Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (360) review
- Satisfying combat system, once you make it through an initial learning curve
- The age-old pleasure of re-exploring areas with new abilities is intact
- Good concessions to accessibility in secret counts and QTE options
- Truly epic musical score to accompany you
Not so much?
- Stealth sections that not only don't fit the character, but sometimes actively take away the pleasure or desire to play
- Inconsistent difficulty, with some earlier general mobs harder than later ones
- Significant loading times, usually hidden behind time-wasting routines of opening doors or riding lifts
A game of many parts, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 gets most of them right. The core combat system is satisfying, but also gets taken away for stealth sections that serve as the game’s low points. The numerous pieces of sleight-of-hand used to cover loading times wear thin after a while, but exploring the world for secrets or returning with new skills is done as well here as could be hoped for.
When the world needs Dracula to save it, you know it is deep trouble. And as it happens, the world of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is in deep trouble.
Picking up where the original Lords of Shadow left off, Satan has been defeated but hero Gabriel Belmont has been corrupted by the dark powers used and become Dracula himself. After a reign of darkness upon the lands (with the game’s tutorial pitting you against divine agents from Belmont’s own former allies, the Brotherhood of Light), Dracula instead hides himself away… and is brought back into the fight a millennia later by another former ally of less moral standing, the necromancer Zobek.
But Satan’s army is gathering to strike, and looking to get some gruesome payback for their earlier defeat in the process. Zobek’s offer to Dracula is simple – help stop the apocalypse, if only for selfish reasons, and he will provide a release from the state between death and life Belmont is currently in.
In terms of narrative it may not be literary gold, although it serves to set the scene well enough. But the plot doesn’t need to be thought about too hard. It seems that it didn’t set the world alight for key voice actors Robert Carlyle (Dracula/Belmont) or Patrick Stewart (Zobek) – both strong talents whose performances seem to be simultaneously carrying gravitas and boredom.
Perhaps a greater problem is that if you think about the core plot point – Dracula wants to die – it leaves you wondering where the actual threat is in combat. He can’t die, even though he can lose and need to reload…
… as mentioned, don’t think about it too hard. Just go with it, and see the places it takes you.
The game world is now an open one, with two parallel maps divided into connected areas. Firstly, there is the obligatory castle, which is populated by Dracula’s memories and monsters fighting to prevent him from leaving, seeming to be the place he can retreat to when needing to regain abilities. Secondly is the modern world, a place we would almost recognise, filled with phone boxes and parked cars, but is also custom fitted to the Castlevania universe. Built on and around the ruins of the castle, it is a place of modern buildings with gothic spires, clear nights with dark shadows and mists, and streets far, far below – it’s very much town planning as Tim Burton’s Batman would do it.
Exploration is rewarded, with a hint of grind. In one of the game’s best concessions to accessibility over hardcore perseverance, viewing the game’s world map displays the number of collectables and secrets – but only counts the number accessible with your current skills. Learn how to freeze water, or change into mist? Check the map again, and it’ll update you on how much you should go back and look for. And if searching is frustrating you, the helpful Dodo (a single use item that drops randomly, or can be bought) can lead you to the closest one.
If you like your vampires to sparkle, this is not the game for you. Castlevania’s use of blood means it is rare to go more than a few minutes without some of the red stuff. It is life, and it is death, as you sustain yourself often with the blood of enemies; but it is also symbolic, with what become worryingly regular acts of self-harm when you often need to fill a font or sconce with your own blood to use them.
It is also used more metaphorically; Dracula regains more of his humanity when interacting with an image of his son, his bloodline offering a positive future, just as he is pursued by the creatures of his castle when they are possessed by the blood shed in his past. They realise that their existence depends on Dracula’s, and so fight to trap him and sustain their own place.
This is a game that sets out to be difficult but not impossible. Early combat will seem challenging until you learn the combat system – and you will need to learn it, as button mashing does not get rewarded.
