Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2: The Movie: The Interview
[SCENE – AN UNDERSEA LABORITORUM. BRYCE sits before a desk facing a long window overlooking a coral reef. He is wearing a heavy tweed coat and penny loafers. The end credits of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 flicker on the anachronistic holodeck built into the desk before him. From the hallways enters a chipper TOM–who is possibly Bryce’s ghost, doppelganger, or clone–in a plaid suit.]
Tom: Good morning, good morning!
Tom flops onto a nearby divan. Bryce wheels around in his high-backed chair.
Bryce: Good afternoon!
Tom: My, you’re chipper.
Bryce: You’re one to talk.
Tom: I’m just excited. Finally–a game you can’t poo-poo all over with your relentlessly pessimistic worldview! I’d like to see you try and make this one about Syrian refugees, or genocide, or somesuch other misery.
Bryce: Believe me, there’s misery aplenty to be had, here.
Tom rubs the bridge of his nose.
Tom: Don’t you have a bit of history with Castlevania? Not to mention Lords of Shadow?
Bryce: I do. I played some of the older games in my younger years, though I was pretty terrible at them.
Tom: What’s the basic idea behind the new series?
Bryce: Well, there’s the rub. It’s both a reboot and a do-over. The last one was about a guy named Gabriel, who went on a gloomy romp in fantasy-Europe to stop the forces of evil and… eventually turns into Dracula.
Tom: Man’s fall from grace! Very Milton.
Bryce: I tried to rewrite that game. Tried to save the script. It starts out bad enough when they have Patrick Stewart doing this hammy, armchair-philosopher spiel on the nature of good and evil.
Tom: Adding a bit of gravitas to the proceedings!
Bryce: The whole matter just got worse with sadman Gabe and his fridged wife. I wrestled that script into the dirt, man. You couldn’t save that game’s story unless you scrapped everything but the squeal. It was my Waterloo. I gave up in agony.
Tom: Well… do you think this one is any better?
Bryce: I think this one is better.
Bryce: In the same sense that a king cobra bite is better than a taipan’s.
Bryce: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a product of this particular place and time in the industry: It understands that nostalgia is a powerful incentive, and attempts to leverage that incentive. It was clearly assembled with superb technical prowess. It brings together rousing music, epic set pieces, and features famous people voicing its characters. It is a game about the emotional pain of a white–in this case, virtually albino–man over the things he has lost (in this case, a wife and child) and the various people he trods over in pursuit of closure. And it engages in grimdark brinksmanship in an attempt to legitimize the pain of the main character, Gabriel/Dracula–who I will be referring to as Gabula for the rest of this interview.
Tom: Good thing I got liquored up before this.
Bryce: The game starts with Gabula brooding in his massive, esoteric castle in medieval times when a pack of crusading knights attack. This tutorial level proceeds pretty ordinarily until Gabula starts quoting Dracula from the beginning of Symphony of the Night. “Miserable little pile of secrets,” etc.
Tom: I love that intro!
Bryce: Don’t we all. The golden, winged knight-captain starts condemning you with Richter’s lines. “Die, monster,” etc.
Tom: Oh, this seems like a quibble. Don’t you get to fight a huge steampunk knight-titan Shadow of the Colossus-style?
Bryce: Yes. And it’s not for a lack of trying–the whole sequence is appropriately bombastic for a one-man siege-repulsion. But the quoting sets a precedent for the rest of the game. Greatest hits references.
Tom: You don’t mean–
Bryce: SMASH CUT.
Tom: Oh, no!
Bryce: When Gabula repulses the invasion and kills all the knights, a white-haired figure appears out of the rubble. It’s Alucard, because duh. But then we jump to a comic book-style cutscene explanation of the Nintendo 3DS game, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, whose existence had eluded me. Turns out Simon Belmont and Alucard are Gabula’s sons by his fridged wife. This new continuity works backwards to explain their appearances, saying Simon’s fur-parka mountain man-look is because he was raised by barbarians.
Tom: Well, they do need to make everything mesh together.
Bryce: But it doesn’t have to mesh together. You don’t have to have Alucard, or Simon. And they don’t have to look the way they did in a game from the 90s because the artist just happened to think Joe Belmont should look like a swashbuckler-barbarian from the 80s.
Tom: But people loved those guys! And those games!
Bryce: Nostalgia gets talked about like there’s this perfect formula waiting in ice somewhere in the Himalayas. You can never capture nostalgia. You can’t recreate the feeling you had when you played a game for the first time, because you will never be that same person again, will never possess the particular psyche that played that game for the first time.
Tom: So it’s manipulative?
