Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Game Review - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (2014, Xbox 360)

The Castlevania franchise is one of the oldest and most beloved series in gaming, and the newest entry, Lords of Shadow 2, promises to build on its predecessor's success as a solid 3D action-adventure game.  Sadly, the latest excursion into the Belmonts' world falls short due to a series of weird plot and gameplay features.  The most frustrating issue is that there seems to be an awesome game hiding behind this awkward collection of confusing elements.  Here's why:

NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the original Lords of Shadow game.  I will try to keep those spoilers as vague as possible, but it would be impossible to describe my disappointment with this game's storyline without including some specific details of the ongoing plot.

Lords of Shadow 2 is unique among Castlevania games, as the main player character is Dracula himself.  During the game's opening tutorial, you get a chance to explore Dracula's powers while defending his castle.
While it's cool to see (and control!) Dracula at his most badass right off the bat, the tutorial gives the first hints of something amiss with the overall gamplay.  The combat is fluid and a lot of fun, emphasizing the use of a whip as in the original Lords of Shadow, with a number of different ways to dispatch your foes.

The frustrating part is the surprising emphasis on Prince of Persia-style climbing: you will spend a large chunk of this game jumping from handhold to handhold, and you'll generally do it just to fill time.  The platforming itself is rarely difficult, as only a few spots in the game require any sort of timing or strategy (one of the biggest challenging sequences actually appears in the tutorial), and you can always highlight grippable pieces of scenery using an in-game command.  All that climbing gets incredibly tedious.

Back to the tutorial, though - the game's introductory sequence ends with Dracula's ostensible victory over the Brotherhood of Light, defeating an army in a matter of seconds.  However, a cinematic indicates that the Brotherhood saw that battle as a victory as well, as Dracula disappeared following the fight, martyring the paladin who led the charge.

At this point, the storyline has incredible potential - we get a chance to see the Castlevania universe from Dracula's perspective.  It could portray him as a tragic villain with some depth (you know, as opposed to just being pure evil), or it could embrace the whole evil thing and give the player control over one of Dracula's conquests (asserting his dominance over some race of evil beings, for instance).  I was incredibly excited to see where it would go.

And then Dracula woke up in a modern world, emaciated from centuries of isolation...

Yep.  It's a game with Dracula roaming streets straddled by skyscrapers.  Sure, the world still has a clear Gothic vibe, and the overall aesthetic is generally well-done, but it's quite jarring to think of a Castlevania game in a contemporary setting.

But the weird doesn't stop there: one of Dracula's old acquaintances appears to restore some of his strength, informing the Prince of Darkness that Satan has finally regained enough power to fill the void left by Dracula's disappearance.  In return for removing Satan from the world, Dracula's old friend makes an apparently irresistible promise: permanent death.  Looking for an escape from his existence, Dracula therefore searches the city for Satan's acolytes in an attempt to bring the devil down for good.

Oh, and Dracula's memories try to kill him along the way, so there's that too.

The basic plot isn't necessarily offensive following Lords of Shadow, it's just really unexpected.  The offensive part is that it seems to go too far.  It's nice in that it humanizes the main series antagonist, but I felt that it made him too soft to be compatible with his previous appearances in the franchise.  While I think it wraps everything up pretty nicely in the end, the generally schizophrenic presentation (jumping back and forth between the modern world and Dracula's memories, for example) makes for a confusing narrative that doesn't really seem to have a strong direction.

The gameplay, while built on a strong foundation, just doesn't have the oomph to support the shoddy storyline.  I've already mentioned the mind-numbing breaks from action due to unnecessary platforming sections, but the combat loses its luster as the game wears on, too.  There are some cool features - a nice variety of combos and a nifty weapon experience system which encourages you to diversify your attack patterns - but it falls all too easily into one or two repetitive combos that are the most effective in virtually every situation.

In the few cases where those combos aren't the most powerful, the game overcompensates by making them completely worthless.  Instead, you have to break the enemy's defenses (with a skill that requires magic power, so you may not be able to use it) so you can resume your normal combat strategy.

Even worse, many of your enemies throughout this nightmare-infested city have guns, so they can damage you from arbitrarily large distances.  That makes some battles a serious pain; often I would have an off-screen enemy pummeling me with rapid-fire bullets, and projectile attacks make it very difficult to run from random mob encounters (because you have to do that silly rock climbing to transition between areas, and taking damage will knock you from a wall).

On the other extreme, boss fights are typically easy, as the only real obstacle to your success is learning the animations that signal specific attack patterns.  As a result, the difficulty of the game's combat seems skewed in the opposite direction of what you might expect, and beating down a boss doesn't seem like much of a triumph.

And then there's the biggest disappointment of all the gameplay flaws: Lords of Shadow 2 has stealth sections.  The Prince of Darkness must sneak through some areas of the game (primarily to avoid big dumb dudes with huge guns), and it is abysmal.  The stealth sequences aren't very well designed in the first place, but the control scheme also doesn't give enough sensitivity for it to make much sense.  A couple of these sequences were particularly bad simply because the path the developers expected you to take is far from obvious - in one instance, I struggled towards a clearly-visible ladder, only to find that you can't climb it; the "correct" path required a very different strategy.

To be fair, despite all the frustrations, the game has some impressive moments.  A couple of scenes are downright visceral, which is pretty sweet, and many of the fight sequences are actually pretty fun.  But the good bits make everything else even more depressing; its predecessor's strengths are still there, but they were downplayed in favor of a number of bizarre, poorly executed design choices.

