maanantai 3. maaliskuuta 2014

REVIEW - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 | Xbox 360 | 2014

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: February 25, 2014
DEVELOPER(S): MercurySteam Entertainment

In 2010, Spanish development studio MercurySteam, aided by Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions, rebooted the Castlevania series with a game called Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Initially released to mixed reception possibly due to a radical change in the atmosphere as well as just about all of its gameplay elements shamelessly borrowed from many best-selling action games, the game won the hearts of critics and fans as time went by. It was praised for its fabulous story, which had never been the franchise's strongest suit, and its clever and beautiful reimagining of the Castlevania timeline and many classic characters. The ending of the game fast forwarded to the modern day; we learned that somehow, protagonist Gabriel Belmont had become an immortal vampire lord known as Dracula, and that main antagonist, Satan himself, was about to return to make an example of his now severely weakened arch nemesis. Instead of saving all explanations for a full-length sequel, MercurySteam developed two story add-ons for the first game - the result was horrible. After confirming that a full-length sequel to Lords of Shadow was in the works, they also made a poorly received Nintendo 3DS game, a 2.5D adventure called Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate to tie up the rest of the loose ends leading into the first and last major sequel; a high-definition port of the game was released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the end of 2013. So - considering the first impression I had of the first game, no matter how much it has changed as time's gone by, and the all-out suffering I endured with both add-ons and Mirror of Fate (which I've not yet had time to review), and finally, the heavy global criticism towards Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, I guess I shouldn't be all that excited about the game. But, everything I've read so far leads me to believe that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 might well be a better game than its predecessor, and that it's just the presentation most critics care about; I think it's the critics who have misunderstood the game, not the game that has misunderstood Castlevania. Yet, as I'm writing this, I've only started the game. Let's go to work.

Dracula's Quest

Robert Carlyle : Dracula
Patrick Stewart : Zobek
Natascha McElhone : Marie Belmont
Richard Madden : Alucard
Jason Isaacs : Satan
Sally Knyvette : Carmilla
Anthony Howell : Victor Belmont
Alex Childs : Raisa Volkova
Alastair Parker : Nergal
Mimi Keene : Euryale / Medusa / Stheno

Thought to be vanquished forever by his son Alucard and grandson Simon Belmont centuries past, the frail, severely weakened Dracula lives on in the attic of a church overlooking a modern day metropolis. The treacherous Death incarnate Zobek is finally able to locate his "old friend" and convinces Dracula to join forces with him one more time, to prevent Satan's second coming. In return, Zobek promises to free Dracula of his eternal suffering.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is the 41st (!) release under the Castlevania brand, and by a quick count, the 18th Castlevania game I've reviewed, so there's probably no need to take you to the umpteenth trip through my personal history with the whole franchise; let's just say that I wasn't always a Castlevania fan, I've considered myself one for less than a decade actually. I never thought I'd go as far as to pre-order a Castlevania game, but this time I did just that, because I was dead certain Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 would be a good action game... in spite of everything MercurySteam has done to the franchise as long as they've held developmental rights to it. My first playthrough of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a decent experience, but back at that time, I had just got back upon my feet from one of the most epic climaxes in video game history, God of War III. That game was just one of the big hack and slash games Castlevania: Lords of Shadow shamelessly ripped off, to varying success. However, since the Castlevania series is very valuable to gamers and collectors alike, even the worst games in the franchise, I wanted to buy the game - also, since I love the genre, I want to own every decent game in that category. Picked it up for 15 € at a video store - for the Xbox 360 in contrast to my first playthrough on the PS3 - tried it one Friday night since I had nothing better to do, and it presented itself in a whole different way. I suddenly thought it was a great game, and if they ever made a sequel, it would surely be one hell of a title, it would have all the potential to become one of the greatest Castlevania games ever.

The prologue provides us with tons of vampiric
Well, since I bought the game, I thought I might as well get familiar with the DLC - which turned out expensive, and terrible. Main designer David Cox himself said the expansions were two parts of a big mistake, and that they exist only to explain Gabriel Belmont's dramatic metamorphosis into one of video gaming's most classic villains, something they could've easily explained later in a more thoughtful context. Then, they made the 3DS game Mirror of Fate, to bridge the events of Lords of Shadow and Lords of Shadow 2. Once again, the reception was poor, and once again, the designers were sorry they let out such garbage, and tried to make up for their mistake with an HD port of the game. You'd never guess it turned out the same garbage on a bigger screen. Mirror of Fate had a strength, though - a deep continuation of the Lords of Shadow storyline, which introduced both Simon Belmont and Alucard, two of the biggest names in this franchise, to this canon which now continues in the "real thing", Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Finally! But, the question lingers. With this much gone wrong for MercurySteam's Castlevania, how can we possibly trust this game completely?

