The problem with Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 is a traditional one for over-bloated triple-A development, and that’s a lack of focus. Maybe if they’d stuck to one idea they could have made that one idea really good. Instead we get forced stealth sections, a dual-world mechanic in which nothing that happens in one world affects the other in any way, and characters popping up and popping out again like it’s the fucking Academy Awards.
Which is a shame, because I like Castlevania. Well. I like Symphony of the Night, the rest of it I can take or leave, but I do like that game a lot. I’m quite fond of how Dracula is depicted as more a force of nature than an individual, who carries around with him this ineffable blur in reality around which his castle and armies of darkness are formed. An inconceivably vast abyss that has grown from the darkness inside a man. And the original man is occasionally glimpsed in his flights of mopey melodrama.
Mopey melodrama was about as far as the Dracula in Lords of Shadow 2 got. He played too much like Kratos from God of War, or himself from when he was human in the previous game – all permanently angry and scurrying about worrying at the hides of big monsters with overly energetic attacks. That’s not Dracula, that’s putting way too much obvious effort in to be Dracula. This is supposed to be one of the most powerful evil beings in the world, he should be able to defeat most foes by casually wiping a bogey off on their sleeve. Alucard in Symphony of the Night played much more like what you’d expect from a Castlevania vampire – all gliding along the floor and managing to have a cool pose for every situation. The way he’d open his cloak and launch fireballs like it weren’t no thing. He even got hurt stylishly – throwing himself backwards with one hand to his forehead, until the monsters start wanting to throw their weapons down and insist that he take this seriously.
So I said Lords of Shadow 2 should have focused on one idea, and that one idea should have been Dracula waking up in a modern-day city that has forgotten him. Because that’s an idea that’s going places. It’s an exciting twist that could never be accused of just knocking the same shit out as always. In theory. It’s one of the few ways a game in which you play as Dracula can work. If you set it in Dracula’s castle, there’s no adversity there, that’s his seat of power. You have to come up with some seriously contrived bullshit to explain why all his monsters are attacking him all of a sudden.
But throw him into an unfamiliar setting, far from his source of power, outside his comfort zone, and just woken up so he’s really wobbly, that idea has got it all. From a position of ultimate power, Dracula is now just a sad, lonely man who gets too many late nights. That’s how you make a sympathetic character out of someone who is at heart a cosmic-level bastard.
Where Lords of Shadow 2 buggered this up is firstly with Dracula shrugging off the whole future-thing the instant he arrives. He didn’t seem even slightly confused by a car or anything like that. I could picture him trying to walk into a TV and interact with all the seemingly-living people inside, then failing and trying to look dignified as he stormed off. Yes, this would have been a little bit camp, in a Masters Of The Universe movie kind of way, but face it – it’s Dracula. Dracula’s already camp. Look at the intro to Symphony of the Night. It’s not even the terrible voice acting – you could give those lines to Lawrence Olivier and they’d still be camp. Dracula wears camp more comfortably than he does his fucking beard.
Secondly, the game buggers this up by making Dracula a hero. All these ultra-violent games where you play massive bastards are always trying to have their cake and eat it. God of War, Prototype, all of those, have always tried to come up with a villain the protagonist can fight who comes across as even worse. In this case, they went for Satan. Literally the worst entity in the entire universe. If you ask me, that’s just lazy writing.
You don’t have to make the protagonist heroic. A character who was once at the peak of villainous power, now with everything taken away and trapped in an unfamiliar world, that is a character that can be presented as sympathetic even if he did once spear babies on cocktail sticks to put in his blood martini. A character needn’t be righteous and good to be intriguing and likeable, they just have to show a bit of weakness, flaw, and emotion. So maybe you don’t have to pit him against an even bigger bastard for the good of all mankind. Maybe Dracula could arrive in a world where everything is fine, and then declare, fuck fine, I’m Dracula. I don’t do fine.
‘Cos what you have there is an opportunity for a reversal, nay, deconstruction of how games like these usually work. Instead of a lone hero placed into a world where everything’s fucked and having to fight their way to a better world, we place a lone villain in a world where everything’s perfectly fine, and have them fight their way to turning it into the kind of situation a heroic character might want to come along and fix.
And another thing – let’s have Dracula being a bit more of the Prince of Darkness, yeah? As in, a leader of monsters. Dracula shouldn’t have to climb on shit like a monkey, he should send an imp to do that, that we can temporarily control while Dracula stands around looking cool. Dracula shouldn’t even have to debase himself to punching the low-level security guards and police officers trying to stop his new reign of darkness. Maybe once or twice to effortlessly push a hand through someone’s chest and show them their beating heart, but at all other times, he should just open up his cloak and throw out a demon fitting for the current situation. Sort of like Pokemon but unspeakably evil. Or, to bring it closer to home, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, but without so much whining. Which I admit is like saying “please bring an apple strudel without any flakey bits”.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.