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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 review

Decent
AT A GLANCE
  • Powerfully affecting soundtrack
  • Beautiful medieval sections
  • Sometimes evokes the atmosphere of the first game
  • Combat lacks finesse
  • Too many poor diversions
  • Loss of scale and spectacle

Gabriel Belmont--aka Dracula--is a deeply conflicted character, pulled in multiple directions by the dark and light influences of Castlevania: Lords of Shadows 2’s story. As such, he’s an unfortunate but entirely apt metaphor for the game’s overall problems. At heart, Gabriel knows the right path to take, but the myriad eldritch temptations around him cause a whole mess of trouble.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a sequel that simply tries to do too much. It fills out its lengthy running time not with deeper explorations of the surgically precise combat, platforming, and cohesive world-building of its predecessor, but with multiple misguided, jarring new elements that all-too often fail to satisfy in their own right. Worse, they make for a diluted, deeply disjointed overall game experience.

It’s frustrating, because the seeds of a great sequel are buried in CLoS2, struggling to emerge through the mire. The game’s greatest successes are its exquisite, atmospheric environments, the majority of which exist within the medieval sections of the game. Housed within the castle in the centre of CLoS2’s modern city, these areas provide the game’s most consistently satisfying experiences. The structure of this location is intriguing, as linear 'levels' are connected via non-linear game hub (think Batman: Arkham Asylum rather than Arkham City). Here, Dracula's past and present clash as supernatural forces make his memories tangible. For all the dream-logic underpinning it, the castle feels like a real, coherent setting, its cavernous interiors and sprawling vistas providing the game’s most accomplished platforming and most satisfying battle arenas. The whole place just holds together beautifully. But unfortunately, holding together beautifully is not, on the whole, what this game does well.

Neverending story

Developer Mercury Steam has been unambiguous about this being the end of the Lords of Shadow series, promising a resounding conclusion to Gabriel's story. A ballsy and respectable move in this era of multitudinous sequels and spiraling franchises. Alas, CLoS2 doesn't deliver the satisfying narrative closure that long-term fans might hope for. Its plot is as muddled as its gameplay, full of seemingly important but ultimately disposable characters and plot-points, with an inconclusive ending that withers when it should resolve. 

After setting hopes high with a barnstorming, cinematic opening sequence interspersing open, flowing combat with the scaling of a colossal medieval mech, CLoS2 systematically fails to emulate that scale or spectacle at any point following. Instead, ironically, the semi-open city serves only to make Castlevania’s world feel small, cramped, and limited in scope. Really a series of interconnected, linear paths, it’s far too concerned with pokey interiors, low-level street settings, and overly contained climbing sections to ever become truly evocative or impressive. The dingy, grimily unappealing visual design is compounded by inconsistent, often scrappy graphical execution and a desperately empty vibe. It all conspires to make the modern-day areas much less fun or inspiring than they could have been.

Aesthetic and tone aside, the constrained, small-scale design also has a detrimental effect on the series’ previously stellar combat. The melee fighting at the core of CLoS2 initially seems to pick up where the first game left off, delivering fast, challenging, evasive combat built on strong principles of spatial control and enemy manipulation. Eschewing the full attack-cancelling malleability of a Bayonetta or a DmC, CLoS provides a different kind of satisfaction, in which largely uninterruptible enemy attacks must be smartly avoided or countered as you progressively manipulate the shape of the fight. With every enemy, it’s all about chipping down their health until you can open up the right opportunity to unleash the appropriate response. If the more fluid fighting of the aforementioned games is akin to picking a lock, this is more like methodically selecting the right keys from a large and varied bunch. When it all comes together, it’s as exhilarating as it cerebrally satisfying. But it doesn’t always come together.

In more practical terms, the city environments are frequently ineffective in supporting the wide, rangey combat model, a problem compounded by the new 3D camera. While this new addition lends an immense tangibility to Castlevania’s more picturesque environments, its viewpoint is often too close to the action during combat, creating awkward obscuration where there needs to be clarity and transparency. Worse, many of the new enemies add to the problem, particularly those with ranged attacks. It’s one thing to be limited to a half-view of a fast-paced, 3D melee fight, but with multiple machine gun-toting goblins and armed troopers thrown into the mix, it’s a recipe for some infuriating situations that no amount of free camera control will get you out of. Enemy tell-animations are also highly variable, sometimes giving enough notice to concoct a tactical response, sometimes barely seeming present at all. And that’s when they actually happen on-screen. The most calamitous element though, is that the game often undermines its key combat tactic.

