Sunday, April 20, 2014

REVIEW - Castlevania : Lords of Shadow 2.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is the sequel to 2010's surprisingly-accomplished franchise reboot. Here as then, it is an action game in the direct vein of God of War (definition: a very high-production-value Devil May Cry), which prizes gorgeous set pieces and visuals, zippy, stylish combat and and a soaring, melodramatic plot above all else.

2010's Lords of Shadow isn't perfect - frustrating, half-baked gameplay elements will regularly pop up, and it's one of those games that are pretty bad at letting the player know which way to go next - but, on the other hand, you play as a holy knight who goes on an epic journey and ends up being cursed with everlasting life, to live out his days as a creature of ultimate darkness - Dracula!

It's awesome.  And oh, it's so beautiful.  Such wonderful environments!  Such fantastic art direction - and such music!  It's a lovely experience - and after years and years of games that squandered the hallowed Castlevania name, a welcome pleasure.

A sequel that smooths out the kinks and builds on Lords of Shadow's strengths?  Well, that sounds lovely.

It's beautiful.  It's regularly so beautiful.

It's not all it could have been.  Where its predecessor stumbled, LoS2 stumbles as well.  Once again there are half-baked gameplay elements that are pretty darn hard for the player to intuit, and the game rarely does a decent job of letting you know what it expects you to do (but it is, I should note, an improvement over the original).  There are tedious sequences where you have to sneak past big, gun-wielding guards - the game refuses to just let you fight them - and you're obliged to distract them with a summoned swarm of bats to sneak past, or by transforming into a minor plague of rats (in an incredibly cool effect) to slip by.

And maybe that's just the deal with MercurySteam.  Maybe they make games that are almost - so close! - as good as God of War, but can't help themselves from sidestepping perfection with these little gameplay mechanic switch-ups they convince themselves are great.  They're not great.  Like the titan battles in LoS, they ain't great.

That said, Lords of Shadow 2 remains hugely entertaining, and one of the most beautiful, absorbing games I've played in a while.  For starters, Oscar Araujo returns for the soundtrack, and it's another keeper,

with just the sort of grandiose, operatic stuff the game needs - though there are few tracks as memorable as those in the last game.  Graphically, it's gorgeous - MercurySteam go far beyond what they accomplished in 2010 with visuals that approach Sony Santa Monica's efforts.  The camera zooms in for finishers (here, Dracula drains a bit of blood from his victims before finishing them off), and you'll find yourself a bit surprised by the high fidelity of the textures when things get up close and personal.

It's also artistically lovely.  I was repeatedly cursing the PS3's lack of a screenshot function in sumptuous, gothic interiors and when panning the camera across another breathtaking vista - for about two-thirds of the game.

The other third of the game sees you navigating the modern (still very gothic) city that has sprung up around your castle in the thousand years since the original Lords of Shadow.  It's... an interesting idea - an unholy, nearly-omnipotent creature of the night stalking the mundane and familiar streets of a modern city.  A nice juxtaposition in theory, the environments of MecurySteam's modern city don't effectively serve as a real counterpoint to Dracula's darkness, as deeply informed as they are by the generally-gothic architecture of the game's title, and the modern indoor environments are just... pretty bland.

Once you get back to the more classically Castlevania stuff - opulent rooms and looming towers - which represents the lions' share of the game, it's all eye-popping gorgeousness.  There's less variety than in LoS, but when you're throwing down with some holy knights in a room that looks like this, it's hard to mind:

Lords of Shadow 2 is also a bit more ambitions than its predecessor, in that it's not a strictly-linear affair.  It's only mostly linear, but you are entirely able to retrace your steps and backwards-navigate almost the entire game, accessing treasures that were merciless lockteases on your first encounter, if you choose.

It tries to put the Metroidvania back in Castlevania - and that's a commendable goal - but it doesn't manage it very well. The game world is less an open-hub than a sprawling zig-zag of mostly-linear areas, tenuously - somehow - connected, and it would take multiple playthroughs to become genuinely familiar with its labrynthian map.

It's a Metroidvania that's not particularly good at the whole Metroidvania thing.  But this doesn't, really, hurt the game in any meaningful way.  Lords of Shadow wasn't a Metroidvania, and neither is its sequel - no biggie - Lords of Shadow 2 is a God of War game, but with vampires.

Which is awesome.

Between the long red coat and the weapons, they're not trying to hide the DMC influence, are they?
Exploring the game is far less interesting than seeing its wondrous sights, enjoying its grandiose story (here's all you need to know: you are Dracula, and you've sworn to kill Satan) and of course kicking the crap out of hellspawn with a stylish blood whip, ice sword and flame gauntlets.

The only real shame in the combat is that you can clear the game and only have enough experience points to fully-upgrade two weapon skill trees (thankfully, NG+ exists).  I would've liked to have invested in the heavy-hitting Chaos Claws, but my other options were a whip made of blood and an ice sword that absorbs life.  That's no contest.

LoS2's systems take time to become comfortable, as most of your attacks won't stagger an enemy, and all of their attacks will stagger you.  Dracula is a finesse fighter who must be constantly on the move, always evading, lashing out with quick, smacking strikes of his whip before firing an opponent into the sky and following up with a mid-air combo for some uninterrupted personal time.

It feels more than a bit cumbersome, at first, but by the end of the game you'll have no idea what your problem was, in those first few hours, what with the generous window for parries and Dracula's ability to backflip over blocking opponents to start a combo from the back.

Like its inspiration, the combat is visceral and very, very stylish.

While a far cry from perfection, Lords of Shadow 2 at the very least lives up to the standard it set for itself in 2010.  You'll sigh at a few half-baked mechanics and exult at the spectacular art direction, character designs and operatic story.  You'll thrill to the combat (fun bosses!), enjoy the exceptional voice work of Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart in starring roles and wrap yourself in a soaring romance of beautiful gothic imagery and lush, unbridled imagination.

You'll thank goodness someone is still making games like this.

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