Bryce: It isn’t good enough to be manipulative; it’s too obvious. It’s just… tired. It’s weary to watch mocapped dudes jaw through lines made popular during the Clinton administration.
Tom: So you fight Alucard?
Bryce: No, another SMASH CUT puts us at the end of Lords of Shadow 1, with a super-ancient Gabula waking up all gross and emaciated. He’s been hanging out in an abandoned cathedral in, like, Constanta, Hungary circa 2050 that has somehow managed to avoid being turned into a parking garage.
Tom: I’ll googlemap that, later.
Bryce: In a scene so unintentionally hilarious I’m kind of worried for the safety of the guy that programmed it, Gabula throws on a priceless red cloak and starts to weakly meander the streets, looking like a homeless guy who just crawled out of a grease trap full of rotten fish stock.
Tom: How the mighty have fallen.
Bryce: Part of me wishes this was the whole game. This mummified psycho just wandering around, collecting cans and getting in arguments with other pan-handlers for primo corner spots.
Tom: Oh, sheesh. They’re not trying to make one of those “message,” games here, Bryce!
Bryce scribbles “Homeless Dracula Simulator” on a slip of paper.
Bryce: Gabula runs into a gross demon in an alley that beats the snot out of him before an armored dude who is totally not a Belmont rescues him. And then it gets dark.
Tom: I am prepared.
Bryce: It’s that scene you heard about. Gabula wakes up in this brass cage with a nuclear family. Slices open dad’s throat, drinks all the blood out of mom, and the camera cuts away just before he dives on the little girl.
Tom: Well, uh. He’s Dracula?
Bryce: This dude already killed dozens of well-meaning, if righteously self-destructive knight-dudes in the tutorial. His fatality move consists of grabbing a dude and drinking the dude’s blood so hard that they explode like a water balloon of blood. The producer said they did this to show you that Dracula’s an evil guy, and not a “Twilight Vampire or a True Blood Vampire.” To which I ask… okay?
Bryce: To what end?
Tom: Well, to show you he’s evil!
Tom: Being bad feels good! Or whatever it is they say.
Bryce: You know when they said that, they meant in like a, Michael Jackson’s Thriller sort of way, right? Not, you know, tossing in a cutscene where this angsty dude who’s supposed to be God’s chosen one goes after an elementary schooler like a blood pinata?
Tom: So… why? Why put it there in the first place?
Bryce: Grimdark brinksmanship. We’ve sequestered “killing” in games to realm of okay so long as it’s NPC mooks–but we still have taboos. So you start testing the waters, because the other guys did it. Because Game of Thrones has incest and boobs and people dying, man.
Tom: All men must die!
Bryce: So Gabula has been “saved” by Patrick Stewart’s character, Zobek, who I will be referring to as PatStew. PatStew is an old-timey necromancer who doesn’t like Gabula–he was your traitorous mentor in game 1–and now he needs your help to kill Satan when his three acolytes summon him… soonish.
Tom: Finally, we’re getting somewhere!
Bryce: He promises to kill you should you succeed, since he possesses the Vampire-Killer–your weapon from the first game. He teleports you to the location of the first acolyte, a pharmaceutical company.
Tom: I like a game that isn’t afraid to get a lil’ topical.
Bryce: Well, that’s a damn shame. Because before Gabula can get a head-start wrecking the shit out of everybody in Pfizer’s Budapest office, he has to have a vision quest.
Tom: A what-now?
Bryce: You go to Gabula’s mind palace. I mean, literally, his Mind Palace. The game can’t seem to decide if you’re time-traveling, dreaming, in another dimension, inside your skull (with ghosts), or doing some combination of all these things.
Tom: Ah, so it leaves it up to your interpretation. Smart.
Bryce: Yeah, right. At least half of the game takes place inside your Mind Palace, attempting to make peace with the time-ghost of Alucard, who is a little kiddo named Trevor, and your ghostwife. More on her in a minute.
Tom: So it’s his original castle?
Bryce: Please, we prefer Mind Palace. Back in Johnson & Johnson HQ you wipe out a few more scientists responsible for preventing the next cholera pandemic and meet the first acolyte, Raisa Volkova–I had to look that up–who turns out to be a Cthulhu-faced monster woman with a rockin’ bod.
Tom: Rockin, you say?
Bryce: Raisa is the first woman you meet in Lords of Shadow 2 and she’s a pretty good barometer of what’s to come. She has a scary monster face, she’s crazy, and in the tradition of really shitty things games do with female bosses, she uses euphemistic taunts throughout the fight. “I love a man who takes control!” Etc. A plurality of the women in Lords of Shadow 2 are in love with Gabula, want to kill him, or want to have sex with him before killing him.
