Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I've been pretty vocal in my displeasure of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sub-series. I absolutely hated Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (although I didn't find the first expansion, Reverie, to be slightly more tolerable), and while I could appreciate the producers trying to merge old and new play styles in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate, it didn't feel like the full course correction the series needed.
All of that is to say that I wasn't looking forward to my time with full-fledged sequel, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. That should be obvious from the fact that the game has been out for six years and I'm only now (in 2020 as of this writing) getting around to finally reviewing it. The first game in the series left such a bad taste in my mouth I've had a hard time mustering the energy to play these games, and even when I touch them I come away with an overriding issue: this just isn't Castlevania.
I understand that, for a segment of the fan base that actually likes these games (they aren't a myth, I have actually talked to them and they do exist), this sounds like an "old fan rants at clouds" kind of issue. "Oh, he doesn't like it because they changed his game and all he wants are more NES titles." That actually isn't the case as I've generally been on board with the changing styles of the series. I'll go to bat for Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, I have defended Castlevania 64 more than once, and would still be playing Castlevania: Harmony of Despair if I could find friends to play with me.
Yes, there have been misfires in the series -- Castlevania: Legends and Castlevania: Judgment, among others -- but even the bad games at least show creative merit. Here, though, it doesn't feel like there's any soul in these games (no undead pun intended), none of that creative spark the main entries in the series have all shown. These aren't noble failures but Konami simply following a trend in video games, copying what other people have done, and then wildly course correcting more than once to try and find what's missing, each time failing once again.
Admittedly, this full-fledged sequel does at least begin well enough. Although I couldn't care less about the story of the first game (it was both linear and yet a total mess, frankly), I at least could get behind the idea that now, in the sequel, we get to play as Dracula (I've long since given up on any hope Konami would actually pay attention to history and make this a proper Dracula). Moving around, using vampiric powers, exploring environments, that's all great. The game even opens with a prologue that gives you a full-power Dracula and lets you go around walloping foes as you like. This section was mostly fun.
Even after the prologue, once Dracula wakes up in the "distant future" of 2057 AD and we have a weakened Dracula to toy around with, there is still fun to be had. I got a lot of joy out of hiding in the shadows and changing into a rat, essentially giving Dracula his own version of Samus's Morph Ball that allows him to squeeze into small spaces. The fact that he turns not into a single tiny rat but a collection of rats (conservation of mass) was a detail I really appreciated and I had hopes that the rest of the game could have this playful kind of energy while you go around with a different kind of Dracula, exploring the world and pitting foes against each other (because you can turn into a blood mist and take them over). There was some spark of creativity here.
Issue is, though, that Lords of Shadow 2, like Mirror of Fate before it, is bogged down by the traditions set by the first game and instead of saying, "you know what? Most of this didn't work, let's ignore it," the game tries to suit two different attitudes and simply doesn't work at all. That prologue I liked, it was like a toned down version of the Titan fights from the first game made manageable and interesting. After that, though, the sequence is capped by a long and drawn out boss fight that felt like all the worst impulses of the first game. It's a slog of a battle that really does nothing for the story and simply acts as a fifteen minute action set-piece to waste your time. It was dreadful.
There is so much of this in the main game. Dracula gets sent somewhere to do something, but then in the process he has to fight a group of enemies. And then another room full of enemies, and then another, as he slowly slogs is way to the destination. Sometimes these fights are broken up with stealth sections (and when I'm actually looking forward to a stealth section you know something has gone off the rails in a game) but most of the time it's "go here, fight this, ad nauseam." After a while I felt my brains leaking out my ears as I had to fight the same repetitive enemies over and over again, with the only big changes being, "now they're wearing armor you have to break so the battle takes even longer." Ugh.
Difficulty wise this game does feel much more balanced. I struggled to get through the first game (even on easy mode) but I found everything a little more accessible, a little smoother to handle. Don't get me wrong, the combat is still awful, and just about every enemy and boss still over-relies on Quick Time Events to finish the fights, but at least I could progress without constantly getting booted back to the previous checkpoint (or screaming at the game for being an unfair mess).
