As the next generation becomes current and memories of old consoles begin to fade, each passing release on older tech takes on more significance and stature. once ultra- expensive assets are now relatively cheap, meaning developers can push the old boxes to their extremes, creating experiences that are longer, stronger, more expansive and ambitious than a lot of what came before. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is definitely one of these games.
It’s a true epic; an enormous action adventure that pulls in multiple genre tropes, myriad enemy designs and a huge number of locations to create something that, on the surface at least, feels very big and important. the music, menus and gorgeous architecture suggest there’s greatness to be found in Lords of Shadow 2. Unfortunately, there’s a also a lot else.
Expanding on 2010’s Lords of Shadow, this sequel now tells the story of Dracula (formerly Gabriel) as he is awakened from a vampiric coma and thrust into life in a modern day city. What seems like an interesting narrative conceit soon becomes flimsy window dressing, though, an excuse to include boxy ‘science’ corridors to bulk up the game’s length in between the altogether more appealing and appropriate castle rambling. Ostensibly, the game takes place in two timelines; two dimensions, effectively, with Dracula bounding between an ethereal past/alternate reality while also plodding around the current day, searching for a way to restore his powers. There’s an overarching story about an evil corporation that’s in league with Satan, but all of it is largely incomprehensible, leaping from character to character and location to location like some discarded half-finished Kojima script.
That stuff rarely matters anyway, although Lords of Shadow 2 is absurdly self-important at times. It indulges itself in lengthy cutscenes where characters talk nonsense. What does matter is how the thing plays. and here it’s deeply inconsistent. Despite some protestations from its creators suggesting a commonality with the peerless Zelda series, this is an action game in the God of War mould, with aggressive combat, pre-routed climbing and a few puzzles. At first, this feels rather lovely, with an opening sequence that could have come straight from Sony Santa Monica itself. Still, you battle enemies to get the hang of the familiar controls, then jump outside for an almighty scrap with a giant monster that throws in climbing, amazing camera work and quick-fire fighting for a setpiece that really sets the bar high and suggests MercurySteam might just have elevated itself to the upper tiers of action development. then everything changes.
Obviously there is no way the game could keep up that level of intensity, but after a seemingly neverending cutscene, you’re thrust into the first of Lords of Shadow 2’s many stealth sections. Here Dracula is rendered impotent and must figure out pre-scripted solutions to stealth puzzles, all of which are unanimously awful. Stealth in an action game is rarely a good idea; and here it’s as ham-fisted and misguided as it gets. Sneaking past giant baddies that look like Gears Of War rejects in knock-off Dark Souls armour, turning into a rat to crawl through a hole, possessing guards to open doors… it’s all been done before, done better, and done in games where it makes sense.
Lords Of Shadow 2 constantly falls back on bad ideas and regularly murders its own momentum. When it pits you against a room of enemies and gives you the tools to dispatch them, it’s a fine game. Combat is slick if very familiar, with Dracula’s whip aping Kratos’ Blades Of Chaos in their medium- distance whirling hacks and slashes while enemies time their attacks with obvious and necessary tells. Tying together combos, dodging enemy attacks and chomping on fallen foes’ exposed carotids is perfectly enjoyable. Dracula feels aggressive and lithe, and there’s a tangible snap to his attacks.
On top of this, our hero (antihero? Bad guy?) has a pair of alternative weapons that alter the play in significant ways. The Void Sword, accessible on L1 (or the left bumper) is a heavier, shorter instrument, but one that lets you suck the life of enemies and claim it as your own. The Chaos Claws, found on R1, are similar to God Of War’s gauntlets, letting you smash through enemy armour and specific pieces of scenery. When the combat is allowed to flow, it’s certainly engaging, although the parrying system (again, a lift from God of War) is a little sticky as the transitions from attack animation to parry are slower than you might expect.
Yet Lords Of Shadow 2 often forces you into boss fights that require one of your two alternate weapons, which have to be powered up in a highly irritating manner. The Void Sword and Chaos Claws require orbs – nothing new there – but you can only collect orbs by stringing together a long chain of attacks without being hit. Try doing that when a boss is spamming you with projectiles or an off-screen enemy launches at you with an unblockable attack. This isn’t difficulty by design, it’s just awkwardness.
And back to those stealth sections again, because they really are poor. They break so many unwritten rules. Instant failure is bad enough, but being sent back to a prior section every time you fail is just miserable. There’s no room for trial and error or experimentation, you just have to figure out the solution and laboriously trudge through it. And if you make a mistake, it’s all the way back to the start.
All of this is doubly frustrating because there are times when Lords Of Shadow 2 doesn’t just play well, it soars along. An elongated battle atop, inside and along the outside of a moving train wouldn’t feel out of place in Uncharted, for example, with its dynamic camera angles, criss-crossing gameplay styles and relentless scrap with a fearsome enemy. Or the battle with Medusa; a flawed gem, perhaps, given its reliance on those aforementioned orbs, but a masterclass in artistic enemy design. She looks terrifying and imposing, and felling her is undoubtedly satisfying.
This is a genre that often borrows from its competitors as developers figure out the solutions to common problems, but despite Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow 2 ’s regular attempts to impress, it does feel deeply unoriginal. The enemies, although well designed, are cribbed from all sorts of sources. There are bad guys that look like they’re snatched wholesale from DmC, the story borrows liberally from God Of War and, again, DmC, and there are long sections that you’ll swear you’ve played before. What’s the Spanish for deja-vu?
In fact, the game it doesn’t crib enough from is Castlevania itself. While you can backtrack and find secrets in previously explored locations, and there is a sort of open world hub you can walk around, this is not a game structured like its namesake. The weak puzzles just solve themselves for you in a matter of seconds, often before you even realise there’s a puzzle at all. Most involve obvious and telegraphed use of your alternate weapons, but the game rarely lets you experiment or toy with its boundaries. You simply identify the problem and execute the appropriate action, and then continue. MercurySteam laid the foundations for a tremendous action game in the original Lords Of Shadow, but seemingly buckled under the pressure.
This is a game that’s overly ambitious in some rather strange ways, but there’s something to be said for being concise, and some brutal editing would have likely made for a far more beguiling romp through that gothic splendour. A hugely frustrating experience, then. Lords Of Shadow 2 is a game with flair and gusto that constantly bogs itself down with design choices that should have never made it past the first week of studio meetings. Dracula deserves better.