What is this game, but a miserable pile of ramshackle ideas pilfered from better games? That damning statement about Lords of Shadow 2 is unfortunately true. While I, along with many of you, retained hope for Gabriel Belmont and his introspective battle of self and his quest to destroy Satan, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Let me preface this, as one does when discussing a sequel, with the fact that I played and adored Mercury Steam’s first bite at the Castlevania licence. Though it had its problems, it was one of my favourite action games from the last generation. Great action, fun puzzles and its dark, yet vibrant gothic world left me enraptured. As another bit of disclosure, I feel it’s necessary to let you know that I’ll be spoiling bits of the first game here, as it’s necessary to do so.
Lords of Shadow 2 picks up very much where the first left off, and players are once against cast as Gabriel Belmont. Only now he has a far more familiar name; Dracula. He’s been hiding in a dank, dark and musty cathedral for centuries for reasons that only become clear towards the game’s largely unsatisfying conclusion. He’s brought out of dusty retirement by the manipulative Zobek: a founding member of the Brotherhood of Light and, as revealed in the first game, a generally untrustworthy guy.
Zobek needs Dracula’s help – an uneasy alliance - in preventing Satan from returning to earth to seize control of man’s world. He once again manipulates Gabriel to aid him, by promising him the eternal rest that his vampiric, immortal mind craves. That’s the crux of the story, though the entire narrative is interspersed with all manner of contrived, confusing exposition that has Dracula flitting back and forth between a modern reality and an odd temporal anomaly that returns him to his castle.
Right from the onset, the game is jarring. After the tutorial, we find Gabriel as a weakened Dracula, exploring a semi-open-world modern European city; he and evil gothic creatures are juxtaposed against a grey, dull and modern backdrop. It’s within these modern times that the game seems to be designed by committee; it’s as if every idea the designers had was thrown against a board, with just the most viscid excrement sticking.
Nowhere is this more apparent in the game than in its misguided and multitudinous stealth sections. Yes, as you’ve probably heard by now, the game is littered with missions that require one of the most powerful demigods in all of established mythology to scuttle about as a rat, lest he meet the gaze of an unholy space marine guarding some or other door. For whatever reason, all of Dracula’s attacks are disabled here, even though he’s more than capable of administering a fatal beating to the oversized guard. Instead, you’re forced to find cover of darkness, change form to a rat and then run about as filth until you’re able to amble about as a semi-functional being after possessing some human lab worker for the sole purpose of flipping a switch. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was a mechanic that was used one or twice, but its re-used often enough that I’d let out an audible groan and roll my eyes at every occurrence.
Lords of Shadow 2 is also the home of the single worst level in any video game I’ve played in recent memory. Yes, it’s one featuring stealth – and it’s not that it’s mind-bogglingly difficult; it just makes no sense. Gabriel has to retrieve some or other McGuffin from Agreus, who in this modern mythology is Pan’s brother. For whatever reason, Gabriel has to sneak around a large maze to press a button to enter a new room. Only the room he’s in now is filled with leaves, and Gabriel has to sidle along walls avoiding them, lest the resulting rustles alert the goat god to his position. Agreus is also on patrol, so if he sees you, or you make the tiniest noise, it’s instant death, and a restart of the section. Believe me, you’ll die many times; the level is horribly designed, bordering on the most inane sort of trial and error. What makes it worse is that all the sneaking is for naught; moments later after an easy battle you’re quite literally ripping his face off. It all makes exactly no sense.
The game’s really at its best – and its best is really just good – when it goes back to being gothic. The moments when Gabriel’s back in Dracula’s Castle are the far more fitting to Castlevania, and help show off Mercury Steam’s rather good art and animation. The sections where you first encounter Chupacabra, the mischievous little dwarf…thing are incredibly well animated. With the PC in particular, Mercury steam has brought the character to life. The bits with the Toymaker and the puppet theatre are equally incredible, followed by very possibly the best boss battle in the whole game.
Combat is good, but fails to be the game’s saving grace. Despite losing the combat cross, it’s very much how it was in the first title. Instead of that fabled weapon, we have instead a shadow whip providing Gabriel with his base attacks. A Void Sword adds icy, healing magic and Chaos claws give Gabriel armour-breaking fire magic. Each of the weapons can be mastered through continuous use, giving Gabriel buffing, knockback effects. Both secondary weapons are governed by magic meters that must be filled either by sapping energy from fountains, or keeping a combo going long enough to fill a meter that provides energy. While the combat itself has the potential to be deep, most of the enemies require very little strategy, making the entire thing devolve in to a repetitive slobberknocker by game’s end.
In truth, it’s not a terrible game, but it’s a disappointing one that’s seemingly been cobbled together from random ideas. As a complete game, they make very little sense together. The schlocky, terrible writing is an affront to the incredible voice acting provided by heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle. The inconsistent and unfitting gameplay and dull modern scenery don’t help either.
And yet, beneath that all are glimmers; flashes and echoes of the sort of stuff that made Lords of Shadow such a delight in the first place. That, and the closure it brings, make Lords of Shadow 2 worth playing, but don’t go in expecting much more than dull disappointment.