A Step Backwards from the Original
There were a good number of critics and skeptics who didn’t think Castlevania: Lords of Shadow lived up to the long running series, or just wasn’t that great on its own. Me personally, I really loved the original Lords of Shadow. I even enjoyed what the developers did with its follow up, Mirror of Fate, (which I only played on consoles, not the 3DS). Considering how ridiculous the original Castlevania timeline was getting, I didn’t think a reboot was a bad idea. Especially since the writers at Mercury Steam actually had the balls to make some bold choices with established characters. Now, Konami and Mercury Steam give us the final chapter in the Lords of Shadow story arc. Is Lords of Shadow 2 a worthwhile conclusion? Or does it simply fall flat?
You play as Dracula himself, formerly Gabriel Belmont of the first Lords of Shadow, who is still pretty peeved with the Brotherhood of Light. Blaming the Brotherhood for all the suffering he’s had to go through that ultimately led to him becoming the Prince of Darkness. After a spectacular battle in the game’s intro, the story fast forwards to the modern day to find Dracula waking up older and weaker. Dracula is rescued by his former ally Zobek, who’s also managed to stay alive this long, Dracula finds out that Satan is preparing to make his return and wants revenge on the two on them after his defeat in the first LoS. Not wanting to be tortured for eternity, Dracula agrees to help stop Satan’s return and he must now regain his powers.
Throughout your adventure, you’ll traverse between the city streets of the modern day, and into the past to Dracula’s own sprawling castle. There’s a good amount of platforming mixed in with solid combat, similar to the previous game. You have a trusty Shadow Whip as your primary weapon and later on you’ll gain access to the Void Sword which restores health as you fight, and the Chaos Gauntlets, which are suitable for breaking armor. Both the sword and gauntlets require mana you collect from enemies as you build up your focus meter seen at the bottom of the screen. Building up your combos and avoiding damage increases focus, that allows you to tap more mana from enemies.
Unlike the previous game, which relied on fixed camera angles, you’re given control of the camera playing from a third person perspective. The quality of the game play seems to differ depending on which setting you happen to be playing in. When you’re moving through the past in Dracula’s castle, the game play feels just as fun as the previous game with some solid combat and fun enemy types to fight. You’ll find yourself going up against various demonic foes and armored holy warriors who want to kill you. The level design of the castle feels pretty good too, with areas of platforming that flow well and feel fun to traverse.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the enemies and level design of the modern day setting. As you make your way through the streets of the modern day city, the level design gets a lot more cluttered with levers, cranks, and switches that need to be used to open a door or power up an elevator. Power switches start to feel pretty tedious as you have to pull one lever after another to open up a door to the next area, some of which are timed. You feel the frustration settle in as an enemy encounter pops up to stop you from proceeding, requiring you to hit the same stupid lever again after you’ve cleared out the room. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t happen so often, and with all the levers and switches the game throws at you, it really starts to bog down the pace of the game, making the city areas feel like a drag.
The enemy types in the city aren’t as interesting. While you still fight a few demons here and there, you also have to contend with demons that are literally carrying guns. I’m not joking; there are gun toting demons in this game that will fire on you with grenade launchers and shotguns. I have to say it feels pretty cheap to be fighting a group of monsters and have your combo broken by some jerk off with a shot gun taking pot shots at you. You also have to deal with human riot guards armed with assault rifles and jetpacks, and some heavy mechs who fire missiles at you. I didn’t enjoy having to fight the enemies as much as I liked fighting monsters in Dracula’s castle. Just something about fighting enemies armed with guns made them feel cheap, as you’ll find yourself takings shots when you don’t have the best angle to see them from. Much like the original Lords of Shadow, there's also an awful lot of QTE's. Whether you're opening a door, solving a puzzle, or finishing off a boss; you'll have to complete a QTE. However the game does give you the option to turn all QTE's off. This makes the game play feel a lot smoother and I didn't miss the QTE's one damn bit.
