Castlevania, as a series, has stood strong against the test of time over its 35 installments. The original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow managed to break the mold of what the series had created and made it relevant on 7th-generation consoles. Now, as we begin to make our fond farewells to the PS3/Xbox 360 generation, Lords of Shadow 2 succeeds in making sure to close out the era with a fang…er, a bang.
In the conclusion of the 3-part series, we play as Gabriel Belmont once again, operating as the vampire Dracula. However, in a test of faith made by the developers at MercurySteam, it begins set in a modern age. Both Zobek and Gabriel have made it through all these years after the events of the first chapter, and must now reluctantly join forces to stop Satan and his minions, once and for all. Gabriel only agrees because he is promised the chance to finally be killed by the Vampire Killer after endless years of torment, longing to be with his dearly departed family.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 keeps you guessing at every turn. What appears to be a game stuck in a despondent present with a linear story quickly becomes more fluid, with Gabriel being transported to and from the past (when Castlevania games traditionally take place). Contextually, within the game’s adherence to a world filled with magic, it makes sense. It also keeps the design of the worlds fresh, showing a beautiful contrast between Gothic castles and colorful nature of the past and the grimy, broken down urban landscapes of the present. Outside of a few modern areas, the level design is quite a sight to behold, one that can be revisited in an open world system that lets you retrace your steps in previous areas to unlock previously-unobtainable secrets.
Battling ungodly creatures is quite enjoyable. This Castlevania game utilizes a three-tier, skill-based combat system. Your blood whip acts as your primary weapon, which can be used in direct attacks and with AoE sweeps in conjunction with unlockable combinations. Stringing together repeated hits (with different combos improving the effect) builds up a special meter. Once filled, each successful attack landed (until disrupted by successful retaliations from foes) will generate a floating orb on the battlefield. These orbs can be used to recover your secondary special weapons; the Void Blade and the Chaos Claws.
This is where it gets interesting. The Void Blade regenerates health with each hit, while the Chaos Claws break defenses and shields with a barrier-shattering heat. Only one system can be active at a time, and these special attacks last for a few short hits until each meter is filled again. They also fuel ice and fire projectiles, plus have their own skill tree. Repeated use of any skill will improve your mastery of that branch of skills, thus in turn making you more powerful.
I loved what Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 did with its gameplay changes. Instead of relying on one or two tried-and-true combinations, the mixture of enemies meant I had to switch between styles when opponents required it. Shielded knights need to have their defenses broken, while agile foes require a frost attack or a variety of whip options. It kept the experience of hack-and-slash fighting truly novel, one that holds up over the tens of hours. The biggest relief for fans of OG Lords of Shadow is that the camera is non-fixed now, moveable with the right analog stick on consoles. Now there is no excuse outside of a lack of skill or experience for getting repeatedly comboed by surrounding enemies.
Puzzle-solving and platforming were slightly disappointing in their ease of access, however. Highlighting routes and button prompts that tell you how to proceed could be avoided, but weren’t all that damaging. It may be a bit of a nitpick, and am willing to accept that. There is variety enough in the game’s puzzles, even if the enemies standing in your way remain the same.
With regards to its story; it did not meet the same level of excellence as the gameplay. We see into great detail as to why Gabriel must save humanity once again and paints an agreeable tale that holds true throughout, and is quite serviceable. Lords of Shadow 2 is over-the-top when it comes to its portrayal of violence, blood and gore, and that is quite alright. Gameplay takes precedence here; immeasurably. However, some of the dialogue conveying the story at key points is a little bit silly in its fervor. Once or twice, it can take you out of the severity of its moments in the plot.
That said, the voice work provided by an star-studded cast does the absolute best with what they have. The heavy hitters return in the sequel, with the likes of Patrick Stewart, Robert Carlyle, Richard Madden (Rob Stark in Game of Thrones), Natascha McElhone and Jason Isaacs representing key characters. Ardent Castlevania fans will be disappointed by the repeated use of cutscenes, but those who can look past that can appreciate some astonishingly-great line reading from its core players. They bring a sense of legitimacy to this project, to the point that you could feel the effort poured into their performances.
The boss battles were the cherry on the top. While normal grunts are rather bland in their visuals, the design for the plethora of bosses, mini and regular, required the utmost respect and attention. They demanded the full use of your arsenal, were original enough in their concepts (save for a Capra Demon look-alike) and were plenty in numbers to keep the flow going throughout. Difficulty felt progressive the longer you played, and victory felt earned, not given. The Lords of Shadow mini-saga may not hold all of Castlevania’s classic traditions, but these boss conflicts certainly push this game over the edge in consideration of being a strong character action game.
I was disappointed, unfortunately, with the events preceding one of the game’s boss encounters. You have to retrieve an item held by the mythical Agreus to advance the plot, but you must do so by sneaking around him in a graveyard filled with dead leaves. Stepping on them alerted the demon to your whereabouts. If discovered, you are sent back to the beginning of the section and health is taken off. He can also smell your presence if close enough to you, making your navigation options limited.
While I appreciate the challenge regular gameplay provided, this stealth segment both felt incredibly out of place thematically and was an incredibly sharp spike in difficulty. I must have spent roughly 30 minutes trying to traverse a very small property due to repeated failure, coming from someone who died just a small handful of times in the game’s entirety. It made little sense to see the mighty Dracula required to sneak around a boss he’d eventually face off in combat not minutes later. You’ll definitely wonder why the developers felt the need to tack a stealth section onto the final product, and wonder how it got passed quality assurance testing for the general public.
As a complete package, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 provides a quality action title that puts the brunt of the workforce on its gameplay over its story. The great orchestral score, enigmatic world design, enjoyable combat and compelling voice cast weave together to create a deserving conclusion to its tale. Some may not like what Castlevania has become in its 3D nature, but it meets all respectable goals it sought out to reach.
+ Excellent voice acting
+ Stunning world and boss design
+ Combat keeps you on your toes for hours on end
– Unnecessary and extremely difficult stealth sequence; out of place
– Campy story, at times
= Variety in fighting skills, but doesn’t necessarily encourage widespread use of all combinations
(A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review.)