Available On: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed OnL Xbox 360
This game was supplied free of charge by Konami for review purposes.
As Dracula, the legendary vampiric Prince of Darkness and slayer of entire armies, I never envisioned myself crouched behind a box in a bland, generic secret evil lair, desperately attempting to avoid the massive guard or else face instant failure by way of explosive cannon round to the face. Nor did I ever imagine myself transforming into a rat in order to scuttle through the level, avoiding contact with the foes on patrol. When one thinks Dracula, this isn’t quite what comes to mind.
Indeed, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a veritable grab bag of good and bad elements, all loosely bundled together in a confused narrative. To be entirely clear it’s not as good as the first Lords of Shadow, a brilliant adventure that captivated me when I first played it and that garnered itself considerable praise from gamers around the world. But contained within this sequel is a good game, one that is certainly rough around the edges but still ultimately worth playing as it wraps up the trilogy with authority.
If you have never experienced the original game then Lords of Shadow 2 doesn’t do much to clarify its own complex and baffling lore, a problem made all the worse by the fact that the second game in the trilogy was originally only released on handheld devices, despite containing fairly important plot elements. Thankfully Konami later released the second game on Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network, but a lot of people still missed out on it. A video package at the beginning of Lords of Shadow 2 vaguely attempts to piece together the jumbled tale, but even if you have played the first and second games you’ll still likely find yourself a little lost, the strange saga of the Belmont family flying past like some sort of corrupted Coronation Street. Twists, turns and mind-bending weirdness abound.
Things, sadly, do not get much better on the narrative front for quite some time. Individual elements of the story are often handled well enough, sucking you into the moment with intense, over-the-top scenes, and Robert Carlyle makes for a chilling Dracula, but when the developers attempt to put everything together in to a 20-hour long game the script becomes a jumbled mess with no regard for pacing, either in terms of gameplay or story. Things just seem to happen because reasons, large chunks of the plot don’t make a whole lot of sense and the quality of dialogue is pretty poor to say the least, though it must be said that Patrick Stewart does the best he can with the material, lending his natural gravitas to the role. The Castlevania lore has always been bonkers and the original Lords of Shadow was no exception with a fairly twisty plot, so I certainly wasn’t expecting something easy to follow, but Lords of Shadow 2 feels so loosely held together that I’m worried a sneeze would result in the entire thing crumbling. With such a convoluted back story and colorful gallery of strange characters the script needed to be handled with care, especially since their really is so much worth telling and exploring, but the way the story is conveyed feels haphazard. I’d go into details as to what exactly fails to work, but doing so would inevitably ruin too much of the plot. Suffice to say it’s best to go into Lords of Shadow 2 with the simple intent of enjoying the ride rather than focusing too much on the specifics of it all. Successfully do this and you’ll have a good time. Fail to tune out the more critical aspects of your brain, however, and you might just find yourself repressing a lot of heart-felt sighs in between the more awesome moments.
As the game opens we find Dracula awakening to a world of skyscrapers, cars and mobile phones, a far cry from the settings that Castlevania is known for. He’s in a drastically weakened state, his body nearly as ruined as his once magnificent castle. There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as an old face in the form Zobek arrives to inform Dracula of Satan’s imminent return, and only the Prince of Darkness restored to full power can stand against him. In return for Dracula’s help Zobek promises the vampire the one thing he seems to truly desire: an end to his immortal life. And thus begins our journey, complete with handy plot device for starting the player off with a limited selection of powers that must be gained during the course of the game in true Castlevania style. And is if the return of Satan was not bad there’s also have an evil plan involving a deadly gas that mutates humans, while Dracula is attempting to deal with his troubled past. His dead son and wife are appearing to him, and are somehow able to drag him back in time to his vast castle. You know, everyday stuff.
Ultimately in spite of its pacing problems and muddled storytelling I did find myself enjoying the plot. There are numerous holes and missed opportunities but the story gets by on the simple fact that Dracula is a badass who does badass things against badass monsters, keeping you in the moment and therefore generally managing to stop you from thinking too much, at least until you switch the game off.
Being a Castlevania title battling legions of angry foes makes up a large chunk of the game, and you’re certainly not lacking in weaponry to take them on, starting with the series’ traditional whips. The core mechanics are simple enough: X is your direct, heavier attack while Y offers up sweeping moves capable of hitting multiple enemies at the same time, and the left trigger takes on the role of both dodge and block. Successfully block an enemy attack at the correct time and you’ll be given a split-second to get a few free strikes in. A tap of the A button mid-combo will also send you and the unfortunate victim into the air where a further beating can be applied, although you’ll remain vulnerable to enemies on the ground. Dracula’s other two weapons come in the form of the Void Sword, a glowing blue blade that restores a portion of health with every successful strike, and the Chaos Claws which deal heavy damage to anyone unlucky enough to get punched in the face by them. Both of these require a special kind of energy to use which can be gained in a few different ways, but the primary method during combat is to perform unbroken chains of moves and block attacks, thus causing enemies to drop special orbs that you suck up. By tapping the appropriate shoulder button you can instantly swap to either of these weapons during a fight, thus mixing up your attacks, while a small selection of secondary powers, like a projectile that freezes enemies in place, bring some variety to a combat system that isn’t overly deep but still packs in enough to keep things fun.
