Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 review: Into the Abyss

With developer Mercury Steam upending Castlevania’s cannon and gameplay mechanics with the first Lords of Shadow, it has the un-enviable task of not only building on the first game’s lore, but also to prove to series fans that they know how to make a game worthy of the Castlevania lineage. Has Mercury Steam succeeded? Read on to find out.

A word of warning: some plot points will be discussed in the review, so be mindful of spoilers.

The Prince of Darkness Has Returned

Now, before you read on, it’s imperative you finished or at least watched the post-credits scene from Lords of Shadow 1. Not doing so will leave you flabbergasted at what Mercury Steam did to Castlevania’s cannon. If you’ve done so, no doubt you’re interested where the studio is going with both Gabriel being Dracula and him being part of the present day. Fortunately, the game picks up right where the first one left off, with the training section also acting as a prologue of sorts at what happened to Gabriel’s fall from God’s grace.

However, after the initial exposition, we’re then treated to what essentially equates to remaking Gabriel from scratch. In short, it falls under the familiar trope of taking away a character’s  in-game abilities and power to let the player slowly “earn” it back. This time, it’s guised under the pretext of Dracula being weak and needing to reclaim his lost strength, which players will be doing over the course of the entire affair.

Back to the Future

Lords of Shadow 2’s entire campaign consists of Gabriel exploring both his castle and in present day London. Unfortunately, though, the castle’s settings, graphical detail and design easily surpasses that of the city to the point that it might make you wince a bit whenever you have to go back to the present world. While the castle’s landscapes, dungeons and other areas aren’t as beautifully done as in LoS1with its luscious greenery and varied colors, it does its job well. If an evil, vampiric tyrant was looking for a lair, the castle fits the bill just right.

The same can’t be said for the modern day setting. Be prepared to navigate through countless sewers, drab streets, and industrial locations that all seemingly look familiar – so much so, that I even have a hard time distinguishing one area from the next. You won’t get lost, though, as LoS2 has in in-game map and prominently shows just where you are at any given time in your HUD.  As a whole, the art style and overall environments pale in comparison to what LoS1 bought to the table.

Technically, the game is more than adequate in providing what action-adventure fans should expect from a AAA game. It’s just marred by the aforementioned city environments, and constant loading sequences. Once you’re done with LoS2, you’ll have lost count on how many transitioning rooms, switches and whatnot you’ve went through just for each area to properly load. It might be a minor quibble, but it’s there.

Dracul Has a Whip and He’s Not Afraid to Use It

Combat in LoS2 is an improvement to its predecessor that much is clear. Gabriel has his Blood Whip, Void Sword and Chaos Claws, which helps him dish out the pain in whatever fashion you want. Couple this with the various items and projectiles, and you have one formidable and fun combat system. Interestingly enough, during my entire playthrough I’ve rarely resorted to both the Sword and the Claws unless they’re needed to break enemy armor, leech off an enemy’s life for my own, or freeze someone/something. For the most part, I relied on the heavy whip combo (Square, hold button, square repeatedly), which works wonders against all enemies – even bosses.

On the defensive end, strategic blocking or parrying is much more forgivable compared to LoS1, and Gabriel has a nifty dodge maneuver that, when used properly, means you can fight groups of enemies without even getting hit.

Speaking of big baddies, the bosses in Gabriel’s latest adventure are varied enough from mammoths that take up the entire screen, to nimble confrontations that will make you think of a certain boss’ weak spot. If you love boss fights, LoS2 has that in spades – and thankfully, it’s (almost) never confusing to know what needs to be done in order to obliterate them.

(Side Note: If you’re used to playing third-person action-adventure games, I suggest bypassing the “Normal” difficulty and going to the harder mode since it makes combat very, very easy. From my count, I think I died less than five times in the entire game due to combat-related excursions – yes, this includes boss fights).

De-Fanged Dragon

Dracula not being as powerful as he was before explains why you can’t reach certain areas since you need to be able to have a certain power in order to traverse to it. But that doesn’t explain and justify the game’s weakest point – the stealth sections. In Lords of Shadow 2, Gabriel can turn into a rat, which any self-respecting vampire can do as shown in various books, movies and other media. However, in LoS2, Gabriel can only turn into a rat in specifically marked areas and most of the time, just so he can sneak out of an area patrolled by gun-wielding Golgoth guards. This gameplay “mechanic” severely undermines what Dracula is and how he’s presented as an all-powerful being capable of taking out hordes of enemies by himself. In case you were wondering if this will change throughout the course of the game as you become stronger, the answer is a saddening no. Even near the game’s end, or the last time you interact with the Golgoths, you still have to scurry around and use whatever skill you have to confuse or hide from them. Makes one wonder why every boss in the game just didn’t use these guards to take Gabriel down since they’re quite efficient at it.

