I have to be honest, this is my first time playing a Castlevania game. Have known about the series but never really looked into until I played a demo of it at last years Eurogamer Expo in September and was hooked by the combat and great visuals the demo showcased. After that demo I looked into the series and was fascinated by the story and its dark overtones but with combat which seemed to be the highlight of the game going by most reviews and player opinions on forums. When I was given the chance to review the game I jumped at it and wanted to see if the sequel lived up to not only the fun I had with the demo back in September, but also improve upon the criticisms of the first Lords of Shadow game.
Published by Konami and developed by Mercury Steam Studio, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a third person action game, sequel to the 2010 original Lords of Shadow and continues from those events included in its DLC which sees the lead character Gabriel Belmont having now taken on the name Dracula, after 1000 years he awakens to discover most of his powers have been stolen and that the forces of Satan are preparing for his return. As Gabriel/Dracula you must regain your lost powers and work with another character from the first game, Zobek, to stop Satan from returning to the Earth.
The opening to the game is the same level that is used in the recent demo available on the Xbox Store and serves as both an excellent introduction to the dark world of Lord of Shadows 2 but also serves as one of the best game tutorials I have encountered in gaming. Often Tutorials can be tedious affairs but here it is woven into the story so you as the player can get a great taste of what lies ahead. One of the first things you’ll get a taste for is the combat as the opening level sees Gabriel/Dracula at full strength with all his powers.
You are armed with three weapon options for offensive attacks. Your default weapon is the Blood Whip, capable of up close range attacks with X or wide range attacks with Y. Combining the two leads to devastating attacks and will be your go to weapon for most of the game. The magic from the previous game has been replaced with two new weapons. The Void Sword, activated with LB, will drain the life force from those damaged by it and replenish the health of Gabriel/Dracula. To break the defence of armoured or shield using enemies you have the Chaos Claws which can break down such defences allowing for use of the Void Sword or Blood Whip to continue the damage. The Chaos Claws will do damage as well with its fiery attacks. Each weapon choice also has a projectile option which is selectable and used with the right trigger. Blood Whip will throw a blood dagger, Void Sword will throw an ice burst that will freeze its target and Chaos Claws from a bolt of exploded fire.
Defensively Gabriel/Dracula has a few tricks up his sleeve as well. Using left trigger and left stick, you can dodge attacks easily as long as you can judge which direction the oncoming attack is heading. It allow allows for very fast moving between enemies to engage in combat. The countering system is also very effective once you get the timing right which I found took quite a while as the game progressed. Holding Left Trigger will have you blocking, but if you time the block just as you are about to be struck you will trigger the counter system, which will stun the attacking enemy and allow you to counter with attacks depending on which moves you have unlocked and which weapon you have selected. Not all moves can be countered however but these are shown by attack prompts on screen giving you enough warning to dodge out the way.
There is more to the gameplay then just combat, being a third person adventure game you will also get to do a fair bit of exploring and climbing to navigate throughout the game world. Climbing takes the form of an almost automatic system where you simply push the right stick in the direction you want to go in and you will climb accordingly, if there is a gap with a jump required then simply pressing A will keep you progressing nicely. Now all that may seem rather simplistic but the way in which the levels are designed it skill requires some skill to navigate the levels in order to discover all the secrets and upgrades available. Some of which require skills you only learn later in the game which means there will always be a reason to revisit locations to get to the parts you either did not or could not discover the first time you visited.
Action also benefits from the movement system with combat combined with climbing sections which use the environment to obstruct your path with deadly puzzles which again the opening level demonstrates brilliantly. Timing, precision and navigation skills are required to progress through the Titan section of the introduction. It is such a fluid element to the movement and combat sequences that it is one of the best examples of third person action games I have played for quite some time.
