Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is the final chapter in the quasi-trilogy of the Lords of Shadow games. In this entry you play as Dracula himself. Much like the other games in the series, it is flawed, but is overall a satisfying experience despite its problems. In many ways it is actually the best of the three.
The game starts off with a brief recap of the story of the two previous games, which it rushes through with little detail, as if to assume the player is already familiar with the story it is telling. This is the beginning of the biggest problem with the game. The story is a mess. It feels rushed and shallow, full of many characters who do not get explored in much depth, and many plot points and concepts that aren't explained well at all. Although some of these unanswered questions can be worked out with a little thought, none really have a clear answer. Many leave glaring holes in the plot. Although there actually are some moments between characters that are well executed, they are fleeting and few, and only leave you with the feeling that they missed their potential drastically. The ending is also particularly underwhelming, as it completely disregards one of the two most important plot points of the entire game with no explanation at all.
The opening gameplay also sets a trend for the rest of the game, but a much more positive one. It begins with an impressive battle scene of a large army laying siege to Dracula's castle. As you fight through enemies and climb atop the enormous mechanical Titan that is aiding the army, it is immediately clear how much of an improvement in gameplay it is over its predecessors.
Combat feels tight and responsive, with a satisfying kinaesthetic design. Your three different weapons have a nice feeling of impact, and are all very colourful and well animated. Each weapon also has different properties, and are easy to switch between on the fly, giving the fights a dynamic feel as you fluidly change tactics as the situation demands. Your main weapon is the Shadow Whip, which has long reach and allows you to build up your Focus meter, which in turn allows you to absorb blood from your enemies, giving you energy for your other weapons. You also have the Void Sword, which can allow you to regain health by landing hits as well as use of freezing projectiles, and the Chaos Claws, that do extra damage as well as allowing you to use fire-imbued attacks and projectiles. If you time blocks correctly, you can also do a Synchronised Block, which stuns an enemy and allows you to build up you Focus much faster than most other attacks. Although it certainly isn't the deepest combat in any game, it gives fights a very enjoyable rhythm to them, as you balance different strategies throughout encounters. Playing through the game, I found this system to be so enthralling that I welcomed every single fight that came my way, and never grew tired of it through the whole experience.
The boss fights in particular are a highlight among the many fights of the game, as they play out in such a way that makes each encounter a fantastic experience. They are done in such a way that you can very consciously feel yourself learning through the process of the battle. At first boss fights start off with you being hit quite a lot, but not too much as to make it seem unfair and overly punishing. It makes it feel as if you are on the back foot, and up against a strong and worthy opponent. But you can quickly pick up on patterns of movement, and have enough of an opportunity to try out different approaches. So the game feels like it's teaching you at the same time as giving you a compelling challenge. By the end of the fight, you will have learned what you need to do and the tables will have turned. It makes for a great sense of accomplishment as at that point you are able to master something that shortly before was dangerous and formidable.
There are a few parts of the wider mechanics that feel rather superfluous though. You have a number of secondary abilities which are unlocked as you go through the game that are of little use, and are somewhat cumbersome. You have the ability to send out a Bat Swarm to distract an enemy, a Mist Form which allows you to travel through certain barriers such as metal gates, as well as making you invisible to certain enemies, and Shadow Daggers. The daggers are the only of these abilities that have any real use in combat, since they are what allow you to use the projectile attacks. You also have a number of Relics, which act as consumable items. These are even less useful for most situations in the game, and are even more inconvenient to use. Some of them can be useful as a last resort though, if needed, to heal you or give you some extra energy for you sword and claws. Other than that, they aren't really worth using in the the vast majority of situations in the game.
Some of these abilities do have some use in the stealth sections of the game though, which you will be required to do at certain points. These sections are easily the worst parts of the gameplay, but are thankfully mostly forgettable, with the exception of only a few frustrating instances. There are only really a handful of them through the game, and most require you to do little more than get to the other side of a room by distracting or possessing a guard. They usually only take a few minutes each, but they do feel like a misguided addition to the game. In these sections enemies use guns which can kill you in one or two hits, while you are restricted from using any of your offensive weapons at all, for no reason. As obtuse and unwarranted as these sections are, they are generally very easy, and very few and far between, so they don't really do much to damage the overall experience. Also, once you have beaten each of them once, you never have to do them again if you choose to go back to the same area later, which leads us on to the world design of the game.
The game is laid out in a way that is pretty unique for the genre. Instead of being separated in to relatively short and linear levels that only really exist to give a sense of progression and narrative framing to a series of combat encounters, here levels are interconnected in to two separate, but reasonably large web-like layouts. One set in a modern day city, and the other set in Dracula's castle, in pseudo-flashback sequences. Although this may seem like a pretension towards creating a more traditional Castlevania-style world design at first, it doesn't really create the same experience. This game's layout is far more that of an action game with elements of older Castlevania games, rather than the other way around. You travel through levels much in the same way as you would expect to in most other action games, with the interconnectedness of the world only really adding to the experience later on. Once you get further in to the game and gain more abilities, you start finding that levels you have been at before merge and break off from what you find later. You can also find small areas hidden away in earlier levels that reveal secrets and upgrades that you wouldn't have been able to reach before. You can move between all these areas without loading screens too, apart from when you switch between the different settings. But it helps give a sense that you are in a seamless world that is an actual location, instead of just a string of sets for you to fight your way through.
Traversal through the world is also enjoyable from a gameplay perspective. The game features an Uncharted-style climbing mechanic, much like the first game in this series did, but far improved. Controls are very easy and intuitive, and movement is fluid and fast. All you need to do is point the stick in the way you want to go, or jump if you reach a larger gap, and you'll climb there quickly and without any fuss of fiddly controls. There are also occasional minor puzzles to work out to get around. For example in certain places you have to use your ice projectiles to freeze a waterfall, and climb up it before it thaws. It makes for scaling the stunning architecture of the game a real joy, and does a good job of making travelling around the game world more entertaining than simply walking from place to place.
And speaking of architecture, that is part of another highlight of the game. It has a fantastic aesthetic. It has a wonderful art direction, full of dark and dramatic vistas full of intricate looming Gothic towers. Character design is also impressive, following the same style. Although sometimes shadows on them can look a little ugly, and some of the enemy character models can look a bit low-detail if you look at them closely. Getting that close rarely happens in actual gameplay though, so it's easily ignored for the most part, and doesn't diminish the overall aesthetic of the game. Some areas in the modern portions of the game are a little less impressive, since they sometimes feature a rather dingy industrial setting. The castle areas though, are unbridled Gothic goodness, well complimented with many varied styles. Like a snowy, windswept mountainside, or a colourful and intricate wooden puppet theatre, or a vast fiery cavern full of lava and towering metal machinery connected with gigantic chains.
The soundtrack is also a great part of the art direction of the game. It keeps a similar theme to the previous Lords of Shadow games, but has a slightly more balanced quality, for better or worse. While the best tracks from the predecessors were mostly found in the more calm, non-combat sections, here stand-out tracks can be found in both combat and non-combat sections. But at its best, it still has a wonderful, stirring, and swelling feel to it, which retains its unique personality too. It really adds a lot to the atmosphere and tone of the game, and perfectly compliments the visuals.
So while this game can't really hope to compete with the greatest in the action genre, and has some huge narrative flaws, it still has a lot going for it. For what it's trying to do, the combat is thoroughly engaging, and with a very admirable art direction, it draws you in to its world very effectively.
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