Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was one of the more successful franchise reboots in recent memory. It threw out the old Castlevania continuity and started from the ground up with the origin story of Gabriel Belmont, the man who would become Dracula. It had some flaws and problems, but it became one of the best-selling Castlevania games and spawned instant sequels. It was easy to imagine that it would become a tentpole for Konami alongside Metal Gear. However, developer MercurySteam has said Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is its last entry in the franchise. After playing it, it's easy to see why. If Lords of Shadow shows how to revive a franchise, Lords of Shadow 2 shows how to squander that goodwill.
Lords of Shadow 2 opens up 1,000 years after the events of Mirror of Fate, the 3DS spin-off. Dracula awakens in a tomb in Castlevania City (yes, that's the real name), a metropolis built upon the ruins of his former castle. His old minion and friend, Zobek, has awoken him to seek help. Satan, who Gabriel had defeated, is on the verge of resurrection. If he is revived, he'll be pretty unhappy with Dracula and Zobek. Dracula must find a way to reclaim his powers and defeat Satan once and for all. To do this, he must travel between the modern Castlevania City and the Castlevania that lies within his heart to seek out lost powers and reunite with old friends and new enemies.
To call the story disjointed is putting it lightly. There is clearly a flow of events, but there's no sense of pacing. Things occur because the plot says they're going to occur, and characters are introduced, resurrected or killed in inexplicable ways. Perhaps the most egregious example is that the first half of the game is essentially a fetch quest for something that ends up being useless. The plot involving Gabriel's ghost family feels like scenes from a fevered dream, but the game has no problem treating dreams like reality and vice versa. There is at least one major character who's introduced, developed and killed off within 10 minutes. The game doesn't seem to know if it wants Dracula to be a cruel man, a loving father or a superhero. Eventually the plot meanders to a lackluster ending which, despite being more epic in theory, feels small and weak even in comparison to the first game's conclusion.
Lords of Shadow 2 has some strange level design. Instead of a flowing and cohesive collection of ideas and concepts, it feels like things were randomly thrown in. It follows the "set piece to set piece" style of design in titles like Uncharted and God of War but without any effort to connect the set pieces. You end up wherever the game wants you to end up, doing whatever the game wants you to do. One late-game area has you rushing to stop an evil monster, only to pause and play a knife-throwing minigame. You're introduced to concepts and ideas, and then they meander. You unlock the ability to use Wolf Portals to transport between Castlevania and Castlevania City, but you never need to do this since the plot railroads you to Castlevania when you need to go there. You can use it to backtrack and find items, but that's about it. You unlock a shopkeeper, but he is positioned in such out-of-the-way locales that I never bothered to visit him after the initial tutorial. The game doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what it wants to do and focuses on shoehorning in as many awkward ideas as possible.
The most iconic example of this is the numerous stealth sequences that have you playing as Dracula. The idea is that Dracula is hiding from enemies because he is still recovering and needs to avoid combat. However, the stealth portions never go away. Long after Dracula has taken down the strongest demons and most unholy monsters in the world, he still encounters a group of guards that he's unable to fight. The stealth portions exist because the game inexplicably and arbitrarily disables your ability to attack. There's a stealth sequence where you instantly fail if you're caught, but you proceed to fight the same character immediately afterward. This might be forgivable if the stealth portions were fun, but they aren't.
Combat in Lords of Shadow 2 hasn't changed much from the first game. The bulk of the changes are in minor refinements and polishing. It's now easier to move and dodge, and Dracula avoids attacks by doing a speedy dash instead of Gabriel's slow roll. The pace has picked up, and combat is generally faster. There are a lot of nice mechanical tweaks, so subweapons are mostly cooldown-based, except for consumable buff items. You have five subweapons: Bat Swarm, Daggers, Fire Blast, Ice Blast, and Mist Form. Certain enemies respond better to some than others. Daggers are mostly worthless, but Mist Form is really powerful. The camera has also improved and is controlled with the right thumbstick to keep enemies on-screen.
Unfortunately, many of the game's issues have not been fixed, and some have even been exacerbated. Enemies still have the habit of attacking from off-screen even if you're not looking at them, particularly gun-wielding enemies. It's very easy to get nailed by off-screen bullets or an AoE attack that you couldn't see. The Light/Darkness mechanic in Lords of Shadow has been replaced by the new Void Sword/Chaos Claws mechanic. You have two additional weapons that can be activated. Similar to the Light/Darkness mechanic, they have energy meters that you need to fill up before you can use them. The frustrating part is that these weapons aren't very fun to use. Their skill and upgrade trees are almost identical, except you have ice-themed attacks instead of fire-themed attacks. They also have much less range than Dracula's whip, so they're riskier and more awkward to use in combat. However, the magic meter restricts your use of the sword and claws, and that really contributes to their downfall. Additionally, enemies don't have much in the way of combat variety.
