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.

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