The ultra-powerful parry move, instigated via a perfectly timed block, is clearly intended to be central to the whole fighting model. In the first game, it works flawlessly, adding immense empowerment through a well-implemented risk-and reward mechanic. CLoS2 puts great emphasis upon it again, but the failings in environmental design, camera, enemy behaviour, and the gross overuse of unblockable enemy attacks frequently makes it unviable. It’s telling that a new shop system provides a plethora of easily affordable health and magic-boosting items not present or required in the first game, almost as if providing a safety net for the sequel’s lack of finesse. Sad to say, but brute-forcing through with buff items is now an acceptable and all-too-tempting tactic.

In addition to combat annoyances, incongruous stealth sections both roadblock the game-flow and fail to be interesting. Utilising Dracula’s ability to throw diversionary bat-swarms and transform into a rat, these sections initially seem like a smart change of pace, but ultimately never evolve beyond simple, rigid, self-contained trial-and-error puzzle rooms that fail to gel with the world as a whole. They also provide the basis for what is easily the game’s lowest point: a screamingly annoying, and narratively illogical, boss encounter. One that forces you into CLoS2’s awkward stealth system. And insta-kills you if you make a mistake.

Elsewhere, Dracula’s new ability to throw ice and fire projectiles with the magic stock that powers his Void and Chaos weapons (which steal enemy health and break armour, respectively) show initial promise during puzzling sections, but like the stealth, their limited implementation eventually disappoints, largely reduced to basic ‘throw projectile to remove obstacle’ tasks. These powers do become slightly more relevant in boss fights. But here, again, over-use of unblockable hits takes its toll on the action. Additionally, some bosses and larger enemies actively require ranged combat, which would be fine if it wasn’t for inconsistencies in feedback often masking that fact for far too long.

It’s all very frustrating, because CLoS2’s overall approach to more physical environmental puzzles, while a mixed bag, can throw up some interesting stuff. A clever set-piece, requiring Dracula to correctly assemble theatrical stage furniture in order to retell the heartbreaking history of an NPC, is a beautiful sequence, both visually and narratively. It really emphasises what this game could have been with more care and focus.

CLoS2 is a resoundingly muddled game, disjointed and unclear of vision. It feels like a collection of disparate, part-formed game elements in search of coherent structure, pace, and polish. It’s perhaps an egregious extension of my opening metaphor to point out that in combat, Dracula fuels his magic stock by struggling to fill a Focus meter... but in light of how badly CLoS2’s lack of focus fuels its difficulties in recapturing the series’ own magic, it feels entirely fitting to do so.

More Info

Release date: Feb 25 2014 - Xbox 360, PS3 (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
Genre: Action
Published by: Konami
Developed by: MercurySteam
Franchise: Castlevania
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Nudity

Lacking the focus, clarity and coherence of its precursor, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 fails to satisfy as a sequel or as a game in its own right, delivering muddled game design and little narrative resolution.

This game was reviewed on PS3.

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111 comments

  • BladedFalcon - January 9, 2014 6:51 a.m.

    Air-Dashing? HELL YEAH! Just read the entire preview non-stop. To say I'm super excited is an understatement, and most of what I read sounds pretty cool. I love the idea of the new weapons and way of leveling up combos, I like that they seem fully committed in combining the modern and goth setting and not shying off from one or the other. Most of all though, they seem to be keeping the essence of Dracula intact: That he IS a monster, full on, and that fact that they are not shying away from that, AND also force you to be in his shoes is a daring move I really appreciate. The only thing that slightly worries me is the stealth elements. I mean, they sound fun and varied enough, (what with making you turn into rats, lol.) but they also feel like a more disjointed element of the game, and if they are either over-used, or shoddily implemented later on, it could become an ugly nuisance. But from what the preview says here, seems they are handling it well enough. So'll I'll remain open minded about it for now. Anyway, seriously can't wait for this game to come out! Also, that picture of Dracula in the 6th point is fantastic.
  • Clovin64 - January 9, 2014 8:45 a.m.

