Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 – Review

Title   Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
Developer  MercurySteam
Publisher  Konami
Platform  Windows PC, Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3
Genre  Action-adventure
Release Date  February 28, 2014

Castlevania is one of those gaming series that is deservedly popular and respected among the gaming community, but equally is never at the top of everyone’s ‘must have’ list whenever it comes out. Whether that has anything to do with the growing popularity and success with other similar series or the desire for Castlevania to remain firmly in the realm of 2D following the hit and miss antics of its 3D brethren is anyone’s guess. However in 2010 Konami and MercurySteam struck as close to gold as they have done with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

A gritty, violent reimagining of the Castlevania universe saw players take on the role of Gabriel Belmont, on a quest to avenge the death of his wife and save the world in the process. It was the first Castlevania game I had played since 2005 when Dawn of Sorrow hit the DS, and I fell in love with the series all over again. Gabriel was a believable hero, solemn and withdrawn – his love for his wife spurring him forward and forcing him to commit terrible atrocities in order to avenge her. The fact that he was saving the world at the same time was nothing more than an afterthought and with the Brotherhood of Light at his side, you got a real sense of an epic struggle between good and evil taking centre stage. The story, the combat, the graphics and sound all weaved together to paint an impressive portrait of a 3D Castlevania game in current gaming.

I’ll offer a warning now to anyone who hasn’t played or finished the first Lords of Shadow: I urge you to go and do this now, because in order for me to convey my critique, I’ll need to reference spoilers from the original. I loved it and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so stop reading now, if you want to spare yourself.

With the success that MercurySteam and Konami had with the latest formula and its 3DS spin-off, Mirror of Fate, it is no surprise that 2014 was going to host a sequel to Lords of Shadow. I was incredibly excited to be able to step back into the world of Gabriel, now Dracul The Dragon (or Dracula), and see what adventure we would be lead on. Would we watch Gabriel attempt to regain his humanity having been changed into the very thing he hated or would we play co-pilot to a bloody reign of terror as Dracula slaughtered the innocent?

The answers, I’m afraid, aren’t really that clear at all and Lords of Shadow 2 suffers from a multitude of problems across the board which leaves the game with a serious Jekyll and Hyde syndrome as it struggles to please the fans of old, while trying to put a new and dangerously unfamiliar stamp on the series.

The game kicks off with the Brotherhood of Light marching on Dracula’s castle and you’d be forgiven for getting excited at this stage, because it starts to play like a slightly prettier version of Lords of Shadow, except you’re a badass vampire dealing out death to a bunch of good guys. Everything is so far, so Castlevania; you kick some ass, climb some big machine and rip its guts out, and then have a fight in the ruins of a castle with something that looks like an angel wearing gold armour. Dracula, formerly Gabriel, is dark and broody but he’s also silent and deadly. So he’s basically not a prick and I’m hopeful the plot will involve the redemption of his soul. It’s twenty minutes in and I’m loving it. Then the wheels come off.

They don’t just ‘come off’, either. The game crashes and burns like a fully fuelled car crashing into a burning building with the accelerator pedal floored. After that battle, you’re treated to a brief catch-up on the back story with regards to the actions of Trevor and Simon Belmont in Mirror of Fate. Then Dracula awakes in the present day, looking extremely malnourished. He’s quickly whisked away by Zobek and told that Satan, whose ass you kicked at the end of the first game, is planning a return. Zobek advises that he needs your help to stop him and in return, he will grant Dracula his last request: to be killed and end his eternal life.

I’ve got a number of problems with this right from the start. First, Zobek is an evil son-of-a-bitch and the last person you’d realistically trust. Not only was he one of the Lords of Shadow, but he was the architect in the death of Gabriel’s wife and his murder of innocent people. So I don’t care if Zobek is promising Dracula a quick death or an eternal life of luxury, there is no logical reason why he should trust Zobek.

Secondly, why couldn’t we have actually acted out the fight between Trevor, soon to be Alucard and Simon? Considering those fights are the catalyst for what brings us to this point in the game, I feel it would have been a good dose of fun to actually take part in them from Dracula’s perspective.

