humanity's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (PC) review

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Not a great sequel, but still a really good game

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How far would you go to save someone you love? This was the defining question players explored when they immersed themselves in the sprawling epic of the first Lords of Shadow as the warrior priest Gabriel Belmont. As the end of that story drew near, a new question started to creep up out of the proverbial shadows of the night: after all is finished, after all the lines you’ve crossed, are you ready to face the person you’ve become along the way? Four years later, Lords of Shadow 2 aims to answer just that.

There is no easy way to talk around it so right from the start let me mention that the entire premise of the second game relies heavily on a particularly interesting spoiler from the first. As such be warned.

Lords of Shadow 2 is unapologetically a sequel. Apart from a few introductory cutscenes that refresh you on the story-so-far, you’re largely meant to already know the people you meet and understand their significance. Likewise a large part of enjoying this entry is heavily dependant on having experienced the original. Despite the events of each game being spaced out by hundreds of years on the timeline, they’re both very heavily intertwined through the lore, items and familiar faces. For instance there is a great boss fight against a warrior that is utilizing all of the relics that Gabriel had collected throughout his previous adventure. It’s a real treat to fight against someone and recognize all that moves and abilities, you yourself used to employ.

Bravely into the night

Some familiar faces drop by
Some familiar faces drop by

The story picks up quite some time after the events of the first game. Gabriel Belmont, the holy warrior priest with a pure heart and almost childlike devotion is no more. Twisted by remorse and the vampiric immortality that holds him prisoner for all eternity, he’s transformed into Dracula - feared by all mankind, the prince of Darkness, Dracul, the Dragon, so on and so forth. After failing to save his beloved, he spurns humanity and defies God, vowing vengeance by forever becoming a “thorn in his side.” After an initial tutorial level that takes place during a siege on Draculas castle, and ends in a spectacular climax that could rival the best of Dragon Ball Z, you wake up hundreds of years later, withered, weak and with fragmented memories into what one could loosely call the “modern world.” As the story unfolds you reunite with the very much alive Zobec and forge an unholy alliance against Satan, who would love nothing more than to torment the both of you for all eternity should his plans come to fruition. With the lucrative promise of ending your immortal suffering, Zobec is able to enlist the prince of darkness to stop Satans acolytes from jump starting the apocalypse.

With sword, whip and fists

Combat is both varied and fun
Combat is both varied and fun

The gameplay has at once remained largely similar and dramatically changed. The bread and butter of the franchise, mainly combat, is very reminiscent of the first game. Gabriel being a mere human, made use of man-made tools and holy relics. As Dracula, nearly all your power stems from blood, and as such your primary weapon is the blood whip that acts very similarly to the combat cross. In combat you utilize two basic attack types to chain together moves based on fairly simple button combinations that never overlap from one attack type to the other. You either do X combos or Y combos, and they are similarly separated on the skill tree. Complementing your whip are powers bound to each of the shoulder buttons into which you can swap in and out of at-will, even in the midst of a combo. These powers are that of the frozen Void sword manifest from the cold, dark, void left in Dracula’s heart after he renounced all emotions, and the fiery Chaos fists forged from his fury, at the fate he was dealt - these are literally the item descriptions. The Void sword sucks life out of your enemies helping you heal in combat, while the Chaos fists break down shields or heavy plating on armored enemies, opening them up to attacks from your other weapons. Additionally each special weapon has an ability that helps in solving environmental puzzles such as the Void sword being able to freeze water, allowing you to scale the now frozen waterfall to reach new locations.

Each of the three weapons have skill trees that offer distinctly unique moves unlocked by experience rather than story progression. In addition to simply purchasing new skills, you also have a Mastery Level that can be raised twice for each weapon and increases it’s overall power. In order to raise a Mastery Level you have to “master” a skill simply by using it until it’s icon fills up, at which point you’re able to transfer the experience to your weapon. This system is great in that each skill can be only mastered once and thus it encourages the player to experiment with different moves rather than sticking to the same two basic attacks. By the end of the game, I actually knew and utilized most of the skills I owned, which was satisfying and made me feel a lot more in control during combat situations.

How does all this feel in practice? It feels pretty great. You’re fast and agile, with a very generous and quite flashy dodge move that teleports Dracula in a swarm of bats out of harms way. Each landed hit has satisfying weight to it and the way your whip arcs and dances across your enemies looks spectacular. To round out good offense with practical defense, a perfectly timed counter will slow down time and expand a bubble of light indicating your chance for a counterattack - and it never gets old. The combat in Lords of Shadow 2 manages to be both a graphical treat and technically varied, making it easily the highlight of the game. It’s only a shame that the enemy variety feels limited compared to the previous title that offered new victims in each area you visited. Lords of Shadow 2 mainly sticks by either mutated beasts or holy knights.

