Game Review – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

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Game Review – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
Action, Adventure
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Review based on Xbox Live Arcade version
Publisher: Konami
Developer: MercurySteam
Release Date: February 25th, 2014
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 took much of the gaming world by surprise. Many didn’t expect a follow-up to the first entry in the series, and with the gameplay footage and artwork made available over time, it was clear this was going to far surpass the initial entry. Prior to its launch, a demo of the game’s opening battle had been made available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 console marketplaces everywhere, and both the fan and critic acceptance was almost immediately clear. Just the concept of playing as Dracula this time around made many a hearts flutter with anticipation. But is this entry to the level of a suitable sequel, or have we been given something far worse than what we were initially sold?

Lords of Shadow 2 is a largely different offering to the Castlevania lineage than most will be comfortable with, though that’s not the impression you’ll get at first. The tale starts with Dracula at his throne and must defend his castle and kingdom from the humans who have broken through the gates. This leads to the first titan battle of the new franchise, as well as your one-on-one battle with a Brother of Light. This start is what the promotional material and demo have highlighted the most, but what follows breaks nearly every wall of the series possible.

After a great deal of narration that runs through the extensive history between the opening events and what’s to come, Dracula awakens in modern day Castlevania. Weak and weary, he wanders the streets confused until a man named Zobek (voiced by Patrick Stewart) happens upon you. He has come to learn of Satan’s impending arrival and wishes to recruit you to help put a stop to this. In exchange for doing this deed once more, Dracula will recieve the gift he has longed for: Death and eternal peace.

As you progress through the story, more of the character’s history is unlocked through dream states, visits to the underworld, but largely by spirits from Dracula’s past including his son Trevor. You also meet up with another Belmont, as well as the dreaded Chupacabras who is reduced to being the equivalent of this game’s JarJar Binks that runs a supply store. You also need to obtain and relearn the additional weapons you had at the start, which include the icy Void Sword, the fiery Chaos Claws, and later a double jump ability that is bestowed to you upon a character’s rather pointless passing. Once all the pieces of your strengths and memories are put back together after tearing through various acolytes and Cenobite looking bosses, you are put into a situation that test Dracula’s devotion to his own blood in order to finally put an end to Satan himself.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

While the story is clearly out of place for any Castlevania title its b-movie approach, there’s also some odd and equally annoying choices for gameplay. First of all, this title adds stealth action challenges. The first one or two times it’s understandable as Dracula is still weak, but even when fully powered you are still hiding from larger guards and avoiding contact with bosses before you advance to the spot you have to battle it in. These really do break the flow of the game since most of the time you’re ploughing through villains and suddenly have to stop to figure out how to distract someone to take over a body in order to ride an elevator or access the next room. And then there’s insanely long and drawn out level designs that not only repeat themselves as you advance, but repeatedly make you go out of your way with convoluted paths and puzzles that no architect in their sane mind would ever put together out of new material or destroyed rubble. Imagine constantly moving along elaborate pathways to find a wire to chew on in rat form, go back, become human, distract a guard, then possess the body just to activate an elevator. Or better yet distract said guard, run to the other side without being seen, take on a fog form, go through a air grate to the lower level, activate a switch, go back up a floor distract another guard, avoid being seen to use the fog ability and bypass yet another guard to be trapped in a laser filled room you need to reach the other side of to take fog form again and reach another floor to take an elevator, all while not staying too long on a certain block of floor. These are just a few of these complex and frustrating paths that make up this game, and believe me, there’s more of the same one right after another it seems.

To be fair, when you’re not hiding in the shadows like a coward or being bombarded with scene after scene of extensive story progression, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a solid enough experience. The audio has some strong musical scores that help make scenes moving or help build tension well, especially certain battles outside the human world. The music to the stage of the The Toymaker is the best example, being as whimsical and light-hearted as the stage and character’s incredibly well written story and dialogue. The background for him is actually played out on a stage through puppetry, narrated by a soft voiced marionette that explains what happened to him, how he breaks the curse, and what you need to do to wake the Toymaker from his slumber. This makes the turn of events incredibly painful to witness, leaving you heartbroken over his past and what comes next. Other than this section, the rest of the voice actors do a decent job, though most of the time it all greatly pales in comparison.

