Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
You are Dracula. The Prince of Darkness, the dragon – Dracul. A villainous vampire lord turned moody anti-hero in Mercury Stream’s follow-up to the surprisingly enjoyable Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and its less enjoyable handheld sequel Mirror of Fate. With a trusty whip in tow and a slew of vampiric blood-sucking abilities at your disposal, you’ll go toe-to-toe with Satan’s demonic horde, battling his cronies and gargantuan monstrosities alike as they invade the hapless streets of Earth. Your powers may have diminished after a thousand year sleep but you remain a force to be reckoned with, eventually regaining your strength to reclaim top position amongst the most fearsome entities in the universe. Even Satan himself is afraid of you.
So why are you completely outmatched by the guys with guns?
These hulking brutes, who patrol many a corridor with their explosive weaponry – and who look more than a little too similar to the Muton’s in XCOM: Enemy Unknown – are always a far greater match for Dracula than even Satan himself; the first of many mind-numbing contrivances seeped into Lords of Shadow 2’s muddled design. Why, you might ask, can the immortal Prince of Darkness not handle such a common enemy, especially when he faces much tougher foes elsewhere? Because how else would you cram heinous stealth sections into a character action adventure?
It actually makes sense early on as Dracula awakens from his lengthy slumber to find himself in a modern day metropolis. He’s not as bothered by things like cars, TVs and elevators as someone who has never seen these things might be, but being unconscious for so long has placed him in a weakened state. Fortunately, old pal turned foe, Zobek (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart) is on hand and offers Dracula the death he craves provided he helps him defeat Satan once and for all.
“Maybe I could look past the stealth’s illogical nature if it was enjoyable, but it isn’t”With some banal exposition out of the way, your first taste of this unfamiliar locale introduces some unexpected covert ops as you’re tasked with breaking into the headquarters of some nefarious pharmaceutical company. You can understand not wanting to mess with the heavily armoured goons patrolling its hallways at this early stage when your powers are at their most limited, so sneaking past sounds like the best course of action. It makes less sense, however, when you then you end up embroiled in the same kinds of situations ten hours in, way past the point in which you’ve already decimated swarms of much larger enemies and mammoth foes in elaborate boss battles. Maybe I could look past the stealth’s illogical nature if it was enjoyable, but it isn’t, it’s abysmal.
There is almost zero player agency once Dracula gets his sneak on. The route through every single stealth section can be completed one way and one way only. You have to either turn into a rat to slink past the guards or scamper into a vent to press a switch or something equally tiresome. Or you can throw a swarm of bats at guards to distract them, as well as possess specific enemies, often to use their eyes on retinal scanners that will open the door ahead. There’s absolutely no experimentation on offer despite the various abilities at your disposal. You just have to figure out the one definitive path through each section like it’s some sort of egregious puzzle game.
At one point I was presented with a room containing one guard and an endless stream of scientists walking from one side of the room to the other to open a door using one of the aforementioned retinal scanners. In rat form I’m free to roam as I please, no one takes a blind bit of notice. The door the scientists open is easily accessed, it’s literally right in front of you, so I thought I could just walk through it as a rat and be done with this latest ‘puzzle’. Predictably, I couldn’t be more wrong, there’s an invisible wall preventing any such attempt. Instead of just going through the obvious open door I had to go to the other side of the room, use the designated transformation zone to turn back into human form and possess one of the scientists and open the door from there.
It’s poorly designed and completely obliterates any suspension of disbelief you may have for its fiction. The only saving grace is that the route through each stealth section is so obvious you’ll probably never run into cases of the dreaded trial and error. In fact, the only times I was ever seen was when the controls didn’t act as intended, probably because they’re designed for an action game, not this stealth tripe. It makes no discernible sense why it was even included. To break up the constant stream of combat, maybe? Who knows? It exists just to exist. You’ll be pining for combat as soon as you’re faced with more Drac-stealth.
Elsewhere things are just as grim, it feels like Mercury Stream never quite understood what made the first Lords of Shadow so good. Take the environments as a prime example. The first game was incredibly beautiful, permeating its gothic setting with a fascinating sense of grandeur. Lords of Shadow 2 tries to infuse this same style with its modern day setting, meshing a gothic aesthetic with skyscrapers and neon lights, but all the action is relegated to a veritable smorgasbord of the blandest videogame environments imaginable. You’ve got your grey labs, your grey sewers and your grey car parks. Everything’s so agonizingly dreary, it’s fortunate a fair chunk of your time is also spent in a past version of Dracula’s castle. Thankfully these moments often capture the visual flair that made the first game such a treat to behold.
To its credit the combat also hasn’t missed a beat since the first game; the move to a free camera causes some issues, but generally only in tight spaces. You’ve still got the series-favourite whip and two alternate weapons you can switch to on-the-fly. One is quick and rewards you with health on each hit while the other is slow but more powerful, letting you break shields. They’re both charged by orbs that are dropped by slain enemies once you maintain a combo, incentivising you to keep out of harm’s way while still maintaining an effective offence. It’s not a particularly deep system despite a sufficiently-sized skill tree, but it is fun slicing your way through the demonic mobs, utilising a handy dodge move and a generous parry window to keep the action as fluid as possible. Plus, Dracula looks stylish while doing so.
“It’s fun slicing your way through the demonic mobs, utilising a handy dodge move and a generous parry window to keep the action as fluid as possible”Boss fights are engaging too, designed with the kind of artistic fervour absent in the majority of the environments. This isn’t a silver lining, however, because Lords of Shadow 2 also features one of the worst boss fights in recent memory. This may not come as a surprise but it’s also the only boss battle that makes use of the game’s regrettable stealth mechanics, and does so in the most rotten way possible.
You’re placed inside a courtyard wherein a large goatman called Agreus stalks your every move. You have to get from one side of the courtyard to the other without being spotted or else it’s instant death via cutscene – the best kind. To do this safely you have to avoid stepping on the piles of leaves blocking your path. Piles and piles of leaves. Dracula, the most powerful being in the universe, can’t step on leaves or else a giant goatman will hear them rustle and come kill him in one fell swoop. It’s ridiculous. And what happens once you succeed? You immediately kill the goatman in a simple fight anyway.
For a game with a melodramatic story about Dracula being all depressed and torn about his evil deeds – and featuring such dialogue as “I have killed the train driver and we’re all going to crash and die” – it seems irrelevant to shriek “ludonarrative dissonance” at this particular moment but I’m going to anyway. This is ten asinine contrivances too many and it comes at the halfway point in Lords of Shadow 2’s overlong adventure.
This terrible boss fight is the crowning failure of a sequel that matches its predecessor in a few select areas but takes a gigantic step back in every other way. If the rumours about its troubled development are true then it’s an accomplishment that it’s not the trainwreck it could have been. As it is, it’s aimless, misguided and incredibly disappointing for those who found the first Lords of Shadow such a refreshing surprise. There’s some fun to be had with certain aspects but otherwise this is a complete misfire in almost every direction. Fans might get something out of a weekend rental or an incredibly cheap binge purchase in future Steam sales, but otherwise I wouldn’t recommend Lords of Shadow 2 to anyone. An unfortunate conclusion to a once promising trilogy.