Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow 2 review
Having survived the PS2 era, we’re fully aware of how dangerous stealth sections in games can be. After Splinter Cell made sneaking cool again, every action game seemed to draw from the same well, throwing in pointless, half-baked stealth missions to hit trend, tick a box, add a bullet point to a press release or whatever. But the simple truth is this: stealth in games that aren’t based purely around the concept is almost always terrible. It’s such a comedown from the empowering action you’ve been enjoying to that point that it doesn’t so much change up the pace as ruin it entirely, your hero forced to arbitrarily sheathe blades or flick the safety back on when the balls-out approach has been serving just fine up until that loathsome scripted moment.
You can imagine our surprise, then, when we were asked to skulk around in the shadows as the Prince Of Darkness himself, using clouds of bats to distract lumbering mecha-gorilla-things and possessing swarms of rats to slip by them almost unnoticed. This is not what we signed up for. This is not Castlevania. And this is sure as hell not Dracula, especially since in regular combat, a single button press can turn you into a massive smouldering dragon and nuke the entire arena. And it’s a crying shame, because everything else about the game ticks all three of those boxes with a confident flick of blood – it’s literally just the insistence on these dated and frankly rubbish stealth sections that lets the side down.
Without wanting to bang on about the single bad thing about an otherwise excellent game for too long, it’s not even like they make sense. Sure, Dracula may have had the world’s longest lie-in and as a result isn’t at full power, but Gabriel showed with the original game that he doesn’t need to sneak past shit. Giant colossus boss? Clamber all up on that fool and drop it. Legions of werewolves? Smashed to bits. But poor old Dracula can’t even step on a few old leaves without alerting an angry goat and getting insta-killed. They’re not all that common, that’s one saving grace – they’re generally used on your first visit to certain areas, presumably to give a better idea of how to get around. But you don’t need that, nor will you want that. When so much of the fun of a game where full exploration is made possible by learning abilities comes from looking around for places to try out your new skills, the last thing you want is to be led through a section by a trail of rat transformation points, buff guards to distract with a few bats and other assorted stealth mechanics that don’t always work as they should.
But that’s more than enough about that. Onto the good stuff and man, there be plenty of that to talk about. Visuals are as good a starting point as any, and Lords Of Shadow 2 even manages to surpass its beautiful predecessor in that department. Everything is ludicrously detailed and just as well designed, although it’s Dracula’s castle rather than the somewhat mundane modern day stuff that really shows this off best. Pretty much every other game is doing (or has done) modern day, and while it’s an interesting place for Dracula to find himself, that doesn’t necessarily make it an interesting place to explore. It’s all a bit grey and familiar for the most part, the odd Resident Evil-esque lab or impressive landmark breaking that trend but still not coming close to match the majesty of Drac’s castle, its gothic corridors, crumbling hazards and inexplicably awkward secret passages (top tip: never hide your stuff anywhere you can’t readily reach in case you one day lose all your powers and have to unlock them again) all a joy to wander around. And, better yet, they’re completely stealth-free. Hurrah.
Elsewhere, the simply awesome combat does an outstanding job of making the stealth seem even more laughable. Drac can parry blows all day long (the timing is pretty generous, as 3rd Strike veterans will quickly notice) and deftly slip past them with ease provided you’re up to the task, and linking these defensive tricks with all of the unlockable special attacks for the three main weapons creates an impressive, flowing combat system. As in DmC, your regular arsenal of attacks can be modified with the triggers to employ new tools and skills. But while Dante’s additional toys offered speed/area control and raw power, Dracula’s grant life-leeching through the Void Sword and armour-busting raw power courtesy of the Chaos Claws. In order to refill the meters that each drain, though, you need to be good – landing attacks fills a momentum gauge at the bottom of the screen and it isn’t until this fills that you start to earn this genre’s traditional currency: orbs. Once they’re released, clicking either stick will allow you to add the extra to the relevant reserve (L3 for Void, R3 for Chaos), so being mindful of enemy types and boss strategies is key when sucking up your rewards, Raziel-style. It all simmers beautifully together to create a satisfying and weighty combat system with more than enough of a risk/reward angle to please even those who call this genre home.
Equally strong is the cunning way MercurySteam has established in order to force players to switch up their attack patterns. While you can just Dynasty Warriors your way through most of the God Of War games, here you need to be more mindful of which attacks you’re using. Every time a blow lands, your mastery of it increases slightly – fill that gauge and the mastery can be siphoned from the ability (just once) into the weapon itself, slowly powering it up in the process. It’s far from a perfect system – we’d have loved to have seen more mastery levels for weapons than just basic, mid-tier and maxed-out – but it certainly keeps you experimenting. And – if you’re playing on Hard, at least – you’ll need to unlock and use every ability enough to max out your gear before heading to the final showdown. Only in a few instances (yep, bosses) does difficulty really spike, so Hard would be our go-to recommendation for most seasoned players – it’s still not that tough, but a couple of the big guys might spank you a few times before you figure them out. Still, last we checked, that’s sort of the point with games like this. DMC3 isn’t so highly regarded for being a walk in the park, after all.
The game’s structure is also praiseworthy in its own right, owing more to Symphony Of The Night than to the level-based, 16-bit layout of the original. The more of Dracula’s powers you relearn, the more of the castle and the city opens up and, while much of this is linear, you’ll miss a hell of a lot if you just follow the objective marker like a good little Assassin’s Creed player. There are upgrades, skills and areas that can be ignored if you’re not looking to get the most out of each power, making this a shorter game than the original if you don’t but exceeding its play-time if you do. New Game+ only adds to this longevity, although the full reimbursement of XP does offset the increased difficulty. Still, even with those stealth sections that we keep banging on about, it’s a game that deserves to be played more than once – its highs easily outweigh its lows.
The cracking boss fights, of which their are plenty. The epic mob battles where Dracula comes out on top because Dracula. The thrill of having everything ripped from beneath your feet only to rise back to your former glory. Even the nods to Castlevania’s past, which will have long-term fans out of their seats before the setup lines have even finished. Yes, there’s a hell of a lot that Lords Of Shadow 2 does ridiculously well, which means there’s also a hell of a lot of blame to be dumped on the person that signed off on stealth sections in a game where the point was playing as a vampire lord. Not only did you miss the point of character, franchise and genre, you also robbed a deserving game of a much higher score.
Frequent stealth sections stink up an otherwise outstanding sequel. Combat is so good, though, that if you can endure the sneaking, it’s still a bloody good action game.