The original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a bit like Downton Abbey for me – a guilty pleasure. I’d set Steam to invisible mode while playing it, so my pals couldn’t see I was spending so much time with a game that was critically panned. Even I can admit that there was a lot that was rubbish about the game – a camera that controlled worse than a wonky shopping trolley, level design as open as Sydney’s cross-city tunnel, and a storyline with all the gravitas of the Transformers’ series. Yet these issues were easy to ignore in the face of the explosive, satisfying combat system, which slowly revealed new flesh-shredding treats just as you’d mastered the last.
While each level might involved the player traversing straight from A to B, the massive variety in their environments made each tunnel more exciting than the last. And let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy ripping history’s most infamous monsters into tiny chunks of bleeding meat? It turned out to be one of my favourite third person action of the last generation, so I’m finding it hard to fathom how Mercury Storm managed to screw up the sequel quite so badly.
I think I know where it all went so wrong. Many fans of the original compared it to the immensely popular God of War series, but the sequel’s Producer recently said that this, “…really pissed us off”. Apparently he wasn’t happy being compared favourably to one of the most successful Playstation franchises of all time, and thus decided to make the sequel more like Darksiders. Instead of dozens of linear levels set in exciting new environs, half of the playing environment in LOS2 is Dracula’s sprawling castle, littered with branching hubs leading off to different areas.
There’s one slight hitch though – the player can’t actually explore any of these new directions until they unlock the requisite ability to do so. So you end up trudging directly from A to B despite the many paths around you. The other environment – yes, there are only two environment types, compared to the original’s several dozen – is a series of monotone urban streets and factories. It’s simply staggering to think that the game’s designers would think anybody would want to explore city streets or factories compared to the jaw-dropping environments of the first game – we’ve got Call of Battlefield and four hundred other modern combat games that do these types of concrete areas infinitely better, thank you very much.
Thankfully the combat is just as satisfying as ever, but it brings a new problem to the table – players now have too much choice. It’s a very strange complaint to make, as variety equals bliss in most games, but here the sheer number of unlockable moves makes unlocking each new move seem somehow less impactful. Oh, I’ve just unlocked the ability to press X once more than the last move, which adds a single strike to the chained strike combo I unlocked earlier. Yippee. Throw in the fact that each bumper and d-pad opens up a new power, which interacts with your standard controls, and it all gets incredibly confusing. As a result I ended up sticking with a mere handful of moves, rather than utilising my full array of arse-kicking prowess as I did in the last game.
Much has been said about the new game’s awful Stealth sections, but to be honest they’re just a few drops in an overall rather tiresome bucket. At least it looks rather spiffy, with the PC version in particular hosting some rather stunning vistas, especially in certain areas of Dracula’s castle. It’s easy to ignore the PS2 era textures when you’re watching a ten story robot smashing a castle to pieces. Speaking of boss fights, once again these are actually rather satisfying, and I’d wager one of the game’s few highlights. Each has a unique pattern and solution to figure out, and they’re not ridiculously hard. In fact, none of the game is that hard, even when played on the most difficult mode as I did, where I died just a handful of times.
It’s a tragedy to see Lords of Shadows 2 arrive in this form. Rather than focus on what made the first game so much fun, the designers seem to have totally misunderstood what gamers wanted from the sequel, and delivered something that was utterly alien to the first game. The satisfying combat might be enough for some; it’s just a pity that it always takes place in such boring environments. It’s likely that this will be the death of the series as we know it, which would be a real shame; if an unlikely sequel is announced, I hope the developers look to the first Lord of Shadows for inspiration, and not the latest incarnation.