Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 – PS3
Release Date (NA): February 25th, 2014
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
For anyone that’s ever followed my work on the site, you may wonder why in the hell it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing the most recent Castlevania game to date…well it’s a short story really. I was absolutely blown away by the original Lords of Shadow and quickly made my way through the more retro-feeling Mirror of Fate, and although I did indeed begin playing Lords of Shadow 2, the differences between it and its predecessor made the game feel alien and unfamiliar to me and the simple truth is that I lost interest in it.
However, a few days ago I was really in the mood for the original Lords of Shadow, and afterwards I felt like I was ready to give LoS 2 a fair shake at last. It wasn’t always as engrossing, or as fun, or even as pleasant to play through as the first game, but I pushed on and finished the bulk of it within about 3 days. Unlike the original, I’m not particularly inclined to go back through every nook and crevice in search of 100% completion. LoS 2 is not a bad game, but it doesn’t feel like a smooth continuation of the first installment and tends to fall flat in its attempts to improve and expand upon many aspects that made the original game so great.
I’ll get to the specifics in a moment, but first let me properly introduce Lords of Shadow 2. The story starts where Lords of Shadow and Mirror of Fate left off, essentially picking up after the post-credits scene of LoS. Reverie and Resurrection, both DLC chapters for the first game, also play a critical role in the plot, mostly bridging the gap between and pre-Dracula and post-Dracula Gabriel. Ironically – in my opinion – the rather significant happening of Gabriel becoming Dracula is glossed over uneventfully and I wish LoS 2 had spent more (or even any) time exploring the transformation.
Instead, the story begins sometime in modern times, circa 1990 – 2050. An exact year is never given, but the first story took place in 1047 and “about a thousand years” is referenced a couple of times. We catch up with Gabriel as an emaciated and confused Dracula, visited by Zobek who informs him of Satan’s imminent return. When we last saw these 3, Satan was particularly unhappy with both Zobek and Gabriel, and though Zobek ultimately fought against Gabriel in LoS, the 2 aim to work together in order to quell the greater threat. The story takes a few interesting twists and turns from there, though the gap between “good Gabriel” and “Prince of Darkness” is never really explored.
I’m not quite sure if the story isn’t as good or if it just isn’t told as well, but LoS 2 lacks the cinematic quality of the first game. Instead of a neat, linear progression, LoS 2 makes use of an open world and a fragmented story that shifts between a present day, vaguely Parisian city and the good ol’ castle that previously endeared us. The castle stuff is pretty familiar – caves, ice, spires, stairways, catwalks, and the like. Unfortunately we don’t get much of the surrounding outdoor scenery like we did in LoS, which built up to the castle. Still, the sequences are impressive and well done…it’s the “modern” stuff that seems to suck some of the life out of the gameplay.
Our time in the city is spent in shady streets, cold, artificial industrial facilities, and derelict buildings. It isn’t that the graphics are poorly done or that the environments are unrealistic, they’re just drab and perhaps a little too modern and mundane. It’s as if these sets would be more at home in another game…certainly something besides a Castlevania title. I’d venture to say the game is split probably 60/40 between the city and the castle, which ultimately contributes to the mildly disappointing feel. It doesn’t help that the castle sequences feel thrown in because the game “needs castle sequences.” Storywise, Gabriel is searching the city for Satan’s accolytes and the mayhem that ensues, all of which unfolds in the city. The castle portions manifest as some sort of weird flashback/hallucination/alternate reality/dream sequence revolving around specters of Marie and a young Trevor. The two threads are only very thinly woven together until the end and it’s more than a little jolting having to leave one setting behind and acclimate to another every so often.
As a result of this style of gameplay (or perhaps it is the cause…) there are no discrete levels in Lords of Shadow 2. Instead we have a series of “missions,” one leading onto the next, though there is no clear break in gameplay or narrative, nor does the game impart any structural demarcations on this new open world. You’re free to explore anything you’ve already completed at any time, but the game doesn’t make it easy and it doesn’t exactly encourage the sort of exploration it supports. A new feature known as a “Map Room” allows Gabriel/Dracula to warp around this convoluted setting – 4 districts in the city and 4 areas of the castle – but they can be difficult to locate, their locations difficult to remember, and to top it off, you’ll have to search around for a “portal” to travel between the castle and the city; the 2 areas do not intersect otherwise. I think the concept is decent but it isn’t presented in way that makes it all that useful. You’ll be climbing around so many buildings and tunnels and airshafts and rooftops that you’ll never have a fucking clue where you are, especially in the city. The castle is only marginally more navigable with its long stretches of unconventional pathways – over and under doorways, around walls, and plenty of vertical scaling.
Why is getting around so difficult? One word: climbing. LoS had its fair share of climbing, but the game was pretty good about letting you know when you needed to climb and where you needed to go next, not to mention it also made sense to do some climbing when exploring ruins, forgotten mountains, and dilapidated castle structures. It’s not so easy this time around. Many times jumping doesn’t seem like the obvious way out and even more often the path is 100% unclear. I applaud the effort, but I wonder if it’s a bit too realistic and if too much time is spent figuring out where to go and what to do in the environment, not too dissimilar from a stealth game (which we’ll touch on again soon). I also don’t mind some climbing in the interest of completing some sort of an objective, but when it comes to this whole open world concept and being able to travel around in the city, why should our character be relegated to rooftops and ledges and exposed beams? Let’s have a simple walk down the street for cryin’ out loud!