    I'm thinking I should maybe get a hold of the Special "Complete" Edition of LoS since it includes both the DLC episodes (which I didn't play) and Mirrors of Fate HD (which I didn't play). That way I'll be able to catch up on the story a bit.
  • Moondoggie1157 - January 9, 2014 8:54 a.m.

    "I’m in a dark, locked room. I hear whimpering, eventually growing to full-blown screaming and pleas. I find a young family in the room with me. They’re freaking out in the way that you would if you found yourself locked in a cage with a hungry lion. Because effectively, they are. I have no choice but to feed on all three of them, saving the little girl ‘til last" Maybe there are some things that just shouldn't be simulated, I understand creative freedom, and I get that it's "not a real world" in a video game. But, there are just some things that we should be kept ignorant to. If this was a movie, or even a cutscene in a video game I would have no problem with it, it's the fact that you the player are made to commit the act. I felt really wierd after "No Russian" and I don't think I've played it more than once. I'm a horror movie fan, I love gore, cheesy or "scary". But when it comes to situations involving rape, or the murdering of an innocent family they should be merely insinuated, greek-play style. I know MANY movies, TV shows, whatever or guilty of this, and I have seen MANY movies, etc that are guilty of this. I just don't feel that we need to experience everything we can in the first person to make whatever creative medium involved more "realistic", or sorry, not realistic "gritty" is the word we use now. I don't need to feed on a young girl in first person as Dracula to feel like I am a monster, I'm mothafuckin' Dracula. Don't get me wrong, I'll likely play the game at some point, but this does bug me. I have a question for Houghton, do you think the scene with the trapped family was needed to portray Dracula's true nature? Or do you see it as something that was added mostly for controversy like "No Russian"?
  • gilgamesh310 - January 9, 2014 10:03 a.m.

    Well that's you then. Just because you feel uncomfortable with it doesn't mean that none of us should be prevented from experiencing the moment.
  • Moondoggie1157 - January 9, 2014 10:53 a.m.

    Your comment made me feel even more uncomfortable, are you saying you WANT to experience that moment? I sure hope not...
  • BladedFalcon - January 9, 2014 11:23 a.m.

    I don't think he meant it that way. I think showing a scene like that, within the context of the game, and who you're playing as, is meant to drive home a point. And the point may not be pleasant, but it may be necessary for what the developers are trying to tell. As such, I think that what Gilgamesh meant to say is that if that's how the developer wants to tell the story, then he wants to experience that, even if some scenes or moments are challenging or hard to swallow. Concerning your point of view. I can understand it, but at the same time it feels like a hypocritical, conformational kind of stance. You're going to play a M rated game about a vampire, a MONSTER who's going to murder hundreds of humans and soldiers in brutal, gruesome ways, and you seem to be completely fine with that. But the moment the game says "okay, let me show you a more personal moment of evil to show just what kind of creature you are" You think that's unacceptable? even though it's all simulated anyway? Also, answering a bit of what you mentioned in your first post: No, the game doesn't actually show you when you feed on the girl, it cuts away before that. So it's not going THAT far and it's not being exploitative in that sense.
  • gilgamesh310 - January 9, 2014 11:50 a.m.

    Yes, I meant that.
  • Vonter - January 9, 2014 10:50 a.m.

    This. Games used to be about having fun. I know engagement has been a new high for games but if it has to be less fun I'm worried about the medium. Is like if movies go only for dialogue and exposition scenes instead visual narrative.
  • BladedFalcon - January 9, 2014 10:58 a.m.

    Games can be a variety of things, just like films can tackle a vast array of subjects and themes. Not all of them have to be a single thing, not all of them have to be sup0er serious, and not all of them have to be mindless, unchallenging fun. Also, just because a game wants to challenge you and actually THINK about what you're doing, or WHY you're doing it doesn't necessarily make it any less fun, specially if the game itself IS fun. But again, gaming is plenty varied, if that bothers you, you have plenty of other options for you. Gaming and it's creators don't have to adapt to only your tastes.
  • Vonter - January 9, 2014 11:08 a.m.

