Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 - Review

With 2010's Lords of Shadow the long beloved vampire and other horror creature slaying franchise primarily got rebooted. While reviews were mainly positive but also a bit held back due to some of the games few merits, it's not too far fetched to describe it as a hidden gem of the last generation of consoles. Especially due to the fact that the entire franchise mixed the traditional lore with new ideas and approaches, the over 20 year old franchise felt incredibly fresh again. It turned out to be the best selling entry in the franchise.
Following the dramatic twist of the first Lords of Shadow, the sequel Lords of Shadow 2 for the first time puts you into the role of the iconic main villain Dracula himself.
On top of that, also for the first time, the franchise is mainly set in a future modern city setting.
With so much potential for new ideas that can turn out fantastic or dramatically backfire at the same time, it is very exciting to finally see how Mercury Steam's Lords of Shadow 2 finishes its tale.


The plot:
Dracula (Robert Carlyle) awakens many years after the events of the previous Lords of Shadow title. He has been warned by Zobek (Patrick Stewart) of the return of Satan and sets out to regain his powers so that he may face Satan once again. The key to him regaining his power lies in his castle. However, the famed Belmont clan and his son Alucard (Richard Madden) seek his ultimate destruction.
(source: Wikipedia)

Though Lords of Shadow 2's story is far away from being a great weakness, the overall storyline and end to the Lords of Shadow trilogy feels uneven.
Without the journey- or odyssee-like structure of the first Lords of Shadow, Dracula's quest in Lords of Shadow 2 often feels like a big back and forth.
Regarding the fact that Dracula is constantly sent out by Zobek to locate and eliminate the alocytes, who are bound to summon Satan, the powerful Prince of Darkness often tends to feel like an errand boy doing Zobek's dirty work due to Zobek basically blackmailing him.

Especially the first couple of hours might turn out to be a bit problematic to get into the story for some players. Quick flashbacks and jumps between the past and future might make some players feel like they've been thrown into unknown cold water, underlining the later more dominant fever-dreamish theme of the game. Yet still, the game does a good job introducing new players unfamiliar to the events of LoS1 and LoS: Mirror of Fate via a detailed, yet a bit lengthy recap of the franchise's lore.

What is very obvious however, is that Lords of Shadow 2's story gradually gets better.
More interesting plot points get revealed like a virus being created by an evil corporation, that turns citizens into flesh eating mutants, great concepts get introduced like Dracula's castle being a realization of his own mind (ala Silent Hill), several great set piece moments, exciting numerous boss fights and especially loads of great fan service moments, which give way for some nice twists and plot turns towards the end of the story.
And although Dracula generally has been played out like a one-dimensional villain throughout the previous games of the Castlevania franchise, Lords of Shadow 2 does a fairly nice job of credibly establishing the character as a tragic figure betrayed by the forces he had shown loyalty to.
This also gives way for some unique emotional moments between Dracula and his family.

Ultimately, LoS 2's story might not necessarily feel as grand and epic as some fans would've hoped, with most notably the final showdown feeling a bit short and abrupt. Yet it still easily can be acknowledged that it has enough fan pleasing aspects to make its time-crossing story not a fantastic but at least a (for the most part) satisfying ending to the Lords of Shadow trilogy.

If you smeeeeell, what the cooking.


Open World and Traversal - "Come With Me, If You Want to Live"

Just like the changed mission structure in LoS 2 from a linear chapter-like odyssee to a back-and-forth, LoS 2 lets you travel and follow mission objectives in two distinct open worlds comparable to the worlds of the first Devil May Cry games.
By passing through portals you switch between the modern industrial city and Dracula's castle.
Though the two worlds do differ in terms of architecture and feel, they are sadly far not as engaging and visually amazing as the diverse and colorful places encountered in LoS 1.
With that said, fans hoping for much variation in LoS 2's dark and grey color scheme will ultimately be left disappointed.

However, by progressing through the game's story, Dracula will obtain new abilities that make the open worlds feel even more extensive. The freezing ability of the Void Sword or the ability to turn your body into mist will give Dracula access to previously unaccessible areas. Even if those mostly only lead to upgrades of Dracula's powers or collectibles, they successfully emphasize exploring the world.

