"What is a man?" It's a classic line of dialogue within the Castlevania series, harking back to an exchange between Dracula and the vampire slayer Richter Belmont during the prologue to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. At the time, it seemed like a cheap means of painting Dracula as some sort of contemplative being, and when a character as seemingly one-dimensional as Dracula forces a philosophical question out for the sheer sake of it, it's bound to fall flat. To this day, it lives on as an inside joke for fans of the series and, for better or worse, as a kitschy representation of a bygone era in gaming.
However, after the arrival of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Dracula's question was worth considering. This is because during Lords of Shadow, we were given a glimpse into Dracula's past as Gabriel Belmont: a holy warrior who fought for love, and who tragically fell victim to deception at the hand of his closest ally, Zobeck. To put it another way, Dracula, or Gabriel, didn't start out evil, but rather, betrayal and a cruel twist of fate ultimately forced his hand.
Knowing this, it's not hard to feel sympathy for Gabriel, and consequently Dracula. He started with the best intentions and ended up becoming that which he hated most. What, then, is a man, if he is blind to the forces that control him, and ultimately powerless to foresee and prevent his own demise?
This is a question that is raised almost immediately in Lords of Shadow 2, which continues to explore the humanity that resides within a classic character that's so often portrayed as pure, concentrated evil. Though Dracula is incredibly powerful, he's relentlessly tormented, forced to act in ways that harm others, thus perpetuating the notion that he is no more than a violent monster. Having experienced Gabriel's unfortunate journey, we know that this isn't his true nature.
After hundreds of years locked away in a coffin at the top of his castle, Dracula awakes in Lords of Shadow 2 in the middle of a modern metropolis. As he realizes what has become of the world around him, it's a brutal reminder of how he's powerless to escape his ultimate curse: immortality. It seems that his waking nightmare will never end. That is, of course, until an old friend appears: Zobeck. He, who is responsible for Gabriel's transformation, also holds the key to his salvation. Gabriel, for all the hatred he holds toward Zobeck, is unfortunately at his mercy.
Being the manipulative jerk that he is, Zobeck will grant Dracula a true death only if he promises to aid him in destroying Satan, whose pending uprising threatens Zobeck's rise to ultimate power.
Dracula's first steps into his new surroundings force you to empathize with his plight yet again. He's weak and malnourished, wrapped in a tattered red cloak, and only capable of moving at a snail's pace. Passersby remark on his appearance, unaware that the pathetic vagrant before them is in fact a dormant supernatural force to be reckoned with.
You meander about, not sure where to go, when a figment appears to beckon you into an alleyway. There, you find a family of three: mother, father, and son. Unfortunately for them, Dracula has to regain his strength by preying on the living, and the scene that follows is in some ways quite difficult to swallow. You, the player, are a participant in an intimately violent act, but more than that, you witness Dracula succumbing to a necessary evil. Having sympathized with Gabriel, and therefore Dracula, you get a sense of what it must feel like to default to brutality. It's an arresting scene that draws you into Dracula's frame of mind, and reminds you of how far Gabriel has fallen from the beginning of the first Lords of Shadow.
His is a lost and tortured soul, and despite the acts of evil he has committed, and will continue to commit, you can't help but feel a little sorry for him. He has loved, lost, trusted, and been betrayed, and what remains is a broken man in an evil shell. You get the sense that, deep down, Gabriel is still fighting--fighting the evil, turncoat Zobeck, but also his uncontrollable need to prey on those he used to protect. This conflict, more than anything, seems to be the most intriguing aspect of Lords of Shadow 2.