Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Review

[As Read on GIO.]

What was Loved in the First…

…Is most likely Overused in the Second.

As with many others who reviewed and played the original Lords of Shadow game when it released in 2010, I was impressed by the ambitious title, even going so far as to award it with a pretty good score of 9/10. However, also as with many people who played the previous title, I was initially pumped for the sequel, but also admittedly disappointed with the resulting game. Sure, I’m probably giving Lords of Shadow 2 an average score and a slightly better score than some reviewers, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the first game. There are many things the game does right- but it also has its flaws, which sadly bring down more things than the right concepts can keep standing.

Lords of Shadow 1 was a pretty bold three dimensional, action-packed reboot of the Castlevania franchise, and it told a pretty interesting and fresh story concerning old characters. However, though Lords of Shadow 2 continues in that same conceptual story, I just can’t find myself really getting into the story as much for various reasons. Though it is a continuation, it just doesn’t seem to grasp my attention as firmly as its predecessor did. I’ll admit, finally playing as Dracula (Gabe) again has been interesting, especially with his new vampiric powers, and combat is still pretty much as strong a component as ever- yet some things still don’t add up to the experience I received in the first game.

It’s neat to see the world open up even more so thanks to the psuedo-ancient and modern day combinations of settings and locales, however, sometimes the story seems to be tossed aside completely in favor of adding in new enemy types and places or revisiting old haunts for no true reason. I’m fine with seeing some of the same epic vistas, but at least make it feel like more than a complete retread and make it worth my time. For all the things the ending of Lords of Shadow 1 promised, this sequel falls short of the greatness I expected- it’s good, but far from the experience I was hoping for…

The story starts off benignly enough in terms of conceptual beginning- with Gabe vying for an end to immortality and a way to take down the evil Satan himself, along with his minions and the legions of Hell. However cliched that may sound, it works well in the opening moments. Sadly, after this point, the story train almost immediately veers off the beaten path and finds itself derailed amidst some unknown ruins littered with cliched cliches, useless characters, and pointless fetching. It still has a few highlights, but nothing like the first game at all- mooching off the first game doesn’t count either as ‘new’ plot points go.

As I mentioned briefly, while it is slightly mixed up this time around, combat is still probably the most sound aspect of the game- playing just as much like God of War as the original game did, which isn’t a bad thing when done right. Gabe’s understandably dropped his cross and whip in favor of some less holy and more dastardly tools and weapons- a blood-whip, ice sword, and fire claws among them. Each weapon offers entirely different skill trees, upgrades, and powerful attacks- making the otherwise monotonous gameplay slightly strategic in some instances. The only true downsides to combat have nothing to do with the combat itself, but everything to do with poor camera angles leading to combo breaking counters from enemies.

It’s neat that a few of the changes to the sequel’s format are actually steps up on its predecessor- such as the now open-world layout in lieu of the more compact yet still massive levels of the first title, and the changes to combat being another strong point. However, for each win there is ultimately a failure as well in the design- abominable stealth sections that strip you of your powerful attacks and abilities, a poorly recognized setting, and an even poorer crafted story complete the resume of doom here.

The reasons that the modern day setting doesn’t achieve the same level of overall foreboding and excitement as the settings of the previous Lords of Shadow game are simple yet numerous- mainly due to the lack of truly Gothic locales. While each environment looks good from a graphics perspective, none of them truly pique the interest of players, or truly pull you in as the awe-inspiring vistas of the first game did. However, there are a few grand expanses and moments revolving around the past and present moments of Lords of Shadows 2 that are almost to that point, yet still fall short.

Tying into both setting and story are the characters of Lords of Shadow 2 who- with the exception of Dracula himself, aren’t very fleshed out or really interesting at all. Most are downright useless and nonsensical, and the ones that should be intriguing just take up oxygen in most encounters. There are a few exceptions to this, which you will encounter at various points in the story (no spoilers!) but truly they are few and far between…although a specific toy creator does spark the imagination… Honestly, Resident Evil 5 and 6’s convoluted stories made more sense than many of the overlapping plot points in Lords of Shadow 2, which is quite an impressive feat- though not one to really be proud of as clarity goes.