A man of two worlds

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The other half of the game is world traversal with a mix of light platforming and puzzle solving. These elements while solid on their own, don’t fare nearly as well as the combat. Unlike the first installment, Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t a linear adventure that spans the world from A to B. Possibly responding to fan outcry at the lack of a castle or “metroidvania” elements in the first game, developer Mercurysteam has crafted two hub worlds with areas gated by abilities in the style of series favorite: Symphony of the Night. One Jeff Gerstmann will be delighted to know you can even turn into mist now and walk through bars! You’re either hunting down acolytes and completing story objectives in the modern world, or you’re fighting internal demons and facing your past in Draculas castle. You can move freely from one to the other via static travel-locations and each place has it’s own disparate enemies and atmosphere. The castle easily being the more interesting and thematically consistent of the two is populated by mythical creatures and Brotherhood of Light knights in clanking armor - while the modern world is ran afoul of mutant beasts transformed from regular people by a noxious toxin released by the acolytes over the city. In each world you will do plenty of jumping and climbing, and although most platforming is highly “magnetic” and not especially challenging, simply finding the proper path can be rewarding in of itself.

The puzzles have taken a step back in terms of complexity. Thankfully, apart from one instance you are never asked to find 3 keys or gems or skulls or whatever to open a door - something that happened all too often in the previous title, but the puzzles themselves aren’t especially challenging either. You won’t face anything nearly as nefarious as Baba Jaga’s music box from Lords of Shadow. Although what Mercurysteam giveth with one hand, it taketh with the other. One of the new additions to the formula are relatively short, if not completely momentum shattering stealth segments. These require Dracula to sneak by (usually in the form of a swarm of rats or via possession) a hulking mutant guard clothed in what the game arbitrarily describes as “indestructible armor” that is apparently just too much for the prince of darkness. While these sneaking segments aren’t particularly challenging, they do destroy any sort of forward momentum, and are accompanied by strangely out of place and for me personally highly annoying busy music. Thankfully these sections only appear in the modern day setting only a handful of times.

Plenty of collectibles to be found
Plenty of collectibles to be found

The choice of utilizing a hub world rather than the typically linear adventure model has it’s own host of advantages and drawbacks. On one hand the player is given more free reign over the world, being able to traverse through all the areas and hunt for places you might have not been able to access before. Both hubs are littered with collectibles and upgrades of some kind - gem shards that increase your magic and life bar, one time use items, challenge room keys etc. There are plenty of hilarious memorials to read that depict stories quite clearly written by the victors of the evil Dracula, the brave Brotherhood of Light and the generous Zobec with a heart of gold. Backtracking through the entire game world after you’ve unlocked the last of your abilities is thoroughly enjoyable as you no longer concentrate on IF you can get somewhere but rather HOW - and the map helpfully shows you exactly how many secrets there are left in each area letting you move on without needlessly combing over every last corner for hours on end.

On the downside the game is robbed of the epic scale of adventure that you experienced in the first game by being locked into only two areas. Gabriel quite literally travelled to hell and back, across mystical lands that very often gave players pause with their beautiful landscapes and majestic structures. The very first time you approach Carmilla’s castle, walking atop frosted over chains and seeing it rise above the mountains in the distance is a sight to behold. Lords of Shadow 2 simply lacks that scale and beauty. The modern day setting is largely uninteresting, forcing you to traverse through derelict buildings or bland research facilities. There is also a strange dissonance happening, as if the environmental art team that specialized in beautifully exaggerated rococo architecture was suddenly asked to create a regular modern city, and they didn’t quite know how. Despite being modern, Castlevania City (and it’s only referred to as that in the glossary, never in the actual game) looks bizarre, with exposed wiring criss-crossing the streets and flying buttresses supporting modern structures. Steampunk would be a much better descriptor than modern at any rate. In comparison all the levels that take place in Draculas castle are much more distinct, clearly showing the teams preference in the medieval setting. Also, there's just something inherently ridiculous about Dracula taking an elevator.

A new dawn

The game can be unintentionally hilarious
The game can be unintentionally hilarious

Lords of Shadow 2 is an interesting product. It has great combat and terrific boss fights that showcase some truly imaginative enemy design. There is plenty to explore and collect, with level design that makes great use of Draculas vast array of abilities. Exploration is a fun challenge rather than a nuisance. At the same time while the story attempts to be a lot more ambitious, you can never shake this odd feeling like it has taken a step back rather than forward. In terms of scope it feels like a lesser game than. The entire plot point that centers around Dracula’s castle being a sentient being that feeds off his energy and won’t let him leave feels incredibly silly and contrived. The story starts off slow, builds a lot of steam towards this grand encounter with Satan himself (telegraphed from the very start) and spectacularly fizzles out in what is both a strange and somewhat underwhelming final encounter.

That said, when you get into the groove and recover some of your powers, the game is an absolute blast to simply play without thinking too hard about the trappings. As a sequel to the first Lords of Shadow it fails to carry the weight set forth by that ambitious first entry in the franchise - but as a game set in the Lords of Shadow universe it’s still a very unique and fun experience. Parts of it are wacky and unintentionally silly but that's just part of the charm. In addition the entire game clocks in at a satisfying 15 hours or so, and even has a New Game + mode. This is definitely a game for fans of the original with even better combat, familiar characters and interesting lore, but if you didn’t care for the first Lords of Shadow then the sequel probably won’t do much for you either.

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