Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 isn't going to grab your attention as firmly as its predecessor did. The narrative fumbles along and the structure flutters between confusing and tedious. Indeed this denouement to MercurySteam’s take on this cherished franchise doesn't live up to their first foray. However, creative boss encounters, well implemented combat, and the game's overall gorgeous design certainly makes for an enjoyable experience.
That is if you can power through the first few hours, of course. Heavy exposition, oodles of tutorials, and confusing flashbacks with a sprinkling of mania all plague the opening. The initial bout of combat is wonderfully over the top and bombastic, but it soon gives way to the far more mundane with the first modern day mission. It tests your patience and makes a bad first impression. Castlevania fans may appreciate the recap of the series lore and how the last few titles fit in to the bigger picture, and what makes this re-imagining great is evident below the surface, but it’s still a challenging hurdle of dullness you need to traverse.
Fortunately things get better. After centuries of slumber your old friend Zobek from the first title awakens you in a modern gothic metropolis, Castlevania City, built on the ruins of your old abode. A couple of neck bites later you’re restored to fighting fit and Zobek warns you of the impending rise of Satan, unless you hunt down and kill his evil acolytes and prevent him from returning. With your mind partially fractured from your deep sleep, not all your vampiric abilities are present. But as you progress your memories gradually return and with them your deadly tricks.
It’s a clichéd story of preventing evil through the actions of a lesser evil, but it carries inherent charm. Playing as Gabriel Belmont, corrupted by the first game’s trails and now going by the name Dracula, is cathartic. The agility, power and bloodthirstiness is an enticing draw, and Lords of Shadow 2 captures that feeling of strength well as you step into the protagonist’s shoes. Your attacks are strong and elegant, you can quickly dodge and jump significant distances, and best of all, you can feed off your enemies rather than finishing them off with combat.
However, as powerful as you feel initially, it doesn't take long before you’re humbled. After such a long slumber you’re abilities have atrophied, and soon you’re up against enemies which can swiftly punish you for any mistakes you make. Blocking at the right time to create a counter-attack opening becomes increasingly more useful, as do the many new moves you can unlock with experience points. Additionally, switching between your standard attack with the Blood Whip, the Void Sword which deals less damage but replenishes your health, the Chaos Claws which increase damage and can overcome shields and armour, and using consumables, all become crucial tactics as the challenge ramps up. Enemies are tough and you’ll often fall victim to the hordes that molest you.
However, as tough as the enemies can be, it seldom feels unfair. Your arsenal of combat moves across your three weapons gives you all the attack options you need to deal with any foe. This is really put to the test in boss fights. Much like the original Lords of Shadow, the bosses here are extravagant and inventive, with entirely different forms of attack and defence in order to really challenge you to diversify your own attack methods. It’s very cleverly constructed to make the combat system’s variety shine, and the gradual unlocking of additional moves introduces new elements at a great pace. Meanwhile, actually performing these new moves is easy; feeling like a natural progression of the moves you already know.
Regaining your lost abilities is also brilliantly implemented. The deep sleep provides feasibility for their loss, meanwhile you regain them by playing through memory sequences. Throughout the adventure you’re dragged into a dream state set centuries in the past when your castle still stood standing and proud. Defeating bosses and exploring this ancient structure then unlocks your forgotten abilities. It’s a terrific way of marrying narrative and game mechanics and Gabriel’s struggle to distinguish reality from memory is compelling. However, the majesty of Dracula’s old castle does put the generic city’s architecture to shame.
Despite the excellent combat and skill progression there are a few frustrations thrown into the mix that can undo the impressiveness. Enemy attacks aren't telegraphed plainly, so timing your perfect block can be awkward. Also your health, void magic, and chaos magic pools only increase if you find sets of crystals hidden throughout the world. It certainly encourages you to explore a little more, but it also further increases the challenge if you fail to collect enough.
Lords of Shadow 2 is less linear than it’s predecessor, allowing you to roam the modern city and the ancient castle at will. However, the layout doesn’t help you out. Areas are confusing to navigate and the mini-map doesn’t provide the clearest of instructions on where to go. Additionally, the shop that opens up for you to replenish your consumables is a nightmare to locate.
The worst frustration is certainly the stealth sections. Occasionally you’ll need to distract or sneak past powerful guards that can destroy you with ease if you’re spotted. You can launch bats to distract them, if you’re behind them you can possess them, or you can shape-shift into a rat to use grates to get around them or to bite through wiring. They feel incongruous to the rest of the action orientated play. You’ll defeat a 40 foot demon one moment only to get destroyed trying to sneak past an eight foot grunt the next. Meanwhile, platforming sections can struggle against imprecise controls, and the narrative lacks the excitement of the prequel. Satan’s imminent rise doesn't have any urgency and Gabriel’s motivation is shallow.
There’s an excellent undercurrent to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. The combat, ability unlocking memory sequences, Dracula’s magnificent castle, 360 degree camera control, and the creative bosses. But a story that’s slow to get going and struggles to hold your attention, a generic modern city, out of place stealth, and a collection of minor frustrations all hurt the overall package. However, playing as Dracula is fun, and there are moments when that enjoyment shines through brilliantly, and fortunately this happens often enough to keep your blood pumping.