As in the first Lords of Shadow, you need to fill the energy meter by fighting enemies without taking damage. Performing long and varied combo strings fills up your Focus Meter, and that causes enemies to pop out magical energy. You can also fill it by perfectly guarding against certain attacks. The concept is flawed because it means only skilled players have regular access to the additional weapons. The better you are at the game, the more you get to use the other tools. Skill-based reward mechanics aren't out of place, but they're usually not tied to basic abilities and attacks. In the first Lords of Shadow, you had different colored whips with slightly different attacks, so it didn't feel like it was as restrictive as Lords of Shadow 2. It especially hurts since two subweapons are also tied to the Focus meter, so it's a precious commodity indeed.
The second problem is that this skill-based reward system gives rewards to the players who need them the least. If you're stringing together combos while avoiding damage, the Void Sword, which regenerates health with every strike, isn't very useful. If you're having a really tough time with fights, you're never going to have the same amount of magical energy as a skilled player, leaving you constantly lower on health, even though the game tosses healing points your way. The Chaos Claws are slightly better designed in that they're a straight damage boost and guard break. Unfortunately, the game expects you to have frequent access to them. A lot of enemies expected me to break out the Chaos Claws to smash their armor . Like the Void Sword, unskilled players are going to have a tough time, especially since armored foes are much harder to combo, again making it difficult to build magical energy.
Another problem with the combat is the Mastery system, which is a clear case of a good idea gone bad. Each of the three weapons in Lords of Shadow 2 has a skill tree that you unlock by spending experience points. Each skill also has an associated mastery, and using that skill in combat builds up mastery points. When you've used a skill enough, it becomes mastered. Master enough skills, and your weapon levels up and gets more powerful. Each skill must be leveled up individually and can only be mastered once. It's not a terrible idea, but all skills are not created equal. Instead of feeling naturally integrated into combat, it feels like the player must use weaker or more awkward moves to level up, and it makes combat less fun because you can't use the abilities and moves you like.
There also isn't enough combat to properly level up the weapons. Using a wide variety of weapons, I was only able to level up most of my weapons once, and anything further would have required a significant amount of grinding. It also suffers from the magical energy problem in that less skilled players have less of a chance to grind their claws and sword and will end up weaker in the end.
The boss battles are the highlight of Lords of Shadow 2. Not all of them are good, but they're fun to play. Many bosses have minions or areas specifically to drop magical energy, so you can readily use your abilities even if you're not good at stringing together combos. Their attacks are easy to understand but can be tough to dodge, and working into a boss's attack pattern well feels like you're overwhelming them with attacks and parries, especially once you get Mist Form and can stay on the attack. However, the meandering moments between boss fights are dragged down by repetitive enemy design and a general lack of variety. Most of the lesser enemies aren't memorable and can be fought in the same way. There are a few distinctive ones, including some giant robots, but they're few and far between.
There were some annoying glitches. Several boss battles were trapped in infinite loops where the boss was clearly supposed to perform an action to trigger the next part of the fight but didn't, so I couldn't damage them but also couldn't advance in the fight. The only way I was able to pass it was to restart from the last checkpoint. One boss battle also hardlocked my PS3 the second I initiated the finishing cut scene, forcing a hard restart. Mercifully, it saved at the start of the cut scene, so I didn't lose any progress. There were no glitches that prevented progress, but several set me back, and that was frustrating because they seemed to occur in boss battles, which soured the highlight of the game.
Lords of Shadow had a lot of distinctive areas, but I can't say the same about the sequel. There's a boring warehouse, boring sewer, generic castle, or some combination of the two. There are some distinctive areas, especially once Castlevania City gets overrun by monsters, but even then, they're mostly the same kind of destroyed cityscape. The monster design is also lackluster; it feels like fighting orcs from Lord of the Rings. There are some truly excellent designs, though, and the Toy Maker theater sequence is a real standout. The visual are rough, and the game has constant and frequent loading times poorly disguised behind door switches or long hallways. The voice acting is forced at best. Patrick Stewart does his best with the script, but Robert Carlyle spends most of the game clearly wishing he was somewhere else. The few times he brings his "A" game to the script really sizzle, but it doesn't happen often enough. Despite that, the two easily outact everyone around them.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is about as much of a step backward as a direct sequel can be. It takes a step forward in some areas but several strides back in others. The improved combat mechanics are hindered by poor level design, incoherent plot, badly implemented set pieces, and awkward new features. When you add the problems inherited from the original Lords of Shadow, not even the well-made boss battles can salvage the rest of the game. Despite the long development cycle, Lords of Shadow 2 feels unfinished and unpolished, like a game rushed out the door to meet a quota. Even die-hard Castlevania fans will have a tough time finding much to like. The long-running plot limps along to the finale, and anyone expecting an apocalyptic battle between Dracula and Satan will be very disappointed.
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