Finally, Dracula wakes up in the present day in a rain-soaked, neon-drenched city, and I can tell you now that the modern setting is pulled off with some really mixed results. On the positive side there is some very lovely gothic architecture in places; the mix of the old castle and the city that was built upon its ruins is very well realised. On the negative side of things though, it’s Castlevania set in the modern day. It almost immediately feels as unnatural as it sounds, and MercurySteam were going to have to really nail this in order to sell it to the fan base. As it stands, it just doesn’t feel right.

The story does not fare much better either. A story about a pharmaceutical company being a front for Satan’s forces and making a gas that changes the population into hellspawn. All so that Satan’s acolytes can gain power and bring about his return. Right… and wait… they’ve also manufactured an antidote? What the fuck for?! “For the human acolytes of Satan, Chris” Oh fuck off! He’s Satan, the Devil, the Beast, he doesn’t give a fuck about no humans. An antidote… fuck me. You couldn’t sell me this shit in an episode of 24, so don’t try and sell it to me here. Resident Evil can just about get away with this bullshit, but they’ve got zombies. They’re allowed to talk bullshit at me. I can’t suspend disbelief to believe that Dracula would a) trust his oldest enemy, b) take orders from just about anybody and then c) have to swallow that Satan is amassing his army of evil behind Glaxo-fucking-SmithKline.

The story is circling the drain within the first half hour and it doesn’t pick up after that. You’re quickly force fed a swimming-pool-sized amount of information, none of which really makes much sense until several hours later, and because you end up jumping back between time zones, it’s less about intrigue and mystery and more a case of “What the actual fucking hell is going on?”

There is the whole other plot going on with your castle and how the “blood” doesn’t want you to leave, and it’s better if you don’t ask, because it’s about halfway into the game before it really gets explained. Even then you’re still wondering the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind that aspect of the plot, your son’s random reappearances either as a boy or as a wolf, and how it’s all supposed to tie together. It’s very much a mess, a case of someone loading a bunch of ‘good ideas’ into the creativity shotgun, firing it at a blank canvas and just using whatever mess came out.

If you can switch yourself off from the story (that’s a substantial ‘if’) – then what is there for you to enjoy? Thankfully the combat, for the most part, is solid. Fighting still retains that ‘God of War’ formula of light and heavy attacks mixed with blocking, and an array of different moves and manoeuvres to pull off. I will say that I’m pleased they’ve chosen to stick to three main weapons and not let the pool get so deep as to drown out some choices, as you tend to see with other titles in this genre. Despite this though, the three weapons are well balanced if not a little bland.

The standard weapon is the Shadow Whip, which basically replaces the Combat Cross from the first game like for like, and anyone telling you otherwise is lying to your face. It has exactly the same moves, and acts in exactly the same way, except that it feels slightly weaker and lacks the real ‘snap’ and ‘crack’ of an actual whip.

The second weapon is the Void Sword, which does a little less damage than the Shadow Whip but has the ability to heal Dracula when he attacks enemies with it. Equally, the Chaos Claws fill the third weapon slot, and act to break armour and deal extra damage to the opposition on top of that.

The Void Sword and Chaos Claws are powered by orbs you gather from enemies if you manage to fill the Focus Bar, which also returns from the first game. This is done by chaining together enough attacks without getting hit and can be further increased by doing things such as blocking moves at the last moment in order to stun the opposition. Activating either the Void Sword or Chaos Claws cancels out your Focus Bar, which brings into play a familiar, but enjoyable, balancing act.

There is also plenty of depth in the experience system in terms of upgrading Dracula’s moves, especially for the Void Sword and Chaos Claws, both of which can be given some pretty cool moves if you can save up the large amounts of experience to buy them. For the most part, a lot of the moves are duplicated across the three weapons but you will feel torn between what to upgrade and when, given how you start to rely on the Chaos Claws to break down tougher enemies, or the need to start slicing people up with the Void Sword when an unblockable attack really takes a chunk out of your health bar.

All of the combat worked worked very well in the first game but, somehow, MercurySteam have lost some of the fluidity and balance in the combat between titles.

