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REVIEW: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 - An unfinished finale

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 comes hot on the heels of LoS: Mirror of Fate and its HD counterparts. Since its inception, the Lords of Shadow series has met with mixed reception from both long time Castlevania fans and video game critics alike. Each entry in the series has ultimately found itself in meeting equal parts praise for every detraction.

For those unfamiliar with the series, LoS explores an alternate Castlevania universe where the Belmont bloodline is sired by Dracula himself, prior to his vampiric transformation.

The graphics in Lords of Shadow 2 are nothing revolutionary, but the level and monster deigns are well done and provide a great atmosphere.

Lords of Shadow 2 continues where Lords of Shadow left off, almost literally, with an aged Dracula awakening during modern times, weakened and missing his memories from the past thousand years or so. Soon, Zobek comes to Dracula and informs him that Satan is preparing to return. Zobek offers Dracula eternal rest in return for destroying Satan’s acolytes, thus preventing Satan return. With the two coming to an agreement, Dracula sets out to recover his full power and prevent the return of Satan.

As one of its strongest aspects, Lords of Shadow 2 expands on the excellent combat system from the original Lords of Shadow. Many of Dracula’s combat moves are very similar to those used in LoS, this time with a vampiric twist. Instead of the Combat Cross Dracula wields whips made from his own demonic blood. Instead of the light and chaos magic from the first game, Dracula has the Void Sword and Chaos Claws. The Void Sword can restore Dracula’s health with each successive hit, while the Chaos Claws increase the Dracula’s combat strength. Similar to the magic system from LoS, both the Void Sword and the Chaos Cross have their own pool of magic which can be restored by chaining combos, which drops magic orbs.

Chaining combos is not as easy as it sounds however, as even the weakest enemies have ranged attacks, as well as strong unblockable attacks. Thankfully, Dracula’s dodge and parry will mostly keep the player safe as long as they are mindful of enemy patterns. Lords of Shadow 2, like Lords of Shadow before it, shows the player no mercy when they fail to dodge or parry an attack. In fact, even with some of the weakest enemies, a failed dodge can mean getting hit by a string of unblockable attacks until the enemies combos are over. This can lead to a somewhat abrupt death if the player does not manage to restore Dracula’s health immediately.

Like Lords of Shadow before it, even the most common enemies can provide a significant challenge.

Combat does feel more forgiving in Lords of Shadow 2 this time around, however. For one, checkpoints are more frequent and areas before large fights generally have an artifacts which allow Dracula to recharge his health and magic before heading into the fray. Helping to make things easier this time, secondary combat items such as daggers no longer require collection and instead recharge after a few seconds. There are also a host of consumable items in LoS2 that do everything from restore health and make attacks stronger to slow down time and give unlimited magic. These items make the difficulty curve in Lords of Shadow 2 feel more manageable, despite its sometimes unforgiving combat.

The PC version has a decent amount of customization options, including an HD texture pack.

Unfortunately, the game is not always about its fantastic combat system. Sometimes, the game slows to a crawl as Dracula is forced to use stealth to proceed. These segments see Dracula using some of his abilities such as possession, rat transformation, and bat swarm to progress. At first, the stealth segments make sense as Dracula is weak and needs to possess either scientists or cyborgs to progress. As Dracula recovers his powers however, it becomes unclear why he is forced to sneak about. Dracula can destroy one of Satan’s acolytes but is unfit to face a simple cyborg? It makes little sense.

Expect to spend part of your time as a possessed rat, for some reason.

One particular stealth segment towards the middle of the game is particularly frustrating. Dracula is forced to sneak about a maze full of dry leaves as a boss actively hunts for him. If the boss hears Dracula step on the leaves, the boss finds Dracula and forces him back to the start of the maze, taking a portion of the player’s health. This is made worse by the boss actively pursuing Dracula regardless of the noise made, sending Dracula back to the start if he simply comes into line of sight. The segment is made all the more insulting since Dracula and the said boss fight almost immediately following the maze. What was the point of the maze at all? Why did Dracula run if he could simply stand and fight?

Some of the frustrations involved with Lords of Shadows 2 also stem from what should have been its greatest strength: the open world. Without spoiling too much, the game basically revolved around two semi-open worlds: the city and Dracula’s castle. The game looks beautiful and the levels are mostly well designed, but the navigation map struggles to keep up. Sometimes the player is left with nothing more than a vague arrow pointing somewhere off-screen. I found myself several times wandering in circles only to discover a small ledge I strained to see or a far off switch I was supposed to hit with a dagger. These moments can be frustrating, and may be played off as exploration/puzzles but mostly just feel like poor design.

