Developer: MercurySteam | Publisher: Konami | Played On: PlayStation 3 | Price: $59.99 | ESRB: Mature [Intense Violence, Blood and Gore, Language, Nudity]
If you’ve been gaming long enough, you learn to appreciate a resolved cliffhanger. Granted, we do get these resolutions regularly, but it doesn’t lessen the ache of those unfinished storylines from the likes of Darksiders, Shenmue, and that one Valve series. The cliffhanger in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was all the more intriguing, what with its twist on Gabriel Belmont’s fate and how the game ended in a modern day urban setting. It was also one of those rare big budget games that was more appreciated months after its release, partly because many gamers grew to like how different it was from prior Castlevanias. It’s clear that developer MercurySteam isn’t afraid of taking chances, an approach they had with the two-dimensional Mirror of Fate and now with Lords of Shadow 2. The difference now is that they’re tasked with meeting a different set of expectations from the very fanbase they managed to gain these past few years.
You can’t talk about Lords of Shadow 2 without spoiling Gabriel’s transformation into Dracula. The man’s been worn down by both time and battles against his offspring; it’s only through a reunion with Zobek that he’s able to get back to fighting strength. Formerly Dracula’s antagonist, Zobek believes Dracula is the only one capable of defeating the only being more threatening than Dracula himself: Satan. It’s not as simple as going to hell to kill The Devil; first Dracula must investigate what Satan’s acolytes are scheming in the mortal world. The carrot Zobek dangles in front of Dracula is eternal rest, which, inexplicably enough, could only be facilitated with the combat cross. It is mildly disappointedly that once you finally take on the role of the Prince of Darkness, you would also have to play errand boy and detective in between the demon-slaying.
It’s of little surprise that killing acolytes, and all of Dracula’s other obstacles for that matter, is the most entertaining part of Lords of Shadow 2. Whereas the sideways roll dodge made boss and mid boss fights feel repetitive in the first game, Lords of Shadow 2 has toned down that tactical approach in favor of less predictable combat that rewards reaction through improvisation. It’s most gratifying moments come when you mix your arsenal of direct and area attacks with blocks that stun foes, and ramming moves to knock them over. Replacing the magic properties of the combat cross, Dracula now has armor-crushing fists of flame and a sword that heals with every blow. Wielding the sword also gives us a taste of what it’s like to be Alucard, since that’s the weapon that set him apart from the other Dracula slayers.
Of course, no action adventure sequel is complete without the developer’s inventive way to justify the protagonist’s loss of all the stats and abilities he’s gained in the previous game. Well, this Dracula did spend a few centuries as the nutrient-deprived Prune of Darkness. The process of regaining these skills is a well-paced one, where vanquishing all enemies yield points to unlock moves. On top of that, repeated use of specific moves will eventually unlock more actions. Other games that use these kinds of “challenge” goals merely reward players with superficial items like character customization pieces, so to be awarded more practical and useful abilities is very much appreciated. Lastly, the high difficulty of the first game was also one of its divisive aspects. As such, MercurySteam made this sequel easier, so much so that you don’t need to update your move set on a regular basis. Now, confident slayers are advised to approach this game on the harder difficulty setting.
Whereas the first Lords of Shadow made the most of its predominantly linear progression, this sequel’s overall layout is considerably more disorganized. There is a nagging feeling that MercurySteam aspired to emulate the exploratory, backtrack-intensive designs of the franchise’s best 2D games. It just doesn’t translate well in the 3D space in the way the studio envisioned.
Remember Castlevania: Lament of Innocence? Lords of Shadow 2 encourages the same kind of exploration, but it’s a less cohesive experience. It’s a bit surprising because there’s much more freedom with the camera compared to MercurySteam’s first outing. It doesn’t help that you’re jumping back and forth between modern urban settings and the gothic-styled areas you typically associate with Castlevania. It was as if the studio couldn’t trust Dracula to hold the player’s attention if the game was entirely based in present time.
On a side note, what is up with developers’ fascination with using pharmaceutical companies as metaphorical and literal fronts for controlling the masses through chemistry? It was mildly effective DmC: Devil May Cry and it feels like a beaten path in Lords of Shadow 2.
The story doesn’t justify these frequent changes in setting—which happens about every thirty minutes, and it isn’t as simple as walking through a door. Dracula first has to summon a lupine guide, a character that resembles a wolf, to take him between worlds by standing on a giant wolf face insignia. One of these insignias happens to be IN the pharmaceutical company you’re infiltrating, which makes very little sense. Speaking of nonsensical design choices, reloading checkpoints after dying isn’t simple either. Your loading screen features an often-introspective Dracula who is thinking about his next objective, just in case the player forgot what to do next.
As MercurySteam deserves credit for keeping much of the combat consistent with the first Lords of Shadow, they’ve also earned recognition for being consistent with the series’ detailed and visually robust art direction. Their worlds showcase an adept blend of derivative and original gothic stylings, while the modern environments are fittingly suitable as demonic battlegrounds. There are a few missteps, like an unpolished, platform-intensive lava cavern and a tiresome train sequence oddly reminiscent of Uncharted 2.
As a side note to Lords of Shadow’s production values, we enjoyed the role reprisals of the versatile Robert Carlyle and the always recognizable Patrick Stewart as Dracula and Zobek respectively.
Very few studios have the opportunity to close out a trilogy, and while this should lead to a stronger sense of finality, in the case of Lords of Shadow 2 and its ending—which is ultimately satisfying in the grand scheme of this trilogy reboot—is blemished with a journey that fluctuates from satisfying to unremarkable. In all, it was a good ride when appreciated as a collection, but since this is the Lords of Shadow we’ll come back to most often, it’ll be difficult to remember the experience that way. MercurySteam has certainly proved itself as a studio that can competently handle a pre-existing franchise. If anything, their own gothic vision of this franchise, coupled with their expertise of engaging combat, gives MercurySteam a solid portfolio if they were ever asked to take on say, the Darksiders series.