Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 PC Review

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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow most likely caught people by surprise. For one, it was a title done by a western developer, MercurySteam, and not by legendary series producer Koji Igarashi and his Konami team. Two, it was in fact a rather great game, even if it did drop a lot of the mechanics that classify a Castlevania game and went in favour of the God of War template – blending the lore of the series into a title that focuses on action and story cutscenes. Even though Castlevania fans were divided by the title, it managed to pick up its fair share of fans, becoming the most sold Castlevania title to date. With a new band of followers on board ready for more mystical beast slaying, how does the sequel, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, hold up?

Lords of Shadow 2 continues after the amazing reveal at the end of the first game – the holy knight, Gabriel Belmont, has now become one of the things he was set out to destroy, the strongest of all vampires, Dracula. Not only that, but Dracula has been a sleep for over one thousand years, revealing that he is now living in a period close to our own modern-era, sometime after 2057. Zobek comes to Dracula to tell him that Satan plans to return to the world, and will offer the one thing Dracula wants in return for the blood suckers help – the combat cross that will allow Dracula to put an end his life and stop the torment that Gabriel has endured since the transformation. The idea of a modern age Castlevania on paper allows for some colossal potential, but sadly, while there are some brilliant locations, most of them take place before the current time period.

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There’s something about the story that makes it more convoluted and less interesting than the first game. There are times where the plot is genuinely fascinating, but then it quickly speeds into something else. I was doing one thing, and then I’m doing another without seemingly addressing the earlier issue. They’re trying to link a lot together, even including the happenings of Mirror of Fate (with that item making an appearance as well), and it all drops in quality as they cram to bring the series to a satisfying closure.

The earlier hours of the game are one of mixed feelings. It kind of mirrors how I felt about the start of the first Lords of Shadow, but while that game kept getting better as it went on, Lords of Shadow 2 switches between getting better and getting worse. Within the space of an hour you’re introduced to new mechanics, such as how Dracula can now suck the blood of a weaken foe to gain a little health back, the uncanny virus plot that is turning civilizations into demons, a map display (more on that later) and the bizarre inclusion of poor, annoying stealth segments that don’t even need to be featured in a title such as this – why does Dracula have to go all Solid Snake on his enemies? They didn’t even include a flipping cardboard box.

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In fact, I might as well get the worse part of the game out of the way – those stealth segments. It’s been a while since I have felt that a video game had included something that made no sense, but Lords of Shadow 2’s incorporation of stealth completely makes no sense. There’s about four main stealth sections in Lords of Shadow 2, and none of them are particularly long sections (lasting no more than ten minutes if you manage to do them in a timely fashion), but they simply aren’t enjoyable, feeling like an outcast with the rest of the game’s mechanics.

The story says Dracula is too weak to take on the Golgoth Guards, Hulk-like security guards that kill Dracula in a couple of shots. Dracula can sneak behind a Golgoth Guard and possess his body, allowing him to control the guard to unlock a security pass and progress to the next area of the game. The funny thing is that the guard can be instantly killed by pulling Dracula out of the body and back into his normal form. When this happens, the game brings in another guard to replace them, because, you know, video game gameplay requires the player to take over one and get through the door. I don’t mind that they added areas that allow you to transform into a rat to crawl through small areas to get to new locations, as it’s somewhat amusing chewing wires and causing problems for the guards; it’s just that with no option to fight, in a game that is heavily focused on combat, seems like a step in the wrong direction.

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The worse of the stealth sections involves a garden and a boss that hunts you down when he hears sound. This is different compared to the rest, which usually feature the same enemies and locations with the idea to either take over a guard or get past them. In this garden hunt, Dracula must use the sides of the wall to stop himself from touching the autumn coloured leaves on the ground. Doing so causes a crunching sound, alerting the enemy towards you. Get touched by said enemy and instant death occurs. Rinse and repeat for annoyance and you have an idea how painful this section is. It’s only around four minutes long, but, due to all the retries, I spent a good 20 minutes trying to do it, to the point where I think using Dracula’s mist ability ended up with the AI getting confused and not killing me, since he technically couldn’t hit me, leaving him to walk away and continue his search. This is easily the worse part of the game, and I was so damn glad it was short.

Apart from those stealth sections (I’ll shut up about them now), the rest of Lords of Shadow 2 is solid. It’s only those small parts that put a spanner into the works and stop it from being a genuinely decent adventure. The game’s progression has completely changed, as it’s no longer a linear trek through chapters taking you from location to location. Rather, the bulk of the game is set in Castlevania City, and taking cues from the previous Japanese titles, is now designed as a 3d take on the “metroidvania” formula. This means re-treading ground that leads to other, newly opens areas to carry on with the story, and of course to discover plenty of secrets, which is evident after finishing the game in 13 hours and seeing that my total complete percentage was 56.