Even the graphics really stand out most of the time, though moreso in the cutscenes than in-game action. The scenery in each world, even section of town effectively depicts the time you’re in, as well as the general setting. This makes each world unique to one another, though each section of those worlds have plenty of similarities that make it hard to differentiate one part from another much of the time. Again the Toymaker’s world is well designed and feels like a little fairy tale woven into the rich gothic tapestry. The modern setting does clash with it a bit, but given the story it’s a bit hard to not put in a lot of modern lights, signs and vehicles.

The biggest issues here and that there are still some rough edges to the characters in the cut-scenes, and the black is actually pixelated and not that deep, sometimes actually looking for deep grey. It’s excusable when you take the better framerate of this game into consideration, especially compared to the previous Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. This would all become a lot more obvious if the visuals looked that choppy, but here the only time you pick up on these are during close-ups and going in and out of worlds led by your son due to the immense amount of darkness surrounding you.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

The controls feel a lot tighter than the previous entry as well. The response time is pretty quick, and given that some of the weapons have elaborate timing sequences to the button mashing to execute a move, it really helps to ensure you nailed it with little effort. The camera is highly responsive as well and gives you a decent panoramic view when looking around. Unfortunately, due to the darker nature, you still may not easily find the way through those elaborate mazes without close inspection or the brightness turned up temporarily. Sometimes you can trigger bats to show the way, but now and then they don’t respond to the buttons and can cause you to fall or go backwards instead.

There is more to do in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 than just completing the story. There is a great deal of lore to be discovered throughout the worlds, and you can upgrade all of your weapons by spending blood points to unlock special attacks, then using those attacks to build up the master levels for them as well. This seems to strengthen your arsenal, but that could just be from a good deal of practice using what you acquire. These points can also be spent at the Chupacabras shop to help you along the way. You can also find gems to fill your void, chaos, and life meters that are in various pain boxes, as well as sacrifice fountains that increase your item carrying capacity, as well as unlock new challenges to complete back at the aforementioned underworld store. Many of these are difficult to find, even when trying to follow the Dodo Bird skeleton you summon that is meant to guide you to any secrets, but good luck finding it most of the time.

The biggest perk ends up being unlocking Prince of Darkness difficulty after completing the game once. It carries over everything you collected, not to mention pays you back all the blood points you spent since you don’t start with those additional weapons. The increased challenge really does become a nice breath of fresh air after an easy or medium run, especially when you have collected all the gems and earned mastery in all weaponry. At this point, it all becomes more like a speed run. You don’t really need to follow the story, you know the stealth patterns, how to move around certain long pathways, and more. This makes the action a little more fluid, and the overall experience far more entertaining.

But the biggest complaint is the lack of a start menu. When the game loads you have the option of choosing a save device, and when you do you’re immediately thrust into the world. There’s no way to exit the game, there’s no save option, nothing like that. Play until you’re done, find a way for the game to auto-save (usually be entering or exiting a large area or travelling between worlds) and just eject the disc once the writing to the hard drive is done. Sure there’s no real need for a start menu, but it’s nice to have to help give you a little more control of things than just sbruptly diving head first into Castlevania.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 gets a lot right technically, but also a fair amount wrong in every other ways. Yes the story is as cheesy a b-movie theme as possible, making it feel completely out of canon with the Belmont world yet still pull in enough lore for it to make sense in the grand scheme of it all. The progression is well paced if not a bit too slow at times, the acting is on par and emotional when it needs to be, the controls tight, and the visuals are profoundly smoother. The stage layouts can definitely use less complexity though, a start menu would be nice to exit to, or at least a manual save function of some kind, and not having Dracula pull a Solid Snake every once in a while would be nice as well. The comedic relief of the Chupacabras is an atrocity to the creature’s namesake, and having the chunk of history in the opening narration as later downloadable content is infuriating since that would have made a better sequel, if not a prequel for the third installment if there is one, not to mention maybe help you better understand Dracula’s confusing emotional range. But, in the end, you won’t hate yourself for playing through this title as there is a good deal of material worth suffering through the long-winded level designs and rather weak ending that sets up the inevitable future downloadable content to expand on the tale. If you really want to explore this entry to the franchise, it’s worth a shot, but if any of this review makes you feel uneasy then you’re better off renting it first, if not waiting for a decent price break or sale.