“Want to buy some gear, man?” is the first thing you hear from an NPC as you step into Castlevania’s new metropolis. We liked that – maybe it’s because the game knowingly draws parallels between a vampire’s blood addiction and substance abuse, maybe it’s because, in one sentence, the whole contemporary tone of Lords of Shadow 2 is set. Either way, it proves that this new setting for the traditionally medieval franchise works wonders.
You’re thrown into this brave new world after a lengthy tutorial that, to the game’s credit, operates more like a full-blown level than a prelude. Lords Of Shadow 2 gives you a taste of all its best assets in the opening half-hour – introducing you to different enemy types, the new Void/Chaos powers that replace the magic of the previous game and the action-platforming sections that make a welcome return from the prequel. The tutorial-cum-prologue even features one of the franchise-favourite bosses – a monolithic titan as big as Dracula’s castle itself.
Quash your first boss and everything changes – gameplay, story, setting, the lot. After an enjoyable half hour of hands-on gameplay, you sit through about another half hour of cinematic fluff. The story isn’t bad, it just seems to lack urgency. The plot is a relatively convoluted affair that sees Gabriel Belmont hurled forward in time to, essentially, defend the world from Satan. His powers have been stripped from him and the core premise of the game is to fully recover your abilities before the showdown with the ultimate big bad himself. Along the way, an eclectic cast of new characters and familiar faces will help you, betray you and sacrifice themselves for you in standard Castlevania fashion.
You’ll often find yourself playing through a section, getting into the swing of the deep combat mechanics and tricky platforming puzzles, only to be subjected to 20-30 minutes of exposition-heavy monologue or dry exchanges between the game’s colourful cast. These cinematics are saved from ever becoming too arduous by the high calibre of voice-actor MercurySteam managed to employ for the project – Patrick Stewart heads up the roster as untrustworthy mentor Zobek, and Robert Carlyle lends his gravelly tones to Dracula once again. Though the script can, at times, come off as fairly weak, the consistent strength of the acting carries even the slowest story beats with ease.
Like its predecessor, Lords Of Shadow 2 gives you all the anarchic power of being a vampire superhero – the over-the-top plot, considered pacing and meticulous attention to detail could all have come from a DC comic (even the tone of the game suits the brooding, heavy heart with which DC tells its tales). This comes as a stark contrast to its looser, mouthier competitor – the obnoxious, colourful DmC (which, to extend the previous analogy, would fit firmly in the Marvel realm if it was a comic).
The combat is slower and more considered than DmC’s, too – like a lot of games in the genre, Lords Of Shadow 2 will punish you if you don’t learn your lessons quickly enough. Just been rewarded a new ability? Use it, and then find other ways to use it. This doesn’t just apply to combat – getting around the Assassin’s Creed Lite platforming sections can be just as punishing as combat if you don’t take your time with them. We kept trying to rush through some of the longer traversal sections, and the game repeatedly chastised us for our impatience.
The pace is adeptly switched up when you encounter a horde of enemies, though – with the intelligent AI constantly responding to your attack patterns, you’re forced into being proactive. DmC or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance will let you wait around for an opportunity to parry, but Lords Of Shadow 2 keeps the pressure up – lingering near enemies with your finger on the Left Trigger, ready to parry, will be met with unblockable attacks. Constant assaults will be met with dodges and blocks. Combat is dynamic, and to be successful, you have to utilise all the abilities at your disposal. This means making the most of your Void and Chaos powers.
The Void Sword will drain enemies’ health as you attack, and can fire freezing projectiles useful for suppressing ranged attackers. The Chaos Claws are more offensive, breaking through defences and dealing major damage to weaker enemies. The only way to charge up these powers is by landing fairly lengthy combos on enemies – who then drop orbs. Absorbed by tapping the left or right stick in, charge can be given to Void or Chaos, respectively. This adds an interesting level of strategy to the game – you must always, always consider how much charge you’ve got left in each bar. Some enemies can’t be defeated without Void or Chaos powers, and if you’re depleted when you encounter them, you’ll have to work up some mad combos to restore your vampiric gifts. (We ended up in a few boss fights trying desperately to land weak combos on our enemies after we realised the only way to finish the bout was to blast our foe with a Chaos fireball… you don’t want to get into that position, trust us.)
You will die in this game. That’s a fact. It is hard. Reassuringly hard, but still very hard. After you’ve spent a good ten hours with it (which you will – it’s significantly longer than it’s predecessor), the combat system will start to make sense – you’ll understand how to deal with every enemy you encounter and when and when not to parry. It can be a gruelling journey, grasping the combat mechanics, but one that becomes incredibly satisfying once you’re settled in. Towards the end of our playthrough of Lords Of Shadow 2, our reflexes were twitch-like – you see the tell-tale signs of an unblockable attack, you push down the Left Trigger and slide away. See a normal attack coming your way, and you parry. You don’t even think about it, you just do it – the fact the game conditions you this way is incredible. We’re sorry for the constant DmC comparisons, but unlike Capcom’s game, Lords Of Shadow 2 just won’t let you finish the game until it thinks you’re ready, which might take some time.
The open-world aspect of the game can, at times, feel unnecessary. There are a lot of secrets dotted around and bonus arenas to locate, but since traversal generally takes so long (running speed is painfully slow, fast-travel spots are sparse), it often feels like a chore to go back to an area you’ve already explored. The platforming sections offer a nice change of pace too, but sometimes they take just a little too long to figure out and traverse, with handling sometimes becoming annoyingly clunky.
The open world does offer the game something a lot of other hack ’n’ slash action-adventures don’t, though, and that’s the sprawling panoramas and the cinematic spectacle. With a player-controlled camera making everything far easier to explore than the original Lords Of Shadow did, exploration is rewarded with stunning vistas atop the gothic-industrial metropolis Dracula finds himself in. Where a lot of games in this genre keep you confined to claustrophobic subterranean corridors, Lords Of Shadow 2 takes the time to bring you outside and admire the gorgeous scenery MercurySteam has evidently spent a long time putting together.
Lords Of Shadow 2 is a marked improvement over its precursor – a credit to MercurySteam’s attentiveness to fan feedback. Let down only by some cumbersome platforming sections and a bloated story, Lords Of Shadow 2 is a potent farewell to this generation. The developer stated that it wanted to round the Lords Of Shadow story off this gen because ‘that’s where it started’, and we’re glad MercurySteam stuck to its guns – this is one of the best looking things we’ve played on the 360, and it’s exactly how we want to remember the console.