Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

After the mind-bending closing cinematic of the first LoS, I waited years for details about Gabriel Belmont’s second coming, imagining what it would be like to stomp around Mercury Steam’s gloriously reinvigorated Castlevania world in the legendary vampire’s boots. His prowess is certainly felt in the challenging combat, but the addition of unneeded stealth gameplay really detracts from the enjoyment.

A tutorial segment catches us up on Dracula’s history between the Ressurection DLC and the ending cinematic of LoS1 which showed him emerging in a modern world. The castle is under siege, and players control Dracula at the height of his vampiric powers, blasting apart soldiers like soggy paper. An apocalyptic light clears away the invaders, and Dracula is left to face off against the last man standing, his son Alucard. Just as things start to get interesting with that scene, the game abruptly wrests control away and launches into a narrated collage to dump backstory (and summarize Mirror of Fate in case you missed it like me) which completely breaks immersion. The story picks back up when modern-day, decrepit Dracula awakens and seeks to reclaim his lost powers in order to stop Satan from returning and destroying the world. This true start of the story felt like recovery after being thrown from a cliff. There were too many threads left untied, too many unanswered questions about how and why Dracula slept for millennia. Thankfully, as the rest of the story plays out, there is a well conceived plot twist that satisfies all curiosity, but I was scratching my head in confusion for the first 2/3 of the game leading up to it.

The quest to regain Dracula’s power will take him through a mostly abandoned city built upon the ruins of the massive vampire castle from the first game. The environments are designed well enough, and I found myself stopping to take in the breathtaking art and architecture that’s strewn across practically every wall. It may be beautiful, but it’s not vibrantly so. The city feels lifeless. There is no compelling reason to explore the environments besides collecting shards to increase health or mana or to find scrolls that explain the history of the city, but I found myself drawn to doing so anyway simply to see every corner of the artistic levels. Thankfully, not all of Dracula’s time is spent amidst the cold stones of the city, as there are plenty of flashbacks that carry him through portals into the hallways of the immense, titular castle that defines the series.

The combat is where Lords of Shadow 2 really shines. The fast-paced, challenging encounters that made the first game so enjoyable have returned. Gone are the light and shadow magic combos that were added to Gabriel’s whip, replaced with entirely new weapons in Dracula’s arsenal. The vampire killer whip has been ditched in favor of a congealed cord of blood that can be summoned at will. Light magic is replaced by Dracula’s icy Void Sword, which can steal life. Shadow magic has become the fiery Chaos Claws that deliver slow but devastating attacks. Players will still have to spend points earned in combat to unlock combos for these weapons, but a new experience system boosts the power of the preferred weapon. The more you use it, the more powerful and vital the weapon becomes for defeating the tougher foes later on. All in all, the developers maintained the feel of the game’s core combat mechanics with just enough tweaks to keep it fresh.

If the game had simply stuck to what it does best – tell an engaging tale punctuated with periods of thrilling battles – Lords of Shadow 2 would have been a well-rounded experience, but by adding a frustrating stealth element to some of the modern city’s environments, the developers went a little too far experimenting with the formula. These sections thankfully don’t last very long, so long as you can perfectly time the awareness of invincible guards that can kill the prince of darkness in a single shot. This instant death might have made sense in the beginning of the game, when Dracula was starting to reacquire his powers, but the ridiculousness of it sets in later when he is at or near full strength. If Dracula is strong enough to kill Satan, then why can’t he take out a couple of Satan’s test-tube soldiers? Implementing the stealth sections of the game only served to frustrate me from time to time, and they really broke immersion with the rest of the game which was just fine as is. I respect Mercury Steam’s desire to add new gameplay, but the stealth elements were too poorly designed and implemented to be any real fun.

Despite this minor grievance, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 provides a satisfying conclusion to the arc of Gabriel Belmont. Had the developers simply stuck to their whips, tweaking the already fun combat in minor ways only, rather than force an unneeded and frustrating stealth component, the overall experience of Lords of Shadow 2 would have benefited greatly.