“CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2″ (Game Review)
If you plan to play CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2 without playing the previous two installments (LORDS OF SHADOW and MIRROR OF FATE, which was originally for the 3DS but has since been ported for XBL and PSN download), prepare yourself for some heavy confusion. I have played those two, and even I found myself a bit lost at times during its 20 hour or so campaign, as characters tend to come back into the narrative out of nowhere and with minimal or no refresher as to who they are or what their significance was. Luckily, you can skip over the story if you want and simply enjoy the well-constructed combat mechanic and various gameplay styles that send this series out on a relative high note.
But if you want to know who you’re chasing to the top of a cathedral or why you need to slaughter a bunch of demons in every fourth room you enter, you’ll find a pretty entertaining narrative here. This is the first game in the long-running series’ that lets you play as Dracula the entire time. That doesn’t mean you are the bad guy, however. As we discovered at the end of the last game, Dracula is in fact Gabriel, the human badass who served as its protagonist. Despite his now vampiric nature, Gabriel/Dracula is fighting more or less on the side of good. Set in the modern day, he has allied himself with Zobek, his friend-turned-enemy from LOS1, who wants to stop the return of Satan. If Gabriel helps him, Zobek promises to kill him so he can be at peace (odd thing to be fighting for, especially since you’ll probably “die” dozens of times along the way), and so off he goes, in a manner not much different from the first game. As before, the plot gets more complicated; there are pieces of something you’ll need to collect from a variety of bosses, and Gabriel’s terrible past comes back to haunt him at regular intervals. Gameplay hasn’t changed too much either; the levels aren’t really broken up this time, but you’ll traverse exterior and interior locations in fairly equal measure, breaking up the battle scenes with some basic platforming and puzzle solving, plus some exploration for good measure.
Oh, and stealth scenes. As the first game took cues from GOD OF WAR, this one finds occasional inspiration in the (fellow Konami franchise) METAL GEAR series. Gabriel has to sneak past guards without being detected (instant death if you are seen), which he pulls off by distracting them with swarms of bats or changing into a rat that can safely sneak by. Unfortunately, these scenes tend to be the most frustrating of the game and temporarily halt all fun you might be having with it. Two in particular had me coming dangerously close to introducing my controller to the middle of my TV screen: a maze section where you’re hunted by the brother of someone/something you killed in the first game, and a brief bit where you need to sneak past three guards (instead of the usual two) that seemingly only has one possible way to pass. I’ve never cared much for trial and error gameplay (these two aren’t the only such scenes, just the most frustrating), and this represents the absolute worst of the concept. Games are supposed to be fun, after all, and I fail to see the entertainment value in forcing you to run through a scene over and over again, with even the slightest misstep causing you to start over and endure another lengthy loading screen.
Otherwise, the Frankenstein-ing of different game styles actually works well, just as it did in the first game. One thing I particularly took to was the weighted upgrade system for your weapons, which had you master skills as you used them rather than just leveling up generically. This is a great way to keep you from button mashing. Sure, you can win most fights by hammering the heavy effect button while dodging around (a maneuver that is much easier this time), but your whip, sword, and claws will forever remain at level 1. Meanwhile, actually using the skills that you spend your XP on (all a variety of combos between the two attack buttons and/or jumping) will have your weapons being much stronger for the tougher battles ahead. It’s also a fine way to see where your weaknesses lie; I finished the game with some skills at 0% because I was terrible at pulling off the synchronized block move.
Helping you in those tough battles, which were fairly challenging but rarely frustrating, are relics, most of which are new to this game. The fairies are gone (a swarm of bats does pretty much the same thing, though you don’t have to find them as you have unlimited bat swarms with a brief cool-off period), but you can still replenish your health mid-fight if you happen to have the right relic. The new relics involve giving you unlimited magic for a brief period of time (just as good as replenishing health in theory, as you can activate your void sword and absorb health with attacks), slowing down enemies with each strike, and even another one specifically for exploration, which allows you to see nearby secrets. The system is a bit clunky to use in battle—as you have to hold down the D-pad to access a wheel with all relics, select one, let go of the D-pad, and then hold down the right trigger—but they’re a godsend, and the best reason to explore a bit before proceeding with your mission.
Speaking of exploration, the “open world” concept that has been teased is fairly streamlined. I played through the entire game without ever really bothering to check into a “map room,” so I could explore a different area besides the one where my current main objective was located. Unlike a true open world game, there’s little incentive to wandering around areas you didn’t necessarily need to be in. Sure, you can find more “Pain Boxes” (HELLRAISER puzzle box looking devices, which are how you boost your health and magic levels), but with no actual side missions or even a tally of what was left to find there, it largely feels like a waste of time. You could wander for an hour and not even find anything of value. Enemies tend to respawn as well, so you might end up losing health while looking around for a “free” way to replenish it. Ultimately, for your first play through at least, it’s best to just make sure to level up your weapons appropriately, smash every crate and fire hydrant you see along the way, and conserve relics for boss battles. Some bosses will call forth a few minions that are easy to defeat, and can be used to replenish some magic or health, but I wouldn’t encourage you to rely on that before going into battle.
A few challenges have been added this time around, unlocked by finding hidden statues (which you slice your wrist on to unlock – cool!) and accessed by a shop you’ll probably only use to get the Achievement. It’s a bit of a bummer that a major part of the game is totally blocked off to you unless you find hidden items, but I assume if you care enough to try the challenge maps you’re the type that doesn’t mind running around racking up more kills and looking for collectibles anyway. They’re pretty basic: 2-3 hordes of enemies will come after you, and you earn more rewards for pulling off different feats. One that I tried had me go through the whole thing without using magic, while another demanded I stay “focused” (a status earned by hitting enemies without getting hit yourself) for 30 seconds.
On a technical level, other than some slow loading times (the game suggests installing to your hard drive, but I didn’t have the room), there’s little to complain about. The graphics remain impressive and colorful (I may have hated the maze level, but it’s gorgeous), the camera is much improved over the previous game, and while Gabriel still gets a bit “sticky” when trying to jump around (particularly jumping down) the platforming bits seem to flow much better than last time. One curious design choice puzzled me, though. The game has no main menu or “quit” function. Once you select where you saved your game, it starts right up (you only have one auto-save file, no control over doing it yourself), and if you want to stop you just shut it off. It doesn’t really affect anything, though it’s a bummer if you happen to inadvertently start a boss fight when underprepared and be forced to defeat him at a disadvantage or replay the entire mission. Having at least some control over when you save would be nice, as any gamer can tell you that frequent auto-saving can hinder just as much as hurt.
LORDS OF SHADOW 2 is a solid conclusion to the storyline and a worthy successor to the first. I was a bit disappointed that the open world aspect was so limited and that you didn’t get to spend much time in the “modern” world compared to the usual caverns and dungeons, but as with the original, the variety of gameplay mechanics and tough but (mostly) fair action scenes kept me entertained throughout. I’ve never been a series devotee, but thanks to these I am becoming one, and while this particular storyline may be finished, I hope the CASTLEVANIA series continues sooner rather than later.
Played on medium (“Creature of the Night”) difficulty on Xbox 360. My final game stats after one playthrough are 62% complete (100% on campaign itself, obviously) with 25 of the 46 Achievements unlocked – the remaining ones are for completing the game at higher difficulty and finding the rest of the collectibles and weapon/magic upgrades.