Superb combat and deliciously gory action, but unwelcome stealth sections and uninspiring world design dampen this otherwise fine sequel
There has always been bad blood between vampires and the Belmont clan, but Lords of Shadow 2 is quite possibly the goriest Castlevania yet. Fountains of the stuff explode as enemies are ripped limb from limb, jugulars gush forth as necks are snapped and torn open, and beating hearts burst in a cloud of red mist as you crush them in your fist. You are Dracula, after all, so we’d expect nothing less from the Prince of Darkness.
Combat is gloriously visceral and the mix of close and long-range whip attacks will feel instantly familiar to fans of the original Lords of Shadow. But developer Mercury Steam has refined the battle system to an even sharper point for Dracula’s debut outing as combos and upgradeable skills are no longer mere commodities to be bought and used. They now feed into a larger weapon mastery system that rewards players for using Dracula’s entire move set. Use an attack often enough and you’ll be able to transfer your mastery of that skill to the weapon itself, upgrading it even further to help you deliver more powerful blows.
Dracula also has two new weapons; the Void Sword drains life from your enemies and the Chaos Claws can beat down heavily-armoured foes. Both require a healthy dose of magic to use, but this can be replenished by stringing together combos to increase your focus. When your focus bar is full, you can allocate magic points to each weapon, but a enemy single hit will completely empty the bar.
It’s a complex system, but one that’s much more than an excuse for excessive gore. Instead, the Void Sword (as well as a few fang-plunging finishing moves) becomes a crucial tool to help keeping Dracula alive. Healing stations, which were scarce in the first game, are now even more limited, leaving few opportunities to replenish your health between battles. Simply surviving isn’t enough now; how you fight one battle really could mean the difference between life and death in the next, which provides more nuance and depth than other third-person brawlers.
This attention to detail is present in other areas of the game too. Colonies of bats mark your next foothold when climbing instead of glaring golden ledges, while archaic blood-letting rituals must be performed to open doors or unlock hidden items inside menacing “pain boxes”. It’s gruesome but entirely fitting given the setting, and it complements the superb art direction and gorgeous gothic character designs.
Not all changes are for the better, though. Outside of the excellent combat lies a rather more muddled game that quite never recovers the sense of scope seen in the expertly paced opening hour. This comes as a result of its new semi-open world structure, which sees Dracula alternating between the present day Castlevania City and a dream of his medieval castle. Both settings share the same gothic DNA, but the generic industrial corridors of the modern sections all look and feel very similar, and the lack of variation in both its setting and its boss battles means it lacks the same degree of awe and anticipation that defined its predecessor.
Each world also feels remarkably closed in for something that’s meant to be so much more open to explore, but it doesn’t help that the map, a vital piece of any Castlevania game, is next to useless. A small map in the top corner of the main screen helps to point you in the right direction between missions, but the world map is nothing more a simple pictorial drawing of each district. You can’t zoom in on individual areas, and the supposedly “more detailed” map on the pause screen only shows the main outlines of rooms in your vicinity and has vague direction markers for your main objective, portals between worlds and map rooms to help you move across the world faster. Secrets and hidden items go entirely unmarked, forcing you to rely on memory alone when you want to go back to old areas and find them with your new powers, and there’s no way to even see different sections of the map to help plan your route. This leaves very little incentive to return to old areas, as it feels like you’re constantly fumbling around in the dark when there’s no clear target on your map.
Stealth is another new addition, but Mercury Steam’s somewhat clumsy implementation shows it isn’t one the developer’s strengths. One particularly frustrating section sees you creeping round a leafy forest while a boss roams the grounds; rails are available to help you skulk silently round the available cover, but when the boss automatically homes in on your position regardless of whether you’ve made a sound or distracted him with a nearby bell, it’s almost impossible to sneak past him without being discovered.
Thankfully, stealth is largely absent from the superior castle stretches of Lords of Shadow 2, but the worst hit sections are undoubtedly those that take place in the present day. Now that swords and shields have been replaced by laser guns and huge, armoured mechs, Dracula must repeatedly creep past his enemies instead of confronting them head-on, which rather goes against the grain of the game’s action-heavy roots. He does this by transforming himself into a rat or distracting them with a flurry of bats. It’s an adequate enough solution, but the rat sections in particular aren’t terribly sophisticated and they usually serve no other purpose than to create a bland, alternate passageway. They’re easily the weakest sections of the entire game, and they simply don’t suit the series as a whole.
The most ironic thing about Lords of Shadow 2, though, is that all the while Dracula is fighting to escape the dream world of his old castle and the blood that ties him there, you don’t want him to leave either. Castlevania isn’t the same in a modern setting, and the more time the game spends there, the more it’s in danger of becoming just another mediocre third-person brawler. There’s still enough gothic blood its veins for fans of the series to enjoy Lords of Shadow 2, but perhaps isn’t quite the ending the series deserves.