When Dracula, né Gabriel Belmont, awakens in 2057, the ruined streets of Castlevania City evoke an atmosphere that suggests a gene splice of the worlds from Darksiders and Arkham City. When Dracula strikes an uneasy alliance with his former nemesis, the necromancer Zobek, and faces off with an acolyte of hell who has infected the passengers on an out-of-control Bioquimek Corporation train, the game brings to mind Resident Evil at its zaniest. Dracula’s cursed castle apparently lives on within his tainted blood, along with his son, Trevor, and wife, Marie, and when he escapes into his shadowy memory palace, the illusory effects of the dreamscape—in which his blood is constantly animating objects and attacking him—are as aggressive as anything seen in the recent reboot of DmC. In borrowing from just about anything it can get its hands on, regardless of whether it makes any sense, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 loses its sense of self.
To begin with, Lords of Shadow 2 introduces clumsy stealth sequences, in which Dracula must turn himself into a plague of rats to sneak behind foes, whereupon he can possess them. (Dishonored must have been an inspiration.) One sequence, which is straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (by way of Metal Gear Solid), has Dracula gingerly avoiding dead leaves as he creeps around a garden maze, lest he awaken Agreus, a bull-skull-headed satyr. In another, Dracula has to use the correct puppets and sets to faithfully follow the Toy Maker’s narration, a scenario that evokes the opera-house scene from Final Fantasy VI, in which characters must recite the proper lines during a play. As for the finale, which pits Dracula against Lucifer as they ride through the cosmos atop a world-devouring dragon, I had to double-check to make sure I wasn’t accidentally playing Bayonetta.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case, the developers seem more to be compensating for a lack of anything original. (They wrote themselves into a modern-day box at the end of the original Lords of Shadow, and this game turns to a narrative trick that allows it to jump between the present and a phantom past, which helps it avoid committing to anything.) Even the combat, which pulls on the innovative bits from the game’s predecessor (in which you juggle between special attacks that either heal you or deal extra damage) feels a bit stale after seeing games like Remember Me take their turn with this formula.
The term “fair play” defines a certain type of mystery novel that can be solved by the reader. In that sense, Lords of Shadow 2 is fair, as there’s really only ever one character that Zobek’s masked lieutenant can be (the five-minute prologue/exposition all but spells it out). But the game itself doesn’t play fair. The controls are loose and unforgiving, the player-controlled camera keeps leaving fleet-footed enemies outside the frame, and the particle effects on most attacks make it all but impossible to see what you’re doing at times. This might fly if the game weren’t built around synchronized blocking and high-stakes dodging; instead, the game is a study in frustration, even on lower difficulties. (The unlockable “Challenge” mode, which tasks players with defeating waves of foes while using a reduced set of skills, seems to think this is far easier than I do.)
The frustration isn’t limited to the combat either. Even basic exploration quickly becomes more trouble than it’s worth, thanks to a scarcity of waypoints, overly lengthy transitions between areas (one takes so long that it literally gives you a shooting-gallery minigame to play while you wait), and the lack of an overall map. There’s never any sense of how the whole castle/city connects to itself, which makes backtracking beyond your immediate surroundings an act of guesswork. In fact, it’s not even clear how individual wall-climbing sections tie together, such that the developers had to add a feature that would highlight viable handholds in red, lest players fumble around and miss the game itself.
It’s too bad that Mercury Steam couldn’t do for the game itself what it did to streamline those wall-climbing sections, because there are some bright spots buried under a bevy of technical issues. When Lords of Shadows 2 clearly focuses its energies on a specific goal, like the epic and unique boss encounters, the game gets hectic and intense. You can’t button-mash your way through a simultaneous battle with the three Riders of the Storm, and the designs—say, of the Toy Maker’s papier-mâché minions—are colorful and memorable in a way that the world itself never is. Players often have to multitask, too, beating up on minions in order to charge their magical attacks, which can then be used to break the defenses of a far-larger boss, like the three-headed Gorgon. These moments of brilliance only serve to show how, in those long and empty stretches of exploring and mindless mashing, the game, like Dracula himself, is merely a shadow of its former self.