The most irritating thing is the opposition I’m fighting against, for a couple of different reasons. First, they flat-out refuse to care that I’m trying to kill them and, despite parrying attacks and then counter-attacking, they’ll quickly attack back after a couple of seconds, forcing me to either parry again or dodge out of the way. Combat, against more than one or two enemies, becomes more about avoiding getting hit rather than dishing out any real damage, and quickly becomes frustrating.

Secondly, the finisher moves for each enemy, which at least had some semblance of originality in the first game, are all now the same for every enemy. Dracula basically wrenches their necks back and drinks their blood for a small bit of health recovery. There is no panache, no style, no flair. You’d think that, being Dracula, they could have afforded the guy some fancy finishing moves above the stereotypical love bite. Equally conflicting is the fact that your sword recovers health anyway, so what’s the point in recovering health via this method too; It just feels like it’s been put in as an afterthought.

Finally, the opposition themselves are pretty uninspiring and bland. The grotesque monsters that appear as a result of the biochemical gas, just look like badly created brown blobs fresh out of some unknown PlayStation 2 game. They look horrible, are incredibly boring, and don’t really do anything of interest other than flail around. At the other end of the scale, Dracula is fighting mechanoid riot police who come with Tommy Guns and jetpacks. No, I have no idea either. I couldn’t believe it.

The best bits of the combat come in the form of boss fights, and these are still of the high quality you’d expect from Castlevania, even if they are a damn sight easier than I’d come to expect. I never died during a boss fight and rarely lost more than half my health. Nevertheless, this required concentration, timing, and effective switching between different weapon types to freeze the opposition in place and then cause extra damage with the chaos claws. What is important is that, regardless of difficulty, I had fun with the boss battles and that’s what really counts in a game so short on moments that I deem to be fun.

What isn’t fun in any game, especially one with Castlevania’s reputation, is forced stealth sections. These are, and I don’t think I’ve ever used this term when reviewing a game before, a complete and utter joke. They are hands down, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst thing about Lords of Shadow 2 and quite possibly the worst thing I’ve seen in a game for quite some time as they are shoehorned into areas that don’t make sense, and are poorly designed. Most force you to transform into a rat and scuttle around in ventilation shafts, or distract people using a battery of bats. Sometimes you’re asked to possess people and use their bodies to get past checkpoints, but every one of these sections plays horribly, and is forced on the player – who has no other options to consider and is therefore a linear engagement – force-feeding you some bullshit about not being powerful enough to fight the guards, who look like giant walking Jelly Tots carrying guns.

I could perhaps swallow such tripe right at the start of the game were the stealth elements not so poorly implemented (being caught results in instant death with no option to run away, which then leads to at least a fifteen-second loading time for Xbox users), but seeing as you’re creeping around the same guys five hours later, having killed Satan’s daughter in the meantime, it just doesn’t make any sense. The game even breaks its own rules saying you can distract people with bats to sneak past them, which I do. I position myself behind them to possess them afterwards and sneak through the door. Except that isn’t the way the game intends for you to solve the puzzle, so after dealing with the bats, the guy promptly turns around and shoots me.

It really seems like MercurySteam just wanted to try their hand at a stealth game then chose to cobble together some really poor assets and jam them into whatever sections needed filling. One has you trying to avoid rustling leaves on the floor in order to not alert a nearby enemy who’ll come running over and instantly kill you without any reprieve. The fact that I’m Dracula, trying to avoid fucking leaves underfoot is laughable. The fact that after completing this section I go straight into a boss fight with the same fucking guy, is downright moronic. It’s infuriating, it’s pointless and it’s shit.

Pointless is also a description that can be attributed to the extra items that you gather along the way. These include an hourglass to help you gain extra experience points, a crystal that helps you ‘master’ a skill for a short time to improve its power and a Dodo egg to help you find secrets. No that’s not a typo, it’s actually a Dodo egg. These and the other skills are all utterly redundant and I think I only used the hourglass a couple of times. There is no explanation for why they are in the game at all, other than some bog standard entries into the lore.

