Castlevania is such a long series that it's pretty hard to pin what a "true" Castlevania game is. Is it a hardcore side-scrolling kill-you-in-a-heartbeat actioner, like the original games? Is it a slower-paced action-RPG, like Symphony of the Night and the games it inspired on handhelds? Or is it somewhere in-between all that?
A couple years ago, Castlevania got a big triple-A reboot with the Mercury Steam-developed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a pretty straightforward action game that liberally cribbed from modern action favorites like Shadow of the Colossus and God of War. Reception's been pretty mixed, overall, but while I found the gameplay kind of staid, I actually stuck around for the story, telling the tale of Gabriel Belmont and his fall from grace to become Dracula, the Prince of Darkness. The story continued on 3DS (and later on consoles) in the less-than-stellar Mirror of Fate, introducing Gabriel's grandson Simon Belmont and the half-vampire Alucard.
Now, Gabriel Belmont/Dracula's quest for redemption continues in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, an action-heavy continuation of the rebooted mythology. Starting with the Brotherhood of Light laying siege to Dracula's castle, the battle is taken to the modern day, where Dracula must team up with the enigmatic Zobek (returning from the original Lords of Shadow) to take on the acolytes of that other Prince of Darkness, the one that tempted Eve and offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world. Yes, this time it's not a showdown between the Belmonts and Dracula, but it's evil vs. evil, Dracula vs. Satan.
I'm not gonna lie, that sounded pretty awesome, so I jumped feet-first into Lords of Shadow 2 expecting a fast-paced action game with some platforming and mild puzzle-solving to space out the fights. I kinda got that, but really, Lords of Shadow 2 is a game that has no idea what it really wants to be. Unlike the Darksiders games, which very clearly stick to the design template of The Legend of Zelda and Diablo and wear all those influences on their sleeve, Lords of Shadow 2 constantly changes things up whether they'd make sense or not in a given situation--clunky hand-holding platforming, clunky stealth, pretty good combat, unusually excellent combat and a story that takes itself too seriously all combine to make a pretty mixed bag.
My real problem is that even with tutorials turned off (you can also turn off QTEs!), Lords of Shadow 2 doesn't care about how you want to play--it always points you in the direction you should be going. Early-on in the game, you're fighting a group of enemies atop a giant steampunk mecha, and one of their allies is firing arrows at you. You have to trick him into shooting these rivets to open up a giant gate and continue with the level. I wanted to focus on taking out the enemies on the platform first, but the game kept zooming in on the rivets, telling me "you should be doing this instead," dragging me out of my experience with the game.
Platforming is a little too simplified as well--instead of a subtle-yet-noticeable in-world indicator like Uncharted's blue or yellow ledges, you'll always see a little swarm of bats around grabbable objects or ledges so you never get lost, and you don't even have to put any thought into the platforming. I get annoyed with Assassin's Creed's "hold a button and a trigger and go" platforming, but at least it lets you decide the path you're going on, and is flexible enough to encourage experimentation. Lords of Shadow 2 just gives you one set course, and drops you to the start of a platforming segment if you try and wander off the beaten path. While the visuals are great, I'm wondering who decided it would be so much cooler for Dracula to battle fantastic creatures in run-down modern-day alleyways and factories instead of the gorgeous, stylized gothic architecture from the previous game.
Combat feels tighter than in the first Lords of Shadow, requiring you to be light on your feet and accurate with your attacks. Because of a somewhat-inaccurate softlock (and no hardlock), it can get frustrating to constantly target the wrong enemy with Dracula's sorta-whips, and the dash/dodge and block mechanics aren't particularly accurate either. Even with those caveats, combat is fast and fluid and fun, and rewards you for quick thinking and reflexes. Aside from his blood whips, Dracula is armed with a sword that heals you through successful attacks and claws that can shred armor. While the sword completely negates any need to ever buy health consumables, most fights keep you regularly switching between the three main weapons, while encouraging that you use the whips as your main damage-dealers.
I guess I'm just happy about this because combat actually means something this time around--while there were upgrades and new moves available in Lords of Shadow, I didn't feel any need to experiment with earned moves and just stuck to my basics--it was a mindset that served me well through the entire game. This time around, weapons have Mastery levels that increase their damage and effectiveness, so trying out (and getting comfortable with) your arsenal of moves will help make you a better overall fighter. Gold goes toward buying consumables for health and Castlevania standards like the stopwatch, so you're encouraged to smash everything that isn't bolted down just in case it has some experience or gold hidden inside.
Stealth is--wait, stealth? Konami only has one stealth franchise, and it sure as hell does not involve Dracula, a being so powerful that he shouldn't have to sneak around guards or disguise himself as a rat so he can chew through a power cable and summon a technician, who he must then stealthily possess so he can sneak into a control room. No, Dracula stealth should be him turning invisible and sauntering past people on the lookout for him, or controlling others to do his bidding--if Dracula's as powerful as we're supposed to believe he is (tearing apart towering monstrosities with his bare hands, for one, or I dunno, fighting Satan), then we shouldn't be put in a very human position of vulnerability. Instead of relying on stealth mechanics for ordinary folks, I think I would have better appreciated the stealth if it had taken a different, more inventive approach. Thankfully, the stealth segments are few and far between, but every time one comes up it's like nails on a chalkboard for me, and it feels like hours before it's finally done.
Lords of Shadow 2 does okay-to-bad on most fronts, but its boss fights still remain fun. While there are a glut of giant monsters you have to kill through platforming and QTEs, the duels with normal-sized enemies have a real sense of speed and ferocity that's missing from the huge setpiece fights. Overall, the difficulty is pretty low throughout Lords of Shadow 2, but the boss fights at least offer a measure of challenge. Without mentioning any spoilers, the last handful of boss fights are pretty awesome, and left me with a better impression of the Lords of Shadow story as it came to a close.
Despite that, it was hard to dig deep and find something nice to say about Lords of Shadow 2. As a longtime Castlevania fan, I wanted to like the game so hard, especially since it was the first chance we got to actually play as Dracula (Castlevania: Judgment does not freakin' count) after decades of playing Belmonts and Morrises (and Nathan Graves, and Soma Cruz, and Shanoa, and Alucard), but it was honestly kind of a letdown. Even the stellar voice cast (with Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart, and Natascha McElhone) all deliver their lines in a dreary monotone. A few great boss fights and fun combat doesn't negate hours of hand-holding and railroading.
+ Beautiful visuals and character design, and some of the environments are real works of art
+ Boss fights are cumulative tests of in-game experience instead of just pointless filler
+/- Fast-paced, exciting combat rewards skill and experience, even if it's kind of on the easy side
+/- Awesome voice cast, but their delivery is lifeless and it sounds like they don't really care about this performance
- Insultingly easy, one-note platforming that feels like it was put in just to fill a checklist
- Unimaginative stealth goes the typical route instead of trying something fresh--it's Dracula, for Christ's sake
- Constant hand-holding and railroading that discourages playing your way to constantly remind you what you should be doing