There are three basic weapons, a blood whip (because what would a Castlevania game be without a whip?), the Void Sword which restores health when it strikes, and the Chaos Claws for breaking defences. With each of these, two basic attack types form the core of your offensive ability – striking a single target, or more broadly sweeping the area, both of which can be strung into combos, with different moves possible depending on positioning or timing.
You are also able to block, and timing a block just as an enemy strikes will create an opportunity to counter; although some enemies can themselves block, and all of them have unblockable moves, at which point you dodge…
… Spend a little time learning these mechanics and a pattern forms, with combat developing its own pace as attacks and counter-attacks mix with on the fly weapon changes and combos.
Defeating enemies gives you experience points, which can be spent on unlocking extra skills for the three weapons, and learning a selection of which can help you significantly. But using these skills in combat will also increase their individual mastery, and on mastering enough skills your overall ability with that weapon improves. Going into combat knowing what you want to raise helps, although knowing which skills work best against which enemies takes you a long way too.
There is also a strategic element – do you feed on a stunned enemy to restore a little heath, or finish them to gain some energy motes which can recharge your sword or claws? These motes can also be gained by achieving large combos with the whip – but the challenge is to get it there when a single blow from an enemy cancels it.
Once you get past the learning curve of early fights and unlock some extra moves, combat does take on a satisfying edge. And this is a good thing in a game as combat heavy as this.
And at this point one of the game’s big negatives rears its ugly head – when you remove combat from the equation, the shine fades quickly, which is why it is strange that the game is laced with enforced stealth sections. At early stages of the game the point it made was that you are still weak and recovering; but they continue late into the title, including one unfortunately notable piece well over halfway through with you being hunted through a garden.
Get caught? It’s an insta-fail, placing you right back at the start with slightly less health; and it is frustrating to the degree of rage-quit proportions – made worse by then fighting the hunter in a straight battle less than two minutes afterwards and proving yourself to comfortably be the stronger. Why didn’t we just do this, and save the frustration?
While we are looking at low points, this is not alone. The game does suffer from inconsistent difficulty levels – some of the early mobs and bosses are harder to deal with than later ones, and this isn’t just down to a wider skill set. As mentioned, learning the combat system will take you a long way, but clearing an area of demonically infected humans mid-game will seem a breeze after dealing with the early vampire knights.
The open world does seem to test what the console is capable of, as indicated by some significant loading times. In-game, these are marked by various forms of gating – you will find yourself standing in lifts, or waiting for an airlock door to open on many, many occasions, all eating those few extra seconds. But these times also become apparent when loading from the main screen, which makes it extra frustrating to fall in combat – there is a solid wait before you can reload the last checkpoint to try again.
There are also occasional camera issues, which is almost expected in a third person game. With the camera chasing the player but not fixed (you can freely control it to look around), you can often miss things happening around you, or find it getting stuck in a corner and trying to get back to a proper angle.
But for these faults, there is a still plenty that game does right. As well as the combat and exploration, there are numerous bombastic set piece scenes – everything from crossing collapsing floors to making your way down a runaway train. The music should also be given a special note, with composer Oscar Araujo putting in some truely epic pieces where needed (linked is a preview piece of an early boss fight theme). And while the game does use QTEs, it also has an option to turn them off, clearly recognising the “like them or loathe them” response they get.
A game of many parts, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 gets most of them right but also suffers from inconsistencies about in which order they should be. The core combat system is satisfying, even if it does seem to get easier as it progresses; and it also gets taken away for stealth sections that just do not fit the character or setting and serve as the game’s low points. The numerous pieces of sleight-of-hand used to cover loading times wear thin after a while, but exploring the world for secrets or returning with new skills is at the heart of the Castlevania titles and done as well here as could be hoped for.
Overall, you’re left with a good game, albeit one where you have to make your way through occasional bad sections to enjoy overall.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is released this Friday, 28th February.