By Rich Stanton on February 26th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 you play as Dracula, who over the course of many tortuous cutscenes is established as one of the most powerful beings in this game’s universe. Phenomenally mighty! Even god’s afraid of this guy!
Then a few hours in you’re told not to step on leaves in case they rustle, and attract some goatman who’ll instakill you via cutscene. It’s the worst stealth section I’ve ever played in anything, ever, and topped off by the fact that immediately afterwards you rip goatman’s face off with no trouble whatsoever. A small part of a huge game this may be, but it amply demonstrates why LOS2 totally sucks.
I’m sorry but what? “Don’t step on the leaves?!?” I’m not one to throw out the ludonarrative dissonance card for no reason, but GTFO. Bad as this is it’s only the worst in a long, long list of culprits. LOS2 may have some good qualities but this is one of the most mixed-up, messed-up, abominably directed games I’ve played in a long time.
I’d be curious as to whether anyone played this game through in its entirety before completion, because by far LOS2’s biggest issue is its lack of direction and focus. You begin, pleasingly enough, ensconsed in Dracula’s castle, drinking blood from a goblet atop a grand throne before a pesky human mob turns up to try and stake you out.
From here everything goes downhill. The opening’s big setpiece is taking down a giant holy golem of some kind through a linear climb up the thing’s sides, interrupted by constant miniature cutscenes and topped off by a series of rote battles along the way. What fun there is in the scale is soon lost by the constricting blanket around your possible interactions, which is basically the rule for all of LOS2’s large-scale boss fights.
From here Dracs somehow ends up in the modern day, under the watchful eye of the chain-smoking Zobek. An enormous amount of money has been spent on the celebrity voice talent for this game, including Patrick Stewart as Zobek and Robert Carlyle as Dracula, but there’s honestly no point in hiring quality actors with a script like this. “I have opened a portal!” intones Stewart at various points, doubtless just before sipping down a good cognac and wondering why he bothers. Dracula, meanwhile, has moved from the tragic figure of the original to an overcast goth who’s bummed out that his wife and son are dead – and of course both then turn up multiple times in order that Carlyle can mum some pretend anguish into the studio mic like this is storytelling. Dracula is one of fiction’s most enduring character archetypes for a reason, but there’s none of that here.
I enjoyed Lords of Shadow. It had fun combat and an interesting story, but more than anything the lush gothic aesthetic was married to a sense of grandeur that few games match. At times LOS is so beautiful it takes your breath away. The central idea behind LOS2’s setting is taking this style into the modern age, ornate gothic stylings meets high-rise cityscapes, but all it ends up with is endless sewers and a series of grey environments where the most distinguishing feature is car parks. When LOS2 returns to the past, as it often does, some of the first game’s spirit lives on, but overall this is an enormously dull disappointment.
We haven’t even got onto the action itself, and it’s here that LOS2 really takes a dive. “Don’t step on the leaves” is one of many stealth sections that are uniformly terrible, most of them based around obvious solutions that are again and again cocked up by the twitchy controls and stupidly specific requirements. You have to turn into a rat half the time to trudge through some pipes and flick a switch, which is about as fun as it sounds. There’s no freedom here, these sections can only ever be solved in one way – and even within that there can be no deviation.
So there are these big red dudes parachuted in from a space marine game, which you have to possess from behind for reasons. You can also distract them by throwing bats. If you try to distract them with bats, and then possess them, you get hit by their flailing arms and die. If there are two, and you hit the wrong one with bats, you’ve got to just sit there until the animation plays out and you can bat-swarm the other. Oh and of course you’re FUCKING DRACULA THE SCOURGE OF HUMANITY AND GOD ALIKE hiding from b-movie rejects and turning into a rat. The problem here is simple. LOS2 is not a stealth game in its controls or mechanics, but it has plentiful stealth sections. You do the math.
Outside of stealth the combat’s taken a step back too. Dracula’s animations are great, and you always look stylish when tearing apart mobs, but it’s constructed around an insta-switch weapon system with three tools, two of which have to be ‘charged’ with orbs to use, but their use is always pre-ordained. What I mean by this is that, throughout the game but increasingly so as you progress, certain enemy types have armour or shields which causes Dracula’s whip/sword to bounce. So you have to crack out the firey fists of armour-breaking and break their armour. Great. Certain others have to be frozen with the sword’s projectile attack. This is as deep as the switching mechanic goes.
One of the few nods to the fact you’re controlling Dracula is the ‘finisher’ move – weaken an enemy enough, and you can QTE them to death and drink some tasty blood, which restores health. These animations are so overlong you soon get bored of doing it, but the idea is more fundamentally undermined by the fact your sword also restores health. So you never actually need to drink blood, it’s just a frippery on the margins.
As confused mechanics like this suggest, Lords of Shadow 2 is fundamentally a game that doesn’t understand what it got right the first time around. There are good ideas implemented in ways that make them bad ideas – the giant bosses, or the dodge-cancel, or the slowdown-effect-on-parry. The last effect, which is a wonderful cue and preparatory tool in other beat-em-ups, is stretched out so far in duration as to become a drag, and allied to a bright visual ‘burst’ effect which obscures what’s actually happening in the fight (perhaps hiding some none-too-impressive animation collision, but I digress). Worst of all the window is gigantic, so what in other fighting games is the holy grail of mastery – parrying enemy attacks and unleashing ye olde wrath – is here incredibly easy.
This is not a question of a simple-but-effective system. It’s a botch job. What LOS2 is aiming for is to replicate the mainstream brawling of God of War, but instead it has simplified the precision required to parry and compensated by mixing in a dodge move that looks and feels great in isolation but in combat is only ever a pain. This is because it’s used for avoiding ‘unblockable’ attacks which have a different visual cue – but can often only be dodged in one right direction. I love fighting games, but this kind of difficulty is frustrating rather than challenging and means the system never acquires any kind of rhythm in extended engagements. The appeal is superficial and the sluggishly-queuing combos, parry windows and dodging together make combat rote and stiff rather than fluid and emergent.
Is there nothing to be said for LOS2? Of course there are, visually speaking, great sights to see. There are great-looking bosses, and some nice ideas. But let’s take the Toymaker as an example. This boss fight is preceded by a strange theatrical sequence where you have to pick stage props to illustrate the Toymaker’s life story, as narrated by one of his freaky puppets. It’s a great idea, but the execution is nothing more than multiple-choice so simple it may as well have been a cutscene. The fight against him, which has two of his bespoke creations before the big finish, is incredibly easy – with the final stage so exploitable (and clearly not intended as such) you’re left wondering what on Earth was going through the designers’ minds.
Finally the structure to which this series has given a name – Metroidvania. Typically this means an explorable map you can go back through with new gadgets to find new areas and items. Indeed this is the case. But LOS2’s dreary environments are so linear, with Dracula’s possible engagements so limited in scope, you’d never want to explore them again; the out-of-reach items and countless, countless pickups feel like needless busywork rather than rewards.
Lords of Shadow 2 is a shocking misfire. Konami must be looking at what it’s got for what was obviously a gigantic financial investment, and asking big questions. Perhaps what did for this was a lack of direction, or over-ambition, or a deadline that simply had to be met. But speaking as a fan of both Castlevania and LOS, as well as 3D brawlers, avoid LOS2 at all costs. What went wrong is anyone’s guess, but from a player’s perspective the only answer that matters is ‘everything.’ This is a bloody mess.