My biggest grievance with the modern day city has to be the unnecessary stealth segments. In certain areas, you’ll find yourself having to sneak around large heavily armored guards that will destroy you on sight. To avoid detection you’ll be able to distract them with a flock of bats, use context sensitive areas to turn into a rat, and take possession of scientists and guards themselves. This may sound cool on paper, but in practice, the stealth portions of the game are extremely linear, tedious, and feel out of place. I can understand why Dracula has to sneak around the first time you see these big lugs since you’re not as powerful. But after defeating the first real boss of the game who is a lot more formidable, and acquiring the Chaos Gauntlets that are specifically made for penetrating heavy armor, there’s no more reason for me to sneak around these armored thugs anymore! I’m the Prince of freaking Darkness; I shouldn’t be hiding from some oaf with a minigun!
Another gripe I have with gameplay as a whole, is the inclusion of useless cinematic mechanics that serve no purpose other than to make the game feel more like a movie. For instance, when you first wake up as Dracula in the modern day he's old, slow, and can't really do anything except plod forward. After you take two steps a cut scene starts. Why? Why did the game give me control for a few seconds only to play a cut scene? When given control back I can move forward again only to encounter a monster fight that I have no way of possibly surviving. Why? Why was I as a player forced to move this slow old version of Dracula around, when all of this could've been done in a simple cut scene. This is only one of a few sequences that serve no purpose other than cinematic effect. It doesn’t happen frequently, but moments like these in video games I have no tolerance for these days. If you're going to give me control, let me play the damn game! If you want to do something cinematic, go to a cut scene. Don't do both!
The controls feel pretty responsive as I didn’t experience any issues during the various combat segments when things get especially heavy. You move with the left stick while controlling the camera with the right stick. Standard attack, area attack, jump, and context sensitive grab/use are bound to the face buttons, left shoulder button to toggle your Void Sword, right shoulder button to toggle your Chaos Gauntlets, Left trigger to block and dodge, and right trigger for your secondary weapons, which are selected with the d-pad. As you fight enemies you’ll need to collect orbs to refill your mana meters, that dictate the use of your sword and gauntlets. By clicking the left or right analog sticks, you’ll absorb mana for each weapon respectively.
The graphics for the most part look pretty nice, with detailed character models that show off some well-defined textures. Character animation also looks good, especially in various cut scenes. In the castle, the world looks beautiful and interesting to look at with grand landscapes and vistas. From observing snowy mountains from the towers of the castle, to the lava filled caverns underground, the environments are pretty eye catching. I can't say the same about the modern day segments, as every area looks the same. It's not that the beat up streets and broken buildings look bad, but that's all you get to look at, and all of them are pretty devoid of any color.
The sound design is fantastic! Like previous games in the Castlevania series, the orchestral soundtrack is a pleasure to listen to. In combat, the music gets you pumped as violins pick up tempo. At times when things slow down during platforming, the music sets the right mood of ambiance. The voice acting is also pretty solid as actors like Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart give great performances. The dialog is delivered well, despite the fact that the writing is poor.
Speaking of which, the story is rather disappointing. While it starts out rather strong with great moments that get you hooked, the story only goes downhill as the plot begins to fall apart. It feels as if the writers didn't know what directions to take the characters and plot, with one scene in particular that manages to blow massive plot holes in the story. I won't spoil too many details, but one scene features a specific character explaining his plan to Dracula. This character goes so far as to call every single event and character motivation, that he is so sure will happen one thousand years into the future. This would make a lot more sense if he was psychic, but he's not, he's just assuming all this bull crap will fall right into place in one thousand years time. The ending is very abrupt and gives no real sense of closure as Dracula defeats the final boss as just... leaves. They may as well have just said “Welp, we're done! Show's over!”, at least that's what it felt like to me.
Overall, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 has some good potential and replay value. It's just a shame that only half of the game is fun to play, while the other half forces you to plod through boring urban environments, sluggish stealth, and tedious lever pulling. All of these issues topped off with a disappointing narrative that fails to live up to it's potential. While I did want to go back to the game, as there were plenty of portions of it I enjoyed, Lords of Shadow 2 feels like a step backwards from the original.