Lords of Shadow 2 is one of the biggest gaming letdowns in recent memory.  It took the brilliant, successful formula in Lords of Shadow and perverted it to the point that it's rarely recognizable.  Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing more from Dracula's perspective, and it can be genuinely entertaining, but the prevalence of unusual flaws make it a hard one to recommend.

My rating: 4/10 - mediocre.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Game Review - Lightning Returns: FFXIII (Xbox 360, 2014)

Lightning Returns is weird.  Like the previous entries in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, the game is gorgeous, but the bizarre plot and a couple frustrating design choices make it the weakest entry in the trilogy.  Here's what you can expect:

The game's plot opens 13 days before the end of the world, with series protagonist Lightning on a mission from God to save as many souls as possible so He can populate the next world with them.

Yeah, that's what Lightning Returns is about.

The storyline represents a weird deviation from the previous games, and as the plot progresses, other features pop up that seem to change all the rules of the FFXIII universe.  As a fan of the first two installments of the trilogy, this unexpected turn was a little offensive to my sensibilities.  If you can manage to get past the initial shock and its lingering effects (or if you haven't played the other FFXIII games), the storyline is actually pretty nifty, including a number of little tendrils that connect back to the previous games in complex ways.  It took me well over 20 hours to get over the initial bad taste of the unusual plot, but by the end, I was inspired to replay the earlier games to get a clearer view of how it all fits together.

One of the outstanding features of the storyline is the way it is integrated into the gameplay.  Unlike most RPGs, Lightning Returns abandons the traditional leveling system, instead giving the player character stat boosts for completing quests - perfectly in line with her goal of saving souls.  The plot is also highly nonlinear; while there are a handful of important "key" quests (that is, VIP souls to save), they aren't presented in any particular order.  You are instead free to explore the world and redeem souls as you see fit.  The only restriction on your adventuring is that you must complete the key quests before the end of the last day, otherwise you'll miss the important end-game sequences that are dependent on saving a few specific souls.

All-in-all, these gameplay features enhance the story's presentation, as it actually seems like a coherent narrative.  Furthermore, random side quests are given more significant weight - rather than wasting time when you should be saving the world as is the case in many RPGs, the game's side quests are presented as an important piece of the overarching storyline.  It all makes the story more engrossing.

Supporting what turns out to be a rather interesting plot is a decent combat system.  Lightning goes this one alone, so the paradigm system that was in place during the previous games doesn't quite work here.  Instead, Lightning can have up to three active "styles," which serve the same role as paradigms.  One of the more insteresting aspects of this combat system is that each style is tied to a particular outfit, so changing styles on the fly means that Lightning's appearance will change as well.  These styles come with some prepackaged skills and abilities, but they also leave room for customization, which is certainly a welcome addition to the FFXIII gameplay.  This setup also means that players play a much more active role during combat, micro-managing Lightning's attacks instead of the tactical approach featured in paradigm shifts.

Combat is therefore a more dynamic affair in Lightning Returns, which also has some drawbacks; the biggest is the game's difficulty.  When your success in battles is sensitive to your available skills and styles, it is possible to get yourself into a position where you simply cannot defeat a particular boss.  The game's nonlinearity is nice in those moments, as you can shift your focus to a different quest line and come back when you're stronger and have more options, but monsters get more powerful as you get closer to armageddon, so you may not always be better suited for a fight when you come back to it later.  I found myself struggling quite a bit with a few of the battles throughout the game, and I was barely able to scrape by even after completing a dozen other quests.  It was a frustrating situation, perhaps largely because it was so different from what I expected.

The worst part of all that struggling?  It's possible to reach the final boss and just not have the gear, the stats, or the skills necessary to finish him off. At that point, there's no way to run off and complete more quests or get stronger stuff, so you're effectively screwed after investing 30+ hours.  In a nice gesture to help players mitigate this scenario, you have the option to start a New Game+ (keeping almost everything you'd collected up to that point) before the door that leads to the final showdown, but it's incredibly frustrating to need to run through the entire game again just to be able to see the story's conclusion.  That happened to me while playing on the "Normal" difficulty setting (there is an "Easy" setting which is a lot more forgiving), and I can see it being a huge turn off for a lot of players.

Speaking of the final showdown, it's worth noting that I think the game's closing cinematics provide the epic conclusion that the FFXIII trilogy deserves, even if they run on a bit too long.

Like the rest of the FFXIII games, Lightning Returns is absolutely stunning.  In-game graphics are solid, cinematics are striking, and there are a few places with really impressive vistas to show off the game's beautiful world.  The soundtrack is also incredible, featuring emotional tracks from the other games alongside new ones that add a rich depth to Lightning's universe.  It's an audiovisual treat to be sure.

Overall, there is a lot of content in Lightning Returns worth exploring.  There are four big areas with plenty of sidequests to complete and a number of other cool features (like the ability to hunt particular monsters to extinction) that I won't discuss in an effort to keep this review relatively brief.  It's unfortunately brought down by radical departures from the previous games and an occasionally brutal difficulty curve (at least for the "Normal" difficulty setting), but it's a decent way to finish the FFXIII series and a worthy excursion in its own right if you're willing to put in the time (which, to be fair, can be substantial).

My Rating: 7/10 - good.