Tom rolls over on the divan and retrieves a bag of Doritos™ from beneath it.
Tom: If I may interject.
Bryce: Please do.
Tom: Why precisely does Gabriel slash Dracula keep going into his [airquotes] “Mind Palace?”
Bryce: Ostensibly? To make peace with inner demons. And to get all his weapons’ slash powers back. But more likely is the fact that all the modern sections of the game take place in a dismal industrial gloomscape and, for what’s it’s worth, the baroque gothic of the Mind Palace produces some impressive sights, such as the Plutonian depths of the castle where you go to fight the gorgons.
Tom: Gorgons, you say?
Bryce: Imagine if the girl from The Ring was triplets. And that they turn evil thanks to the Palace’s evil blood–
Tom: The Palace’s blood?
Bryce: Yeah, it’s like a blood ooze that sounds like a cacophony of old people yelling at you. It corrupts the sisters gorgon and they turn into this:
Tom: How fantastical!
Bryce: I was thinking that, too. You just kinda kill her, though. Rip the heads off. I’d like to think in another dimension Lords of Shadow 2 is a comedy urban slice-of-life RPG and she’s the owner of a gyro place.
Tom: [beat] Because she’s Greek–!
Bryce: Good eye. You beat her and get your Chaos Emerald and head back to the real world just in time to see PatStew put his cigarette out in Cthulhu lady’s eyeball.
Tom: Wait, you didn’t kill her?
Bryce: No, you had to capture her so Professor X could stick her in this magical rack machine where she can spit and yell and say things like, “Sadly, I’m just one of Satan’s whores.”
Tom: That sounds like a band name.
Bryce: Back outside, the city is going to hell in a handbasket in that there is a demon invasion happening, and all the riot cops are wearing miniature steampunk EVA suits.
Tom: Is that an anime thing? Could you use a simpler reference?
Tom: Got it!
Bryce: After an epic train ride fight, Gabula heads back into the Mind Palace where he meets the timeghost of Carmilla, the vampire boss from the first games who bears the dubious distinction of speaking only in cliches. Seriously, go watch the intro to that battle.
Tom: I’ll take your word for it.
Bryce: “I am yours now, do with me what you will,” she intones, as Gabula chows down on her neck meat and she makes sexy moans–
Tom: Woah, wait, what?
Bryce: Only it turns out her blood is straight-up poison–
Bryce: And then your ghostwife Maria?–wait, I got this, checking the wiki–MARIE!–shows up so you can drink her blood because it’s the antidote.
Tom: Could we just back up for a moment–?
Bryce: A few rooms later you meet ghostwife again–but a second ghostwife appears because one of them is Carmilla in disguise. Then this happens:
Tom: A moral quandary! Talk about a “Marie’s Choice.”
Bryce: Wow, I’ll just let that one die on the vine. Thankfully, your choice of woman to bite has no bearing on the proceedings. You automatically bite the correct wife and then you get to fight Carmilla, who continues the trend of female bosses talking about sexytimes. Ultimately you skewer her through the mouth with a yard of rebar.
Tom turns himself face down upon the divan.
Tom: You’ve done it, you’ve drained me of all emotion, you rogue.
Bryce: Don’t be so melodramatic.
Tom: It’s true! It was bad enough when you were going on about Romans. Why did you have to make vampires complicated, too?
Bryce: I didn’t make them anything–hell, I’ve mostly just been reporting what goes on in the course of this story. Gabula’s manpain story–that is.
Tom: Such a sad fellow.
Bryce: Look: Gabula isn’t the worst white male power and sorrow fantasy to come out of the gaming space in the last several years. I can think of far worse. And you see the seeds of something highly compelling down in the marrow of all this. I wouldn’t have developed an interest in LoS1 if that weren’t the case. But it just gets buried under the weight of itself here.
Tom: I trust nothing else untoward happens?
Bryce: The Maria-Carmilla sequence is sort of the high water mark for the game trying to wring emotion out of Gabula, but this roller coaster is barely over. Back in Belarus, Raisa breaks out of Picard’s demon-prison and blows up his base–which, I forgot to mention, looks like the inside of a bank from a Christopher Nolan film.
Tom: Now that, I like.
Bryce: She then transforms into this:
Tom: Well… um.
Bryce: Monster women in games tend to come in two varieties: hot women stuck centaur-style into big fugly monsters, or, a hot central torso/head with crazy-scary extremities. They’ve been doing this since forever–believe me, I’ve seen all of them. This character manages to do a little of both.
Tom: Why… does she have boobs that look like tree knots?
Bryce: Those are so you don’t forget that she’s a girl in the middle of the fight, get confused, and hurt yourself.
Tom: Is she also a fun NPC in your alternate universe romcom RPG?
