The Lords of Shadow mythos doesn't stop there, though, giving us one more truth at the heart of Dracula's existence: The man he used to be was a vampire hunter, a man of intense faith. It's the perfect internal conflict, self-loathing versus self-preservation, destruction versus redemption.
It also means Dracula is handy with a whip, and that's great news for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Lords of Shadow 2 takes place hundreds of years after the original Lords of Shadow and its sequel, Mirror of Fate. If you missed these – or can't remember them – you'll be treated to an exhaustive recap before diving into anything new (those who played the first two will have a better appreciation of finer details, though). As Lords of Shadow 2 opens, Dracula – formerly Gabriel Belmont – has seen better days. He awakens in modern times, drained of strength and hidden away in a crumbling cathedral at the heart of a thriving city. Built upon the foundations of Dracula's castle, the city stands as a monument to his defeat centuries ago, and he is content, it seems, to secretly wither in shame for the rest of eternity.
That wouldn't make for a very interesting video game, of course, and it's not long before Dracula's old friend Zobek (again voiced by Patrick Stewart) shows up with a proposition. Satan, defeated in the original Lords of Shadow, is stirring once more. In exchange for Dracula's help in preventing Lucifer's return, Zobek offers him true death, an end to his immortal grief and guilt. Before that can happen, however, Dracula must regain his strength and abilities.
Apart from some dull, early stealth sections (more on that later), all of this is an adequate setup to slowly acclimate you to Lords of Shadow 2's excellent combat. At first, you'll command only a whip, manifested from Dracula's own blood, but eventually you will acquire both the Void Sword and Chaos Claws. These have the power to heal and break enemy guard, respectively, and can be equipped instantly with a tap of either shoulder button.
It's an evolution of the light and dark magic system in the original Lords of Shadow, except instead of merely healing or increasing damage, the Void Sword and Chaos Claws have entirely different sets of abilities and combinations that can be utilized on the fly – assuming you have the magic to fuel them. Once again, success in combat hinges on focus. The only way to earn Blood Orbs to refill your Void and Chaos magic is to land consecutive whip blows without allowing Dracula to be struck. Well-timed blocks and parries are essential, while unblockable attacks must be dodged, keeping you on your toes. Before long, you're launching demons into the air with the whip, leaping up to slash them with the Void Sword and then smashing them back to the ground with the Chaos Claws, all in one deft combination. Tearing through the denizens of Hell and hordes of do-gooding holy warriors is satisfying, and the challenge of avoiding damage to keep your magic topped up is rewarding. (If you find it frustrating, however, the difficulty can be adjusted at any time.)
Lords of Shadow 2 also maintains the trilogy's spectacular boss encounters. From gigantic monstrosities to smaller, more agile adversaries, these battles require (and in some cases teach) specific skills, but you'll still need mastery of the basics in order to survive. Facing a gargantuan foe, squaring off as equals and coming out on top is thrilling, and frankly I don't want to spoil any of the surprises you'll uncover.
It's usually in the modern era where you'll encounter the weakest element of Lords of Shadow 2: stealth. There are several areas that require you to avoid hulking, heavily-armed brutes by using Dracula's special abilities, typically by evaporating into mist or possessing a group of rats. As you might imagine, scurrying through air vents and chewing through electrical wiring is a far cry from the joys of eviscerating vicious monsters. It feels out of place and, worse, boring. Initially, stealth is excused by Dracula's weakened state – he's simply too frail to fight. After you've destroyed a gorgon the size of a building, however, it's hard to believe that Dracula still can't stand up to a grenade launcher. (There's also an awful, stealth-based boss encounter that nearly drove me mad. Hint: Mist form is your best friend.)
Thankfully, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 almost always rises above its annoyances. There's plenty to see and do, from its magnificent moonlit views to its sensational bosses (infuriating stealth boss excepted). There's even a delightful bit of puppet theatre. Everything is permeated by Oscar Araujo's superb soundtrack, and the voice cast consistently delivers – occasionally cheesy though the dialogue may be. Most importantly, the combat ties everything together, requiring focus and encouraging mastery.
Like Dracula himself, his latest adventure is imperfect – its listless, poorly presented evils sometimes warring against its better, more exciting nature. I won't spoil Dracula's fate, but as for the fate of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, the better half wins out.
This review is based on reviewable code of the Xbox 360 version of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, provided by Konami. Images: Konami.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.