Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 - Xbox 360 (reviewed) / Playstation 3 Score: 5.9 / 10
For all the twists and turns that the Castlevania franchise has taken in its near three decade history, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken until now for a developer to hit upon the idea of pitting the player as its arch antagonist. After enjoying considerable success with the original Lords of Shadow, MercurySteam’s decision to put Dracula at the heart of the follow-up seems inspired.
Following on from the climactic twist in the first Lords of Shadow, the sequel sees the historic enemy of the Belmont clan emerge from a millenium-long sleep an emaciated and diminished husk, not entirely dissimilar to Iggy Pop circa 1975. Set in a near future London - an era when a colour palette consisting solely of drab grey appears to de rigeuer with the city planners - the game’s premise sees Dracula gradually reclaim his powers in order to thwart the plans of a band of acolytes to resurrect Satan, all for the ultimate reward of an eternal sleep.
As an idea, it demonstrates great imagination and affection for a series that has spawned a novelisation, radio drama and several graphic novel strands. But rather than open up an interesting new avenue, the concept of a weakened Dracula is ultimately restrictive, reducing what should have been a spirited action adventure to a title so in thrall to its story that the gameplay becomes its servant, rather than vice versa.
After all, the greatest powers in the Castlevania games have long belonged to the undead incarnation of Mathias Cronqvist, bequeathed to him by the mysterious Crimson Stone. Where spawning fire, teleporting, or transforming into any number of nefarious creatures, his character should offer a fearsome combination of combat options. Unfortunately, Lords of Shadow 2 adopts an all too literal interpretation of how a game starring the Prince of Darkness ought to play.
While longtime fans of the series might have hoped to unleash all manner of demonic powers as Dracula, the reality is altogether more prosaic for long spells, with no way to progress other than utilising some undeveloped stealth mechanics that force you to seek refuge in dimly lit recesses or hang limply from ladders until your mortal foes are out of sight. Frankly, Leslie Nielsen’s Dracula had more bite.
This underwhelming metamorphosis of one of gaming’s most potent adversaries is not aided by a linear level design that, in the stealth sections, promotes only a one means of escape. Come the customary platforming action, the choice is just as limited, though an omnipresent swarm of bats is on hand to funnel the player through a lattice of identikit corridors and passageways in case they are in any doubt.
All this sits uneasily alongside the traditional Castlevania combat which is sufficiently entertaining once you come to appreciate the quirks of a camera that never quite keeps pace with the action. Shadow of the Colossus style bosses are gargantuan in scale and though they abide by predictable movesets, showcase flourishes of artistry in a game that seems to struggle to realise its intended visual grandeur.
The voice acting, too, is a lost opportunity. Konami have certainly not scrimped on the talent involved, with a stellar cast led by Robert Carlyle, Sir Patrick Stewart and Natascha McElhone, who reprise their respective roles of Dracula / Gabriel Belmont, Zobek and Marie Belmont. Sadly, they are forced to contend with risibly overwrought dialogue, with their disdain for the material evident in its lacklustre delivery.
Lords of Shadow 2 is by no means the runt of the Castlevania litter, but MercurySteam are the victims of their own vision for the franchise. Its resourcefulness in progressing the story comes at the expense of the action, an unsatisfying melange of ideas that never bind together. Devotees of the series will find plenty to enjoy here, but overall it is a fine opportunity squandered.