Bryce: Now you’re thinking. You slice her in half, though.
Tom sighs deeply.
Tom: Are there any more women in this game to depress me?
Bryce: You’re in luck–that was the last one! If you’ve been keeping track, you kill all but one of them, who was already dead–though, to be fair, Gabula kills practically everyone he meets.
Tom: Who doesn’t he kill?
Bryce: Funny you should ask–the next trip to the Mind Palace has you squaring off with a guy called the Toy Maker in a scene cribbed from American McGee’s notebooks.
Tom: Is that so?
Bryce: You don’t kill him.
Tom: How lovely!
Bryce: It’s actually a pretty inspired little sequence that starts with Gabula manipulating a life-sized puppet show depicting the sad creation of the Toy Maker. After that comes a lively, practically Kung Fu Panda-lookin’ fight against some of his puppet creations, like a Chinese dragon. It’s actually kind of thrilling to see Gabula fighting these monsters without blood spraying everywhere. The whole sequence inadvertently proves you could transpose the combat mechanics of Lords of Shadow 2 onto something not made out of testosterone and blood and probably get a fun, good game out of it.
Tom: Well! [beat] At least things are turning around.
Bryce: Not so fast, Jack. I’m gonna fast forward you through the next few hours.
Tom: I’m not prepared!
Bryce: You meet Victor Belmont, the last surviving Belmont, a pretty cool dude–
Bryce: Who sacrifices himself so you can find the next boss monster.
Bryce: You fight a bald guy in your Mind Palace–look, I’m trying to save you the trouble–and then you meet the final acolyte, Fat Pope.
Tom: You mean like a Pope who is fat, or a fat person who is a Pope?
Bryce: More importantly, PatStew’s anonymous bodyguard guy reveals himself to be Alucard. The game SMASH CUTS back to ye olden days and Alucard makes a plan with his pops: Gabula will go into stasis for a few hundred years until Satan and PatStew come out of hiding, so they can team up and kill them both.
Tom: At last, the twist!
Bryce: That’s a bit generous, but sure. PatStew appears and gets angry at youse guys for being traitors and turns into the Grim Reaper for a fight.
Tom: Do you mean the Grim Reaper, or a Grim Reaper?
Bryce: It’s not exactly clear but I think at this point we’ve gone well beyond the realms of good sense. After that Fat Pope summons Satan, who looks like a big, muscly fallen angel with crow bits.
Tom: Good ol’ Lucifer.
Bryce: He rips Fat Pope’s face off and then summons a Giant Flying Worm which you clamber around on for a few minutes before he possesses Alucard. You plummet to earth outside the cathedral, at which point Satan de-possesses Alucard, and Gabula stabs Satan to death with the Vampire Killer crucifix thingy.
Tom: Sic semper tyrannis.
Bryce: And then it just kind of… ends?
Bryce: Gabula says… [shuffles notes], uh, “Who knows what fate has in store.” And they walk towards the cathedral as the sun rises. And then it’s just… done.
Tom jumps up out of the divan, hands over his head.
Tom: Well! That was a wild ride from start to finish.
Bryce: I’ll say.
Tom: I’m a little disappointed, honestly. You’re normally so good about finding some thundering condemnation to put forth. This one seemed a little…
Bryce: Thin? Look, I don’t go into anything assuming I’m not going to like it. I try to give everything a fair shake.
Tom: Lofty praise!
Bryce: The fact of the matter is that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is not a terrible game. It’s not going to reinforce anyone’s completely horrifying perceptions of history, or acclimate them to a constant war economy, or any of those scary things I prescribe to other games on account of them doing things and being played by people who will learn from those things.
Tom: I suppose a lot of this comes down to whether or not one thinks we needed a new Castlevania, eh? Whether we need reboots at all?
Bryce: I think you can reboot pretty much anything so long as you’re willing to try.
Tom: Well then, smart guy–how should they have tried?
Bryce: What should they have done? What should anyone do when they want to take an old thing and make a new thing? Rip the guts out. Reject what is no longer relevant or useful. Eject the outdated and hateful. Find the parts that actually spoke to you–identify why they spoke to you–and then think about what you can do with those parts now that you’re older–and hopefully–wiser. That might mean repudiating them. That might mean burying them. That might mean having to throw out everything except the tiny, still-beating core of it. And rebuilding from scratch. Making something that celebrates the good in the old thing and challenges its failures. You might even tread close to that feeling you once had. Even better–you might make that old feeling into something new.
A long silence. A sperm whale swims by outside, bearing an advertisement for the video hosting service Vevo on its flank.
Tom: [beat] So Alucard is going to be the star of the sequel, right?