Aside from the guards, one other complaint that I – along with others who were watching me play – noticed was the disparity on how Gabriel’s abilities and power are presented in cinematics, compared to what you can do in-game. In cut-scenes, Gabriel can teleport, jump really, really high, and do all sorts of amazing things…but only in cut-scenes. In the actual game, you’re relegated to look for nooks and crannies to hang onto, have a piece of wood or object obstruct where you can and cannot go, and generally make you wish you can achieve the feats Gabriel can do in cut-scenes. It’s gotten to the point that I was smirking a bit as how the so-called Prince of Darkness can’t even break open a door, jump over a block of stone or whatnot. I know it’s part of a conscious gameplay design, but it could have been implemented better. As it stands, the game doesn’t give you that sense of power one expects from playing as Dracula and it easily breaks the immersion – especially when you lump it in with the clumsy stealth sections. I seriously want to know who among Mercury Steam’s development team thought it was a good idea to have Dracula turn into a rat, or hide behind objects to sneak about.

Handholding but Not When You Need It

Early on in the game, almost everything is spoon fed to the player. Bats indicate where you can hang on or where to go next, objects you can interact with shine to let you know that you need to use them, and so on. This handholding might offend some players, but overall, I didn’t mind it much. What I did mind was how the game gives you scenarios where you needed to do something but it wasn’t made clear just exactly what. There were at least a few instances in the game – which I won’t spoil – that seriously made me scratch my head in either where to go next, or what I needed to do in a specific place; so, from holding your hand to even the most basic thing, to throwing you into the deep end of a pool with no idea which way to swim or if you can dive underwater. Once you figure what it is exactly you needed to do, well, you might just want to ask the game director why that appropriate action was not conveyed clearly enough. This mostly happens to in-game traversal and locations and not even the puzzles themselves, mind.

What is a Man? But a Miserable Pile of Secrets

While the first Lords of Shadow was commended for its story and twists, the same can’t be said for LoS2. To put it bluntly, the plot is plain, incoherent and basically, pales in comparison with what Mercury Steam wrought in the first game. Save for one plot twist, almost everything in the game is predictable. There are no surprises, the “hook” that has you slogging through the game whole game isn’t interesting at all. Once I saw the credits roll, I thought to myself “is this it?” Has countless hours delivered no final chapter that one can be satisfied with? And before you ask, there is no post-credits scene. Not that every game needs it, but at the very least, I thought that would answer some of the questions left. Maybe Mercury Steam is saving it for DLC or a sequel? Who knows, but don’t go into LoS2 and expect a tale that will grip you. It’s a shame when you think about it since the voice-over work is done very well and complements the impressive audio feast the game has to offer.

Overall

Lords of Shadow 2 is not a bad game. The word you might be looking for after playing it is disappointment since it could have been a great game instead of just being a relatively good one, warts and all. If you’ve played the first one and liked it, chances are you’ll like what LoS2 has in store. And let’s face it; you will want to play it just to know what happens to Gabriel next. But for those who’ve played God of War or other top-tier action-adventure games, LoS2 might leave you wishing Mercury Steam managed to hit the same notes as those games. At the end of the day, though, Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t the definitive Castlevania game (that’s still Symphony of the Night for me) but if and when Lords of Shadow 3 comes out, I’ll be there with fangs waiting.

Pros:

  • Castle sections are beautiful
  • Combat is satisfying
  • Voice-over work and music is a treat to the ears

Cons:

  • Stealth segments are a chore and boring
  • Story is muddy and not as riveting as the first game
  • Some gameplay mechanics seems to be not well thought out
  • City environments are drab

Final Verdict:  7.5/10 (Lords of Shadow 2 is a more than competent action-adventure game, but just be prepared to be annoyed at a few things).

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Konami PR supplied us with a review code for the PS3 version of the game. I completed the main storyline under the “Normal” difficulty, felt “ugh” at every stealth section, and wished I could’ve taken out the Golgoth guards at some point.