Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 - Review
This review contains spoilers for the original Lords of Shadow game. You've been warned.
Lords of Shadow 2 is terrified. It's terrified that you'll not know what to do, or where it is you're supposed to go and so bombards you with masses of tutorials and hint screens. It's terrified that you'll not know how to jump off a ledge, or how climbing works. This is a game, that, after killing a bunch of tutorial enemies, instructs you to "move forward to pick up items" as if somehow you've become incapable of thinking. It's scared you'll not be able to use your vampire powers properly, despite the fact that most of them have been seen a thousand times before in other games. Most of all though, it's terrified that you won't like it.
Mercury Steam successfully rebooted Konami's Castlevania series with 2010s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, much to the chagrin of some older 'Vania fans. Gone were the puzzle and exploration elements of previous installments and instead Mercury Steam crafted a Gothic God of War; one that swapped Satyrs and Minotaurs for vampires and werewolves. Despite the fairly safe and predictable route it took, Lords of Shadow was, overall, a solid game, injecting its lead character with enough humanity that he was at least more likable than the raging, hate-filled misogynist that was Kratos.
Unfortunately, Lords of Shadow 2 has managed to buckle under all that pressure. Rather than simply strengthen what made the original game good, this sequel clogs it all up with odd design choices and frustrating gameplay moments that distract from the simple pleasure of beating up monsters with a powered-up crucifix.
Following on from the events of the previous game (and the Mirrors of Fate spin-off), Lords of Shadow 2 sees Gabriel, now the cursed vampire lord Dracula, awaken from his tomb in what is presumably the present day. The decision to have the game take place in a different time period was an interesting choice, hinted at during the ending sequence of the original game, it's ultimately one more thing that adds to this sequel's growing bag of problems.
Rather than opt for the level system they previously used, Mercury Steam have instead made this new instalment an open world game. Attempting a nod at the likes of Symphony of the Night, there's now a much greater emphasis placed on navigation and back-tracking. Crystals which improve your health or magic can't always be reached until you've acquired a new power later down the line and sometimes objectives require you to work back through an area to unlock another route.
The problem is though, that none of this seems to have been included with much enthusiasm. Platforming is so ridiculously easy, yet is also clunky. It sometimes feels like a moving loading screen until the next wave of enemies. God of War effortlessly balanced combat, puzzles and platforming, constantly dancing between all three to ensure that the pacing never sagged. In many cases you'd be doing two actions at the same time: fighting enemies whilst jumping across a set of precarious ledges or attempting to solve a puzzle with the threat of death looming over you. Not so in Casltevania, here you'll be doing one thing at a time, sometimes for far too long.
Puzzles are also lacklustre. They're more frequent this time around, again ramping up the Symphony of the Night similarities, but pale in comparison. Many are dull switch puzzles, where you have a limited time to run to another area after hitting a button. Hardly all that thrilling. Some of the better ones, such as having to craft a play out of a set of dolls in order to summon a puppet master, would have been more impressive had it not been lifted wholesale from Silent Hill: Downpour.
Alongside these traditional puzzles are a host of stealth sections which are perhaps the most jarring inclusion. Typically, they involve having to sneak past one of Satan's super-powered guardsmen that look more like they belong in a game of Warhammer 40,000 than they do Castlevania. This can involve having to either possess the soldiers by creeping up on them, or turning into a horde of rats and scuttling past. While the puzzles and platforming come across as dull and slightly lazy it's these stealth sections that are frankly bizarre, poorly implemented. They result in some incredibly frustrating stop-start moments as the dodgy A.I. spots you for the fourth time in a row and sends you back to the start to do it all over again.
It's down to the combat to round out the core of the gameplay and, ironically, given all the changes elsewhere, this has suffered from not being altered. Make no mistake, it's by far the most enjoyable element of the game but suffers from not having enough care and attention lavished on it. Like the original, it's a strong mix of God of War's accessibility with a dash of Devil May Cry style move sets thrown in there too. Sadly though, it's not changed at all. Almost all of the moves available were ones used in the previous game and there's very few new ones added.
Now though, rather than having access to light and dark magic to power up your attacks, you have the Void Sword (light magic) and Chaos Claws (dark magic). The Void Sword typically allows for faster, area of effect attacks that also restore your health, whilst the Chaos Claws are for punching through enemy defences and using powerful projectiles. These kinds of moves were all pretty much in the original and rather than invent new combos Mercury Steam have essentially copy and pasted the original game's move sets and divvied them up to the three main weapons you wield. It's a shallow way of making the combat system appear deeper than it is and again suggests that the game's development suffered from not enough time being spent on any of its different areas.
Even the game's plot suffers from being pulled in too many different directions. Essentially two stories in one, it follows Dracula in modern day as he confronts the armies of Satan, whilst also exploring his own psyche as he struggles to reconnect with his family and the evil that's inside him. Again, this hints at the fact that the developers couldn't commit to a proper setting, so instead mixed in both. Whilst the original was by no means a great story, it did at least have a clear focus, and a distinct melancholy tone that separated it from other titles.
Here though, the modern day story is eye-rolling schlock, as Dracula bounces from location to location slaughtering Satan's acolytes, and taking himself far too seriously. All he's lacking is an angst-filled soundtrack and this would be like Warrior Within all over again. In contrast, the Dracula's castle segments are lot better, drawing on similar themes to the original game, and boasting a surprisingly good voice cast too, with the likes of Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart putting in good, hammy performances. These levels also have the better enemy designs, sticking more to classic monsters rather than the strange science fiction and steampunk entities you take on in the modern day levels.
The major problem with Casltevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is that it tries to appeal to everyone and inevitably ends up being liked by no one. The combat is still decent but lacks anything new and suffers from some odd enemy designs and repetitive attacks patterns. It's as if Mercury Steam were attempting to make a Metroidvania type game, but the nebulous level design means that this doesn't come together as intended.
It's a bloated game in other words, and one that could have done with a much better focus. This should have been the series' God of War 2; the highlight of a trilogy that pushed aging game technology to its limits. Instead it comes across as an instalment to a series that's gone on for far too long and lost its way.
It'll by no means be the last in the series, Mercury Steam just need to decide what kind of game they want to make.
Casltevania: Lords of Shadow 2 was released in February for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.
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