Self-awareness, some would argue, is the core of existence. “Cogito ergo sum,” as it were. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget that extends beyond themselves, let alone that it reaches their own shores. It should logically extend to everything you produce, consume, or otherwise interact with in the world.
If you think back to 2011, you might recall several absolutely stellar games. This includes the likes of Dead Space 2, Portal 2, L.A. Noire, and Bastion (among, of course, many others). But a surprise came bursting through like a firework in the middle of October: Saints Row: The Third.
Saints Row 2 and Saints Row weren’t terrible games—Saints Row 2 was actually quite good—but Saints Row: The Third was Game of the Year material. In fact, it was my personal Game of the Year. It was such a dramatic shift from Moderately Okay territory to Holy Shit This is Awesomeland. And it all largely hinged on a single facet: it was self-aware.
Saints Row: The Third was incredibly bonkers. Like unbelievably so. You have a car chase in carts pulled by BDSM gimps. You skydive through a plane. You at one point become a literal toilet. A toilet. It, as a series, finally acknowledged that there was already a Grand Theft Auto out there. Instead of trying to be a better one by ignoring its ostensible rival’s existence, Saints Row said fuck it, cranked the steering wheel, and ended up in Nutsoville.
That’s what self-awareness affords you. You realize your core value and your potential. That was what Castlevania: Lords of Shadow seemed to manage back in 2010, too. For the most part, it was a straightforward, decent third-person action adventure game that happened to be based in Castlevania lore. A Belmont, some demons, blah blah blah. Very taut and focused, but still unoriginal.
But that ending. Woooooo boy that ending. It single-handedly elevated the mediocre-to-pretty-good time I had with the previous 18-ish hours to something I talked about for the next month. I praised its serviceable gameplay solely to get to convincing others that it leads to somewhere just delicious. It’s as if the developers asked themselves, “Castlevania, huh? What’s the craziest thing we could do…” and then they did it.
By virtue, I would argue, of knowing where this game exists. Following 30 other games that could be described as known quantities (after the genre-defining debut in 1986), the first Lords of Shadow didn’t have much to live up to. In fact, the thought of a 3D Castlevania game may inspire dry heaving and flipped birds. It had to do something to stand apart, and it did it in spades.
This leads to a disappointing answer to the question of how do you follow that up? The answer, unfortunately, is not Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. (Note that this is not a review of the entire game, but more about the squandered potential established from the ending of the first Lords of Shadow to this sequel.)
Spoiler Warning: to discuss the story of Lords of Shadow 2, the ending of Lords of Shadow will be ruined. If you read any further without playing the first game, you will be robbing yourself of a spectacular WTF moment on par with, well, anything from Asura’s Wrath.
Gabriel Belmont, the first historically significant Belmont, winds up becoming Dracula. Yeah, you know, the same dude you’ve been killing/trying to kill for the past 30 or so years. UNREAL, right? Perhaps put into words, it doesn’t sound quite so earth-shattering, but seeing it unveiled before you does a lot to drop the jaw. Regardless, it sets up some great and promising situations for when he awakens once more.
But he’s just another Belmont. Replace Dracula with Satan and whips with magically congealed and hard-hitting blood and you have Dracula now. For a guy notorious unbeatable, he has as much trouble with henchmen as he does with demons of legend, lending a very human air to his actions. And rather than being overly fantastical and leading into just straight-up over-the-top, Lords of Shadow 2 is dour from the beginning.
It poses a single question through Gabriel’s adventure: is Dracula a monster or a hero? But that’s not what we’re interested in. The self-awareness of the first Lords of Shadow allowed the game to break from a string of games mired in the question of familial honor and duty and fulfilling inner and outer expectations. That is not what set Lords of Shadow apart.
That self-awareness is almost entirely gone in the sequel and is perhaps the most unfortunate misstep in the nearly 20-hour trip to Castlevania City. (Yes, that is what the city is actually called.) It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but it does drop nearly every ball its predecessor threw up into the air. It thinks and it exists, but it rarely connects and puts the two hand-in-hand.