Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Mercury Steam
Publisher: Konami
Rating: M (ESRB)
PC review code provided by Konami

If I had to describe Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 in one word, it would be epic. From the magnificent art design bolstered by a fantastic graphical engine, to the in-depth combat system, this title is sure to be a hit. However, there are a few factors that briefly detract from the experience, such as its boring stealth segments, awkward platforming controls and below average audio programming.

Lords of Shadow 2 follows the story of Gabriel Belmont (Dracula), who is cursed with vampirism and an eternal life. After being allegedly ‘killed’ by his grandson Simon, Gabriel comes back to life many years later in a modern setting. He is soon warned by the returning character Zobek that Satan will return once more. Gabriel is the only one who can defeat Satan when he eventually comes back to life, and Zobek gives Gabriel an incentive for slaying the devil by offering to end his immortality. However, as he begins this adventure, he happens to finds his son (who was previously killed) in a younger state and is summoned back to his time. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 will alternate between these two timelines. This game is mostly about Gabriel’s journey to reclaim his powers and find Satan’s apostles. Don’t worry if you’re lost – when you first start the game, newcomers and veterans of the Castlevania series alike should appreciate the introductory cutscene, which explains the lore of the series in a thorough manner.

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The voice acting is thorough, with talent such as Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart leading the cast of vibrant characters. While the script may sound ridiculous at first, the cast make it work thanks to outstanding performances throughout the game’s narrative. For example, there is a really emotional scene between Gabriel and his wife Marie as they meet for the first time in many years, sold by the voice acting. Mercury Steam, the developers of the game, should also be commended for creating such unique characters as the Toy Maker and Raisa Valkova (an apostle of Satan), who both have such boisterous personalities. However, when it comes to some characters, newcomers may not fully understand their history with Dracula, which can sometimes cause confusion. I do believe, however, that their strong characterization alone will make up for the confusion. If you don’t mind this slight agitation, then start with Lords of Shadow 2, but if you want to avoid any possibility of being dumbfounded, I would suggest playing the original first. Overall, the narrative of Lords of Shadow 2 feels grand through its unique characters, outstanding voice actors and a story that truly feels epic as you play the powerful role of Dracula.

When speaking of the original Lords of Shadow, many called its combat a clone of Sony Santa Monica’s famous God of War series, but I think Lords of Shadow 2 can stand on its own in terms of its combat system. It is a refinement of the hack-n’-slash genre, as it adds a sense of strategy to each enemy and especially the boss battles. Dracula’s main tool of battle, the Shadow Whip, is similar to Kratos’ Blades of Chaos or the original Lords of Shadow’s Combat Cross. However, he also has special weapons at his disposal. There are the Chaos Claws, which can break through enemy shields and create bombs you can throw at enemies. Plus there is the Void Sword, which freezes victims in place and allows you to regain health with each strike of the weapon. Both of these weapons can be used in non-lethal ways as well, as the Void Sword can freeze water and the Chaos Claws can break through walls with their brute force. Keep in mind that you can only use these powers for a limited time, as there is a meter attached to each special weapon. However, the meters for both weapons can cause issues, as you may not have enough to use either the Void Sword or the Chaos Claws when they are needed to solve a puzzle. In that scenario, the player will have to restart from a checkpoint. This doesn’t happen very often, but it is definitely something to watch out for.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 includes a skill tree system for each of these weapons, which progressively unlocks special moves, combos and utilities for the player during combat. These skills can be unlocked through points you collect from defeating enemies and occasionally fulfilling certain side tasks. Once more, Mercury Steam have added plenty of items to turn the tide of battle in your favor. These items can give Dracula health, the power to slow time around him, or call on the legendary Dracul dragon powers within him. These light RPG elements gives plenty of possibilities to the player within combat and truly makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 stand out among the crowd of alleged “God of War clones.” On top of that, the combat feels both visceral and fluid to the player and unlike many other hack-n’-slash titles, in Castlevania: Lord of Shadow 2 the enemy variety does not sizzle out. However if you want a game which is combo-heavy, this is not your game as each enemy passes away after about a couple dozen hits. Also, there is only one finishing attack in the game, which is very disappointing because otherwise, this game’s combat system feels fully featured overall.

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Despite an engaging combat system, Lords of Shadow 2 quickly drifts off into some dull stealth sections which are complemented by sub-par platforming elements. In the stealth segments of the game, Lords of Shadow 2 takes a dive as these gameplay elements lack in depth and also cause plenty of monotony, such as when Dracula must become a rat to scutter around vents so he can circle around a formidable foe. These sections cause the player to get lost as to where to go or what to do, and they feel out of place for an action heavy title that aims to portray the persona of the mighty Gabriel “Dracula” Belmont. Another aspect of the game which just makes me anxious to delve back into the combat are the so-so platforming elements.

