Philip Tang ‘15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The most infamous vampire in the world has largely been treated one-dimensionally. Dracula is typically known as a monster who craves the blood of innocents. The Castlevania series even lends an image of him atop a throne in his enormous castle, sipping wine while he conjures sly insults for his attackers. Konami and MercurySteam’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 attempts to give Dracula more depth than ever before – a feat that becomes plausible thanks to the ability of the player to assume the position of Dracula.
The game’s setting is split between a modern-day city built on the ruins of Dracula’s castle and an initially unexplained parallel world where the castle exists in its prime. The parallel castle is the far superior portion of the game. The modern city, dubbed Castlevania City, is bland and uninteresting. Dracula mostly crawls around sewers, wanders derelict alleys, and explores dank facilities. However, the dullness is exacerbated next to the vibrant environments of the parallel castle world. There, Dracula is constantly surrounded by enticing gothic architecture. The world comprises environmental variety, aside from the gothic interiors, playing host to a lava-drenched zone, snowy mountain peaks, and even a tranquil greenhouse. Backed by strong artistic direction and an impressive graphics engine powerful enough to keep the frame rate consistently high, Lords of Shadow 2 is top-tier in the visuals department. Though the modern city’s environment is uninspiring for a fantasy game, its graphics are incredibly high quality.
Castlevania City and the parallel castle world mirror each other. Both are divided into four quadrants, but gone is the chapter select style of the game’s predecessor. Lords of Shadow 2 adopts a more familiar Metroidvania style, where Dracula begins as a wimp with few powers who slowly accrues new weapons and abilities as he progresses. Abilities like Mist Form and Double Jump (done in an original way via the sprouting of demonic wings from Dracula’s back) allow for new exploration possibilities and encourage players to backtrack to collect health and magic upgrades.
Gameplay-wise, big improvements were made from the original Lords of Shadow. Previously, Gabriel’s only weapon was his whip. He had light and shadow magic, but they only enchanted the whip with new properties. Now, Gabriel (Dracula) replaces light magic with the icy Void Sword capable of freezing enemies and draining their health for its master. The fiery Chaos Claws, replacing shadow magic, have innate guard-piercing abilities and deal the most impressive damage of Dracula’s repertoire. The sword and claws each come with unique move sets. The sword uses graceful swings (as graceful as an angry vampire lord can be) and pinpoint stabs to make short work of enemies. Conversely, donning the claws allow Gabriel to adopt a primal berserker stance as he punches and slashes foes into ashes. Both are a spectacle to behold, not to mention highly effective. Of course, the whip is still the standard, go-to weapon (since it’s all Gabriel can use when his magic reserves are depleted), but disappointingly, the whip’s moveset is entirely the same as it was in the original game. You might think his ascension to the lord of vampires would teach him some awesome new tricks, but the only change in the whip is that it’s now made of his hardened blood, and that its appearance reflects that (rather than extending from a holy cross). And that difference has no gameplay repercussions.
The defeat of enemies grants experience points, used mainly for purchasing new skills for the whip, sword, or claws. Each weapon has a host of skills that require certain button inputs to activate. Even so, it’s sometimes habitual to fall back on the simplest of combos. To combat this bad habit, Lords of Shadow 2 introduces the Mastery system. It dissuades players from relying on the same moves all the time. Using a healthy variety of moves often allows the player to make steady upgrades, and their reward is an increased damage output and a new bit of flashy aesthetics added to the weapon.
Enemies come in typical archetypes. There’s the lightweight fodder that arrive in large numbers but can easily be dispatched with area attacks. Then come the higher priority targets, the smarter and tougher ones that can block your attacks and use their own relentlessly. With some perseverance and devastating combos from Dracula, though, they’re a threat contained. One exception exists, sadly: Golgoth Guards, who look extremely out of place in this game. They don impenetrable armor and huge guns as if they came straight out of Doom or another sci-fi first-person shooter. The worst part is that they’re invincible – Dracula can’t kill them in combat, pathetically enough. These monsters are responsible for most of the game’s poor stealth sections – sections that break the game’s pacing and, much like the Golgoth Guards themselves, are out of place. After the prologue, the game even begins with a stealth section featuring these guys. But at this point in the game, it makes sense – Dracula is weak after just waking up. Still, these sections continue throughout the entirety, even after Dracula becomes a fire-spewing badass capable of punching huge (and artistically amazing) bosses. Despite how out-of-place these sections are, and how they make Dracula seem less impressive, they’re not very difficult. The player just needs to remember all their abilities to get through (hint: Mist Form is the savior among vampires).
Overall, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is fun when it concentrates on what it does best: battling monstrosities using Dracula’s array of powerful abilities. The stealth sections are an obstruction to the pacing, weren’t necessary, and don’t feel as though they belong. In the end, a playthrough to finish the story with 62% overall completion took about 15 or 16 hours, a decent length in the action adventure genre. While exploring Dracula’s psyche and discovering his complexity was fascinating, the finale provided no real payout. Keep in mind that this was supposed to be the end to an entire trilogy (Mirror of Fate for the 3DS came out between Lords of Shadow 1 and 2 and ties them together), but the ending falls flat on all accounts. In the end, the game is still worth it for the experience of playing as one of the most sinister fictional characters of all time: the true prince of darkness, Dracula.
Hopefully, fledgling developer MercurySteam can take the valuable lessons learned from their first completed game trilogy and do even greater things in the near future.
Overall Grade: B (82/100)