When Mercury Steam first announced a Castlevania that would go against canon, fans reeled in horror, hissing through their teeth as cries of heresy filled the night. But when Castlevania: Lords of Shadow finally landed, the hissing stopped. As it turns out the game was good, very good. Sure, it took a few pointers from the God of War series, but it did so in a way that fit perfectly with Castevania‘s signature style and, more importantly, its tone. The gothic atmosphere, a tortured Belmont and the large cast of interesting characters all worked together to create a game that was frankly hard to put down.
Now, after many years in development, Lords of Shadow 2 sees that same Belmont skulking around a modern city in the guise of Dracula. At first all seems well, but after destroying a few trashcans, hiding from binge drinking cyborgs and being offered “gear” by a sketchy lad in a hoodie, it slowly becomes obvious that something’s not quite right with Gabriel’s latest outing. Instead of unbridled Transylvanian fantasy, the modern setting offers corrupt corporations, rocket launchers and business suits. It all smells very DmC, right up until the game decides to expand out into a wide open world.
As technology advances, it seems that a large portion of the gaming community are under the impression that bigger is better. The idea of “let’s do it because we can” is such a Titanic mentality its a wonder why people are surprised when things go bad. While there is definitely a place for open world games, when it comes to active storytelling linear games rule supreme. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
Lords of Shadow the first, for example, was as linear as they get, coming complete with self contained levels, closed corridor advancement and fixed camera angles. But the game was handled so well that it created the illusion of freedom. Moving through a level felt organic, and even though you may have only seen a fraction of the whole, the level design made one feel part of something bigger. Even the arcade stage selection worked to its advantage, focusing on the important parts of the narrative instead of seamlessly making a snow level melt into a forest level, or the fire section attach to the castle section and so on and so forth.
By choosing to take Lords of Shadow 2 into an open world environment, Mercury Steam have stretched their world into a far bigger beast than it need be. The beauty of certain areas are often lost upon those who don’t happen to point the camera in that one perfect direction, mainly because gamers have become fatigued after trudging through corridor after dull corridor by that point, or activating familiar switch after switch in a clumsy attempt to mask loading times. It’s true that the game jumps back and forth between Dracula’s castle and the modern era, yet the repetitive design utilised to link areas means even the grandest medieval setting can lose its charm, drowning in the swamp of its monotonous counterparts.
But what Castlevania: LoS2 lacks in setting, it makes up for in combat. The God of War inspired moveset makes a triumphant return, this time offering three unique weapons. The Blood Whip, The Void Sword and The Chaos Gauntlets all work around similar combos but have been tweaked slightly to serve different purposes. The Void Sword, for example, regenerates Gabriel’s health bar with every hit, while the Chaos Gauntlets shatter shields and armour that the other two can’t penetrate. New moves for each weapon can be unlocked through individual skill trees and, once unlocked, can then add to that weapon’s “Mastery” level with each use. By doing so, the game cleverly encourages variation in battle, rewarding users who avoid spamming by increasing their overall power. On top of this, combos seamlessly link into each other, having players chaining moves together with ease. This is mainly due to Gabriel’s well realised character animation, as every move looks fluid and natural, never skipping frames to make up for an unconventional move.
The care taken here can also be seen in the game’s enemy design. One benefit of the dual setting means that enemies are unique and varied, forcing you to stretch out of your usual habits and adapt with each battle. The downside is that not all enemies can be engaged in battle, with some areas placing the focus on stealth. Throughout the game, Gabriel unlocks various vampire abilities that can aid him in combat and stealth missions. The ability to turn into a creeping mist, for example, is a perfect dodge tool, seamlessly inserting itself into the action. But during the stealth sections these tools are used in such a forced manner that it breaks up the action and becomes a right old grind.
There are definitely sections of excellence in LoS2. On occasion, a particularly engaging enemy will draw you in, or a pretty setting will catch your eye, all while Oscar Araujo’s soaring soundtrack carries you lovingly off to another place. But it seems every time the game is about to nail that Castlevania tone, it yanks you back out into the cold light of the modern day, or inserts one of the many unwelcome stealth sections that eat away at the gameplay like the bubonic plague. It’s a shame really, for while Mercury Steam have created a game that offers some truly exciting moments, it’s simply too big for its own boots. Thus, like one of the many hulking monstrosities that Gabriel faces, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a beast that simply buckles under its own weight.
Beautiful Soundtrack | Engaging Combat | Varied enemies
Bland Open World | Stealth Sections | Loading Sections