Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

Developer: MercurySteam - Publisher: Konami - Plaforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC - Release Date: February 25, 2014

Concept: For the first time in Castlevania, play as Dracula in bag more mixed than a Belmont's inventory

Graphics: Gorgeous character models and Dracula's castle are definite highlights

Sound: Epic orchestral score and top-notch voice work all around

Playability: Combat retains it's fun, and a free-roaming camera helps. The terrible stealth sections, though, are more frightening than anything Hell spits out

Entertainment: Every time Lords of Shadow 2 starts to take off, a dumb sneaking mission or ridiculous plot point clip it's wings

Replay Value: Moderate

One Step Forward, Two Quiet Steps Back

To say that Lord of Shadow 2 starts with a bang is an understatement. Dracula (formerly known as Gabriel Belmont) defends his castle from a siege of holy crusaders. After effortlessly dispatching of the foot soldiers, the Prince of Darkness scales a massive automaton and brings it crashing down. This culminates in a duel with the crusader general that's so epic, it literally causes a global event. Dracula even busts out the old "What is a man?" monologue for old time's sake. With an introduction that strong, it only makes the rest of the game's mediocrity as painful as a bite to the neck.

Fast-forward several centuries to modern times, not long after the original Lords of Shadow's shocking conclusion. Dracula awakens from his slumber malnourished and unable to remember the events that led him to this point. His old frienemy Zobek re-discovers him and shares the urgent news that Satan is once again planning his return to Earth. Dracula is the only being powerful enough to prevent this, so Zobek presents the original Belmont with a tantalizing offer: bring down Satan, and he'll grant Dracula the eternal rest he desperately desires.

What follows is a wildly inconsistent and plot hole-filled narrative that basically splits the game in two. Dracula must work with Zobek to hunt down Satan's acolytes in the real world, but he regularly slips into memories of his past in his old castle with a child version of his son Trevor leading the way. Memories is a strange term considering many events that transpire there are clearly new and Dracula never knew Trevor as a boy, making it impossible to remember him as such. In short, the castle plot-line connection to current events is much too vague. Though the real world narrative is more straight-forward, it falls into it’s own narrative pot holes that culminate in surprisingly rushed, anti-climatic, ending. As the credits begin to roll, the only phrase you'll be able to muster is "That's it?".

In terms of gameplay, Lords of Shadow 2 smartly incorporates many elements of classic Castlevania. The game has opened up, featuring several different paths and secret areas that require specific abilities to enter. There are also warp rooms to fast-travel to other locations. I only wish there was a way of marking areas on your map a la Mirror of Fate because remembering obscure areas in a 3D world proves far more challenging than in 2D. It would have also been great if the game took place entirely in Dracula’s castle as it’s a gothic marvel and far more appealing than the drab contemporary areas.

A shop is now available and in addition to items, keys can be bought to unlock certain secrets in the world, an element reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda. Symphony of the Night fans (such as myself) will be happy to know that abilities such as Mist form and the winged double-jump return in full force. Mirror of Fate's fallen soldier journals have also found a home here, providing added exposition.

Combat is this game's highlight, featuring crazy fun combos and some enjoyable boss battles. Standard Blood Whip attacks are accompanied by Void and Chaos moves. The Void Sword heals Dracula with each hit while the fiery Chaos Claws deal greater damage and can melt through the defenses of armored foes. Make sure you keep your Chaos meter filled because most enemies are outfitted with armor and battling them without Chaos is frustrating and takes forever.

Individual attacks have meters that fill up the more you use them. Once full, Dracula's overall proficiency with the corresponding weapon improves. It's a nice system that not only encourages players to unlock every move for each weapon, but to use all of them often. By the time I unlocked everything, I had a majority of the robust combo list memorized from repeated usage.

Dracula also utilizes several sub-items. He can toss blood daggers, or those that freeze enemies or explode on contact, depending on whether Void or Chaos is in effect. Unleashing swarms of bats disorient enemies, leaving them vulnerable. Don’t be stingy with your items as they’re constantly replenished and are supremely helpful in battle. One potion fills your Chaos and Void meters to max capacity and another temporarily unlocks every combo for a brief rampage. My favorite is an hourglass that slows time and deals double XP. The ultimate is a pendant that transforms Dracula into a dragon of all things, annihilating everything on screen.

Lords of Shadow 2 does several things right, but every time it begins to build momentum, its legs are cut out by the mind-boggling introduction of stealth. Mostly exclusive to the modern areas, several sections are guarded by cannon-toting behemoths who are, for no adequately explained reason, too tough for Dracula to take on. Instead, the universally feared Prince of Darkness is reduced to sneaking past them like a low-rent Solid Snake.

This fails miserably for two reasons. First, the stealth flat out sucks. Its bare bones outside of throwing bats for distractions or possessing bodies. Failing sends you back to start, which is infuriating during the longer segments. There are also far too many stealth missions with even two boss battles revolving around it.

Second, it makes no sense story-wise. Dracula, one of the most feared and powerful entities in fiction, has to sneak around people. That’s just wrong. He’s Dracula! He can defeat the armies of both Heaven and Hell, Satan's acolytes, and the fallen angel himself, but not a few Neanderthals with guns? I don’t buy that at all.

Other annoying design decisions such as having to repeatedly restore power to buildings in order to explore them are made more absurd by the fact that, for the umpteenth time, Dracula is the one doing this. It just never feels right. Most of these problems are a feature of the modern world, causing me to believe this would be a much better game if it had only taken place in the past. Lords of Shadow 2 has a few bright spots, but the lethal combination of terrible design decisions and an equally disappointing story has proven deadlier to Dracula than garlic or holy water ever could.

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