Begin to dissect the combat mechanics, though, and a myriad of problems do start to show themselves, each small in nature but massively important in this style of hack and slash game. The first is that enemies big and small are often able to shrug off your attacks mid-combo and begin their own offensive. Launch into the sweeping Y attacks and there’s little sense of weight to your strikes, which is understandable, but your direct attack also suffers from the same problem and it’s guesswork as to whether or not your blows will actually stagger the enemy or if they’ll just keep charging. Even when using the mighty Chaos Claws enemies often seemed unfazed. In a system like this having the direct attacks stagger the enemy is important for crow control, encouraging the player to constantly monitor the situation in order to keep as many foes off-balance as possible. Not only does failing to do so this ruin any sense of power and weight your attacks are supposed to have, but there also appears to be no discernible pattern behind when enemies will be staggered or when they’ll shrug your blows off, creating an awkward rhythm to combat and making it hard to get a good combo going as you’ll find yourself either constantly getting hit or blocking/dodging. This problem isn’t such a big deal earlier in the game, but as crowds of enemies grow ever larger it becomes far more significant.
Having both block and dodge mapped to a single button is also a gripe I’ve had with other games of this nature over the years, and in Lords of Shadow 2 it did cause me some problems in the heat of battle, where the game sometimes seemed unable to keep up with whether I intended to block or dodge an incoming attack, especially on higher difficulty settings where the difference between victory and defeat is tiny. It’s for this very reason that I generally prefer games to use a control scheme with each action mapped to different buttons, however, in the case of Lords of Shadow 2 the entire controller is utilized already, so it’s hard to see exactly how the developers could have managed it.
Furthermore there’s no couple of frames of invincibility on the dodge mechanic, something which you’ll note that some of the best hack ‘n’ slash games have, and for good reason. The idea behind this is that the developers only care that you did hit the dodge button, that you reacted to the enemies attack, and aren’t bothered whether your character physically evaded the very top of the incoming spear or axe. In Lords of Shadow 2, though, there’s no such thing, and that can cause some small frustrations, especially when it comes to attacks from off-screen enemies or ending up accidently dodging into another attack. There were even occasions where I encountered adversary’s whose blows seemed to be faster than the dodge animation, again making me wish for those few frames of invincibility.
MercurySteam commented that comparisons to God of War pissed them off, but quite frankly their anger is misplaced and a little strange given that Castlevania: Lord of Shadow 2’s combat system is very similar to Santa Monica’s efforts, and thus comparisons are quite justified, and in some regards are flattering. And there’s nothing wrong with that: drawing inspiration from other games is not inherently bad, and indeed the videogame industry has created a deep history of building off of other games. Consider how many of beloved games have mechanics based upon other developers work. But in this instance MercurySteam have crafted a combat system that, deliberately or not, apes the likes of God of War, yet is lacking the small yet important details that elevate the combat from being simply good to great, the same details that made titles like Bayonetta so amazing. And so it’s hardly surprisingly that Lords of Shadow 2’s combat is good. Not great, not bad, but good.
My own critique of the combat in this review stems from my storied history with the genre, and I admit is therefore focused more on the inner workings than most gamers are likely to examine or even care about. I’ve spent countless hours slashing away at a variety of strange monster in weird places, figuring out how the get the very best from the mechanics presented to me, down to every little frame of animation. So don’t let my seemingly harsh words fool you, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 boasts a fine fighting system that you’ll have fun with, it simply lacks the refinement needed to elevate it to the upper echelons of greatness.
There’s a parade of well-designed foes to keep you on your toes, and while a few of them are a touch frustrating, such as armored military goons who constantly block your assaults and wield guns for annoying attacks from off-screen, they generally succeed at providing a good challenge, each featuring a range of moves that must be committed to memory so as to best effectively combat them. As one would expect the slaying of said monsters and beasties grants XP that in turn can be spent to acquire new abilities and attacks, while weapons themselves can also be levelled up through the Mastery system, one of the game’s few original ideas. Essentially in the Mastery system using an attack constantly fills said attack’s meter and eventually allows you to transfer that energy over to the appropriate weapon – transfer enough and it levels up. It’s a clever system and one that naturally rewards you. Naturally this could have encouraged player to reuse attacks over and over, but the Focus Meter which grands energy for Void Sword and Chaos Claws fills faster when a wider variety of moves are used, which should hopefully ensure that gamers mix up their offense a little.
