Let’s get this out of the way. In this game, you get to play as Dracula.
Everyone wants to play as the monster. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but there’s evidence that gamers enjoy playing as the other end of he Gothic human/inhuman duality. Legacy of Kain is the first example I think of; the cult-hit action platformer starring its immortal and damned titular protagonist and his quest for redemption (maybe?). It’s an example we should keep in mind, as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 has a very similar premise.
And that’s fine.
It’s not like this is new for the franchise. The original game was oft compared to a hash of God of War style action games with Shadow of the Colossus climbing elements. Those return in this game, save that the protagonist of the series has graduated from being a devoted holy warrior to a cynical and tormented vampire.
Lords 2‘s story begins with Dracula on his throne, drinking from his cup of blood, as holy warriors break down his door. What follows is your defense of his castle, fighting knights and a giant magical siege mecha (because why not). These over-the-top antics are pretty common throughout, and the sheer absurdity of the army of demons and steam-punk mecha is contrasted by Dracula’s grim, cynical bravado. He’s surprisingly subdued, especially when he echoes the famous “What is a man?” line from Symphony of the Night‘s opening, albeit with a quietly dismissive tone. The shirtless, blood-whipping bloodsucker with a bone to pick with God is a departure from the bombastic evil of the previous Castlevania games, and while it can be somewhat disappointing, his cinematic depictions of dark power reach ludicrous levels, especially at the end of boss fights. While his quest to stave off the vampire hunters and the literal army of Satan is melodramatic, it’s not pretending to be otherwise. The voice acting is good, with some actually powerful scenes and writing that deserves credit for the attention put into it. It seems to accept its campiness without trivializing its narrative, and while you see a lot of it coming, it’s still well-done. It also summarizes the last two games in the opening, bringing us up to speed.
The gameplay is, in a word, entertaining. Combat is challenging, with multiple enemies flying in all directions with a variety of different weapons and tactics. Dracula has a plethora of powers at his disposal, and the dynamic they have with each other well-balanced. A player who practices can decimate enemies while maintaining his health with Void Sword and breaking guards with Chaos, and the game rewards switching moves with easier accumulation of energy and mastery experience. All of the different abilities have different uses for both map progression and combat, and synergize well. Quick-time events are part of the game, as well, though they are well-implemented, amounting to a timed button touch and rarely killing you outright if you fail. You can even turn them off, causing the game to automatically complete the actions. In the end, I kept them on, because they were simple enough to not become cheap but kept me thinking about the combat strategy.
What impressed me about this is the attempt at variety. Stealth sections, the bane of character action games, are quite common here, and every one is decidedly different, with several ways of progressing. One of them took me several tries and required a lot of planning and quick thinking to mitigate noise, but I enjoyed it even when I actually died once (none of the stealth sections are instant-kill, giving you more chances to fight). There are several unique challenges presented to you as you play, some of which are somewhat useless (assembling a puzzle to open a door, for example, doesn’t really add to the gameplay), but most of which served to make the combat fresh. The bosses are rarely gimmicky, but even the simplest ones are engaging as you learn their moves and combine different abilities to take them down. The fights are some of the better ones I’ve enjoyed, and their designs are eye-catching, with even staples like Medusa getting a particularly cool redesign.
This design philosophy extends to the game’s two areas. The indulgently anachronistic gothic city of the modern era threw me off at first, and I was concerned that setting this kind of game in that time period would throw off the dynamic. In practice, the city’s grim, demon-ravaged atmosphere mixes fairly well. Dracula’s castle, the second area you explore, provides a more traditional Castlevania experience with deep, rich colours and a mixture of immense decadence and crumbling horror. Both have secrets and side-areas, as expected of a Castlevania game, and accessing these out-of-the-way sections are worth returning to if you require a later power to access them. The graphics are impressive, even if they occasionally develop a blocky haze around the edges, a product of the stylized colour palette.
I never once got bored with the exploration, even by the end of the game, and climbing about and jumping is responsive and easy. Aside from a somewhat counterintuitive swing animation on the chandeliers (which actually doesn’t throw you off in terms of actual jumping), and one errant bug I found where I had to restart from a checkpoint due a grate refusing to give me a button prompt, the game is never a chore to get through. Luckily for the latter, the checkpoint system is quite forgiving, though you’ll need to ensure you get any upgrades or secrets again.
I recommend this game if you want to enjoy a beat-em-up. If you liked Legacy of Kain, you’ll enjoy this, and it’s actually more diverse and less buggy than those games were. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it uses the elements well. It’s a good buy and you’ll get good play out of it, and there’s a new game plus if you’d like.