Ironically enough, the story gets closer to Resident Evil’s than you would expect- boiling down to a modern day pharmaceutical company owned and operated by some of Satan’s lieutenants in human guise and form. Ironic, no? Poor as the story can be at points, I must give it credit for somehow managing to drag itself onward and toward the end for well over fifteen hours, and still having the gameplay throw some surprises at you and the environments remain fresh- as exploration goes. Interestingly, the poor story doesn’t affect those other elements so much as I expected it to.

With the modern day setting, the environments you traverse cannot possibly rival the epic expanses and Gothic churches and architectural marvels of Lords of Shadow 1- it just isn’t possible. You are instead mostly limited to underground sewers, alleyways, train yards, and mundane streets and courtyards for the majority of your adventure. Sure, occasionally you’ll run through a lab or factory or two hundred, but otherwise the only thing to break up the environmental monotony are a few flashbacks to older moments. You do explore a few older areas, but most are retreads from the first game- with the exception being two newer areas not previously played through, which are decently realized here.

While the environments mostly look decent enough, the same cannot be said for ordinary enemy units which have some pretty terrible models and animations during combat. Many of the bosses look quite interesting and different, however their minions are all seemingly similar in design and make it seem like I’m playing two totally different games in terms of design skill and prowess put into their quality. Even better (worse…), Gabe faces off against some modern and futuristic enemies that have no place in a game about vampires and Hell monsters- rocket launcher mechs and alien cyborgs! Or at least, that’s what they looked like…

A few more notes here and then I’ll be done with this whole egregious experience… For all the things that Lords of Shadow 2 tries to make bigger and better- though inevitably failing in many regards, it still has some abominable loading times as well, which are killer in open-world games where they entirely break up the experience into still tiny segments. This is a minor gripe, as several games do this from Fallout to Arkham, however it is somehow much more annoyingly compounded by this game’s plethora of other issues. For all the things the game doesn’t nail down correctly, it does still boast a strong (but different) soundtrack and some good voice work at the very least, to go with the good combat.

Exploring the open world is much more interesting and worthwhile than the entirety of the story, which sadly you’re forced to trudge through in order to even explore the world. The ultimate and final result is a game that is equally annoying and redeemable, yet which forces its annoying parts and “in your face” moments down your throat before allowing the soothing, redeemable and enjoyable qualities to slither in as well. Therefore, whereas its predecessor was a great game, Lords of Shadow 2 is understandably limited to mediocrity only, decent game or not. The experience can and most likely will be enjoyable for some, but not for as broad an audience as the first- despite this one being a much more casual experience on the whole.

Concept: Wail on and on about being cursed with immortality, and ultimately flail and rail about the nostalgic older days (Lords of Shadow 1) and sound like Napoleon’s uncle Rico dreaming about his old football days in Napoleon Dynamite. That is still a better story than Lords of Shadow 2’s botched one.

Graphics: Some environments, main characters, and bosses look excellent, but the rest of the characters and enemies and modern day setting really bring everything back down, so ultimately the graphics are average for the majority of the experience. There are some definite highlights, and there are some definite low points as well.

Sound: There are plenty of references in dialogue to older Castlevania games, which is some neat fan service, but no amount of fan service can save the mostly cheesy dialogue and conversations. Understandably, the voice acting itself is great as is the soundtrack, but sometimes the experience is brought down by focusing on stupid things and really running with them.

Playability: The combat is a blast though it can come down to trial and error at times when facing bosses. However, the stealth segments are laughably bad and strip you of all your powers- which makes no sense and makes for a terrible experience as well. So on the whole playability balances out, with one terrible part and one good part vying for control during the experience. Thankfully combat is more dominant and frequent than stealth segments at the least.

Entertainment: Whereas the first game was really fun, this is a poorly realized sequel, and just when things were really heating up as well. It’s a shame truly that it came out this way, and not like other great sequels such as the recently released Dark Souls 2 which is actually as good or better than its predecessor.

Replay Value: Moderately Low.

Overall Score: 7.0

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