Let's pretend that you're one of the critics who blasted Lords of Shadow 2 to oblivion at launch. My prediction is that whatever shit you have to hurl at the game, I can counter with a batch of flowers. I've read a bunch of these reviews and somewhat to my surprise, and outright disgust, these reviews go on and on about how Lords of Shadow 2 destroys what Castlevania used to stand for with its modern-day setting and lousy cyberpunk story. It's like "it's got great combat mechanics and exciting open-world gameplay, but the story and setting are shit", and the conclusive rating is something like 4-6 on a 1-10 scale. ...Who writes that shit? How can they get away with something like that? The moment Castlevania: Lords of Shadow ended, we knew that this saga's climax would mostly, if not completely, take place in the modern day. That means we've had four years to sink this one in. Besides, how can you not see and feel the freshness of this take, how it's a welcome change to the whole series in my opinion? And finally, all personal opinions aside, how in the hell can you put drama and aesthetics over gameplay? There was a time critics encouraged video game fans to care not for graphics and sound all that much; since today graphics and sound nearly always follow a certain standard, they could encourage focus on gameplay instead of story and setting. Yeah, yeah - it's not the Castlevania you grew up with. Again, you knew that damn well four years ago. You've had plenty of time to get over it. "Worst Castlevania game ever"? Say that one more time, and I'll put a stake through your heart and one through your left eye; not in desperate defense of this game, but in defense of your own dignity. Much worse Castlevania games have been made at smooth intervals for 20 years. And when I say "much worse", I mean it - there is much to like about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (still a crappy name for the game, though), and I enjoyed it very much despite a few momentum-killing flaws. And, call me simple-minded, but I liked the story; I've waited for this transition to a gothic modern-day setting in a basically ancient horror story ever since the rumor mill first started running for Soul Reaver 2 back in the day. That was 15 years ago. It's high time for the night of the vampire.

Dracula wakes up in the modern times, not
feeling too shabby.
Let's start with the graphics. To be honest, the game and its level design do look kinda monotonic; it's dominated by darkness (I understand why, thank you), in contrast to the first Lords of Shadow's bright, gradually darkening colours and artful, ever-changing world. Also, since it's an open-world game, there aren't many set pieces to take up extra capacity. There's an inevitable feeling that MercurySteam consciously downgraded the textures just slightly for the Xbox 360, to make the game fit on one disc. It's ironic that the first game came on two discs (besides, which action game of this caliber doesn't, nowadays...?). The kinda different character design looks OK, but I dunno, I liked the first game's designs better, and actually, the concept art shows the best designs of 'em all. Don't know why they didn't go with those. Dracula and Alucard look particularly bad-ass in those early drafts. The enemy design goes from classic (read: predictable) to fresh (read: some generic stock from anygame).

The voiceover work is superb, save for Patrick Stewart's most melodramatic fits and generally repetitive combat quotes. A special mention to Robert Carlyle who, I think, adapts more smoothly to a renegade prince of darkness and his absolutely darkest side - borderline psychotic - than a brooding hero type. Be the game's final fate which it may, I think Dracula's up as a nominee for the character of the year. Oscar Araujo's soundtrack is equally superb; of course, if you think too hard on the name of the game, you shouldn't even start with the music... least of all comparisons.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is very different from its predecessor in every way; actually, if Lords of Shadow was somewhat of a reimagination of classic Castlevania, Lords of Shadow 2 would then be somewhat of a reimagination of Symphony of the Night. Before you Symphony-fanboys start bombing me (again), let's just think a moment and I think we'll all reach the conclusion that it might've been the idea all along - just so they could reach every Castlevania fan that ever was with at least one major Lords of Shadow title. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 starts out linear, but only to hold your hand through the most basic situations you're going to be dealing with throughout the game. Once you've got a grip of how the game's gonna play out, you're free to come and go through different districts of Castlevania City (it's actually called that) and even through time as you please, to Dracula's castle centuries past and back. Don't you worry, those tutorials aren't gonna go away though...

Like in the previous major installment, you have three primary weapons at your disposal. The Combat Cross' been replaced with a "whip" which is actually blood. (Gross.) The Void Sword represents blue magic, and what it lacks in offensive power, it pays back in health absorption with each successful strike. You can also use its special ice attack to temporarily freeze enemies, water and steam pipes. The Chaos Claws represent red magic, and these puppies allow you to do some heavy damage with each strike, but it seems they also leave you a bit more vulnerable to enemy attacks. There's also a special attack here, involving some serious explosives. You can buy different combos with experience points and upgrade them, and as a completely new feature, you're encouraged to try out and stick to different combos, since you gain "mastery" from most of them. Once you have mastered one eligible combo, you can use that mastery to upgrade the weapon itself, which naturally increases the effect of even standard attacks. I liked this system very much, even if it takes forever to master certain combos. They're hard to do, and even harder to land.

