Castlevania: Lords of Shadows is occasionally beautiful, occasionally exciting, and occasionally rewarding. However, to fully enjoy its best parts, you must endure a handful of drab settings and boring stealth puzzles along the way. At times, it's enough to make you want to put the controller down. But stick around until the end, and you'll enjoy a satisfying reward of eye-catching boss fights and a satisfying conclusion that ultimately diminishes the negative impact of the game's earlier issues. Lords of Shadow 2's story should resonate with anyone with a continuing interest in the series' narrative, and even though the ending won't hit newcomers as hard, the occasionally fantastic environments and monsters create a worthwhile experience that stands tall on its own by the end of the tale.
You're in a tough position at the start of Lords of Shadow 2. You, Dracula, awake from centuries of rest in a cathedral, smack in the middle of a modern metropolis. Your archnemesis from the first game, Zobek, is your first real contact. Despite your hatred for the traitor, you enter into an agreement with him. Help Zobek defeat Satan so that he may conquer the earth in his place, and he'll free you from immortality once and for all. To do this, you must take on Satan's devoted acolytes, who've implanted themselves into key positions in society.
This all comes after a rousing prologue, which sees Dracula at full strength battling righteous warriors in and around his unholy castle. For all the excitement offered there, the true start to Lords of Shadow 2's plot with Zobek is relatively deflating. Your motivation, to hunt someone else's enemies, doesn't inspire much excitement. Plus, you're immediately thrust into one of the most bland and uninspiring settings to be found: an industrial scientific complex replete with sheet metal, red pipes, and security guards. Memories of the first game in the series are filled with fantastic vistas and monumental architecture; apart from the prologue, Lords of Shadow 2 frustratingly avoids them early on.
..the start of the game proper effectively hits the snooze button, and begins to feel more like a pale mix of Gears of War's art style and every sneaky-stealth game from the last 20 years.
It would be one thing if the boring start to the central plot quickly gave way to combat, which is the real reason worth playing Lords of Shadow 2, but instead you're forced into tedious and questionable stealth missions almost immediately after your reunion with Zobek. It's not inherently bad, but Lords of Shadow 2's stealth puzzles offer no room for creativity and unnecessarily slow the pacing while offering little in return. The prologue teaches you that this is a game about dark castles, fearless knights, and heavy combat, then it hits the snooze button. Unfortunately, it's throwaway content that gets in the way of the good stuff periodically throughout the game, but thankfully, it doesn't dominate the experience.
Lords of Shadow 2 eventually returns to what it does best: gothic action adventure. Throughout the story, Dracula finds himself back in time, though it's not immediately clear whether this is actual or imagined, but it brings the game back to its roots. Combat and fantastic environments take center stage, and with the game's new free-moving camera and an emphasis on exploration, both aspects feel fresh and new. Thanks to the flexible vantage, you're able to dash and leap during battle with greater accuracy than before. Throw in multiple new and diverse skill sets, and Dracula accurately feels like a powerful evolution of his former self, Lords of Shadow's Gabriel Belmont. This time around, there are a few new tools to play with, including a new weapon class that's capable of breaking down fortified enemy defenses, but the biggest changes (apart from the camera system) are the skill mastery system and the weapon-dependent move lists.
In Lords of Shadow 2, you learn skills for each weapon--shadow whip, void sword, and chaos claws--independently. Skills are learned by spending experience points granted during combat, and each has a gauge that fills with use. Once the gauge is full, this experience can be transferred into the given weapon, increasing its mastery level and effectiveness. The fragmentation of the move lists delays your effectiveness in battle somewhat, but it also allows you to focus on customization, opening the game up to different types of combat strategies.
When you aren't fighting, you spend quite a lot of time exploring and clambering about your environment. By default, your objective is often highlighted on the map, but unlike in the linear Lords of Shadow, it's up to you to find your way there. It's usually clear where to go; hint-like swarms of bats tip you off to handholds for climbing and ledges for leaping. However, unlike in the first game, there are many alternate paths to explore in search of treasure. While not game-changing, the openness feels appropriate given the wide world around you. Apart from some occasionally frustrating pathfinding inadequacies, it's the map that ultimately stands in your way. Unlike older, exploration-heavy Castlevania games, Lords of Shadow 2 employs a map that is only ever displayed on a piece-by-piece basis. Plus, the "world map" is just an illustration with names and numbers attached. It doesn't hurt the moment-to-moment poking around, but it doesn't entice you to backtrack either. If you can't easily see things you've missed, or more importantly, places you haven't been, returning to previous locales becomes an unappealing prospect.
Of course, there's also the fact that halfway through the game, the narrative and frequency of impressive set pieces begin to steamroll ahead, and the last thing you want to do is look back. Zobek eventually takes a sideline to Dracula's ambitions, and you begin to understand why you're going to such great lengths to thwart Satan. With the emphasis on Dracula and the memories of his family, you feel compelled to move ahead. In this way, Lords of Shadow 2 is a late bloomer. It takes a while for the story to show its true colors, but it eventually blossoms into an engaging tale filled a few clever surprises that should thrill anyone who's familiar with the series.
Much of the latter half takes place amidst sublime examples of gothic architecture, with nearby storms raging as you hop along rooftops, adding to the drama. Boss fights become a much more frequent occurrence, pitting you against gruesome monstrosities befitting of Castlevania's legacy. Their appearances can be quite striking, bringing to mind some of the best designs from film director Guillermo del Toro's work. They're evil, expertly crafted, and offer a variety of challenges that test your abilities with every weapon in many different ways. They require fast reflexes and deep knowledge of your move list, and the creativity on display is nothing short of captivating.
It's a pleasing change of pace after slogging through boring environments, waiting for things to happen, and you finally get a chance to take advantage of the time spent buffing up your skills in combat. The contrast between the two halves of the game is hard to ignore, and even though you have to force your way through mediocrity to get to the good stuff, the conclusion and the last hours leading up to it justify the time spent steeped in boredom and frustration.
Lords of Shadow 2 should have been a much shorter game. Still, though the game's stealth sections and drab modern settings represent the worst elements of the three-part saga, the tail end of the game contains the best of every aspect that the series is currently known for. It's the stuff you expect Castlevania to be made of, and after contending with forced stealth gameplay and a weak narrative at the start, it feels good to be home. Even better, the final act wraps up the Lords of Shadow trilogy with authority, and the game's final moments leave you both gasping for air and sighing in relief. It may not strike newcomers to the Lords of Shadow tale with such force, but it's nonetheless a surprising and fulfilling conclusion to Lords of Shadow 2's distinct plot. Regardless of your experience with the saga, if you have the patience to get through the rough start, you'll discover a much better game waiting for you on the other side.