Set after the events of the 3DS game Castlevania: Mirror of Fate, this is a sequel to the well received Lords of Shadow that was developed by MercurySteam and Kojima Productions for consoles and PC. MercurySteam go it alone this time, taking on the continuing tale of Gabriel Belmont and Dracula to keep the franchise going. After some (minor) criticism of the change in style from the original Castlevania games, have they changed the formula to appease hardcore fans, or have they continued to forge a new path?
Putting my hands up immediately, I didn’t play anything more than a demo of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. I’d heard that Hideo Kojima was involved and Patrick Stewart was in the cast, usually something that would have me throwing money at Konami faster than a Veyron on a mile long straight, but I never got round to buying the game and playing it start to finish. I think this has left me at a disadvantage with Lords of Shadow 2. The game brings you up to date with events during the prologue and intro screens, but I felt a bit overwhelmed with information being a relative newcomer to the series. My last true Castlevania encounter was on the NES 20 years ago, and I struggle to remember anything from that other than Alucard being Dracula spelt backwards. Getting tomes of lore thrown at you fairly quickly can be disengaging, and it unfortunately knocked me off balance and set the tone for my first couple of hours with the game.
So what is the story? I’ve had to re-run this question in my mind a few times because that initial barrage of details went in one ear and out the other, and I’ve had to catch up and concentrate harder than I should have to at each part of the game with exposition. Very simply: Dracula kicks some ass in medieval times; goes to sleep for no clear reason; wakes up in the future having lost most of his abilities/powers/strength (convenient levelling up fodder there!); meets
Cpt. Picard Patrick Stewart who’s he’s supposed to be very annoyed with; has to stop an evil biochemical corporation working with Satan from ending the world; then gets thrown backwards and forwards in time (kind of) as he navigates his own castle in the past and the city in the future, as well as dealing with twisted demons and convoluted travel arrangements. Got it? It took me a while too. I’m not doing it justice, I know, but I’d have to write a novel to get across everything, and then I’d be spoiling far too much of the plot. The cutscenes, definitely something the team at MercurySteam learnt from Hideo, do a good job of conveying what’s happening, I strongly suspect it’s me that’s not latched on to every nuance. Though that in itself is an indication of my engagement in the story side of the game.
Putting the tale aside, the game proper is well put together. From a graphical standpoint it’s really nice to look at (my girlfriend actually asked if it was running on the PS4), and there’s a lot of detail in the characters and environments. It runs smoothly at 720p and 60 fps without any noticeable screen tear or slowdown. The “past” sections are particularly noteworthy due to the architecture and backdrops you come across, the “future” sections are a clear contrast with an industrial style, but this just means that the corridors aren’t as pretty. What jars a little bit with the aesthetic is the camera angle. It’s unlocked for the most part, with a few points where it’ll zoom to points of focus, but for traversal Dracula is not centred in the middle of the screen. It’s something we’re used to seeing in many other games, but here it feels a little odd and a bit off putting in the platforming bits. The camera also is not your friend in tight spaces. Get into a vent and you’ll be spewing expletives at the screen as you get electrocuted or squashed by something big and heavy for the 20th time. The audio lends to the atmosphere with a great orchestral soundtrack that complements the environments, and shifts up a gear when you enter combat. Exploration and backtracking through alternate routes lets you examine the areas in more detail and from different angles, and the puzzles and stealth sections make some of the more mundane areas a lot more interesting. There’s a talented team of level designers at work here.
Combat is familiar if not revolutionary or particularly sharp. Very reminiscent of God of War, everything is based on two button attacks and blocking, but isn’t as satisfying. During the prologue you’re a full strength lord of darkness, but can easily get overwhelmed by two enemies. Blocking has to be timed to deflect blows and open a counterattack, which is fine with one or even two bad guys, but any more and you’ll get hit from every angle with no mercy. Dodging is performed by using the block button and pushing the sticks in a direction, though this means you’ll end up rolling away instead of blocking and countering. Another thing that really niggles me, and it’s not limited to Castlevania, is that in combat your enemies can interrupt your attacks with one of theirs, but you can’t interrupt theirs with your attack. Why? When your enemies are weaker but able to muller you time after time when you’re at full vampiric strength, it becomes a chore rather than a joy. I don’t want games where enemies are vanquished with just the protagonists bad breath, I want a combat system that is fair for both AI and player.
Special attacks are available from the weapons you collect. The Shadow Whip is your default slow death dealer and along the way you’ll acquire the Void Sword and the Chaos Claws that act not only as more powerful ways of you getting hit by every enemy, but also for opening new routes through the environment. The Void Sword replenishes your health when you successfully connect a blow, the Chaos Claws disintegrate armour, so both are pretty handy. However, they run off magic that must be harvested from orbs produced on successful Shadow Whip combos and defeating enemies. You get to decide which weapon to charge through clicking the appropriate stick and sucking the orbs in, only as long as you’re in range. It’s a really convoluted and annoying way of managing the recharge. I like the idea of the whip driving the power of the other weapons, it’s collecting the power that becomes tricky when in the midst of a melee. It could so easily have followed the route of having both weapons run off one magic gauge and regeneration orbs getting hoovered up automatically; though I see where the developer was going, it’s not fun and a bit too faffy. It doesn’t make boss battles any better either, and most can be beaten by grinding the same move over and over to whittle the health down. Every weapon can be upgraded quite comprehensively to open up new combos and bring you back to the same state you were in during the prologue, and you’ll never miss the notifications that something new is available.
The HUD is cluttered, filled to the brim with all your different gauges, that then throws messages at you every 30 seconds or bangs the autosave logo just right of centre of the screen so you think something’s happening. It’s a good job I had the QTE’s turned off in the options otherwise my eyes might have popped trying to take everything in. It all comes back to the comments at the beginning around the story, too much info, and too quickly as well. It’s not that it’s unmanageable, it just took a long time to get to grips with, and because it’s logical but not intuitive, things didn’t flow as well as I’d have liked in the early stages. What I can’t accuse them of is making the directions have too much info, in this area there’s definitely a minimalist approach. I got lost several times or couldn’t see the route I was meant to take. Top tip here: ignore the suggested brightness, things can be a bit too dim! It sounds like I’m being very harsh here, and I don’t mean to be overly critical because there are some great ideas there, I just think there should have been less of the ideas and more refining of the user experience.
Nothing was skimped on the voice cast, and I’ll guess a large part of the budget went on securing Patrick Stewart, Robert Carlyle and Jason Issacs. All perform the roles well, and even though Carlyle’s Dracula is a bit wussy at times, I get that the character story arc and his desire for becoming human again gives him a certain amount of melancholy and angst. I just never felt he was the menacing and all powerful evil force that the rest of the NPCs seem seem to think he is. More of the money should have been spent on the AI voice overs, repetition sets in pretty quickly with their phrases, as does the visibility of other genre and game influences. Homage is never a bad thing, and Lords of Shadow 2 doesn’t rip off anything, but it’s not wholly individual and you feel you’ve seen a lot of it before.
Reading through this you’ll probably think it’s a really negative review, and you’re right. I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind when I played it, and I felt alienated because I’d not played the games from the last 4 years and didn’t know what was going on, and that’s always the danger of picking something up part way through. There are some stunning production values in here that deserve to be shouted about, and if you’re a fan of the rebooted series I think there’ll be a lot to enjoy. MercurySteam have done a good job, and deserve commendation for their technical skills, but they’ve not been able to pull off the hardest part, making it fully appealing to outsiders of the series.
PlayStation 3 review copy provided by Konami’s PR team.