[12 March 2014]
It’s a tale as old as time. Father rises to power by saving the world from the minions of Satan and the underworld. Father is slain by son in a fit of Oedipal rage. Father returns from the dead for vengeance and the chance of eternal peace. And, oh yes, there are vampires. Castlevania returns with the reboot of the franchise Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. The player again takes on the role of Gabriel Belmont, now known as Dracula, in a story that is meant to contrast the importance of duty to family with the pursuit of selfish ambition. But how deep do the sins of the father run?
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 takes its storytelling cues from film. And in many ways, Lords of Shadow 2 is a cinematic sequel in every sense of the term. New characters are added to the new iteration of the series to provide new conflicts for our antihero. The plot is outlandish, even by horror trope standards (An evil big pharma company is run by Satan and his acolytes. Okay, maybe it isn’t so far-fetched.). And it leaves us wondering whether all of those eccentric additions are really necessary. Then there is the familiar feeling that we’ve seen this before because the formula still largely stays the same.
The story takes place in the past and present or in an alternate past and an alternate present. And yet the gothic ambiance, architecture, and even costume never quite gel in the modern setting. The first interaction is jarring but entertaining, as a nearly dead Dracula falls from the window of an ancient cathedral into the streets of what appears to be a modern day London but is actually a place known as Castlevania City. No one bats an eye as a walking corpse wrapped in an ancient cloak, looking absolutely terrified and confused, travels through these modern day streets. It’s a theme that could have been developed more, either seriously or for laughs, but it is mostly abandoned after its introduction.
Slickly animated cut scenes also add to the cinematic feel of Lords of Shadow 2 . It features an all-star cast including Robert Carlyle and a returning Patrick Stewart in the role of Zobek, and though he always stands out, he also arguably makes everything a little better. A slightly less linear world from the last installment of the series transitions smoothly between the cutscenes, though loading times are noticeably lengthy.
The gameplay returns with the game’s “love it or hate it” hodgepodge of borrowed game mechanics. The large set piece battles inspired by God of War are exciting and titillating, while battling lower level demons in the Devil May Cry hack and slash fashion grows repetitive and dull. This time around the developers also employed elements from Dishonored, including the ability to control a plague of rats or turn into mist. This adds a refreshing stealth option to solve puzzles and avoid confrontation. Although, when you took control of a rat, fish, or human in Dishonored, you felt empowered and clever for figuring out such a way was possible.
In Lords of Shadow 2, there is too much hand-holding and while at first these options seem open ended, linear corridor straddling soon reveal the confined and carefully choreographed paths you must take. On the other hand, thematically, controlling a horde of rats or bats does fit nicely with the Dracula mythos that has long been associated with these animals.
There are copious ways in which to dispatch your enemies. Blood daggers, void projections, or releasing a cloud of bats to distract your enemy are all ways to navigate a situation. It can be difficult to remember which weapon is used at the appropriate time, but don’t worry; the game will always remind you. In the end, all of this clutter might be a result of having too many tools to choose from. And then there is the dreaded quick time event, which has long overstayed its welcome in game design—at least in its original iteration. Fortunately, the developers included an option to turn quick time events completely off.
The game is unnecessarily drawn out by fetch quests that even the most astute followers of Castlevania lore will have to stretch to make sense of. Looking for antidotes or retrieving pieces of the Mirror of Fate only delay the inevitable of a showdown between Dracula and Satan. All of the overarching storylines only distract from and dilute the central familial plot.
Developers MercurySteam and Konami really missed an opportunity to explore the Oedipal scenario that they set up with the last games. Dracula turns his son, unbeknownst to him, into the vampire Alucard, only to be destined to fight him throughout eternity. This could have been a richly developed story arc of psychological exploration or even just a reflection on the relationships between fathers and sons in general. Instead the developers fall back on overly used familial clichés and unsentimental melodrama all warped by a horror-fantasy lens. Not that horror tropes can’t be subversively used to explore human relationships and the nature of man, in this case, however, they just aren’t.
So how deep do the sins of the father run? Unfortunately, not very. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 suffers the same pitfalls as the sequels of the Hollywood blockbusters that it attempts to emulate. Relying on flashy set pieces and an overly complex plot to carry its narrative leads to mixed results. That said, narrative aside the game is fun to play. Fans of the reboot and of the modern action hack and slash genre in general will likely enjoy Lords of Shadow 2 despite its lack of gravitas and its incongruities when compared to the original Lords of Shadow. Yet, don’t expect anything new or innovative, just more of the same. The game is polished, the combat is solid, and the story is adequate, and yet something still feels missing. The game, like its undead protagonist, is missing a soul.