Once you have completed the opening level you feel very much ready for what lies ahead, but the game very quickly takes all that away as the story kicks in and you find yourself as a very much weakened Gabriel/Dracula as you have lost your Void Sword and Chaos Claws. This I feel is a fantastic move. It puts all players whether experienced with the series or like me, new to Castlevania: Lord of Shadows 2 and series, on the same footing. The game has two sides to the main story. One set in the modern day where you are sent on missions by Zobek to investigate and stop the forces of Darkness from bringing Satan back and the other side which is a look back at the series as you travel back in time through the memories of Gabriel/Dracula in order to reclaim the powers stolen during your thousand year sleep. At times I found it quite blurring as you would watch a beautiful cutscene setting up a mission for Zobeck, venture out into the modern world only for a flashback scene to transport you back into your memories. The same can be said as again at times you would be revisiting your old memories and interacting with characters from early in the series only to then find yourself returned to the modern world.
Starting from scratch almost does allow you to get to grips with more of the abilities that you possess and which will aid you as you progress through missions. Other then the big offensive powers you have, you also have access to some rather nifty Shadow abilities as well:
- Bat Swarm – Which can be used to distract enemies in order to allow you to sneak past or use another ability on a enemy
- Possession – Sneaking up behind an enemy will allow you to possess them temporarily. Once under you have control of their body, you can then use them to bypass security or activate switches before they are consumed by you and destroyed
- Hide in Shadows – You have the ability to change your form into that of a rat at points which enables you to access rooms via tunnels and vents which are almost mini games at times. In this form you have 9 lives or “mice” that you will control should you die whilst moving around as some tunnels and ducts will have obstacles that are deadly
- Mist Form – Acquired later in the game, you can turn into mist and move through gated off areas and use air flow system to access otherwise unreachable areas of a location
These abilities are activated using the Directional Pad and come in very handy as until you progress further into the game your attack options are limited and early on its the stealth aspect to the game that require these abilities the most. I did find it rather amusing that whilst possessing someone their movement was more zombie like yet the people around them did not seem to think anything was suspicious as you zombie meandered around until they exploded in a cloud of blood.
Once you do start to regain your powers, you will need to begin upgrading them. XP earned from combat can be used to purchase new combat moves, some of which can be upgraded further. Using those moves repeatedly in combat will increase your mastery of that weapon which can then be transferred to the weapon itself increasing its damage. Each of the three main weapons can be upgraded this way.
Both the Void Sword and Chaos Claws have energy bars. Using the weapons depletes them and once used up the weapon and its abilities cannot be accessed until refilled. To increase their levels you can collect gems for each weapon and also increase your health bar by discovering ‘Pain Boxes’. Gabriel/Dracula will place his arm in it, the box will clamp down on the wrist and the gift of blood taken in order to release the gem. Which gem is inside you will not know until it opens. Each increase requires five gems to be collected. To refill their supply you will discover Fonts around the maps which you can absorb by holding in the Left stick for Void Sword and the Right Stick for the Chaos Claws. Learning how and when to use each weapon makes you more tactically aware as being too eager to use the Void Sword in standard combat and using it all up means if you encounter a tough enemy or a boss fight you will miss its health recharging ability.
Potions and items can also be found during play and bought at the shop once unlocked. These items can act as short term perks in battle such as slowing down an enemy’s attack to a jewel that can give you an instant refill and infinite supply of energy for both Void Sword and Chaos Claws but only for a short time and once expired will go back to the levels they were before you used the jewel, even if empty. These potions and items can be obtained via killing enemies and smashing up objects in the maps. Collectibles can also be found this way such as game artwork and fallen soldier diaries and history memorials can be found throughout the maps given an insight into the lore of the series for new players and a good reminder for players more familiar with the franchise.
Access to the above is done via one of the game’s highlight features. The Travel Book. Upgrades and combat moves can be access through pressing the Back button. The Travel book is the one stop shop for everything the player needs in the game, not just upgrading and statistics but the collectibles can all be viewed through it as well as the map with navigation points easily set to either the main mission point or to the shop or to the Wolf Medallion portals which are the manual way of accessing the locations from “memory”. It is a brilliant and fast way to get access to all you need in the game without having to pause the game to access one thing and use back button for other menus such as Assassin’s Creed.
