WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL LORDS OF SHADOW AND MIRROR OF FATE TO FOLLOW
With MercurySteam’s 2010 release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the extremely complicated and diverse Castlevania franchise was given a fresh start, free of the canonical baggage that had weighed down previous installments. Its design felt decidedly modern, with a contemporary combat system reminiscent of God of War and a narrative that both fit the tone of the Castlevania series and gave players a twist that flipped it on its head. 2013’s Mirror of Fate gave fans their first look at the rest of the Belmont clan, revealing that the dead son of Dracula — Trevor Belmont — would eventually become the powerful vampire known as Alucard. The conclusion to the trilogy aims to bring something new to the Castlevania franchise: closure, and while Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 improves on almost every element of the first game, it doesn’t deliver on the promises of an epic conclusion to Dracula’s tale.
Taking place roughly a millennium after the events of the original game, Lords of Shadow 2 finds Dracula (originally Gabriel Belmont) weak and without many of his past memories on the night of Satan’s return to Earth. With the aid of his old enemy Zobek — voiced by the always excellent Patrick Stewart — Dracula agrees to prevent his resurrection with the understanding that Zobek will finally end his immortality and allow him to rest forever. Early on, the narrative moves at a snail’s pace, recapping the events of the first two games and sending Dracula back into the depths of his memories to regain his past abilities. However, this actually serves the game well, as once Dracula has regained the majority of his powers, the story quickly picks up and doesn’t slow down until the end roughly 16 hours later. Other games fall into the trap of attempting to give the player many of the most challenging moments while limiting them to early abilities, but Lords of Shadow 2 wisely avoids this.
While the modern-day setting and playable Dracula may make Lords of Shadow 2 look like a far cry from the original game, it plays remarkably similarly, especially in regard to combat. Replacing the dark and light powers of the original game are two new weapons — the Void Sword and the Chaos Claws — which act as complements to Dracula’s Shadow Whip. Each serves roughly the same function as the original powers, with the Void Sword giving Dracula health back from enemies and the Chaos Claws doing massive damage to armored targets. This replicates the very satisfying combat loop that MercurySteam already created, and I found myself switching between all three weapons regularly when fighting both the run-of-the-mill enemies and the more powerful bosses. The special weapons can only be used when their power bars are filled, requiring players to successfully block attacks and string together combos to recharge them. Combat is also much less frustrating this time around due to the inclusion of a player-controlled camera, something that was painfully absent from the first Lords of Shadow.
Lords of Shadow 2’s battles against routine enemies are plenty of fun on their own, but it’s the game’s fantastic boss fights that really show what MercurySteam has to offer. Many of them play out like violent, complex dances, with players maneuvering Dracula across the battlefield as he dodges, blocks, and waits for openings to deliver a few hits. An early fight against a massive Medusa monster involved leaping into the air to attack the beast’s head before jumping back to avoid damaging ground punches and energy attacks, and while it can be quite frustrating to have to repeat sections of these fights over again, it makes finally beating them even more rewarding.
A revised upgrade system also rewards players for using particular weapons; in addition to the experience points used for buying new abilities from the first game is a “mastery system” that levels up Dracula’s weapons based on which ones he is using the most. Mastering a particular attack allows Dracula to transfer the power into one of his three weapons, eventually leveling it up to become even more powerful. This system will most likely be more useful for second playthroughs, as I had only leveled up my Shadow Whip once by the game’s end.
Although Lords of Shadow 2 technically takes place in the modern day, a large portion of the game is set in Dracula’s vision of his castle from centuries prior. These make great use of the series’ exploration and upgrade system, with plenty of high walls to scale and secret areas to uncover. However, the plot devices that enable these sections — usually Dracula seeing a vision of Trevor — come at increasingly annoying times. One moment a few hours into the game finds Dracula searching for an antidote inside a massive factory, and when he stumbles across a chain-link fence, the game enters a long castle sequence just so he can remember his mist ability.
But early on, the castle levels are far superior to the modern segments, which typically require Dracula to transform into a rat to sneak around giant armored guards with huge cannons who can kill the Prince of Darkness in two hits. Luckily, moments like these become less frequent as the game progresses, but the fact that the game makes players keep going back to something so frustrating and uninteresting left me scratching my head. Not only that, but a late-game boss battle begins with a stealth component that, if spotted, will get Dracula killed in a single hit. After making it past this segment, it plays out like any of the other boss fights with no explanation as to why the enemy just got so much weaker. Even a narrative explanation wouldn’t save these segments; they’re poorly designed and clash with the game’s excellent combat and traversal components.
Perhaps Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2’s most impressive feature is also one widely overlooked in many games: sound. In addition to Oscar Araujo’s fantastic score, Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart, Richard Madden, and Jason Isaacs all give dramatic and believable performances. Carlyle is Dracula, and his take on the character will make it very difficult for anyone else to take his place in future Castlevania games. Audio design during combat also gives a nice edge to players, choreographing enemies’ unblockable attacks with a whistling sound.
Unfortunately, with the game being marketed as the definitive conclusion to the Lords of Shadow saga, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by Lords of Shadow 2’s writing in the last few hours. Several ideas and plot points that had been hyped up not just in this release, but in the original game, are tossed aside, almost as if the developers were afraid to actually end their story. With the rest of the Lords of Shadow series setting up what should’ve been a tremendous finale, I was left very confused.
Underwhelming conclusion aside, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 still delivers an experience that fans of the original game or Mirror of Fate will love. It may have some rough edges, but the base underneath them is still built on awesome combat and discovering plenty of secrets. It certainly won’t win over anyone new to the series, but it’s plenty satisfying for those who have been waiting over three years since the last game.