Sunday, 2 March 2014

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (Video Game Review)

The real tragedy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is neither the loss of its Metroidvania style nor the predicament of its protagonist. It's the fact that it is a great game with so many visible blemishes plaguing otherwise excellent gameplay. It's not that type of game where you enjoy everything besides that one irritating mechanic. Nor is it that kind of game where the experiences of good and bad even out into making it an average title. It's a game where you jump in split seconds from God of War level fantastic combat moments, to shoehorned disappointingly unnecessary stealth sections.

Is it good, is it bad? It's not quite that simple here.

Following on from the end to the previous Lords of Shadow, Dracula (voiced by Lord Robert of Carlyle) has been in long slumbers. With little memory of what took place before and his powers long gone, he soon discovers that the Belmont clan still hunts him. Yearning for an end to his immortal existence but unwilling to let his soul be claimed for his dark deeds, he is approached by Zobek (voiced by God-King Patrick of Stewart... yes, i'll stop that now). Warned that Satan has returned and the modern world is falling into chaos, Dracula sets out to destroy him and free himself from his fate.

The plot here is as strong as last time, do not let that be questioned. Despite the news that it involves the modern day as a setting, often a death knell to any promising fantasy idea, it oddly works. Showing far more restraint in its use than the likes of Onimusha 3 and more focus upon established elements, Plenty of great characters return, the fantasy elements remain a clear focus of the game and it remains as strong and interesting as ever. As does the voice acting and dialogue thankfully, at least beyond Dracula's hammy lines in the prologue's intentional callbacks. Let's face it, you have Dracula in his castle fighting paladins, you need to have him refer to man as a "miserable pile of secrets!" at least once.

Unfortunately, one flaw which Onimusha 3 shared is the distinct difference in how interesting settings truly are. Nothing quite compares to going through Dracula's demonically sentient castle as it attempts to murder him, especially when it's contrasted with very dull modern day environments. You go from fighting demons over a massive pit of lava, with waterfalls maintained by turning demonic gears constantly spewing firey doom on all below, to doing the same in a generic car park. You go from running through the halls of an atmospheric gothic building to doing the same in a grey office block. It just doesn't really work and you'll often find yourself running through some unfortunately very boring bits just to get back to the fun areas.

This contrast between the two is not helped by early gameplay choices. Doing the sort of thing usually reserved for Samus Aran, the opening has you kicking twelve kinds of arse as a full powered Dracula with all of his power ups. Once the game begins properly and you wake up in modern day, you are without them. 
However, rather than going around beating down monsters, you are forced into terrible stealth section after terrible stealth section. In fairness it's not that they're bad per-say, but they are utterly boring and completely unnecessary. Even once you start truly punching people about, you're still forced into this bits, which feel like a poor man's Splinter Cell. Actually, no, even a poor man's Splinter Cell would have more genuine challenge than this. You're just left sprinting through the bits, hoping to get back to the fun sequences, and when this makes up half of your game that is a serious problem.

Thankfully the other half is for the most part very solid. Combat itself consists of a very interesting combination of weapons and power-up methods, which allow you to access further weapons as you kill more foes with your blood-whip-thing. You're also given far more chances to think as combat itself is slower than the likes of Devil May Cry or its bastard child reboot, making the impacts of your strikes fell much more palpable. As much as you are beating down your foes, you're also timing your strikes against foes for rapid take-downs. It's incredibly satisfying and even when the unblockable monsters are wheeled out to take down your confidence a notch, it's well handled and remains interesting. Though even then it's just a case of whipping out the void sword or setting your fists on fire to quickly mash their craniums into the nearest pavement.

Many strikes, moves and certain gameplay elements remain the same as before and that's actually good here. There's an obvious effort to try and avoid attempting to fix what isn't broken and the same goes for the lack of power ups. You don't get health by running around, looking for a glowing item, instead you use the void sword or finishing move to replenish your health a-la Captain Titus.

What's unfortunately not quite so interesting are the timed jumping puzzles. While hardly instant death traps, they will frustrate you plenty of times and feel as if they are padding. Unlike the stealth sections these at least contain enough actual challenge and skill to keep you somewhat invested and usually have pretty visuals to enjoy thanks to being set in Dracula's castle. Or even in the modern day sections which do more often than not actually throw out somewhere interesting and atmospheric to look at when not forcing you to turn into a rat swarm.

Speaking of the environments, the graphics themselves are great and hold up just as well as the character designs. While nothing utterly outstanding, they are well put together and do look fantastic in their stylised way. In modern day light reflections, shades of colour in the gloom and mixtures of tones prevent the dark and gloomy environments becoming completely grey. At least the well handled ones. In the castle... well, look at the screenshot to your right. It really is beautiful in its own demonic way. This said, there are a good number of background and side elements which suffer from terrible texturing close up. When the camera is moved close enough you can see just how bad they are and at many points it's obvious what bits were supposed to remain in the background, out of sight.

Also the camera isn't a problem here. While it's a common complaint in many of these games that the camera seems to either be working for the enemy or is being used by a drunk madman, here it works fine with few to no problems. Often the wide scope helps to show just how big and expansive the environments truly are and allow you to focus upon whatever enemy you're fighting at the time. Never getting too close or moving too far away.

There are many things Castlevania gets right at the end of the day, but there are just as many things it gets completely wrong. For every moment your are thrilled to fight hordes of foes, you will be bored out of your mind or just trying to get past others. In that respect, the original Lords of Shadow is still the stronger game and the one which is unfortunately recommend over this. If you loved the first one and want to see where the story goes, then buy this at some point but don't get it at full price. Wait for it to come down a bit and then buy.

1 comment:

  1. "The plot here is as strong as last time, do not let that be questioned."
    To me that's more of a warning, since I hated the plot of the last game, honestly though, the plot is the last thing I really care about in a castlevania game, I care if the gameplay is really solid, and judging by this review it looks like I'll unfortunately have to give the game a miss.
    I've been thinking recently about how companies will put companies/design teams they weren't sure of onto smaller projects. ones that are big enough they know the game will sell, but at the same time it's small enough that it won't overly hurt them if the game flops, and that seems to be the case with LoS 1 (especially since the last game the developers made was Clive Barkers Jericho), and it seems to have been the case with DmC: DmC (given that next to none of the original designers worked on it and it was helmed by a guy who really did not like the old series), usually calling it a new property would make the game more popular (in my opinion it's what should have happened with LoS 1) but it doesn't look like even that defence would save the bad gameplay sections of LoS 2.
    I'm not even sure who adds these things, who looked at Castlevania and thought it needed stealth?