Now that I’ve attempted to combat my initial negativity toward the plot with a small dose of positivity from the fighting mechanics, let us turn our attention back to the stealth aspects of the game that I all too briefly talked about earlier. Given that Dracula is in a weakened state there’s several occasions sprinkled throughout the game where you’ll need to stay out of sight, usually from the hulking Golgoth guards who sport chunky red armor and cannons that could rival an estate car in size. Being spotted tends to result in instant failure as the Golgoth are incredibly accurate with their weapons, while being terminally stupid in all other aspects of their job, that rectifying your mistake is damn near impossible at times.
The main mechanics of stealth rely upon are Dracula’s ability to distract guards with a swarm of bats, his power to possess enemies for a short period and his slightly odd skill of being able to transform into a rat, allowing him to pass relatively undisturbed and fit through grates, granting access to otherwise locked off areas. With these three core powers one could rightfully expect a few interesting situations to crop up, but in practice stealth feels clumsy and the general design of each section poor, indicating that the developers were out of their depth. Melee powers are also forcibly disabled, so if and when you do get spotted fighting your way out is not an option, and given that the rules surrounding when guards will detect you seem to be made up on the spot you will be discovered at least a few times throughout the game.
The ultimate example of Lords of Shadow 2’s clumsy attempts to imitate a stealth game comes when you must evade a monster with dried leaves on the ground alerting him to your presence. To get through the area you avoid the leaves, often by clambering around, and throwing things at bells placed around the level to distract the beast. On paper it sounds interesting but in execution it’s horribly designed and more than a little annoying, especially given that you fight the character straight after completing the stealth section with no reason given as to why you couldn’t just do so before. To put it simply stealth in Lords of Shadow 2 is boring, and I quite honestly hated playing through those sections, wishing with all my might that they would simply vanish. They even fail to justify their own existence within the game as Dracula frequently takes on humongous enemies yet is seemingly unable to plow through Nosgoth guards with no plausible explanation ever provided, and manage drag the entire game down with their mere presence. . Thankfully in the grand scheme of this 20-hour game the sneaking doesn’t make up too much of the gameplay.
In truth, however, I do greatly appreciate MercurySteam’s attempt to mix up their gameplay by introducing stealth elements, but I can’t help but feel like they would have met with more success by drawing inspiration from something like Batman: Arkham Asylum or even Splinter Cell: Blacklist, creating a predatory system in which you stalk foes as Dracula, draining them of their precious blood. This would still fit in thematically with Dracula’s supposed need to stay hidden until his powers are fully regained, while allowing players to feel like a badass vampire, because in its current form skulking behind boxes isn’t exactly fulfilling the power fantasy.
The game is something of a graphical mess at times, the often lovely art design heavily marred by some of the worst jagged edges I’ve ever come across and textures that look like they were ripped directly from the days of the original Xbox. At least the animations and character designs generally manage to impress with fluid movement further enhancing the mystique of Dracula and some awesome looking beasties to battle, but seriously, what is up with the amount of rough, jagged edges? Given that we’re so deep into the Xbox 360’s lifespan this level of poor quality from a triple A game is simply embarrassing. The only defense the game has from its own horrid jaggies is that it does manage to conjure some beautiful vistas, and in those moments it’s one of the better looking games on the console, but sadly these are generally limited to when Dracula gets to return to the gothic architecture of his castle, the lovely views of crumbling buildings far too often giving way to the modern-day setting’s mostly dull environments.
That brings me to another gripe with the game, albeit one that is more focused on missed potential than anything else. In Lords of Shadow MercurySteam proved their art design chops with lovely environments and a clear talent for dealing with gothic fantasy, and thus their choice to juxtapose Dracula with our own modern world is intrinsically fascinating. Initially things are promising with skyscrapers boasting a dark, gothic edge and neon signs illuminating streets, but then MercurySteam utterly fail to utilise this setting in two different ways: the first is that a large chunk of the levels not set within the confines of Dracula’s crumbling keep takes place in such interesting locations as underground parking structures, office blocks and bland, generic streets, only occasionally using the setting to its full and true potential. The second is that they utterly ignore the story opportunities that Dracula existing within the modern world presents. Scattered around the environments are things to find which quickly fill you in on the back story which explains how the world was aware of Dracula’s existence and the terror he wrought, and makes for some fascinating reading, but as for the Prince of Darkness himself he seems perfectly at ease in this technological world, indicating that he must have ventured forth from his lair at some point, but it’s never explained when or even why. Even high-tech security lasers didn’t seem to faze him. If they had no plans to take advantage of the contrast between protagonist and setting, then I wonder why bother?