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Four main areas make up Castlevania City, with easy access to each through a portal that sits in Dracula’s home. There’s a feeling of disjointedness and closeness with the location that doesn’t promote the “metroidvania” concept all that well – it doesn’t feel as masterfully jointed together, such as say Tallon IV in Metroid Prime, which felt like each area was organically linked. In this game, it feels less natural, like you can tell where the fights are going to happen because of its video game design of “here is a square room, looks like a battle arena” and lo and behold a fight happens 95% of the time. It’s hard to get lost in Lords of Shadow 2, due to the very helpful map on show in the top right of the UI, which displays an arrow to get to the highlighted destination, be it a main objective or one of few helpful destinations, such as the chupacabra store or the wolf portal that teleports to the alternative time. The game never uses the wolf teleport purposefully, as the plot will automatically take you back in time when needed, and so only acts as a way to go collect missing secrets.

The modern setting suffers from a lack of personality – a typical generic industrial setting armed with mechanical enemies and soldiers – which is clearly evident when you experience the flashback sections that have Dracula back in his natural habitat of a beautiful, well-crafted Gothic setting.  It’s these flashbacks that show how attractive the game is, evoking what I loved about the first game’s art design. The openness means that the city is packed with little secrets to discover, often requiring plenty of climbing around the environment. The game makes it noticeable if something is interactive, as a mist of bats will hover around it to alert you. Once climbing, you can hold a button to make the climbing route highlight with red circles, making it stand out much more compared to the shiny ledges in Lords of Shadows.

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One area of the game that is for the better is the combat. The camera is now unlocked, allowing the player to view the action at whatever direction they wish. Fighting remains familiar, yet slightly different to the first game. The combat cross is no longer in possession, so Dracula attacks with a chain of blood to do the same motion, equipped with light and heavy attacks to combo together various moves. The light and dark magic is now replaced with two weapons that represent the same feature – blue sword for light and flame-glowing gauntlets for dark. These come with similar traits as the last game, with light healing Dracula with each hit, and dark smashing defence and dealing more damage per hit.

Weapons have additional moves unlocked, done by using the experience points gained from each kill, but while you’re buying new moves for each of the three weapons, the difference in attack motion isn’t drastic, since you’re using the same button combination to do similar style moves.  For example, holding down X after a blood whip will force heavy whips to come crashing down in succession, while doing that with the sword will do the same heavy follow up attack, but with trusts towards the opponent instead. No weapon is left untouched, as the game makes sure that all three are used throughout the adventure, even rewarding buffs for skills you used the most, combining the experience into a strength buff for your choice of weapon.

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The fluidity of the combat has also improved. The dodge is no longer a roll, but a standing slide that clears Dracula from incoming attacks. The timing is stricter than before, requiring more precision for success. Combat puts more emphasis on parrying, where if the player blocks the incoming attack at the right time; the reward is a dazed enemy ready to eat a free combo. Imagine it like a baby version of Metal Gear Rising’s katana gameplay. With the addition of air dodging and air guarding, the game’s combat feels more robust than in Lords of Shadow, and with the option to disable quick time events, you don’t have to worry about participating in them if you don’t enjoy that mechanic.

Graphically, this game looks great on PC. Running at a smooth 60 frames per second on maximum settings is an easy job, even for some older graphics cards. The art direction mixed with high image quality means the game appears better than its console version, but the texture detail, while good for the most of the game, can show its ugly head in smaller parts of the environment. Overall, that can’t stop what is a very pretty game powered by awesome art that runs very well, reducing those long loading times of the console version to very short intervals.  All this is followed up with a decent soundtrack that fits well with the world, and while not much of it is memorable, it never felt like it was mediocre.  Returning voice overs by Sir Patrick Stewart (Zobek) and Robert Carlyle (Dracula/Gabriel) feel like they never vanished for three years, sounding close to their performances in the first Lords of Shadow, which was decent then and still holds up well now.

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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a good game with a satisfying conclusion to the MercurySteam saga that sadly falls short of its predecessor, thanks to the puzzling inclusion of unwanted stealth elements. These don’t completely derail the game due to their shortness, but there’s enough to disrupt the flow of the game and irritate the player. The rest of Lords of Shadow 2 is made up of great action, some lovely locales and somewhat of a decent attempt at a more metroidvania focused 3D Castlevania. It’s a shame that you need some tolerance to stick with the game to get past its faults and slow start to get to the chunk where the game is gratifying, peaking close to what made the first Lords of Shadow a great game.

6/10

by

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Version tested: PC

Also available on: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: MercurySteam

Publisher: Konami

Genre: Action-Adventure