The world's several districts and wings are connected through various paths. Despite the fact that the world and especially city feels the more like a true place through it, it's easy to get lost in the world if you decide to venture off the main highlighted path of the main mission.
The game's map, that is supposed to give you a clear overview of the world and the routes, is fairly limited. Aside from many passage ways not being shown clearly enough, multi-layered buildings with multiple flats are unfortunately poorly made clear on the map as well.

Some serious "Interview with a Vampire" flashbacks incoming!

The game obviously tries to counter this problem by being extremely handholdy. Reminders highlighting the critical path ahead of you or multiple hints at what exactly to do now and where to climb, often make you feel like the game is making sure you don't waste your time figuring out things, but at the same time giving you the feel that the game thinks you're an idiot.
While it is possible to deactive hints in the game's options menu, it's still a better idea not to.
This shows most notably when the game for once isn't exactly pointing out the way forward, often leaving you with a feel of being stuck at a certain location not knowing where to go how and what to do.
Though this balance between help and feeling lost isn't executed very well in the end, it only rarely poses as too big of a problem after the player gets into the flow of the game.

Another generally negatively regarded aspect about the first LoS were its very problematic platforming sections due to the fixed camera angles.
Though platforming still is not entirely perfect in LoS 2, it has been extremely improved here.
Now, mostly due to the flexible, controllable camera, climbing sections feel much more intuitive.
Platforming sections are established as a main form of traversal in LoS 2 to explore several buildings and simply getting from point A to point B.
Though the game's tendency to always highlight the exact spot you have to leap next to makes those sections feel like no brainers with a choppy flow due to mostly having to leap somewhere, there still are some nice areas, which require specific observation and timing of your movements to avoid tricky traps while climbing.

"Now, where was i going again?"

Combat - "Tough but Fair"

Combat is once again hands down this entry's strongest feature. Following the theme of "easy to get into, but tough to master" the wide variety of different enemy types and gradually tougher getting boss battles will give you a run for your money.
With that said, LoS 2 's combat system is quite deep and gives you enough mobility to handle each enemy type and large groups of enemies with every weapon you choose when handled correctly.
This makes combat in LoS 2 quite a tough affair towards the end of the game but at the same time very focussed on developing skill throughout your progression of the game.
Encounters with new enemy types will always throw new obstacles at you, making you realize that each enemy type mostly requires another specific tactic to take down and that mastering the timing of your dodges and blocks is quint-essential if you want to make it through the game.

The same thing goes for the boss battles, whose number has significantly increased in LoS 2.
From several big boss battles to mini-bosses (who later become established as a common new enemy type) the game makes sure that you gradually feel more powerful with your abilities and combat skills, yet it still always gives you new obstacles to overcome and the feel of the next big enemy being just a good notch better than you.
Overall, this makes encounters with common enemy types as well as bosses in LoS2 feel generally a lot harder (on normal difficulty) compared to the a bit easier LoS 1.

What tops it all off even further, is the addition of specific gameplay sections in which you cooperate with certain AI partners. Fighting a bunch of monsters with a partner / partners is quite fun but sadly downplayed a bit in the entirety of the game.

Better get used to fighting mechs and monsters this time around.

In addition to Dracula's primary Blood Whip, the player can switch to two alternate weapons: the Void Sword, which regains your health through each successful attack, and the armor-breaking Chaos Claws.
Different from alternate weapons from games like God of War, these generally more powerful alternate weapons require energy, which can be refilled through fighting more efficiently without getting hit.
Therefore, even enemies that require the use of a certain alternate weapon can be beaten without having the energy for said weapon by simply using your primary Blood Whip and making sure you attack him without getting hit back in order to refill your alternate weapon energy.
Once again, this only proves the game's focus on the player succesfully developing his skills in combat in fights, in which you basically ALWAYS have a chance against the enemy, no matter if starting off low on energy or health.

Of course by spending XP points the player is able to upgrade Dracula's powers for each of his three weapons. Though upgrading attacks that combine the use of relics like in LoS 1 (here's looking at you "Holy Water Invincibility Bubble") is remarkably missing in LoS 2, the several branches and attacks purchasable are still more than enough to make Dracula feel very powerful towards the end of the game with his several devastating techniques.
Furthermore, to not feel too overpowered, the player can test his fully upgraded Dracula in a second playthrough after finishing the game in the unlocked and more difficult New Game+ mode.

