be used to replenish your mana.

You get two main special weapons you can use – Chaos Gloves, which deals extra damage and can destroy enemy armor; and the Soul Sword, which regenerates your health. Each of your three weapons – the default whip, the Chaos Gloves, and the Soul Sword, also have different attack ranges and animations, and different skill trees for each weapon. This, combined with a pretty well-designed variety of enemies with different attack animations, gives you a lot of reason to change up your tactics as you make your way through the game.

On top of the modern city (Castlevania City) that you begin the game’s story in, partway through you also manage to find a way to shift into an alternate dimension where you can explore the castle – with the game’s story requiring you to shift back and forth between the Castle and the City as you make your way through. It gives the game something of a light-world/dark-world mechanic, like in the Zelda games, as opposed to some of the map expansions from some of the earlier Castlevania games.

The game’s story starts out interesting – with the writers realizing that the players probably haven’t played (or hadn’t beaten) Mirror of Fate, and quickly recapping the story of that game – which was itself a Cliffs Notes adaptation of Castlevania I and III to fit them into the Lords of Shadow timeline, with Alucard actually being Trevor Belmont after he was turned by Dracula, and Alucard instead assisting Simon in defeating Dracula in the first game’s plot.

The problem is, after that, the story doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. The plot is split between Dracula trying to get to the bottom of Satan’s Acolyte’s plans throughout the city, and the city becoming progressively more destroyed on one side of the coin, while on the other side, there’s Dracula’s vampiric nature calling to him and trying to get him to turn away from his desire to die and rejoin his family. This sort of dichotomy works if the two plots are operating at cross purposes. They’re not. The spirit of the castle isn’t calling for Dracula to serve Satan, it’s simply calling for him to not die.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the game’s ending is almost a non-ending. It’s not that there isn’t a narrative climax – the game’s final boss fight is against Satan, and if you win the boss fight you beat Satan. It’s just that what comes after can be summarized as “Denoument is hard, let’s not do that, and just let the player explore the city further in case they missed any collectibles.”

What makes this really frustrating though, is that the game that this story is wrapped around isn’t bad. Quite the opposite – it does a Metroid-vania exploration based game wonderfully. The combat controls are fantastic, and the designers did a really great job of making the iterations of the various types of enemies work in such a way where their power and abilities escalate as you make your way through the game, and require you to change up your tactics to account for the new weapons and abilities you have at your disposal.

The traversal is also very nicely done, with some generally well done checkpointing whenever you get into any serious platforming sequence. Lords of Shadow 2 is, frankly, the best 3D Castlevania game.

It’s just that the story is so poorly executed – which is almost more disappointing by the really good cast. Patrick Stewart returns as Zobek, and, like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the Hammer horror films before him, is an excellent actor who is incapable of phoning in a performance who is making the best of mediocre material. The same can be said for Robert Carlyle as Dracula and Richard Madden as Alucard.

The emotional breadth and pathos for the characters are in the Castle plotline, and it ultimately makes for some of the best narrative beats of the game, along with some amazing visuals – which makes me wish the game had a photo mode. However, until very late in the game, the real world material just feels so detached and lifeless. It’s like the designers really wanted to make a game around you exploring and traversing Dracula’s castle, except the end of the first game saddled you with this modern world that’s completely detached from the castle, so they had to make do with what they had.

I’m glad I finally got around to playing this game, and I really enjoyed making my way through the game’s levels and even hunting down most of the upgrade collectibles. The soundtrack is very well done, and while it doesn’t bring back re-arranged versions of some of the classic Castlevania pieces the way the first game did, I enjoyed what we got. I might even hang on to a copy of the game and see if I could get it signed by Patrick Stewart or Robert Carlyle because I enjoyed their performances. However, I’m not a fan of the story, and I don’t really feel the need to play through the game again.

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