Throughout the 28-year history of the Castlevania franchise the player has always been tasked with defeating Dracula. Now with the latest game in the series, developer MercurySteam has decided that it’s time for a change. They have returned to complete their Lords of Shadow series with the first ever Castlevania game to have you play as the Prince of Darkness himself, and not only that, it’s also the first to be set in modern times.
Although the game begins somewhere in the early 12th century, once you have completed the tutorial (then watched about 15 minutes of cinematics explaining the story) it fast forwards a thousand years to the 21st century. Dracula awakens from the longest nap of all time in what the game calls Castlevania City, a sprawling neo-gothic metropolis built around the ruins of his castle. Upon waking up, he is approached by Zobek (voiced by Patrick Stewart) who lets him know about Satan’s grand plan to take over the Earth. Clearly that is bad news, and although Zobek is in fact Death himself, he’s not quite strong enough to take down the King of the Underworld. Obviously he needs Dracula’s help.
Unfortunately it turns out that a thousand-year snooze can really mess with vampire powers, so the age-old cliché of “whoops your powers are all gone, better go find them again” is in full effect. Although it is clichéd, the method in which the game lets you regain your abilities allows for some nice scenery changes. Every now and then throughout the game you will find yourself teleported into what appears to be Dracula’s memory of his castle, in which you will find characters from the previous entries in LoS series.
Sweeping changes to the Castlevania formula seem to be the order of business for MercurySteam with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, and the protagonist and setting aren’t the only way they have shaken up the series. The overall game design has changed from linear to a more open-world style, which actually works quite well with the classic item-hunting trait of the series. The castle which you find yourself teleported to during the story is actually accessible at any time via “Wolf Altars” so you can flip between worlds fairly easily almost whenever you want. I say ‘almost’ because in the four major areas in each of the two worlds there is only one Wolf Altar in each. When you combine that with enemies that respawn every time you re-enter an area it can become a little tired and frustrating.
One of my major frustrations with this game was the really poorly disguised load times which the game is riddled with. The Wolf Altars are a perfect example of the bad design in this area. When you activate one a white wolf appears to guide you between worlds which the game then requires you to follow slowly until a portal opens. This portal then takes you to a strange in-between place which you have to continue walking slowly through until another portal opens, which then takes you to either the castle or city (depending on where you started). That doesn’t sound that bad, except for the fact that the amount of time spent walking varies wildly depending on how much loading is required at that time. You can just stand and wait til the portal appears, however once it does you still need to walk forward at a snails pace to enter it. The Wolf Altars aren’t the only sloppily hidden load screens, there are also entire rooms containing nothing specifically made to handle transitions between areas. You walk into the room and hit a switch then wait while one door closes and another opens, with the wait time again varying based on how much loading is needed. Obviously these problems don’t ruin the game but I did find that they took me out of the experience.
Visually C:LoS 2 flip-flops between dull and stunning. While in some sections you will be presented with beautiful scenic views of either the city or castle with a backdrop of the night sky behind them, in other sections you will be staring at the same tired, repetitive, bland walls and props. Although the castle sections take you away from the modern world setting, that is clearly where the most interesting visuals are. Areas like the fiery lava-pits in the castles depths or the Toymaker’s theatre are vibrant and visually appealing, however most of the cityscapes feel repetitive with only 3 or 4 car models repeated and stock standard fire hydrants and rubbish bins. Obviously this isn’t a game about cars or street-side props but the seeming lack of effort in realising the modern setting is a definite let down for a concept which had so much potential.
Where Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 really shines is its combat mechanics. They are exceptionally good, and it’s lucky that the combat works so well too, because it’s the crux of the game. Most of the mechanics are the same as those found in the first LoS game, just with a more Dracula-esque style to them. For example, the “chain whip” returns in blood form as the “shadow whip”, and the focus meter is also back. The energy orbs dropped by enemies this time around are actually globules of blood which can be absorbed for energy for the two extra weapons. The Void Sword restores health with each hit and the Chaos Claws provide strong damage, useful for breaking armour and shields.
The difference in the combat between the original and this sequel is that the use of different weapons rather than just magical enchantment of the whip means that there is a much larger range of variation in the combat. It also increases the need for strategy in battle which adds to the challenge of the game. Interchanging between the weapons is very smooth and works quickly which helps the free-flowing combat feel almost perfect. Another cool little feature of the game is the ability to replenish a bit of your health by drinking the blood of your enemies. It’s not only a very practical ability but also provides a nice gory finishing move for enemies, and it makes Dracula look pretty tough as well which helps.
A robust skill upgrade system accompanies the combat mechanics, which unlocks upwards of 40 different attack moves as the game progresses. The downside of this is that it can be a little overwhelming, and to be honest I found myself mainly sticking to 4 or 5 different abilities throughout the course of the game. It is nice to have options to change things up though, especially given the fact that the game lasts in the vicinity of 15-20 hours.
Relics can be found during play which can be used during combat to give you certain buffs such as unlimited energy for the special weapons, or “Dragon form” which initiates a cut scene where Dracula transforms into a dragon then wipes out every enemy in the immediate vicinity. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty awesome. These relics play a big part in the strategy involved in the combat, especially when playing on the harder difficulties.
Unfortunately it’s not all great with the implementation of ridiculous stealth sections which seem completely out of place in the game. You are introduced to your first stealth mission in the first chapter of the game, wherein Zobek informs you that you are too weak to defeat certain monsters (Golgoths – big guys with big guns). Obviously that means you have to avoid them, so you are introduced to mechanics such as transforming into a pack of rats or summoning a swarm of bats to distract the enemy. In theory these things might have seemed like a good idea but their poor execution led to every stealth sequence feeling ridiculously clunky and annoying. It was made even more annoying because I would find myself really enjoying the combat and piecing together the story, then I would have a stealth section thrust upon me which would completely disrupt my experience.
The worst example of stealth in the game is a level in which you have to hide from a boss by getting from point A to point B without walking on dead leaves on the ground. While you are jumping from ledge to ledge he is snooping around looking for you, and once he gets within a certain range he begins to pick up your scent and tracks you a lot more swiftly. This wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that if he spots you he kills you in one unblockable hit, returning you to the start of the stage. What adds insult to injury is the fact that as soon as you get through the stealth area you have a boss fight with him in which you can defeat him with relative ease, which means the entire sequence was a waste of time. If it wasn’t for this one particular level (which took me at least an hour or trial and error to get through) I would almost be willing to forgive the other stealth sections in the game.
After the critical success of the first Lords of Shadow game MercurySteam had a big job on their hands when it came to producing a worthy sequel. Unfortunately Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by its predecessor, and in their quest for innovation the developer seems to have over-reached. Although the game has a fantastic combat system and an impressive array of bosses to fight, it falls flat on many of the new ideas which they tried to implement which is a real shame. I would still recommend it to fans of either the vampire/mythological genre, or hack n’ slash games but it doesn’t quite feel like the end to the LoS storyline which the series deserved.