It’s no secret that the 3D Castlevania games have had a past as dark and troubled as Dracula himself. From its Nintendo 64 outing to that strange Death Note-ish arena fighter, Castlevania was long considered to be one of those series that just doesn’t work in three dimensions. That changed with the release of Lords of Shadow, which despite what your feelings may be on it, is considered to be the most successful game in the entire franchise.
Despite its success, though, it felt like a game with a bit of an identity crisis, like it was missing something to make it truly worthy of the Castlevania name. Lords of Shadow 2 just might be the missing ingredient.
In a surprising twist, Lords of Shadow 2 focuses on Prince of Darkness himself, Dracula, rather than the usual families of vampire hunters. Taking place long after the events of the first game, Dracula has awoken from a long slumber and needs to stop the revival of Satan and resulting enslavement of the world. The setting shifts back and forth between a (relatively) modern-day city and Dracula’s infamous castle. Seeing Dracula walk around city sidewalks is a little surreal in itself, but it gets even stranger when he starts fighting robots with jetpacks.
While the concept is bizarre, the mechanics that drives the game are very familiar. Combat is similar to action games like God of War, meaning that Dracula has wide-reaching attacks with whips created through some kind of vaguely defined blood magic. Controlling Dracula is more fluid than the previous game, as he has more mobility options like turning into mist and dashes that make him feel swift. There’s a basic array of combos and attacks at Dracula’s disposal, but the real meat of the game is based around dodging and countering enemy attacks.
What really sets Lords of Shadow’s combat apart is its balance between Void and Chaos magic. In addition to his whip, Dracula can also summon an ice sword or fire claws on the fly. These weapons are limited by two meters at the bottom of the screen. Avoiding damage while dishing it out fills up a Focus Meter, and once Dracula is fully focused, enemies will drop absorbable magic with every hit landed.
Balancing your magic supply adds a surprising amount of strategy to the game, as the two weapons have unique benefits. The Void Sword can freeze enemies and give Dracula health back for every hit, while the Chaos Claws do an immense amount of damage and burn through enemy defenses. Choosing which weapon to focus on is a great way to customize your play style, as players who get hit often can favor the Void Sword while more experienced players are likely to opt for the Chaos Claws.
The only blight during bouts comes from an overabundance of enemies on-screen at once. Enemies attack aggressively in Lords of Shadow 2, so when there’s a cluster of them all attacking at once, it becomes extremely difficult to get out of the way, let alone comprehend what’s happening on-screen. It doesn’t happen extremely often thankfully, as otherwise the combat is by far the strongest aspect of the game.
However, fighting isn’t all there is to Lords of Shadow 2. One of the most bizarre aspects of the game is that it feels like a dozen ideas were thrown into it and none of them were finished.
The most notable diversions are the stealth segments. At first, they seemed like a fairly harmless if underwhelming addition. They work more like puzzles than games of hide and seek, requiring you to distract the correct guard and possess enemies to get through security doors. If he gets spotted or needs to get through a small space, Dracula can also transform into a rat (Dratula, if you will). There isn’t much to these sections, but at the very least they show off some of Dracula’s cool vampire powers.
Unfortunately, the stealth reaches its breaking point in more complicated situations, one in particular being a section where Dracula is being hunted by a boss character. Basically, Dracula has to navigate a through a maze-like area full of leaves that give away your position when stepped on, and one wrong move kills you near instantly. Initially, this seemed like a huge difficulty spike. However, I eventually realized that Dracula’s ability to turn into mist allowed me to avoid the instant kill, which then made the section brokenly easy. With one simple maneuver, I essentially skipped through the entirety of the overly elaborate level design, wondering what exactly the “correct” way to complete the section was.
Other half-baked ideas include a short-lived cooperative platforming section with an AI partner, switch pulling puzzles, swinging platform mechanics, and the entire game taking place in two connected overworlds. None of these aspects are as blatantly broken as the stealth segments, but taken together it makes the game feel less than complete. It’s underdeveloped padding, which is a shame because some of these concepts have potential.
The two overworlds (the city and Dracula’s castle) were especially interesting as they seemed like a fantastic way to make the world feel more coherent. In theory it’s a great concept: two explorable maps that are reminiscent of the exploration-focused Symphony of the Night-era Castlevanias. In practice, it becomes a chore to traverse due to constant loading screens (not so subtly woven into the game by waiting forever for doors to open) and the lack of clear connections between the areas. Traveling off the main route quickly became an exercise in tedium.
Even when on the main path, getting around can be a pain, however. One issue that occasionally crept up in the original Lords of Shadow is that the environments were so vast that it was hard to find the correct way to proceed, a trait that the sequel shares. Far too often, the pace was stopped dead by moments where I was just wandering around in a room looking for some obscure ledge to jump on. It’s never more than a few minutes at a time, but it happens so often that it would sour any enthusiasm I had for reaching the next part of the game.
It’s a strange problem, as normally objects and ledges are highlighted to indicate interactivity. I hate to say it, but the obvious glowing hints just don’t stand out well enough to serve their purpose. Especially ridiculous is when they put a golden glow on an object that’s already gold, making you wonder if it’s an object you interact with or if it’s just supposed to look that way. When your crutch for unclear level design is just as ineffective in its own design, something is wrong.
Despite its failings, Lords of Shadow 2 feels more respectable than its predecessor. The original game was competent but very safe and lacking in personality. In contrast, the sequel improves upon the core tenants of the original while boldly taking it to new and interesting places, both setting and design-wise. While the game trips over itself when it strains its secondary ideas, it’s a more refreshing variety than what the first game had to offer.
Lords of Shadow 2’s biggest victory is successfully fitting its universe into the Castlevania lineage. Not literally, of course, as the Lords of Shadow games are still in a separate universe, but one that mirrors the original in intriguing ways. Maybe it’s just the act of playing as Dracula, but lurking around his castle felt exactly how a 3D Castlevania game should, with lots of platforming, monsters, and secrets to be found.
Narrative-wise, the focus on Dracua’s character works as a personal examination of the most prominent villain in all of Castlevania. I’m not going to claim the story is fantastic, but the mix of a modern day apocalypse and Dracula’s personal struggles in his castle is certainly interesting. It ties into the previous game’s plot in all the right ways, re-contextualizing the original story’s events to effectively identify the Lords of Shadow universe as Castlevania.
That’s really what Lords of Shadow 2 is—a pay-off to the original game. It improves the combat and story set up by the first game while driving towards its conclusion. Thanks to this game’s efforts, the Lords of Shadow universe now feels like a successor to the original Castlevania mythos. Its missteps are ironically the new ideas that it brings to the table. These drag the game down but are not completely irredeemable. Ultimately, Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t a perfect sequel, but it is a Castlevania game.
Food for Thought:
1. The back of the box says “Blood is everything,” and I think Lords of Shadow 2 took that as its mantra. Dracula is slitting himself for blood sacrifice animations every few minutes in order to unlock doors and hidden items. The poor guy loses more pints to himself than any of the monsters trying to kill him.
2. Don’t worry if you skipped Mirror of Fate, the interquel between the Lords of Shadow games. While its events are important to the story, they’re summarized fairly early on in a cutscene.
3. Lords of Shadow 2 not only has some cool monster designs, but presents them in some spectacularly disturbing ways. That goes for Dracula himself too, as sometimes his brutality can be downright appalling. There was always something kind of silly about the way monsters were portrayed in previous Castlevanias, but in this game they are creatures to be feared.