The core hack-n-slash combat system has largely been carried over from Lords of Shadow with a few gussied up improvements. Like LoS it’s a little confusing – direct attacks, area attacks, light magic (now the Void Sword), shadow magic (now the Chaos Claws), combos ranging from the simple to the elaborate, aerial attacks, hold L2 and push Square, etc. The major addition is the concept of “mastery,” whereby one slowly masters a weapon by using different attacks over and over. Of course one doesn’t have to use this, but if you do go after 100% mastery, it forces you to change up your combat style periodically, thus opening up possibilities that might’ve gone unnoticed. Ultimately it’s an improvement from a mechanical standpoint, though I will admit that from a narrative standpoint, the “shadow whip” and “Chaos Claws” are a lot less interesting than upgrading one’s Combat Cross and discovering relics like the Black Knight’s Gauntlet in the first game.
The original Lords of Shadow included its fair share of clever puzzles which are pretty much absent in LoS 2. Instead, we’re given stealth sections to negotiate. The game will (sort of) hold your hand through the first one and drop hints occasionally, though figuring out exactly what to do in these instances is a challenging aspect of gameplay. Gabriel as Dracula has picked up a few new powers like turning into a pack of rats or possessing individuals. He’s pretty restricted in using them though; the “Plague of Rats” can only be used when there’s special little shadow area to facilitate the change, and the possession only works on certain individuals in certain scenarios. At any rate, these powers are needed to skulk around some areas and particularly essential when it comes to avoiding these huge demon guards; creatures deemed too powerful to be taken on directly by a weakened Gabriel.
Personally I absolutely hated these stealth sequences. I was almost never able to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do and had to look up instructions several times. Many times a combination of strange powers was required, such as Bat Swarm-ing a guard to distract him, climbing to an elevated location, dropping behind him to possess him, and on and on it goes. I guess the process is “fun” for some gamers, but if anything it feels completely out of place in this game.
On the plus side, the graphics have improved a notch or two…and they were pretty damn impressive to begin with! The detail is sharper, the animation is smoother, the 3D renders are more fluid, and overall it’s a sharper, crisper game. The differences may not be immediately apparent, but if you play the 2 back to back it’s a little more obvious. The cutscenes are probably the same caliber as before and still quite well done even if the story they’re attempting to tell is messy and disjointed. We’re again treated to the vocal talents of Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart who give appropriately dramatic performances and really push the game into “classy” territory. The traditional orchestral score is updated a bit to match the modern scenes with the occasional drum machine and electric guitar. Overall the sound has been normalized a bit better and is noticeably more even than the sometimes quiet narration and booming soundtrack of the original.
Lords of Shadow 2 is a game that I desperately wanted not just to like, but to love, not only because of my affection for Castlevania in general but also because I’d consider Lords of Shadow to be one of the finest post-4th-gen games I’ve personally ever played. But like so many sequels, it just didn’t quite live up to the magical experience of the first. I really do appreciate the ways in which the developers tried to push forward and make LoS 2 its own game, but I think they went a little too far and I think they made a major misstep by attempting to venture into “stealth” territory. I also wasn’t enthralled with the modern setting – certainly not after the majestic, Old World, dark fantasy flavor from LoS – but I also think it wasn’t handled in the best possible way. I believe the developers were eager to cash in on so many of today’s hyper-real war and stealth titles and endeavored to inject some of that into the sequel…they even use the word “mission” to denote the game’s various objectives. They took a gamble and it didn’t work, and that’s unfortunate.
I know I’ve spent the better part of this review discussing Lords of Shadow 2 in the context of Lords of Shadow, and I know that some will probably chide me for not judging the game on its own merits. However, so much of one’s experience with LoS 2 is going to depend on one’s experiences with and feelings towards LoS. LoS 2 is not just a sequel, it’s a continuation, and I feel like anyone who plays LoS 2 without having played LoS will miss out on the complete picture. And for those reasons I don’t feel totally unjustified with making a ton of comparisons.
If Lords of Shadow 2 was its own game, I probably would’ve rated it a little higher, mostly because there wouldn’t be this whole expectation/disappointment dynamic going on. Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that the stealth areas are needlessly difficult, the fragmented story (and consequently setting), and the semi-unsuccessful attempt at creating an open world game. To be fair, Lords of Shadow was a tough act to follow, and I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy Mirror of Fate despite its heavy departure from the first game; it didn’t try to be “Lords of Shadow 2″ and instead aimed for its own flavor.
Would I recommend Lords of Shadow 2? Well, I wouldn’t not recommend it, if that makes any sense. Portions of the gameplay are well-done and satisfying (I especially loved the segments in the “City of the Dead” and the opening battle with the Brotherhood’s “Siege Titan”) but large stretches are also a unique blend of boredom and frustration, such as the early stealth sequence in the modern pharmaceutical plant and “traveling” through the city in general. Fans of Lords of Shadow and Castlevania in general may want to play this just to see how the story “ends,” but I would definitely suggest that those interested curb their expectations. If you’re insanely familiar with Castlevania lore, you’ll recognize that while LoS is an original story and/or re-imagining of the franchise, the first couple of games were rife with nods to the original games: vampire lieutenants Brauner and Olrox, the village of Wygol, Trevor, Simon, and Alucard, Carmilla, Cornell, and the list goes on from the blatantly obvious to the totally obscure. It’s a bummer that LoS 2 didn’t continue the trend, which I guess is another reason that it feels a little distant and alien in my opinion. I suppose we do get a neat little nod in the form of Victor Belmont, the supposed star of the canceled Dreamcast exclusive Castlevania: Resurrection, but that’s about it.
I encourage fans to give a shot and make up their own minds, but for me, well, it just ain’t quite my cup o’ tea. Even though this marks the end of the Lords of Shadow series, hopefully it isn’t the end of Castlevania…I just hope we can keep the next installment out of the 21st Century…!
Stay tuned for my review of the Lords of Shadow 2 DLC chapter, Revelations!
Reviewed by The Cubist
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