Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Review
When producing an anticipated sequel, a developer must always walk that fine line between “too familiar” and “too different.” If it’s too much like the original, it will be accused of being a rehash that didn’t require much effort. If it tries to do too many new things, it will invariably annoy fans of the first title. The problem with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is that it falls into the “too different” category; while I always encourage fresh ideas from designers, if those ideas don’t work out, the result is somewhat disappointing.
The atmosphere is a perfect example of an unwanted change, in my opinion. Best known for a dark, gothic environment, this franchise thrives in the mythical, shadowy alleys of fantasy. When you implement a futuristic 21st-century setting, you’re not staying true to the franchise’s exalted core. The graphics have the benefit of a great sense of style and flair, and the animations and special effects are solid. Some are even fantastic. You can also travel back and forth between past and present, but at no point did I feel like I’m playing a Castlevania game.
As for the audio, we’re treated to a few excellent voice performances from a talented cast, and the soundtrack has that epic, sweeping quality I would’ve expected. The strange part is that it sort of clashes with the visual presentation; the music and effects – for the most part – do give me that familiar Castlevania feel. They tossed in a few more modern-sounding tracks, which don’t really do it for me, but the sound is a definite highlight throughout. Combat especially benefits from some wonderfully effective in-your-face effects that drag you into the experience.
Change. It’s welcome…but not. It’s ambitious…but unnecessary. This is how I’d summarize most of the newer gameplay elements I find in Lords of Shadow 2. Let’s start with the more open-ended structure, which is drastically different from the extremely linear setup in the first title. Thing is, I’m all about striking a happy medium; finding a balance that doesn’t feel forced. This, unfortunately, feels forced. I would agree that the original game felt too constricted, but despite the increased diversity and size of the environments, the sequel seems to lack a soul. I’d rather be somewhat restricted and still have a soul.
The other problem is that while the first title gave gamers a relatively interesting, twisting storyline, the plot here fails to impress. It has its fair share of surprises, yeah, but the writers make a critical mistake: They don’t make the protagonist interesting enough. He’s not exactly sympathetic and he’s not exactly heroic; he’s fighting for a specific reason but sometimes that reason gets lost amid the muddled storytelling. He’s not the only character that’s ill-defined and under-developed, though, which is unfortunate. This story just doesn’t have it where it counts, but it thinks it does. Sadly, the more ponderous, thoughtful elements just don’t mean much.
On the plus side, the game is quite fun to play. The combat is really cool and action aficionados will appreciate the added complexity and intricacy. Gabriel has light and heavy attacks at his disposal (ala Kratos in God of War) and the control feels light and responsive. This protagonist is appropriately powerful and the depth rewards those who experiment with Gabriel’s entire arsenal. The new experience system open up a myriad of new abilities, each of which is flashier and more devastating than the last. Between the basic whip attack (hey, that feels like Castlevania!), Chaos Claws and Void Sword, you can dish out some serious pain.
Strategy plays a role as well, as each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses, which the game forces us to understand and acknowledge. But as is the case with just about everything in this game, it’s another good news-bad news situation: While you have great weapons and super fun skills, the enemy roster is uninspired and ultimately underwhelming. Granted, there are several wicked boss encounters but in general, the foes you face are generic. The ones that aren’t generic seem very much out of place; I have yet to determine the origin – or necessity – of those weird, alien-like creatures that carry automatic weapons.
Still, I won’t harp on that too much. I always say I like heroes that feel powerful and I’ve never really minded faceless, bland enemies before, so I’m not about to be hypocritical here. I had plenty of fun learning the combat system and employing Gabriel’s wide array of damaging abilities. Yes, I did. What I did not like was struggling through the poorly implemented stealth segments. They’re not well designed and they never even bother to tell you why you can’t just smash everything in sight. What’s so special about this particular area and these particular enemies? This just screams “tacked-on” and that’s very frustrating.
It’s one of those nonsensical additions that do nothing for the game; in fact, it detracts from the fun factor. The open-world element, on the other hand, is destined to be controversial. Purists may hate it but the various environments are quite attractive. I liked that we didn’t feel as bottled up as before, and earning new skills that open up more of the map (double-jump, mist transformation, etc.) reminded me of the good ol’ days of Symphony of the Night. I have no problem with utilizing a sandbox-style when you also have an adventure-like mechanic that really encourages you to keep playing. Locate upgrades, documents, hidden areas, and get stronger in the process. Fine by me.
I just wish they hadn’t tried so hard. That’s odd to say, but it really seems as if the team desperately wanted to avoid the “oh, we’ve played this before” accusation, so they decided on a few fresh components. Unfortunately, those components had no place in the game and just left us scratching our heads. When it makes sense, I say give it a try. When it goes against the very spirit of an entire series – especially one with such an amazing history – and it simply doesn’t fit the gameplay structure, it feels like a lame attempt. At the same time, I can’t deny that the deeper, more rewarding combat and larger environments does make this game quite entertaining…at least for a while.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t the sequel the fans wanted. It seems somewhat disjointed in that it lacks focus; in short, it tries to be something it’s not far too often. The modern-day theme simply doesn’t work, the story is muddy and hardly involving, and the stealth segments were just a mistake. However, the combat might be good enough to keep you playing, and the open environments are packed with secrets and other hidden goodies. Plus, I always love the Zelda-like structure that involves earning new abilities/equipment that ultimately let you open up more of the map. The question for you will be— “do the positives outweigh the negatives?”
The Good: Very pretty effects and animations. Excellent soundtrack. In-depth, engaging combat system. Open-world setup adds more content and an appreciated dynamic.
The Bad: Modern setting doesn’t feel right. Story is ill-formed and the protagonist isn’t interesting enough. Stealth sections are poorly designed.
The Ugly: “Somebody needs to explain why I have to sneak around here.”
2/27/2014 Ben Dutka