In regards to puzzles, LoS2 is a little bit disappointing. While the volume of puzzles seems to have increased significantly from the previous entries, the quality seems to have gone down. Most of the puzzles boil down to pull this switch/use that power. Rarely do the puzzles reach the height of those in the original Lords of Shadow, if at all.

That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its inspired moments though. Part way into the game, Dracula unlocks optional arena style challenges where the player can put Dracula’s powers to the test. These can be a lot of fun and test the player’s skill by doing such things as banning the use of a specific power or setting a time limit to kill enemies.

Puzzles never quite reach the height of the original Lords of Shadow, but some of implementation is interesting in and of itself.

There are also moments where the game shines creatively such as a first person feeding segment, some clever sliding puzzles, and an interactive play. Equally enjoyable are several segments in the game where Dracula fights with a companion at his side. Dracula may be required to work with his companion to platform past obstacles or to solve puzzles, which really feels great. These moments are too few and far between, unfortunately.

On the more positive end of things, the boss fights in Lords of Shadow 2 are actually an improvement on Lords of Shadow and seems to take a page from Mirror of Fate. The fights feel more epic, with larger bosses, and fewer quick time events.  The QTE are mostly limited to escape animations but are sometimes used for boss finishers. Wisely, Mercury Stream has provided checkpoints before boss finishers which makes the QTE less frustrating. Wiser still, you can turn off QTE entirely if you so choose. With boss fights less reliant on QTE, the game flows a lot better, and it gives the player more of a sense of involvement during boss fights.

If you play games with kids in the room, you might want to wait till they go to bed to play LoS2. This is actually a low amount of blood compared to other scenes in the game.

As someone who actually enjoys the Lords of Shadow universe, I felt slightly let down by its supposed conclusion. While the ending was satisfying enough, it felt a bit abrupt and unexpected. The story also pays almost no attention to the events of Lords of Shadow, only vaguely referring to the game’s events. Instead, the game focuses more on events from Mirror of Fate. This combined with the sudden demise of some key characters and a lack of explanation regarding how the player comes to arrive at Dracula’s castle, make the story feel unrealized at times. This is further compounded by an ending that doesn’t necessarily feel appropriate for the series, especially given the general direction of the entire game’s story and portrayal of Dracula throughout.

As the player progresses through Lords of Shadow 2, they see Dracula coming to terms with the monster that he has become - how becoming Dracula has affected him, his family, and the world around him. Unfortunately, that character progression just doesn’t live up to the ultimate ending, leaving loose ends right at the moment that it seemed everything was going to be tied up.

Overall, Lords of Shadow 2 was an enjoyable experience despite some questionable gameplay additions and a lackluster ending. There’s a lot of content to Lords of Shadow 2 and a lot of fun to be had, including a New Game+ mode. Hopefully the upcoming Alucard DLC just ties up some of the loose ends that LoS2 left unraveled.

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About GRiVENone of us since 1:09 AM on 03.12.2010

About me:
I'm in my mid-twenties. Which I say, because I don't particularly feel like having to update my age every birthday.

About video games:
I grew up loving video games. I've been playing games since Windows 3.1 and NES. I used to have a love for all gaming systems and all video game companies. I now find myself frequently annoyed with modern publisher policies.

I would describe myself as a PC gamer. Even though there was probably close to a ten year gap where I didn't play games on my PC. I think that anybody that had to use DOS for gaming, has a different kind of appreciation for video games than other gamers might have.

Some of my favorite games include: Earthworm Jim, The Longest Journey, Shenmue, Divinity 2, Beyond Good & Evil, MGS 3, Majora's Mask, Metroid Fusion, Rogue Galaxy, Jet Force Gemini, and 999.

About the bio:
I always feel like an exhausted cosmonaut trying to write an essay proving he wasn't replaced by a space-alien-vampire-clone whenever I write my own bio. It never comes out quite right... But then I remember that I am a space-alien-vampire-clone, and the stiffness of my writing does not trouble me as much.

Anyway, I hope you don't find me too obnoxious, but then I'm getting a little bit too old to give a shit anymore.


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