“Why am I fighting troll-looking creatures with guns in a modern pharmaceutical lab? Why am I so detached from what is actually going on? Wait, I’m a vampire, right? And is that a giant robot with a laser? How on Earth is THIS a “Castlevania” game?” Rarely has a franchise gone more narratively astray than “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2,” a game that seems to have written by someone playing around with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Magic 8-Ball or a team that felt like the best approach to an anticipated sequel would be to look at fan fiction. At the end of “Lords of Shadow,” some gamers were disappointed and frustrated when their hero became a vampire. It’s kind of like a ghostbuster turning into a creature of the night. And yet instead of using that ending as a launching pad for something altogether new, the writers of “Lords of Shadow 2” flounder like a drowning victim, splashing wildly around in a pool of diverse genre influences but losing sight of what made “Lords of Shadow” so much fun. “Lords of Shadow” felt like the “Castlevania” legend had been filtered through Peter Jackson’s vision of “The Lord of the Rings” (by way of “God of War”). It was one of the best PS3 games you probably didn't play. This one feels like a straight-to-DVD sequel.
After an action-packed prologue that hints at some of the gameplay problems that will drag “Lords of Shadow 2” into the disappointing muck, things get really crazy when a morose Gabriel/Dracula enters into a self-imposed hibernation and the game jumps forward centuries to a futuristic time. Yes, this is the “Jason X” of video games, a title that pulls its characters into other genres and directions for which it was not intended until it narratively snaps. I take it back. “Jason X” was more fun.
The story of “Lords of Shadow 2” is just a cluttered mess. Through portals, you’ll bounce back and forth between relatively “Castlevania”-esque settings like castles or caves in ancient times to more modern settings with enemies that sometimes feel pulled from a “Metal Gear Solid” game more than a “Castlevania” one. I’m all for developers spreading their wings and trying new things but to say that “Lords of Shadow 2” has a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach would be an understatement. It is haphazard instead of ambitious; cluttered instead of engaging; and oh, so boring. I loved the cut scenes in the first “Lords of Shadow,” especially given how often they seamlessly felt incorporated into the action of the piece, adding to the overall cinematic flavor. I skipped them here whenever I thought I could.
At least it’s fun, right? “Castlevania” games are always fun! Even the gameplay feels half-hearted and poorly developed here. Take for example the times in which Gabriel/Dracula can enter the shadows to change form into a rat to reach new locations. Half of these are so poorly designed that you’ll be wandering around just trying to find the small grate that you’re supposed to enter. There was one of these puzzle-solving/rat segments at one point in the game that nearly sent me into fits it was so poorly designed. Everything that a fan of “Castlevania” comes to an entry in this franchise to experience is missing in these narrative hiccups. Every time the game seems to be developing a rhythm, a poorly-designed level, awkward gameplay upgrade, or terminal cut scene kills it.
And the action of the game is too-often dull and simplified. At one point, I realized I had combat-enhancing relics that I never used. And I didn’t use ‘em from that point on either. The game is a simple masher of light and heavy attacks with two variations—a “Void Sword” that is initiated from the L1 button and can increase life with its hits and a “Chaos Claws” from the R1 button that shatters armor and shields. Both work off meters that can be refilled at points in the game or through combat engaged without damage. I’ll admit to a few moments of feeling bad-ass as I fine-tuned my skills with whip, sword, and claws but they weren’t enough to save the game from its neverending “wave rooms”. Enter a room, kill a bunch of guys, move on. Yes, that’s always been a tenet of these games but “Lords of Shadow” and the “GoW” games find ways to make wave rooms feel organic to the story and engaging that “Lords of Shadow 2” do not.
It’s because, overall, this is just an inconsistent game. Even the visuals aren’t as striking as “Lords of Shadow” with its epic bosses the size of skyscrapers and ruined castles worthy of exploration. The voice work is again strong, the action is intense, the game is lengthy—these are the kinds of excuses a critic makes when they can’t praise the gameplay, narrative, authorship, ingenuity, atmosphere or things that really matter in a game; things that existed in “Lords of Shadow” but are so depressingly missing from its sequel.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 was released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 on February 25, 2014. A review copy was provided by the publisher.