This is another one that, like Operation Raccoon City, I avoided for the longest time because everyone and their uncle was so damned sure it was the worst Castlevania game ever made and I went with the flow because frankly it was cheaper and easier than spending the time and money to find out for myself.
All I can say is these people must have never played Vampire Killer for the MSX, the lucky souls.
(Or Haunted Castle)
But there is some good news to be had from my unwarranted snub of a perfectly decent game: I have finally learned my lesson and will make a point of politely ignoring any and all outside opinions on all games from this day forward. Well, most of them. Some of them – unless they’re from people I trust. OK look I’m not an island fortress surrounded by a shark-infested moat and opinions are everywhere but from now on if a game catches my eye and I think “Hey, that looks like my kind of thing” then it’s getting bought and nuts to anyone who thinks it’s a bad idea – bad ideas are what refund policies are for.
My first taste of Mercury Steam’s reboot-miniseries was Mirror of Fate HD – the Metroidvania side story-ish one with the rather nifty multi-lead time skipping plot – as my son and I had just polished off the fabulous AM2R together and fancied playing something similar that we hadn’t already completed. First impressions made it seem like the game would be a decent enough way to pass the time which then gave way to “Hey, I’m really looking forward to seeing where we go next” and by the end I was so impressed I just had to go through the other two games in the series even though I knew they played very differently to this atmospheric experience.
The big thing about the mainline Lords of Shadow games for me wasn’t the shift into action-adventure territory – Castlevania’s played pretty fast and loose with what Castlevania “should” be right from the very beginning and in any case I’ve always been fond of both the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 2 3D adventures in spite of their flaws – but how little the complete upending of decades worth of candle-whipping lore bothered me. As one of those people, the sort of intolerable nerd who owned and enjoyed Symphony of the Night years before everyone else thought it was cool, seeing the much-loved Dracula/Belmont/Alucard dynamic given such a vigorous shake-up as “Dracula is actually the first Belmont and none of the characters caught up in this mess are really happy about any of it” should have left me rushing off to fill up forums with poorly-worded bile about “respecting the legacy of the series” or whatever but in practise it’s a really good idea done very well. There’s always a danger with this sort of thing that revealing too much about an enticingly distant and dangerous character will destroy the magic but Dracula’s anti-villain hero-ish arc works beautifully and Lords of Shadow 2 has “The Dragon” as the most human this vampire’s ever been – in no small part due to the story written for Gabriel Belmont’s blood-slicked revenge-redemption arc but there’s absolutely no doubt Robert Carlisle’s phenomenal performance as The Prince of Darkness really makes the character something special, believably running the gamut from spitefully calling on the power of God themself to destroy an entire army’s worth of holy warriors (and there is no doubt Dracula’s disappointed he survived the holy power that annihilated everyone else), to bending down before the childlike form of the son he wasn’t around to raise and having a disarmingly tender conversation with him (there’s a brilliant dad-sigh from Dracula at one of Trevor’s fetch-the-wotsit requests too if you’re paying attention).
Luckily for me the bits between the cutscenes are just as good: The tutorial stage, with you in control of Dracula at the height of his powers casually laying waste to everything fully prepared humans can throw at him during a perfect Gothic night (why don’t these people ever think to attack during the day?!) is a practical hands-on demonstration of the game’s basics and a glorious visual spectacle to boot. It’s probably the first time I’ve not only been excited during an enforced learning segment but wanted to play it again too, and I can happily report that these repeat runs are just as much fun – it’s hard not to smile when paladin of God spits “Die, monster! You don’t belong in this world!” at Dracula before leaping into battle after all. Combat is intuitive and fluid: You are able to counter, block, and dodge incoming attacks and thanks to some clear visual telegraphs it’s always obvious what’s coming your way even when fighting an unfamiliar foe. These maneuvers don’t require ridiculous amounts of practise to reliably pull off either, which has the pleasant side-effect of making you feel very powerful very quickly – dodging an unblockable attack before dashing in behind another enemy and then parrying a blow inches away from your face always feels fantastic. Dracula’s Void Sword and Chaos Gloves – his nigh-constant companions throughout this Satan-slapping adventure – have well defined styles and uses that are easy to understand and switching between the two (as well as the default Blood Whip) mid-combo is frequently encouraged by the wide variety of distinct enemy types you come into violent contact with.
That was my personal experience with the game, anyway. I really did have fun! I’ve even gone back to check in case the memory was that much sweeter than the reality but nope, I definitely had a great time playing Lords of Shadow 2 and I’ve enjoyed playing it again too… didn’t I?
The reason for this lingering self-doubt is that noisiest of naysayers: The Internet. Whenever I happened to mention I was playing this game it felt like every single person and their dog had the sudden need to warn me about the stealth sections and how devastatingly terrible they were. Utterly irredeemable, if general opinion’s anything to go by. Ruined everything. Everything. Pray for the souls of those who have experienced Lords of Shadows 2’s stealth sections, for they have suffered unfathomable despair and all that.
I had to actually to go and look up what everyone was referring to after the fact, because even playing “blind” I honestly didn’t have a problem with any of these soul-tarnishing events. That doesn’t mean the mini-puzzles where you have to distract or sneak behind the backs of enormous brutes of near-future guards that will tear Dracula to shreds if they get their hands on him (the story starts proper with him deathly weak after centuries of enforced slumber brought about by his own son – a better excuse to strip players of the last game’s power-ups than most explore-the-place-and-get-the-things sequels bother to come up with, which tends to be “Because we said so”) are works of art, but that the irritation these one-and-done segments apparently pose feels exaggerated beyond all recognition to me.
Perhaps it’s the stealthy boss scenes that are the source of all this negativity then? I couldn’t see what the fuss was about there either: The short Carmilla encounter shown above felt like an excellent game of cat and mouse – it was tense, her field of view was immediately clear and represented naturally by the light of her lamp, and the whole thing felt like a natural and warranted part of the story. Success came first time thanks to quick thinking, good reactions, and a visually clear setup.
So if it’s not that or those guards then this insurmountable problem’s got to lie in the beautiful autumnal garden encounter against Agreus (again, shown above) – and unlike the previous sneak-session with Carmilla it did take a few goes before I cleared this one.
A few goes! That’s i-
The thing is, “A few goes” is no more time or fuss than any other ordinary boss I’ve had to take a run-up at in over thirty years of gaming, and if nothing else it wasn’t one of those awful stealth sections some games lumber you with where even the slightest fault is classed as an immediate scene-resetting failure. To be honest I’ve had more problems with the camera/getting my character caught on scenery/other general bits of bad luck that really aren’t my fault that caused me to fail on single bosses in Bloodborne than I’ve suffered with throughout all of Lords of Shadow 2 (I do love Bloodborne, but it’s still true) – you might dare to say one game’s feature is another game’s flaw, eh?
Lords of Shadow 2 is beautiful, approachable, challenging, and successfully turns a very familiar series on its head without losing sight of what people liked about it in the first place. Some things could be handled better for sure – but you could say that about any game.