Overall, these sections are fine as they add to the large scale of the game’s levels and provides access to secret areas that provide collectibles. Unfortunately, the controls lack in responsiveness and animation. To give a few examples: the jump from one platform to another is too slow, and you are not able to press a button to lower yourself to a ledge (instead you must cautiously walk off the ledge). It is also confusing to the player as to where to jump sometimes. There are bats hovering around certain platforms that indicate where to go, but sometimes you can’t see the bats due to a fixed camera angle, which is frustrating. This will lead to Dracula running around like a headless chicken until you have enough of a keen eye to see where the developers are trying to lead you.

Another way you can get confused in this game is due to the lack of indication on how you interact with objects in the level. Without any indication to grab an object, players may not understand how to progress to the next area. Mercury Steam could serve to learn from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last of Us game in understanding how the user interface is integral to steer the player in the correct path. The reminders of pressing a button within an area of the level are integral to a third person action game, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 suffers from lacking UI.

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What Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 doesn’t lack are collectibles. From traversing the open world of the game, you can collect various sources of lore such as entries from epitaphs or fallen warriors whose corpses lay about the world. You can also collect upgrades for your character from trap boxes, which give you increased health or Void and Chaos meters (for the Void Sword and Chaos Claws). If you want to collect everything, you also have to revisit areas with newly unlocked abilities so you can reach collectibles you previously weren’t able to. David Cox, the producer of the game, told the PlayStation Blog that “a focused run of the main story will take approximately 20 hours to complete, [while] tackling additional objectives could stretch into the 30 hour mark.”

Besides the various issues of UI, merely okay platforming, and a monotonous stealth system, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 shines through thanks to its outstanding graphics and set piece moments (as well as its previously mentioned in-depth combat system). The art design of this Castlevania game is magnificent, including imaginatively realized characters, architecture, settings, weapons and even the menus, which take on a storybook aesthetic. Some of the world design for the modern sections of the game do feel uninspired, with hallway-like warehouses and a bland metal landscape, but these come few and far between. The talented crew behind the engine have made a glorious looking game, especially on PC, where the dynamic lighting system, highly detailed textures, spectacular structures, and particle effects is that much more impressive.

Another spectacular feature of note is the game’s soundtrack by Oscar Araujo, which provides a grand undertone to each boss fight, battle, or melancholy moment of the game. I love how one track in the score slowly progresses into a loud sweep of percussion and as the action ramps up – you feel more powerful as you wield the powers of Dracula. On the contrary, the way the developers implemented the music can sometimes cause dissonance. In a distressing environment, the developers sometimes awkwardly place a calm song to accompany it. The score just doesn’t necessarily fit the overall mood in spots. To add to that, the music is looped in a shoddy way, as there is an awkward silence in between.

While the soundtrack is magnificent, Mercury Steam have failed to overcome the one plague that most action games suffer from; repeating lines of dialogue. During sections of the game, players will hear the same lines delivered over and over again in a single fight or circumstance, and with a game that has such AAA quality voice acting, graphics, and musical scores, it is such a shame to have this issue take you out of the experience. For example, when acquainted with Zobek’s assistant, he cries, “Find a way for me to get to you” every thirty seconds as you try to let him through a passage. Unlike some of the audio programming, on the other hand, the sound effects for each strike, movement, and explosion feel spot on.

Overall, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is an exhilarating hack-n’-slash adventure with an in-depth combat system, top notch production values and inspired art design. Despite a sprinkling of below average audio programming, a few unnecessary gameplay elements and some user interface indication issues, this game is definitely worth sinking one’s teeth into.

  • CouchGlue

    So question of the day: Thief or Castlevania first?

    • http://www.onlysp.com/ Nick Calandra

      Having played a bit of both myself, I’d recommend Castlevania first.

  • CouchGlue

    Done and Done. Very disappointing that Thief got such poor reviews. Might have to go to Arkham Origins before I move on to Thief. Might even wait for a price drop since it appears that it isn’t worth the $60

    • http://www.onlysp.com/ Nick Calandra

      I don’t think our review was too harsh on it. If you have questions about the game feel free to join our forums and Lachlan (reviewed Thief) would be happy to answer your questions about the game directly :)

  • Shigurui

    Just got my copy and TBH I really couldn’t care about the web-wide negatives, as long as the stabby bits are satisfying I’ll put up with the shite inbetween. I played Ninja Gaiden 3 … Twice!!!

    • http://www.onlysp.com/ Nick Calandra

      “Tears hair out”…howwww.

      • Shigurui

        I know, horrific thought eh? But it’s NG (in name only, granted) and therefore must be beat on Master Ninja at least. I now have a shaved head. Safety reasons!

    • Michael Urban

      My hat goes off to you, sir. I couldn’t even finish the NG3 demo!