But when the jagged lines disappear and everything comes together there’s true beauty here, and it’s reinforced by a stellar soundtrack which properly captures the game’s epic tone. The sweeping orchestral sounds fit so naturally with the game that there were times when I almost didn’t even notice the music, a strange compliment but one that rings true.
The platforming has also managed to take a turn for the worse with swarms of angry, loud bats highlighting the route, successfully managing to remove any sense of exploration from the game, although on occasion the handy flying rodents failed miserably to do their job, leaving me feeling oddly liberated as I leapt from handhold to handhold. Given that the platforming is linear the need for route highlighting seems non-existent. It’s also impossible to fail the climbing sections unless you very deliberately hurl yourself into oblivion. To progress you simply push the analogue stick in the vague direction of the bats and tap A – the game will do the rest. Clearly Dracula has been attending the cinematic platforming school that so many other videogame characters have graduated from.
Look, I appreciate that many critics and even gamers seem to enjoy this style of platforming, but I’m not one of them, except in certain circumstances where I feel the cinematic qualities manage to make the experience fun, such as in Tomb Raider where every leap felt death-defying, even though it really wasn’t. There’s no sense of danger in Lords of Shadows platforming, and with the already linear path carefully highlighted the sensation that my hand was being held for absolutely no reason was almost overwhelming. To put it simply I found navigating the many beams, rafters and leaps of Castlevania’s world to be entirely lifeless.
As for exploration there’s not much opportunity to venture off the beaten path, and often when you can I found that the level design was unintuitive with pointless pathways that led back to where you had just come from. Like the first game acquiring certain powers or items allows one to gain access to areas of the world previously inaccessible, but your reward for backtracking through the environments is a little corridor or room containing one of the many different collectibles, an effort that sometimes doesn’t really feel worth it. A more open world design with room for true exploration, even in relatively limited form, would have been greatly appreciated. The different powers, tools and abilities you earn are just crying out for more opportunities to be utilized, and this linear adventure simply doesn’t allow for that.
The boss fights are the clear highlights of the entire game, pitting you against wonderful looking opponents that clearly resulted from artists lavishing great heaps of time upon them. They’re entirely traditional in their design with clear, telegraphed attack patterns to learn and counter, but thankfully don’t fall for the trope of having glowing weak spots and require you to utilise your entire moveset in order to achieve victory. With your focus firmly on one monstrous enemy the design flaws within the combat system are largely banished, leaving in their wake a joyous challenge. It’s in these fights that the combat mechanics shine – when you get hit or die, it’s not because of the system’s flaws, it’s because you weren’t good enough, because you were not quite fast enough. Though they may not win any prizes for originality there’s nothing inherently wrong with that when they are this enjoyable and well put together, and Lords of Shadow 2’s boss fights successfully evoke feelings of old-school throw-downs.
Pacing is a continuous problem throughout the game, the developers seemingly having no concept of editing material in order to get the rhythm right. There’s around 20-hours of action to get through here, and yet it honestly feels like quite a bit of that could have been trimmed down to form a 15-hour game and would have felt much better for it, an opinion likely to get me flayed given how much emphasis is placed on pure content these days, an understandable viewpoint given that people want the most for their hard-earned money. Some aspects of the story go by in blur and never get the fleshing out they deserve, while other elements take far too long to play out. Nor is a steady rhythm ever achieved between the main gameplay mechanics. Even the boss battles suffer at the hands of pacing as they go from sporadic events to nicely spaced out to being hurled at the screen in a furious barrage of angry, giant pain.
It’s very much a game that does get better as you go, though. The entire first half of the game feels rather weak with straightforward battles, uninspiring locales to explore and a plot which feels like it’s managed to get lost somewhere along the way, but the second half of the game almost feels like a different beast. By this point you’ll have acquired a fair number of new combat skills and thus battles are more intense while bosses keep things interesting. The plot finally gets a grip on its own subject material and while still heavily flawed at least manages to deliver some oomph, and the modern-day setting gives way far more to Dracula’s castle. The final few hours are the best of the entire game, and feels like what the previous 10 or so hours should have been.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2’s biggest problem is simply inconsistency. In some areas it successfully surpasses the original game, and yet in others it struggles. For every good moment or fight there seems to be another lurking around the corner, waiting to mar the overall experience. For every strong environment there’s a boring area to counter it, for every lovely vista there’s terrible jagged edges that draw the eye.. This results in an overall weaker package than the original Lords of Shadows, and yet still one that is worth playing. It’s not the sequel I hoped it would be, but Dracula’s just so cool it’s hard to care.
+ Dracula is kickass.
+ Fun combat system.
+ Brilliant boss fights.
– Muddled plot.
– Poor pacing.
– Stupid stealth sections.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Though it does not manage to build upon the foundations laid by the first Lords of Shadow as well as it should have, Lords of Shadow 2 is nevertheless a fun action game that’s worth playing, especially if you’re already invested in the series.