Alongside the main story, Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 also offers players a chance to put their combat skills to the test in the form of the ‘Arena of Kliedos’. Once the shop has been accessed during the main story, it will hold a mirror. This mirror is the doorway to the Arena of Kliedos and its challenges which will test the combat skill and strength of the player. What I found most clever about this “combat arena” is that whilst you discover it fairly early on in the main story, you are required to unlock it first before you can enter which means by the time you can, you have naturally levelled up your combat skills enough to give it a fair shot rather then immediate access and just failing miserably on the first attempt. Once you find the Kliedos Amulet you will need to find 4 power sources to make it work, these are found in the main story locations as you progress and in areas that you have to discover off the main mission route. An offering of blood is made and a crystal is collected. To give an example of what awaits you, I will share the first challenge: The Death of Sir Chester
- Defeat all Enemies
- Complete first trial without activating Chaos Claws
- Destroy enemies with 20 seconds between each kill
- Complete all three trials in one try.
Successfully completing a trial will award you an emblem which can then be used to unlock the next challenge and so on. I do not recommend attempting this until you have mastered the combat and have many of the combat moves and Void Sword and Chaos Claws weapons upgraded both in strength and in energy supply. It is an extra challenge to players, as you can see by the trails there, the level of skill needed to complete a full challenge is quite high. But for a game where the combat is so much a part of the core to the game, this is something that will have even the most experience combat players testing their mantle outside of the main story itself.
There is just so much to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 that even on one playthrough it will not be enough to experience it all. I really enjoyed this game. The story is rich and dark, the visuals to the game are some of the best I have seen on the Xbox 360 with beautiful locations that will have you just stopping and moving the camera to take it all in. The musical score is beautiful and combined with some great voice acting from the cast which stars Robert Carlyle as Gabriel/Dracula and Sir Patrick Stewart as Zobek. Their voice work alongside the best cutscenes woven into game engine and gameplay I have seen in recent years, delivers a truly great story telling experience for this game. Even being new to the series, at no time did I feel penalised by not having played the series to know the story as it does a great job of teaching you the events of previous games and the side to the main story which looks back at those games introduces me to the characters of those games.
Combat and gameplay are spot on for me. I need a lot more practice with the combat to get to a level where I am doing the game justice. I know that if I am in a boss battle and I am having a bad fight it is not because the boss is being the generic cheap AI which similar games have, but it is down to my lack of skill in executing the right combat moves and strategy for that boss. It will take time and patience to get really proficient with the combat to get the most from it, and especially before tackling the Kliedos Challenges. The big set pieces are impressive, and because its all in game engine you never get disconnected when you go from gameplay to cutscene. The soundtrack is sublime in its accompaniment of the story.
The game does have some bad points sadly. The use of the Shadow ability “Hide in Shadows” can be clumsy at best. Animation whilst in rat form is cumbersome when traversing through an air duct requires you to avoid electrical cables or jumping across an obstacle has you dying over and over because the slightest wrong move and your Rat Pack of nine lives dwindles down to three. The blurring between modern day missions and revisiting the past through memories often has you going back to the same areas again and again and early in the game when you lack the abilities needed to proceed to new areas just means you get stuck in the same way repeatedly.
Overall Castlevania: Lord Of Shadows 2 has more positives then negatives. It is a big game and it feels like one, with a rich story that draws you in and gives you a great experience that encapsulates the previous game for new players and rewards players who are already fans of Castlevania. There is so much to learn and master that more then one playthrough will be required. The game has 4 difficulty settings with the highest ‘Prince of Darkness’ locked out until at least one completed playthrough. The character of Gabriel/Dracula is fascinating to explore as his life is put on full display. The game does have an open world feel to it as through the Map rooms in each location you can choose to travel to another area and explore it full at any time as well as revisiting the past via the Wolf Medallion. I never expected the game to have such depth to it but after playing the demo last September and following it closely as it approaches its UK release this Friday February 28th, I am so pleased it has lived up to its promise and is a great start to the 2014 gaming year.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a game that invites you to sink your teeth into and drink deeply, and it will leave you with a thirst for more!
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