Boss battles: there will be blood...i guarantee it.

Stealth Sections - "The Hideo-Kojima-Wasn't-There-Syndrome"

The absence of Hideo Kojima during Lords of Shadow 2's development becomes nowhere near as obvious as in the game's incredibly misguided stealth sections.
At some specific sections in the game, the player is required to endure awfully linear, boring and occasionally even frustrating stealth sections, that only serve as big road blocks that heavily diminish the game's pacing.
During those sections, your use of weapons is completely disabled against enemies, which otherwise you should be easily able to rip to shreds if given the chance.
Mostly the goal in these sections is to stealthily reach a certain spot on the map without getting caught. To do so, Dracula is given the ability to possess rats to search maze-like tunnels and chew through electric cables (to open gates etc.) or to distract guards by throwing swarms of bats at their faces.
Aside from also possessing guards (whose enemy type for some reason appears only during stealth sections), there's nothing more in terms of depth or strategy than these two options.
It all comes down to stealth being the hands down most useless and misguided game design decision of the entire game, which comes off like a linear, dumb mini-game that you have to force yourself through to get to the fun parts. Luckily though, stealth is far away from being a primary core mechanic of the game, but the sheer existence and redundancy of it puts a huge dent in the lasting appeal of Lords of Shadow 2.
It's a rare instance in which the game would've been significantly improved, if these gameplay sections simply were removed.
Being a rat is cool and all but...why do i have to do this?!?


Regarding the game's visuals, it's honestly not too far fetched to call Lords of Shadow 2 one of the most beautiful games of the last generation. 
Aside from the generally fantastic character-, monster- and especially boss designs, the sheer amount of detail put onto each and every character model makes them feel astoundingly real.
Reimaginings of Dracula's or Alucard's appearances look admittedly updated and cool, and although the game overall remarkably lacks the vivid color pallette of the first LoS, the very realistic and often even steampunky looking designs of the worlds and its inhabitants more than make up for it.
The flawless visual presentation of the game is furthermore completed with gorgeous looking menues filled with great illustrations of each character, monster and weapon.


Like in LoS 1, reimaginings of classic Castlevania tunes are sadly noticably missing again in LoS 2.
Nevertheless, LoS 2 features a great soundtrack fittingly blending weeping choirs, dramatic orchestra music and even some well placed electro beats to underline the game's future setting.
Furthermore, once again great voice acting performances from the returning Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart, Natasha McElhone and newly added Game of Thrones-actor Richard Madden as Alucard give credible life to each of the characters.
It's truely awesome to see all of the actors from the first LoS reunite for this sequel to complete the Lords of Shadow trilogy.  

New character and monster designs are just as awesome as expected.

The Verdict

Summing it all up, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 manages to be a satisfying conclusion to the Lords of Shadow trilogy even though it isn't the flawless and epic modern day Castlevania game many fans hoped for it to be.
While some players might easily be off put by the game's new futuristic direction with Dracula mainly fighting against mechs and mutants instead of medival and myhtical beasts, it's nevertheless highly encouraged to give this fresh new take on the franchise a try.
Though many aspects like the (at first) slow and occasionally stumbling pace of the story and especially some new gameplay mechanics like the misguided, horrible stealth sections put quite a noticable dent into the game's overall package, it still is fairly well forgiven if looking at the game's impressive presentation, explorable open worlds and amazing combat.
The excellent combat mechanics from the first Lords of Shadow game are back in equally great manner, with even more great boss fights and an even better difficulty-pacing throughout the course of the game, making Dracula feel gradually more powerful while still maintaining a sense of fair challenge through new enemy types.

Without a doubt, Lords of Shadow 2 is one of those games, which would've turned out better if the developer's devotion to experimenting with new gameplay mechanics was held back more and some gameplay aspects were simply completely removed.
With that said, despite the fact that therefore the first Lords of Shadow might still be rightfully regarded as the overall quite superior game, Lords of Shadow 2 manages to stand on its own with a more brave approach to new ideas even though some of them just don't work out.
However, fans of the franchise owe it to themselves to delve into this new approach on the franchise, yet with the same great combat mechanics that made the original Lords of Shadow so fun to begin with.

 Final Verdict: 8 out of 10 

Status: Good

Big thanks goes out to Konami for providing us with a review copy of the game.

No comments:

Post a Comment