I complain about mandatory tutorials a lot. Sure, I eat my words every once in a while when a game doesn’t have one and I miss some crucial move, but for the most part, I get sick of them pretty fast. There is no game that exemplifies this better than Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (LOS2), a game so dedicated to holding the player’s hand that you’d think it was the most complex game on earth. The constant interruptions to show you how to play, what to look at, and where to go trip the game up at every turn, and with such lackluster gameplay and story, the game doesn’t need any more trouble than it already has. For the first time, Castlevania fans have a playable Dracula, and he has somehow found himself in one of the worst games the series has ever seen.
LOS2 is terrified that you won’t know what you’re doing almost all the time. The game started off with a simple tutorial, one that laid out all of the buttons in one corner, refusing to start the first scene until you’d pressed them all. I was a little aggravated that the devs at Mercury Steam felt the need to teach me which buttons made me jump or attack, but at least that was short. After that came the predictable run through the basics of combat, something I would have figured out on my own by pressing buttons (which I do at the start of every game), but again, that’s nothing too different than what most modern games do. Still, it shows you each move with a huge block of text in the middle of the screen that obscures combat, so while teaching me how to do something, it’s often hiding the creature I’m trying to do it on.
On top of that, you have to hit a button to dismiss this window rather than flow right into the move, so there’s this weird interruption while you try to do the attack it teaches you. So, not only did I lose track of the enemy behind the huge text box, but I also typically took a cheap hit and lost whatever combo I had been doing. If that wasn’t enough, there was a moment when I had to learn a multi-step move, and a second prompt would appear after I’d pulled off the first step. So, not only was I getting interrupted in combat, but I was also getting interrupted in mid-move, making the timing required to do the move it was trying to teach me very hard to pull off. It also likes to make a note of whether you succeeded or failed at the bottom of the screen when you try out the move, and its constant FAILEDs were not putting a smile on my face.
This hand-holding isn’t just restrained to teaching the moves, though. The game features some neat platforming like its predecessor did — having you leaping around environments like Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, or the Prince of Persia. Like in the Prince of Persia series (PS2 era), the game likes to show you your path around the room every time you go into a chamber that requires platforming. Prince of Persia would let you do your various movements and climbing animation on just about any surface, though, so sometimes it was hard to know where to go without being shown an overview of the room. In LOS2, you can only clamber around on pre-set locations, rarely even requiring that Dracula shimmy across an outcropping or anything like that. You can even hold down a button to see where you’re expected to jump to next, showing a series of red lights that tell you exactly where to go. Given that you can’t jump in the wrong direction once you start climbing, there’s no real need to show me where to go or what to climb, meaning that the pan around the room that happens almost every time I enter a new area is a complete waste of my time.
You’re playing as Dracula, though, so maybe that should balance everything out. It’s not bad, but for the ultimate vampire who’s been the final boss of so many games, his moves aren’t all that exciting. Yes, I realize this is a sequel to Lords of Shadow and that it makes sense for it to play in a similar way, but when you make your title character into a powerful vampire that’s one of the most important beings in a series that spans several decades, I expect something a little more than the same moves as the last game where I played as a knight with a whip.
Combat is satisfying, even if it feels a little weak for the Prince of Darkness. You’re given control of a blood whip, one that gives you the moves from the previous game, so people who’ve played that one will be comfortable here. You also have access to the light and chaos powers of the last game, but they are tied into different weapons with new movesets instead of just changing the properties of your whip. For light, you get a sword, and for chaos, you get fire hand — both of which give you more combat options. Both still have the same properties as before (Light heals and Chaos deals more damage), but you’re forced into using new sets of moves to gain the benefits of those properties rather than adding them to your known combos.
More moves isn’t a bad thing, is it? The movesets for these new weapons aren’t complicated, but you still require magic in order to access the weapons. They don’t drain the meters quickly when you use them and they can be refilled quickly in combat (landing hits without getting hit back in combat will make enemies drop orbs you can suck in to refuel your magic), but it may mean that you’ll be using unfamiliar moves to regain health or deal damage instead of just enhancing moves you’re already comfortable with. The different moves of those weapons do add a little variety to combat, but they also make the streamlined combat scheme from the last game a bit more muddled. It’s not a big issue, but for me, I didn’t enjoy having to use an unfamiliar set of attacks whenever I wanted to gain health or do extra damage. At least it didn’t take as many experience points as the last game to buy three movesets instead of the original’s single moveset.
When the game’s not desperately trying to show me what to do, the combat isn’t too bad. Enemies have been set up into groups that work well together, circling and attacking you when you’re not expecting it. The enemies that you fight also have a varied amount of abilities that work together, often mixing up armored, ranged, and melee types to force players to constantly change their play styles. These enemies also get switched up relatively frequently, so you have to learn new enemy types and attacks quite often. The varied moves you have make the combat even more interesting as you switch between them, and having to maintain a flawless combo in order to gain magic orbs to fuel those extra weapons kept me on my toes. There tends to be a lot of thought and action going on in any given fight because of all the combat options and enemy types, resulting in some exciting and fun fights.
