Whip it, whip it OK

One of the more frequent complaints about the first Lords of Shadow was that it got away from what players have come to expect from the franchise. Most still generally agreed, however, that it was probably the best 3D Castlevania ever (not that that was saying much), so the hype—and the hope—was pretty high for the follow-up.

In Lords of Shadow 2, players get to control Dracula himself for the first time ever, and they do so in the modern era as he wages his own personal war against Hell’s best soldiers. After being awoken from a 200-year slumber by necromancer extraordinaire Zobek, Dracula has to shake off some of the rust that’s accumulated over two centuries and must search within himself—and the city that’s risen over the remains of his old castle—in order to reclaim his once-impressive strength.

After a four-year wait for this sequel, I’ve got some good news: MercurySteam took a lot of the first game’s criticisms to heart. The bad news? Some of the solutions create new problems, and some strengths of the first game just aren’t as good here.

The first—and probably biggest—issue that MercurySteam addressed was the linearity of the first game. Whereas Lords of Shadow was broken up into small stages that took place within one of the game’s dozen chapters, this sequel features an open world for players to run around in and explore. Like most games of this ilk, as Dracula regains his lost abilities, more of the world opens up, and previously unattainable power-ups and secrets become accessible. Simply put, an open-world game is an easy fix to the linearity problem—if it were planned properly.

MercurySteam was so ambitious that they essentially built two open worlds, since Dracula often “travels” back to his castle in the past from various points in the modern world. They’re big enough that you’ll easily get lost in them—and that’s the problem. You will get lost, and not in a “I lost track of time because the game is so good” sort of way, but more like “This is the third time I’ve passed that landmark, and I’ve gotten nowhere.” Lords of Shadow 2 is in desperate need of a better map system, especially in the city. It’s hard to remember where collectibles are or if you’re even going the right way. Several sections look so much alike that the areas almost blend together, and the game does a horrible job of letting you know there’s a marker system buried somewhere in the countless menus.

One change that does seem to have worked out for the better? The combat. In the original Lords of Shadow, many players found themselves simply mashing a button or two and only changing strategies for the few enemies who could counter the more basic moves. To encourage players to mix things up this time around, Dracula has three main weapons—the Blood Whip, the Void Sword, and the Chaos Claws—and they all get stronger by using and then mastering different techniques with them. And this Master System is one of the few straightforward things about Lords of Shadow 2. You defeat enemies to get experience points, then spend these points to unlock new weapon techniques. After using those techniques so many times in combat, you can transfer knowledge of the technique into the weapon itself, making it more powerful.

I’ll admit that I still found myself slipping into the bad habit of using only one or two techniques—like the Guillotine aerial smash—now and then, but the combat system is still much improved and far more rewarding this time around. And even if you’re like me and fall into old patterns, you’ll still use more moves total due to the increased enemy variety, even if you develop favorite tactics over time.

One of the strongest elements from the first Lords of Shadow—and one that most players probably hoped wouldn’t change—would be the storytelling. While it started slow, the first game built up nicely to a crescendo and then a cliffhanger ending to make Lords of Shadow 2 possible. This time, it’s a bit of the reverse.

For the better part of the game, the narrative is still solid. Much like how Lords of Shadows 2 offers two worlds to explore, it also includes two major enemies. The first one is obvious: It’s Satan, in that classic man-versusthe supernatural scenario. The second foe? That’s Dracula himself. As explained by a 15-minute cutscene early on, in case you didn’t play the first game, Dracula was originally Gabriel Belmont, cursed forever to fight his bloodline after absorbing the powers of the original Lords of Shadow. This leads to powerful scenes of him racked with guilt over having not known his son, losing his wife, and his cursing a God who’s abandoned him.

Of course, it also leads to some confusion and plot holes for those familiar with the series. How exactly does Dracula go back in time to his castle to unlock his powers? Are they hallucinations? Has his guilt taken form to test him before he can reclaim his power? Is he actually traveling back in time? Is it all of the above? It’s all really unclear, and just when I thought I’d figured it out, the next story beat would happen to befuddle me again. And if I was confused after having played all the previous games, I can just imagine how it might be for someone looking to get into the series. It’s probably not the best idea to start with Lords of Shadow 2 if plot means something to you.

The story also tries its best—but fails—to cover up the fact that many of Dracula’s objectives for 80 percent of the game are glorified fetch quests to lead him back to his true strength. I would’ve preferred more time with all my powers so I wouldn’t have had to backtrack so much to find all the hidden items. The worst part, however, may be that the story builds towards a preconceived end point, only to provide a cop-out finish that left me unsatisfied.

Even with these problems, though, there’s still a solid core to Lords of Shadow 2. The mood-setting orchestral music is fantastic, and I loved the voice acting, led by Patrick Stewart as Zobek and Robert Carlyle as Dracula. What’s more, the epic boss battles rival those seen in the first game. It’s just a shame that MercurySteam’s evident lack of experience constructing open worlds, and letting the story get away from them, keeps Lords of Shadow 2 from being better than its predecessor.

Developer: MercurySteam • Publisher: Konami • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.25.14
Lords of Shadow 2 runs into a classic sequel problem. By trying to do more and fix the few issues of the first game, MercurySteam actually does less and creates more problems. Despite this, they’ve still crafted a competent tale with solid core gameplay that should entertain longtime Castlevania fans, even if it’s not quite everything they’d hoped for.
The Good Drastically improved, rewarding combat.
The Bad A pathetic excuse for a map system; objectives feel too much like glorified fetch quests.
The Ugly How fast I’d probably succumb to vampire queen Carmilla’s, ahem, charms.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS3 using review code provided by Konami.