The first game I ever reviewed for Hardcore Gamer was Vampire Rain. I loved vampires and thought rain was pretty alright, so it was a project I was more than happy to take on. Of course, it became clear within minutes that I was reviewing a horrible game; a very horrible game. It was an uneasy mix of stealth and shooter mechanics all blended into a very substandard package. I swore I’d never review the series again, refusing to touch the shocking port/redux of the game, Altered Species. Years passed and the horribleness that was Vampire Rain had all but faded from my mind. Shockingly, it wouldn’t be another game in that series or similar shovelware product to recall those feelings, but Castlevania. That’s right: Lords of Shadow 2 is the Vampire Rain of the Castlevania series.
I’m not even going to bother trying to sift my way through the incredibly convoluted and repetitive plot of the Lords of Shadow series, so here’s the jist of it: Gabriel Belmont became Dracula and was killed by his son and grandson never to be heard from again…or so they thought. Centuries later, Gabriel is a dying vampire with barely enough strength to sit atop his throne. One day, Zobek comes to his castle and informs Gabiel of a threat to the world. Satan’s acolytes are preparing for their father’s return and have little fear due to Gabriel’s deteriorating condition. Zobek convinces Gabriel to regain his strength by defeating the acolytes so he will be strong enough to face off against Satan. The Belmont clan, however, have other ideas and become another obstacle in Gabriel’s possibly noble quest. Quite honesty, it’s just as convoluted as ever (if not more so) and is a constant drag. Castlevania has never exactly been known for its story, but you think that somebody could at least take a stab at coming up with someone remotely original and sensible.
The gameplay of Lords of Shadow 2 starts off strong. Taking place in the era of the first game, players move Gabriel through a quick tutorial before taking on a gigantic mechanical golem (note: it is the exact portion of the game that was demoed at E3 2013, which I was mildly impressed with). Combat has been tweaked a bit from the previous game, remaining relatively simply. Square does a direct attack, Circle an area attack and L2 blocks. Holding L2 and moving the analog stick triggers a dodge, while hitting X jumps. There are two special weapons the can be selected once unlocked: the Void Sword with L1, which regains health taken from enemies, and Chaos Claws with R1, which breaks an enemy’s defenses. There are also special abilities that are performed via the d-pad and multiple attack variations that can be unlocked throughout. While the combat is completely serviceable, it’s about as basic a a modern hack and slash can get. After playing DmC over a year ago, the combat of Lords of Shadow 2 simply feels dated. It’s not fluid, the weapons aren’t interesting enough and pulling off a correct block is needlessly difficult.
Unfortunately, the combat remains one of the strongest suits of the game, as the platforming elements are complete garbage. It’s easy to see where to go as holding L2 highlights the path, yet hard to find out where to start due to incredibly poor level design (which we’ll touch on later). Traversing through areas is boring at best and nearly broken at worst. Some of the platforming design reeks of laziness. One area has you jumping from chandelier to chandelier by swinging each back and forth, but this is merely done by cumbersomely walking back and forth and hoping to god (or Satan?) you don’t fall off.
Believe it or not, however, platforming is still not the worst part of the gameplay. That honor goes to the horrendous stealth elements that must to be seen to believed. First of all, stealth has no place in a hack n slash game, let alone in Casltlevania. Secondly, if you’re going to force it in anyway, using a rat as the gameplay mechanic is not a good idea. Yes, you read that right, almost the entire stealth mechanics of the game hinge on turning into a rat. You step into a dark spot, hit the circle button, transform into a rat and do a rat’s bidding. This includes things like crawling through air ducts to get to other areas (as Gabriel can transform back into himself if there is another dark spot) or chewing wires to solve a puzzle. The problem is that it’s laughable to be playing as a rat. Nobody ever wants to play as a rat — even in Ratatouille — and putting them into such a serious game makes it feel like it’s meant to be funny. Of course, it’s meant to seem really cool and innovative, making it a complete failure and pace-killer every time it shows up. Worse yet, controlling the rat is unintuitive and all of the obstacles feel sloppy.
Perhaps there would be more redeeming value if not for the fact that the level design is almost exclusively bland. Setting Castlevania in a modern era is an interesting idea, but using that framework to simply introduce a series of sewers, alleys and factories boggles the mind. It’s generic corridor after generic corridor with enough persistent darkness that the game might as well be in black and white. Not only does this do no favors for the platforming, but also for the surprisingly crisp graphics. Lords of Shadow 2 is a great looking last-gen game and the closet I’ve seen nearing the realm of Xbox One/PS4 quality since Beyond: Two Souls. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ever tell thanks to the poor environments.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a big budget project gone horribly wrong. The graphics and voice acting are top notch, but everything else is a complete wreck. Environments are boring and repetitive, combat is uninspired, platforming is a joke and the stealth elements are some of the worst ever conceived from a major publisher. It’s a dismal affair through and through and an absolute slog to finish. MercurySteam has publicly stated that they don’t want to be the “Castlevania studio,” and that is abundantly clear in this phoned-in mess of a game.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 3