It’s still not perfect, though. The camera’s still a nuisance in combat, as it’s hard to keep an eye on every enemy in the giant arenas you fight them in; often allowing three or four unseen enemies to set up traps for you while you fight a single creature. Also, why there is no lock-on for combat is beyond me, as I’ve missed a lot of attacks from not quite aiming at the enemy. A lock-on would also help me keep tabs on many of the smaller bosses or harder enemies while they’re dancing around the room, helping me focus on them rather than chasing them with the camera when they run out of sight. I really don’t want to have to be looking for my enemies when their hits take such huge chunks of my life bar.
If I could block or dodge with ease then I’d be less upset about losing track of a boss, but it usually takes two or even three dodges to avoid most area attacks, and unless you block at the exact right moment, you won’t avoid damage. That’s assuming you can even block with some degree of skill, as hitting block while pushing in any direction will result in a dash instead. Since you’re always fussing with the camera and moving to attack fleeing enemies, I’m often already hitting a direction when I want to block. Since one dash is rarely enough to avoid something, accidentally doing a dash when I meant to block almost always meant I took damage even though I was technically blocking with the right timing. If you want to block, you have to make yourself stop moving altogether and then hit the block button with perfect timing in order to avoid damage and set up a counter. The timing for the perfect block is pretty generous, but getting yourself to stop moving altogether in a game that needs you to constantly move in combat is hard to get used to. It feels needlessly clumsy, and having separate buttons for dash and block would have fixed the issue.
Still, what would you want to do as the greatest vampire ever? With Dracula’s amazing history in the Castlevania lore, what would you most like to see of him in his own game? If you answered ‘stealth sections’, go lie down in the road and wait for death. In LOS2, you have to avoid these robot guys during some sections, and getting seen usually gets you killed pretty fast. You can never, ever fight these robots no matter how powerful you are, as the game just flat out won’t let you. It’s stealth time, so why would you want to fight them anyway? To avoid them, you can creep around the room or turn into a swarm of rats, letting you sneak underfoot and do things in the environment to let you get by. Yes, as Dracula, you have to turn into a rat to avoid robots with guns. This is a game that I paid money for.
The visuals of the last game helped ease me through the parts I didn’t like about it, and LOS2 has the same flare as its predecessor. The locations within the castle are all huge and varied, taking the player to these incredible rooms filled with intricate machinery. You never just open a door in this game; it always requires that this heavy lever get pushed down, making panels in the wall shift open in complex patterns that are interesting to watch. You don’t just go down a hallway – you walk through a corridor where plates shift down from the ceiling, the whole room spiraling as the platforms move in front of your feet just before you’re about to fall down a pit. Everything feels like it’s a part of these giant, intricate machines, and as such no room ever feels dull or similar. It’s fun to just travel through the castle.
Wait, didn’t the last game end with a cliffhanger that has Dracula in the present, though? Well, it did, and the present is beyond boring. You’re only in the beautiful, interesting castle during flashbacks, and are otherwise stuck in the present. You do get quite a few flashbacks so there is a decent amount of time spent in the game’s best places, but a good chunk of it is still spent going through generic factories and modern locations, balancing out the budget they spent on the great castle scenes. These places are flat and lifeless on their own, but when compared to the castle they are downright upsetting to look at. Considering the present is where you have to hide from robots, you’ll find yourself thinking back to the incredible halls of the castle, recalling fonder times when you fought monsters instead of hiding from them and could see stuff that was worth looking at.
Tying it all together is the game’s nonsense plot. Castlevania isn’t known for its amazing storyline, but this tale is just so dumb that it’s hard to tolerate. Most of the previous games had lame stories, but they didn’t take them as seriously as LOS2 does. Previous games were happy to let the story languish in the background, told to players sparingly every couple of hours. It was garbage, but the devs knew it and wouldn’t trouble players with it. In this game, Dracula and the other characters are constantly harping on about the awful story, trying to sound dramatic and meaningful when they’re just spouting generic video game story nonsense. Patrick Stewart absolutely cannot save some of the things he’s saying in this game, and I hope he was paid well to have this crap come out of his mouth.
Also, the cute little nods to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Having Dracula say “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!” and a Paladin say “Die monster! You don’t belong in this world!”) just remind me that I could be playing other, better games in this series. I’d much rather play something that knew it sounded ridiculous talking like that, and not one that thinks it sounds cool or interesting talking that way. And if the devs said that stuff to let on that they knew the plot was bad and ridiculous, then maybe they should have reflected that by not having the terrible plot be such a prevalent part of the game, then.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 does very little right, only managing to crib a few good points about combat from the previous game. The rest of the game is an array of annoyances, from the constant hand-holding to the awful, overbearing plot to the stupid, stupid stealth sequences. When I was first told that I would play as Dracula and was shown that video of him just beating hundreds of knights at once, I was excited, thinking this game would be awesome. Mercury Steam has made Dracula into the opposite of what I saw in that video, turning him into a whining weakling that has to creep through hallways as a rat. Someone please take the Castlevania license away from Mercury Steam. After this game and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, we’ve all had enough.