Also On: Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Mercury Steam
I enjoyed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. I also really, really enjoyed the 2D Castlevania games that dominated handheld systems prior to this return to 3D vampire slaying. Hell, I still like to sit down and play through the NES games, along with classics like Rondo of Blood, and Super Castlevania IV. Basically, I like Castlevania. Great action, a fun take on the Dracula mythos, generally great art style, and fantastic music are staples of the series, and keep me coming back for more.
The original Lords of Shadow did manage to get a lot of the above things right for me. I found the action and combat to be fun, even if it was pretty derivative of other modern day action titles. I enjoyed the story aspect, the thought that Gabriel Belmont kickstarts the whole Belmont legacy by becoming Dracula. I thought the ending to the first game, sans DLC, blew the doors wide open on what a potential sequel could produce.
And then I played Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2.
It’s a very disappointing game. I don’t think that it’s a complete waste of time, but there was so much potential for Lords of Shadow 2 to be a better game than the first that it sort of blows my mind this is what Mercury Steam came up with. The modern day component falls flat on its face just about every chance it gets. Lifeless and boring stealth segments are interspersed with handholding platform navigation that feels identical to the first game. The art direction is still superb when it comes to the castle segments, but textures and character models are all over the place in quality.
The biggest improvement comes from the combat system, which is fleshed out and more diverse thanks to subweapons you can switch out mid-combo. Dracula’s Void Sword has a handy healing component and delivers quick strikes mixed with freezing abilities, while his Chaos Gloves deliver armor-shattering hits and slow, powerful blows with fire-infused skills. The primary weapon here is still a whip, but you’re able to purchase a whole host of skills for all three weapons, allowing you to counterattack, somersault, break through blocking enemies, and more. Also, as you use those purchased skills, you’ll eventually cause them to level up, transitioning that experience into the actual weapon increasing its overall effectiveness.
The skill system makes every fight worth completing, even if you’ll run into the same set of encounters again and again every time you re-enter an area. The game world is open to explore, with pathways blocked until new abilities are found, much like you’d expect to see in a Castlevania game. The biggest drawback here is the awful map system, which doesn’t help you locate unexplored areas or hidden secrets, offering little more than waypoints dictated by your main mission, such as the single in-game shop, and Wolf medallion locations that allow you to switch between Dracula’s Castle and the modern world. After fighting the final boss you can explore for missed secrets or items, but the desire to do so is certainly lessened by the horrible map implemented here.
Another plus for Lords of Shadow 2 comes from the boss encounters, which are largely improved upon from the first game. The stand out here is the Toy Maker sequence, which I imagine will become a favorite for most that experience it. Boss fights typically force you to make use of your subweapons at different points, and really tax your ability to use counter and evade abilities as much as possible. The default difficulty isn’t too stringent, but if you’re not overly familiar with action titles, you’ll likely see a few continue screens throughout the adventure. Lords of Shadow 2 has a lenient checkpoint system, particularly with boss fights, but drawn out cutscenes skipped only through pausing the game can become tedious.
It’s also worth noting that Lords of Shadow 2 makes an abysmal first impression. The initial hour or so of the game features just about every negative aspect you’ll likely encounter, tossed at the player virtually all at once. There’s the poorly executed stealth sequence, which forces a weakened Dracula to maneuver behind burly armored guards. Prior to that there’s a long-winded explanation of the previous games, Lords of Shadow and Mirror of Fate, which immediately follows a lengthy tutorial section that is identical to the demo released a month or so ago. It takes far too long to get to the standard style of gameplay that predominantly makes up the sequel, which is sure to have an adverse effect on anyone with little patience for mediocre games.
I’m going to harp on the stealth element of Lords of Shadow 2 just a bit longer, which I know plenty of reviews have done at this point. And yes, I realize it doesn’t make up a significant portion of the game. But I want to be crystal clear that I don’t believe stealth should ever be a necessary component of any game that bears the name Castlevania. This thought becomes amplified when I’ve been given the role of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, but am forced to scurry between the feet of armored soldiers as a rat so that they don’t blow me up with grenade launchers and machine guns.
While the series is obviously rich with fantastical elements causing you to suspend disbelief as soon as you press start, elements within the game world should still make sense in relation to one another. So when I’ve ripped out the beating heart of a gigantic beast, and watched through a cutscene as my character shatters the heart after it’s turned to stone, I have a hard time believing that I can’t sustain a little weapon fire delivered by man-sized, sluggish, heavily armored foes.
Yet here I stand, in a room with three of them, as I turn to mist in order to pass through grates above and below, using swarms of bats as distraction, and hope that they don’t shine a light on me. Because then I’ll be endlessly juggled by constant gunfire until I’ve been forced to revisit the previous checkpoint, despite having a host of offensive capabilities that should have allowed me some opportunity to tackle the situation differently. Stealth without alternatives is rarely fun, and certainly not when it’s as mediocre as what Lords of Shadow 2 offers.
My end thoughts on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 are this: It’s not a great game, and it’s barely a good one. If it wasn’t for the solid combat system, and fleshed out abilities, there would be little merit in exploring this adventure. I still think Mercury Steam excel at art direction, with plenty of moments throughout that look absolutely fantastic despite the poor technical work and performance. But if you found little to enjoy in the original Lords of Shadow, chances are you’ll find even less here. And even if you enjoyed the first entry, Lords of Shadow 2 underwhelms you with every passing hour spent playing. It whittles away at your passion for the franchise despite all the great titles that have existed before it, so much so that I’ll have a hard time mustering much excitement the next time I see the word Castlevania come across my desk.