Guest reviewer Ben Myres regales us with tales of his time with the latest Castlevania game, Lords of Shadow 2.
Castlevania: Lord of Shadows 2 (LoS2) starts right off where its predecessor ended: with dark and broody Gabriel Belmont becoming dark and broody Dracula. Unfortunately, it looks like LoS2 lost its tan and heart right along with its newly minted vampire protagonist.
The game starts with you drinking from your chalice of blood – as one does – and abruptly having your front door rudely split open by a rather large battering ram. Ever casually, you saunter forward and deal with the intruding Brotherhood of Light minions with the tip of your blood whip (literally a whip made out of your hardened blood).
Following this, you eagerly move through your castle defending it from shiny knights left, right and centre. This culminates in a battle against a flying golden Paladin atop a gargantuan mechanised siege weapon. Frankly, this prologue is immaculate and will hook you in immediately. Unfortunately, that’s about all of Castlevania: Lord of Shadows 2 you should probably play: from there on, the game takes a narrative downward spiral that not even its oft-inspired mechanics can pull it out from.
Now that is quite a feat in of itself, as the mechanics truly are excellent much of the time. Players of the first game will feel right at home with the God of War-esque action mechanics – even the weapon layout feels similar. You have a blood whip that’ll be your most used companion in dispatching foes, but is accompanied by the Void Sword and Chaos Claws. The former steals life from enemies it hits; while the latter shatters any shields or armour in comes into contact with.
These weapons all form part of a detailed upgrade system that encourages you to avoid mashing your favourite skill and rather utilise alternate combos. A surprising variety comes out of these three weapons, both in terms of upgrades, and in terms of combat: enemies are often in combinations that force you to switch weapons, skills, and combos during fights.
This strong set of core mechanics results in gameplay that sparkles. This is most typified by the epic boss battles of LoS2. The battles – usually involving titan-sized enemies – make excellent use of many of your weapons and skills. Often you find yourself freezing a foe in place; then breaking their defences down; and ‘misting’ through their attacks once they recover – all in the same boss battle. These battles are a bastion of everything LoS 2 does well.
However, because LoS2 shines so greatly at points, the periods where is doesn’t become all the more apparent and startling. Perceivably in an attempt to add variety and pacing to the game, the developers added stealth sections where you possess rats and lowly scientists to get past burly gun slayers (who inexplicably you cannot defeat and will instantly explode your vampire guts all over a wall).
This would have been bearable for the sake of pacing, but an entire ‘boss battle’ revolves around a similar stealth section. The battle is intended to only last 15 minutes, but because of the broken, untested nature of the stealth system, it easily lasts a few frustrating, banal and repetitive hours longer.
The effort at variety is appreciated, but the execution is grossly detrimental to the final game. Even the developers seemed to have bored of LoS2 by its completion: after 10-15 hours of epic boss battles, the game closes with a rather lacklustre battle against Satan on a flying leviathan– I mean, how do you ruin the idea of “SATAN ON A FLYING LEVIATHAN?” It seems impossible, but indeed, we’re left with only a boring and sluggish final battle to see the game out.
The short periods where LoS2 doesn’t shine could have surely been saved by an engaging plot and interesting characters; unfortunately, LoS2 has neither. The game’s plot involves Dracula/Gabriel being put to sleep for thousands of years and awaking during a modern setting where a city has been built atop his castle. This at first appears intriguing, but the modern-day sections quickly become gameplay sections to push through as fast as possible.
The game flits between the modern setting where much of the plot moves forward and the long past of Dracula’s castle. Dracula visits his castle via magical flashbacks, and this is where much of the best gameplay happens. Dracula explores his castle and gains new abilities, while meeting famous and fantastical mythical figures. The modern setting is superfluous at best, and a setting from a completely different game, at worst. It winds up being a trite and clichéd explanation for having pharmaceutical and weapons companies being two of the fronts for ‘evil’.
In addition, most of LoS2’scharacters are rather dull and uninspired – leaving husks that aren’t particularly interesting or empathetic. Dracula’s sad brooding nature is barely explained, while the character of Zobek feels less “sly businessperson” and more “predictable plot element”. This uninteresting plot does little for the game’s pacing and thus the sluggish periods of the game feel all the more unbearable.
The inconsistent mechanics and lacklustre plot are saved to some extent by the immaculate art direction of the game. Graphically, it’s one of the prettiest games you’ll see this side of a next-gen console. Stylistically, much of the character design is excellent; the visit to the Toy Maker’s shop where you battle life-sized, handmade puppets is particularly striking. Even the levels themselves, while mechanically dull to explore, are exquisitely crafted. Dracula’s castle is excellently gothic and dark, while the modern periods do an impressive job at combining modern architecture and technology with that same gothic look and feel.
The game is also saved slightly by its superb musical and sound design. The music is beautiful and dark, reflecting the gothic themes of the game perfectly, while the sound design contributes significantly to the tightness of the combat. Once you’ve heard the zinging sound an unblockable attack makes, you’ll know true panic.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, like Gabriel himself is in desperate need of a manicure: a bit of touching up around the edges would help it become a near cult-classic, but currently, it’s not something you’d want to hold hands with for long.
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC