The original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was great. It was the first 3D translation of the classic franchise that actually worked, and though it lost a lot in the process, it gained an equal lot as well; most importantly, it took the established series lore and ran with it, making it its playground, but never once treating it with anything short of the respect that it deserves. The original Lords of Shadow was a labor of love. Developer Mercury Steam’s passion for the franchise they were tasked to handle was immediately apparent, even if you did not agree with their vision of what that franchise should be.
Disappointingly enough, the same cannot be said for the sequel. It comes off as too by the numbers, as if somewhere in the pre-production stage, the developers sat down with a checklist of everything that the sequel should have, and more than anything else, they were eager to get all those boxes ticked, so they could get done with this franchise already and just move on to something else. Happily enough, Lords of Shadow 2 is still a competent game, which can get genuinely exhilarating and offer some incredibly cathartic payoff at times. Unfortunately, it is let down by how mechanical and soulless the rest of the game feels.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s setting and environment. The original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a beautiful game, in part because of its masterful technical graphics, but also because of the artistic vision that inspired it, leading to some exotic, gloomy, moody, gothic locales that took existing conventions from within the series and the genre, and then reconfigured them to its interpretation. In contrast, the primary setting of Lords of Shadow 2 is… an industrial city in the near future. Yes, somehow the franchise moved from having some of the most imaginative settings for action games last generation to one of the most overused tropes in modern gaming.
The game does have a narrative justification for this move to an infinitely less inspiring setting- hundreds of years have passed since the ending of the original Lords of Shadow, which stunned players with the revelation that the original Belmont badass, Gabrielle, becomes Dracula himself. More than anything else, it was this that warmed players up to the new direction the franchise was going in, as the potential for the lore seemed boundless. Lords of Shadow 2 takes the ball passed to it from across the field for an easy touchdown, and then promptly fumbles and drops it.
That isn’t to say the story is bad. It isn’t. it’s just the least imaginative, safest direction the narrative could have gone in out of all the exciting counterfactuals possible. It follows Dracula, that is Gabriel Belmont, waking up from an eternal slumber- he wakes up in the aforementioned modern city, which has been built on the ruins of his old castle. The one responsible for waking you up is none other than the baddie from the first game, Zobek, who has a vested interest in enlisting your help to defeat Lucifer again. In return, he promises you freedom from your cursed immortality.
The setup is boring, and honestly, the actual story plays out very disappointingly. The most interesting parts of the story are in fact the flashbacks, which see some great character development for Dracula’s character, as he struggles to come to terms with his own destiny, with the loss of his family, and with his general isolation from the physical world around him. None of the various devices used to flesh out his character are particularly new, but they are all interesting, and they add some unexpected depth to a figure long held as one of the greatest, irredeemable villains of gaming.
These interludes come as a welcome breath of fresh air, because the story itself is rather poorly paced. In general, a poorly paced story can get a pass if it’s actually worth the inconvenience it subjects its audience to- see also, Lord of the Rings, or for video games, Persona 4. However, with the narrative in Lords of Shadow 2 being average at best, the poor pacing just grates.
Where the story and the setting stumble, the gameplay, at least the action and combat gameplay, itself seems to be largely the same as it was- this is mostly a good thing, because the original Lords of Shadow played great. There are of course two caveats, however- the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and what was thrilling and exciting the first time isn’t quite as thrilling or exciting the second go around, in spite of new elements thrown into the mix (elemental swords that can be equipped, for example, taking a leaf out of last year’s 3DS exclusive, Mirror of Fate).
The other caveat is that all that was bad about the gameplay in the first game is bad here too, and more frustrating for Mercury Steam not having addressed it (although ostensibly, they have repurposed it): the chief culprit here is the camera, that can often get in the way of the action, and lead to unexpected and undeserved losses in battles. The player is admittedly handed control of the camera, but in this case, it just leads to the player battling both the camera and the enemies.
When the camera isn’t an issue, however, the combat is scintillating. It’s as fun and mechanically sound as it was the first time around, and the boss battles are simply amazing, and, to use an overused cliche, they are in fact worth writing home about. They look as impressive as they play, and they play very impressive.
The non combat returning sections from the first game are still great too- the platforming, whenever it shows up, is nimble, and has an unusual sense of control, momentum, and inertia to it. For players who are playing the game just for the combat, it can slow things down a little bit, but players who are just playing the game for the combat are probably doing it wrong to begin with anyway.
There are two big new additions to this game- stealth and a free roaming city. The latter, in theory, should work like a modern day, Symphony of the Night in 3D, except it doesn’t. Whereas, yes, progression is gated, and you will be revisiting areas with newer powers to progress further, the city itself, maybe because of its aesthetic, or maybe just because of bad game design, is a bit drab, and not as fun to traverse. However, at best, the city’s existence enhances the gameplay. At worst, it is inoffensive and does not affect the game either way, for good or for bad.
On the other hand, the stealth portions of the game actively sabotage it.
The issues start with the fact that the sheer point of stealth seems to be lost on Mercury Steam- instead of leaving it to the player’s ingenuity to sneak past the danger, there seems to be one fixed solution to each stealth quandary, which reduces each stealth section to a puzzle. Which, hey, wouldn’t be so bad (I mean, loads of Zelda games do this sort of thing all the time), but then, the stealth itself is uniformly broken, botched by an overhead perspective that somehow completely ruins the game’s lock on mechanics, and an enemy AI that seems to be overzealous. Seriously, the stealth portions of the game are bad enough, and disheartening enough, that they almost made me want to stop playing.
It perhaps says a lot that despite my laundry list of complaints with the game, I would still recommend it. It’s a competent action game (not the best, not even close), and it provides a pretty rote and standard conclusion to the promising story started by its predecessor. A lot of my gripes with the game are born out of how it simply squanders the limitless potential that the first game had. It seems that, somewhere down the line, maybe disheartened by the more rabid section of the Castlevania fanbase that sneeringly dismissed the original Lords of Shadow, Mercury Steam lost their passion for the franchise, and it shows. What we get instead is just a good game at most on all counts, and an extremely disappointing one. All said and done, I would still recommend Lords of Shadow 2, especially to fans of the original. Just don’t go looking for the spark that made the original shine so bright.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.