    The first game was beautiful, somber and very dramatic. The gameplay dragged because the first section took too damn long making the other two sections feel rushed at times. Still not that is bad I didn't had fun memories of that game, mainly because it took itself very seriously (and the chupacabras was more annoying than a comic relief). Not all games have to focus on the fun, or being funny, I liked Killer 7 even if its a tedious game. Still I hope this Castlevania doesn't try to hard like the first LoS because I felt it was why it didn't achieve expectations, and also I'm hopefully optimistic that it ties loose ends and not leave it as DLC. (when did Gabriel became a vampire exactly?)
  • BladedFalcon - January 9, 2014 11:42 a.m.

    That's merely your opinion though. I thought the tone was fitting because it set itself as such from the beginning, and it also very clear that it was something altogether different from the rest of the series. And even with it's serious tone, the game was beautiful, the combat was great, tight AND still fun, at least for me, and seeing the high praise it gt, from a lot others as well. This next game is just expanding on everything the first did, so of course it's going to be dark, specially more so because your protagonist has now turned into a monster. (Although yeah, keeping key plot points in the DLC is kinda cheap, they show you he became a vampire in the DLC because it was the only way he could enter a realm to destroy a demon that the villains of the first game had kept at bay.) Anyway, if nothing else, you don't have to worry about them leaving any loose ends this time around. They0ve stated very firmly that this is the last game of the Lords of Shadow series, and they simply won't be making another one.
  • Vonter - January 9, 2014 12:44 p.m.

    I think it got more mixed results than you think. And sorry if it sounded ranting (part of it is) but I'm really concerned how they'll be able to fit so many loose ends together. We have the order, Simon and Alucard, Satan, the toymaker was foreshadowed in MoF for some reason, we sequences in the past and in a modern setting. Sounds that it could be a very epic payoff but it also could be a great mess, even if videogames expand more than movies in length I think there is a lack of focus.
  • BladedFalcon - January 9, 2014 2:20 p.m.

    Oh, I'm well aware of the negative side of reviews and press LoS got, but even with those, the overall consensus is pretty damn positive. Specially when you consider how badly all the other several 3D entries in the Castlevania franchise have fared in comparison. Those who actually gave the game a try for what it was, without expecting anything that it isn't, (Like IGN bitching that it wasn't similar to the previous Castlevanias and whatnot.) found plenty to love. Haven't played MoF just yet, (waiting for LoS2 to be closer to release, so I can play them back to back.) so I can't comment on whatever plot points of loose ends were introduced in MoF. However, unless MoF really changed things up that much, from what I got out of the firs TLoS's story, wrapping it up shouldn't be THAT difficult considering that well, this is Gabriel's story, and LoS2 is the continuation of what happened at the end of LoS. Gabriel became Dracula, he then spent milennia hidden in the shadows, and got woken again by Zobek to fend of Satan, and in doing so, being granted death at last. Doesn't feel all that complicated to properly wrap that up, honestly.
  • Vonter - January 9, 2014 5:59 p.m.

    Yeah maybe you're right, I do tend to complicate my line of thought when I got very invested in something. Its just MoF added a few more things that are hinted to be solved in LoS 2. And it make me a bit bitter the game felt more like a prologue to establish those elements for the final chapter.
  • EmiyaLightbringer - January 9, 2014 6:45 p.m.

    Right you are. Let's just hope they got the way to tie all the loose ends and deliver us a dramatic Epic game (crossing fingers for that) :D
  • universaltofu - January 9, 2014 11:15 a.m.

    Looking quite good, Patrick Stewart is back right? I'm so down for Dracula feeding time, all day.
  • shawksta - January 9, 2014 11:25 a.m.

    Not bad, pretty thrilling. looking awesome. The scene was in first person specifically? Damn
  • EmiyaLightbringer - January 9, 2014 11:57 a.m.

    Thanks for the preview, Mr. Houghton! Though there're some concerns on the Stealth parts I believe MercurySteam will deliver them, and everything else in the game, in adecuate amounts to satisfy the player. Ready or not, my body needs this NOW!
  • Vonter - January 9, 2014 2:01 p.m.

    As for the sequence I imagine is something like Poseidon death sequence, did it go to black when killing the girl? Also didn't Ninja Gaiden also tried to do this? I think in the end is personal if its warranted or not. Also No Russian still gave you the choice of killing or not several civilians. I think the one that mostly bother me was the death scenes of Garcia's girlfriend in Shadows of the Damned and the death sequences in Tomb Raider.

Showing 1-20 of 111 comments

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