The new semi-open world and Dracula himself are just as disappointing as most of the gameplay is. They’ve tried to combine exploration of the modern setting with finding old ruined bits of the castle and allowing you to explore. This itself would have been fairly enjoyable except that, on top of that, you have the transition back to Dracula’s time period, where more of the interesting story elements take place. The modern setting is jarring enough, without the constant chop and change and, in truth, the world is more linear than open, with just a few options to deviate from the path that don’t really result in anything other than crystals for expanding your health or magic bars. When you’re breaking open random bits of scenery for experience points or hidden artwork, that’s when you know the developer has lost their way somewhat.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Dracula himself. I personally loved Gabriel Belmont. He was a troubled but true warrior, willing to do whatever was needed in order to bring his wife back from the afterlife, and it was all masked behind the idea that he was on a mission to save the world from certain doom. The fact that he was willing to murder innocent people in the process was all the more telling of the darkness that raged inside of him. Add to that the fact that he’d actually been a puppet for a darker purpose and had actually killed his wife himself, it was outstanding in terms of character development and storytelling.

However, Dracula himself starts out as an angry, brooding dark lord, which you can certainly support, but he soon becomes a complete bitch for Zobek, the very man who sought to destroy him in the first game. You can argue that Dracula has no choice, but he’s Dracula for goodness stakes. (Sorry, had to do it). He’s always got a choice; he’s the Prince of Darkness. This person isn’t half the man Gabriel Belmont was and all of the best scenes in the game are played out with his son or wife, where we get a glimpse of the character that was built up over the first game. That’s the character that you were willing to stick with ’til the bitter end.

If nothing else, at least the game looks alright, although that’s being generous to the Xbox 360 version to be honest. The game really chugs along at some stages and there were some awfully pixelated backgrounds at times (such as when viewing things behind the light shining through a window) where it distorted horribly and looked like something on the Super Nintendo. Most of the main characters are well designed and look the part in the cutscenes but, for the most part, the enemies aren’t anything incredible. The annoying thing is that a lot of the views and the vistas are breathtaking, both in the modern and old setting. The city has a nice pseudo-gothic feeling and it blends well into the old ruins. But it just looks so ragged and brash up close that it just doesn’t really live up to the crisp clean visuals of the first game that managed a stunning view and pleasing image up close.

Unfortunately the audio doesn’t fair much better. Gone are the beautiful soundtrack and awe-inspiring music that accompanied the gorgeous visuals and, instead, we’ve got, well, nothing really. There is music, but it isn’t anything to really shout about. Voice actors Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart return, but there aren’t any of the spoken story elements that were a nice touch in the first, reducing Stewart’s lines here to just a few words every couple of hours. Equally Carlyle, now Dracula, doesn’t really say much at all and both are generally wasted in these roles. It’s a real shame because both really were a personal highlight in the first.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 is a pretty long game, but not in a good way. It has a lengthy campaign, complete with a challenge mode and a ‘new game plus’, but the campaign takes up most of what you’ll be doing and it’s just a very bloated, but thinly spread mess. MercurySteam have attempted so much and come out with less than they went in with. I can’t recommend picking up this game, but if you do and manage to finish it, I wouldn’t really expect a desire to return to it surfacing any time soon.

  • The combat is mostly solid, if not predictable
  • Boss battles are still fun
  • The story is complete and utter dross
  • The modern setting doesn’t work
  • The main characters are all uninspiring and shallow
  • The stealth sections are one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced in a game. Ever.
  • Graphics and sound leave you wishing for more
  • Feels like a massively missed opportunity for another great Castlevania game.

Where do I begin? That was the question I found myself asking when I sat down to write this. I had to focus everything on ensuring that I looked at the facts and not focus on a desperate desire for this game to be as awesome as the first. I had such high expectations for this and I’ve been let down. MercurySteam have totally dropped the ball and what should have been a follow-up to a very successful couple of games will instead be remembered as a messy and rushed finish. The story is forgettable, the combat is passable, the stealth is laughable, and everything left barely registers a passing interest. Just don’t bother with this. Remember MercurySteam for the first two titles and wait for someone else to take up the Castlevania challenge. On this evidence it can’t really get much worse.

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