With the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series, developer MercurySteam successfully rebooted Konami’s much loved series. Now, with the arrival of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 on the PlayStation 3, the Spanish studio’s aiming to bring the series to a close, while at the same time attempting to fully deliver on the promise shown by the first instalment.
Gabriel Belmont – the hero of the inaugural outing – has not had a great time of it. Not only has he been corrupted by evil and turned into a vampiric demon (changing his name to Dracula in the process), but he’s also undergone significant familial strife at the hands of his descendents – Trevor and Simon Belmont – who’ve both tried to drive a stake through his undead heart. As if that wasn’t enough, an attack on his palatial castle by his old comrades in the Brotherhood of Light has resulted in him being the proud owner of a pile of rubble. This would be enough to make even the most enduring masochist end it all, but seeing as he’s immortal, the anti-hero settles for the comfort of a crypt, hoping that everyone will leave him alone.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and the world has moved on in the pasty protagonist’s absence. A modern gothic metropolis – creatively named Castlevania City – has been built on the ruins of his castle, and its residents are largely unaware of the bloody history at its foundation. Dracula’s suddenly stirred from his slumber by Zobek, who brings news that Satan’s acolytes are looking to once again summon the fallen angel back from Hell. Since the intrepid twosome are right at the top of the Devil’s blacklist, he suggests that it would be wise for them to stop this ritual. In return, the bearded sorcerer offers his blood sucking associate the opportunity to earn the one thing that he desires most in the world: release from his immortality and the chance for eternal rest.
While it’s a rather strong premise, the story is functional at best, with most of the quest being spent hunting down Satan’s three acolytes. The more interesting sections of the tale take place in another dimension, where a version of Dracula’s castle lives on. This corrupted iteration of the star’s abode hosts an array of characters from his previous endeavours, who attack and manipulate the vampire in order to prevent him from heading back into the real world to battle the hordes of Hell spawn.
To bring destruction down on these demons, the protagonist not only has access to his trusty Shadow Whip, but also two special weapons which give him the edge in combat. The Void Sword deals less damage but steals life from its victim with every hit, while the Chaos Claws deal massive damage, while also breaking through the protective attire of armoured enemies.
Crucially, both of these weapons have limited energy, and each successful hit depletes their reserves. You can top up their power at reservoirs by locating statues throughout the world, or by landing a number of consecutive combos on opponents without getting hit yourself. This is easier said than done, especially towards the end of the quest where you’ll find yourself hurriedly attempting to dodge out of the way of attackers who have a penchant for unblockable attacks.
Fortunately, the combat controls are responsive, and taking on foes is great fun, particularly when you need to decide which mix of weapons would work best in the current situation. Should you use the Void Sword to recover some health, or stick with the Shadow Whip to finish off the fight earlier? It’s very much your choice to make.
There’s also a compelling selection of adversaries, ranging from basic military units to huge demons that look particularly grotesque. Furthermore, a significant number of boss battles also pepper the fifteen hour quest providing a greater challenge than the fodder that you’re normally cutting your way through. While a couple of these fights feel a little unbalanced, they’re still quite enjoyable, with each skirmish forcing you to tailor your approach in order to break through each adversary’s defences.
As the challenge ramps up, though, some issues with the combat design do start to creep in. You’ll frequently find yourself floored, with identical attack types draining your life as you attempt to get back onto your feet. This becomes increasingly prevalent as more and more enemies are introduced into the equation, with copious creatures utterly obliterating you should you fail to avoid them properly.
Thankfully, the title’s not all about frenetic combat, as the bloody brawls are broken up with plenty of exploration and traversal. Unsurprisingly, Dracula’s an agile character, and he’s able to scale all manner of obstacles with ease. This initially feels very smooth as you leap around the environment, but you will have to time your jumps to avoid dangers such as spinning blades and live electrical wires later on. However, when dealing with these obstacles, you may not always feel totally in control of the protagonist’s movements, and that can lead to some infuriating deaths.
As you’re navigating the world, there are also sections where you’ll need to employ stealth. During these sequences, you can distract sentries with swarms of bats, shape shift into a rat, or even possess guards. While a certain amount of trial and error’s required to find the right solution, most of these segments are quite short, so while they’re certainly frustrating, they’re mercifully over quite quickly. That said, there was one area that had us hurling expletives at our screen. Committing the cardinal sin of bad game design, this portion requires you to climb around the environment quickly and precisely using controls that are just not up to the job, with one mistake resulting in instant failure. We can confidently say that this is the worst stealth sequence that we’ve played in a very long time.
At least there’s an entire overworld to sooth your frustrations. This is made up of two distinct locales: modern day Castlevania City and the abovementioned version of Dracula’s castle. Moving between both worlds is pivotal to the character’s success as abilities unlocked in his fortress will help him to take on challenges and obstacles in the real world. Both areas can be explored early on, although certain environments require specific skills to access them – this is Castlevania, after all.
However, while the setting’s interesting to explore, it does feel quite redundant. Outside of collectibles and creatures to slay, there’s really nothing else to do, with a complete absence of side quests or other activities. There are some challenge arenas to take on, but these could have easily been included as part of a more traditional level-based format. We even found ourselves wishing that the game was more linear at times, especially when – even with the limited fast travel system – we had to trek across the world to reach the only shop available.
You’ll at least get to drink in the gorgeous art as you move from location to location, though, as the sequel once again succeeds in that department. The enemy design is top notch, and the sheer variety is particularly impressive. The same is true for the environments, with the best on display in Dracula’s castle. The developer has really allowed its imagination to run riot, with over-the-top architecture, huge spaces, and epic vistas to investigate. Furthermore, these areas can be enjoyed even more now that the fixed camera of previous iterations has been removed, augmenting you with full control of the view. It’s just a shame that the modern districts don’t quite match the quality of the rest of the game, as they’re confined by the drudgery of life as we know it.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 falls short of the high bar set by its predecessor, with niggly control issues, a somewhat empty open world, and frustrating stealth sections sucking a bit of life out of the experience. Fortunately, fans of the original release will undoubtedly enjoy the exciting combat and stellar graphical design on offer here, making this an experience that may still be worth drinking dry.