I will hazard that I'm not the kind of gamer that likes this kind of heavy-emphasis combat. This style of play, so I cam given to understand, is common in a series like God of War, and that's great. We already have a series called God of War and we don't need one called God of Shadow made my Konami. Part of what works so well about other Castlevania games is the pacing: you get into a room, you take a few swipes at enemies, they fall over and you move in. There's always a sense of forward progression. Metroid, too, has that same pacing, and that comes down to the way the games are made and the genre they play in. If you have the name Castlevania on a title, there's an expectation for how the combat will handle.
It's really weird that this game still relies so heavily on long, draw-out action sequences in room after room of the game considering this game tries so hard to be a new Metroidvania. Unlike the first game, with its series of areas and constantly, linear push, this game is built on crossing your own path and constantly re-exploring old areas. You gain new power-ups over time and you're expected to go and dig out old areas again so you can find every secret and fully power your hero. You aren't going to get far if you don't find every health shard, chaos shard, and so forth. Go, explore... but get stuck in constantly, sloggy battles in the process.
It feels like the game actively wants to punish you for retracting your steps. "Sure, you can go here but we'll make you pay for it first." No thanks, game. Even making forward progress requires sitting through more and more tedious fights, all to get to the next room and do it all over again. At a certain point I just wished the game would get out of the way so I could enjoy everything on the fringes of what it felt was the meat of the game: it's bad combat and threadbare story.
You will note I haven't really touched upon the story at all up until now, and that's because it's largely incomprehensible. The first game in the series was produced by Hideo Kojima, of Metal Gear Solid fame, and I really found myself struggling to care then because the story was both painfully linear and overly complex for no reason (like many Metal Gear Solid titles). Despite Kojima not being attached this time around, the game still shows the producers same whacked out storytelling on full display.
In the game you're Dracula, having woken up after 500 years asleep. You're weak and pathetic and need to regain your powers while, in the process, fighting a couple of acolytes of Satan to stop the rise of the Dark Lord. SO you travel around the city, battling each of these guardians, until finally Satan is revealed and you fight (and kill) the beast and save the world. It's all very basic and whatever else happens in the game, that's the true main story.
And yet, at the same time you're also traveling back and forth in time in a castle that maybe is in your dreams but also is a reality, trying to help your young son Trevor rebuild a magical doodad (the Mirror of Fate), fighting a bunch of demons that want to kill you because they're infected with poisoned blood from your very own castle, having meetings with your dead wife, and... oh my god is all too much. It's complexity for the sake of complexity but none of it amounts to jack all at all. It's so utterly, mind-bogglingly bad. Credit to the classic games, even in their most bland and linear, they at least had a simple to understand goal: get to the vampire, kill the vampire.
It really feels like this game was an utter struggle for Konami, developer MercurySteam, and the producers (and if the rumors of its pained development are true, that feeling bears out). There are so many parts in the game, seemingly put in there to please all kinds of fans without, you know, actually pleasing anyone. "You guys like God of War combat? Well, here, have a ton of it. Oh, and you guys like the exploration of, say, Metroid Prime, we have that to. You people want the classic characters from the previous Castlevania games? Let's throw in a baffling old castle that you can explore." And it all comes together in this shambling, distended mess that never amounts to a fun experience.
That is my biggest issue with the game: it's simply not fun. I had times where I found some fun in the game, exploring around, doing my own thing, ignoring where the game wanted me to go and the enemies it wanted me to fight. But then, eventually, I'd have to get back "on task" and face off with a wave of enemies I never enjoyed fighting nor could simply run from, and I was forced to contend with the game the way the developers actually wanted me to play it. And it sucks. It really, truly sucks.
I'm sorry to all the fans of this sub-series, but frankly I just don't understand what you see in any of these games. They're bloated, they're meandering, they're tedious, and worst of all they just lack anything compelling that actually makes me enjoy the experience. If we look at the series as a whole then, yes, I will admit that Lords of Shadow 2 is the biggest and most proper sequel the series could ever see. It's more bloated, more tired, and more tedious than everything that came before and I am utterly baffled that anyone would want to play this game even if you have a deep and unabiding love for Castlevania.
The only thing that brings me comfort is that this is the last proper game in this sub-series. Aside from one pachislot game, Pachislot Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, released three years later, Konami has been content to let this sub-series stay dead. Of course, they've also been largely content to let Castlevania games whither on the vine. If I had to choose between another Lords of Shadow game or no games at all, I think I'll pick the latter. The series is better off never, ever revisiting this set of games ever again.