Taking place hundreds of years after the original Lords of Shadow and its sequel, Mirror of Fate, Lords of Shadow 2 opens with Dracula — formerly Gabriel Belmont — awakening in modern day. Noticeably weakened from his years of lying dormant, Dracula — filled with grief and guilt — is seemingly content with withering away in a crumbling cathedral. But when he's approached by his old friend Zobak, things take an interesting turn.
In exchange for Dracula's help in preventing the return of Satan (defeated in the original Lords of Shadow), Zobek offers him true death. Tempted with a way to end his immortal suffering, Dracula agrees, but he first must regain his strength and abilities. This is the foundation for Lords of Shadow 2. It's not the most original of storylines, but gameplay is where this game really shines.
Lords of Shadow 2 is not without flaws, but it does make considerable improvements over its predecessor. Developer Mercury Steam has clearly listened to feedback, removing the fixed camera and taking more of an open-world approach.
Ditching the linearity of its predecessor was probably the best decision Mercury Steam could make, if only to give you the ability to fully take in the beauty of Lords of Shadow 2. Though load times can be an annoyance, it's worth it to explore the wonderfully constructed environment. Graphically, it's not the prettiest game I've seen on the PS3, but it's got its own unique look. Whether taking in the gothic architecture and gorgeous vistas of the past, or the cold steel pipes and cables of a biochemical corporation in the 21st century, there's a distinct beauty present in Lords of Shadow 2. With a number of upgrades, documents, and other collectibles hidden within the city, there's plenty of reason to take a break from the story and simply explore.
Even with all of the improvements, combat remains the game's strong suit, although it can be a bit sluggish at times. Things begin slowly, with Dracula only having access to a whip created from his own blood. Eventually though, you'll acquire the Void Sword and Chaos Claws, weapons that have the power to heal and break through enemy guard, respectively.
Combat is an evolution of the basic light and dark magic system of the original Lords of Shadow. The powers associated with the Void Sword and Chaos Claws — beyond the healing and increased damage — are dependent on a metered magic system that is fueled by Blood Orbs collected through landing consecutive whip blows and avoiding damage. This system encourages you to not just rely on an offensive strategy, but also master the defensive aspect of combat. Blocking and dodging was easily the hardest part for me, but once I got the hang of it, the combos and abilities I could come up with on-the-fly were plenty satisfying. It's certainly a challenge to constantly avoid damage, and the system in place is rather strict, but the difficulty can be adjusted.
Not all changes are for the better though. Mixed in between the intense moments of action and fighting are stealth sequences which require you to avoid heavily-armored brutes using Dracula's special abilities — hiding in darkness and possessing a group of rats. During these gameplay moments you'll scurry through vents, avoiding dangers and chewing through electrical wires. The whole concept just seems out of place. The stealth gameplay is excused by Dracula's weakened state early on, but as you progress it becomes harder to justify given that you are destroying enemies much larger on a consistent basis.
Platforming, while benefiting from the revamped camera system, still has its flaws. Jumping from platform to platform feels clunky and despite having free range of camera motion, there's still some awkward angles.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a definite improvement over its predecessor. Understandably, fans of the franchise might have a hard time relating the modern-day aspects of the setting, but the core mechanics introduced in its predecessors have been cleaned up and polished. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 doesn't do everything right, but the solid combat, breathtaking environment, and wonderfully orchestrated soundtrack more than make up for its annoyances. If this truly is Mercury Steam's last go with the series, it's a good exit.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]