The fast travel hub. You're gonna get really
familiar with it once you start scouting for 'em
The secondary weapons and abilities - there are plenty of them. First, you have two vampiric abilities which recover over time; you can summon a swarm of bats to distract enemies in stealth situations (I'll get back to 'em...), and much later on in the game, you can transform into a cloud of mist to move through vents and pass through bars. Then, you have a secondary weapon for each primary one; I already mentioned the ice and fire shots, then there's a "dagger" for your standard weapon, which again, is actually blood. (Again, gross.) By holding down on the digital pad you'll have the Relic menu, in which there's a whole bunch of useful items, selectable by one at a time; one allows you to have unlimited magic for a limited time, one replenishes your health and gives you a temporary health boost while at it, one maxes out your abilities for a while, of course there's the extremely rare super item which destroys everyone and everything around you - and does heavy damage to bosses as well - and finally, I've got to mention my favourite, a bird that scouts out the gazillion secrets for you so you don't have to run around like a moron two steps from the end of the game, searching for collectables you might've missed. ...It's still a pain to gather those birds, though.

Relics are quite rarely found from the field, at least those eggs that hatch the birds, so there's a shop - as a bit of annoying homage to Symphony of the Night and even Aria of Sorrow, there's JUST ONE SHOP, to be exact, and this is an open-world game with two different worlds, which you can travel between only at certain spots. So you run out of these eggs or whatever you might be missing, you have to backtrack your way to a portal, then to that one shop, get what you need (in limited quantities at a time, currency should pose no problem), then backtrack to the starting point again and somehow get back on track with what you were doing. The good thing about those eggs is that if the nearest secret is in the same room you are in, the egg won't hatch, the game simply informs you that it's very near. Also, the game is equally polite if there's simply no more secrets to find in the whole area, or if they're not accessible at the moment. Very neat.

Since there are no actual, clear-cut levels, you might think that there are no trials like in the previous game. Yes, there certainly are, but don't go expecting any more than deathmatch challenges - and these are also only accessible via the shop, and you need special collectables as "tokens" to enter these games. As per usual in hack and slash games, conquering these challenges to the hilt is nearly impossible if you're not 100% devoted to the game and 100% familiar with the advanced controls. Unlike the first game, Lords of Shadow 2 isn't that difficult in itself, actually it's disappointingly simple at times. There are hardly any puzzles, and every single boss in the game is easy enough to kill, especially since you have so many tools of both destruction and first aid at your disposal - the trials are made for people who crave that vintage Castlevania challenge.

50% of the game is this. Like it or not.
It's certainly not a hard game, but it is one long journey for the perfectionist... which makes it all the more painful to admit that I haven't beaten the game, and I probably won't, not for a long, long time. You see, the game crashed at the very final autosave... which resulted in the utter corruption of my save file. After spending the last four days - my first and last spare time in weeks! - playing this game, making it to the very final steps, and then experiencing something as devastating as that, really put things in perspective. It was a good game, but do I want to restart it right away? Hell no, 'cause it has a few flaws. Ultimately, the level design is not interesting enough for Metroidvania. Secondly, the checkpoint system is the lousiest excuse of one I've seen in a long time; if my memory serves me right, even the first Lords of Shadow saved each secret you found, even if you died and went back to an earlier checkpoint, so you didn't have to go out of your way to pick 'em up again. Lords of Shadow 2 doesn't. Finally, I do agree with the critics who blast at the stealth sequences.

I haven't the faintest idea why game developers seem to think that an action game can't survive without a little bit of stealth. Here we have these completely undefeatable security guards you have to play cat and mouse with - think about it, a few dumb security guards stand in between you, DRACULA, and two of your arch enemies... DEATH and SATAN. The stealth sequences feel really detached from the game and the story alike, way beyond that actually, and even if you're OK with the occasional dive into stealth, I assure you that you're not going to be OK with the few boss fights that are based on these very generic, unpredictable and untrustworthy mechanics. There are basically four abilities you need in the stealth sequences, since you're not even allowed to use any weapons; the bats and mist I mentioned earlier, and Dracula's basically cool ability to possess people, animals, and even some of these guards. That being said, you might even enjoy the first couple of stealth puzzles, but then they begin to repeat themselves, and they do that 'til the very end of the game.

The bottom line, even if I'm more prone to slitting my wrists than taking on this game again in the near future (20+ hours of my precious spare time down the fucking drain!!!), is that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is not nearly as bad as critics make it out to be. Again, I think they're just peeved of a fact they should have picked up years ago, that this was going to be a modern-day adventure. Besides, I don't see what even that fuss is all about, 'cause half of it takes place in a very familiar setting. I think this is a successful, fresh take on Castlevania, and a good ending to the otherwise uncertain and unstable Lords of Shadow series - I, for one, am really excited to see where Castlevania will go from here. Probably MMO... heh. Forget I said that.

+ You're Dracula...
+ ...Who's also a Belmont. Everybody wins.
+ Although not everyone seems to appreciate it, the story's great
+ Lots to collect
+ Great, updated combat mechanics
+ The weapon and combo upgrade system is neat

- To quote a movie which also starred Robert Carlyle, "the world is not enough"; the level design is monotonic, and not interesting enough for this kind of an open-world Metroidvania experience
- Just one shop
- The suckiest checkpoint system I've seen in years
- The stealth rooms are non-sensical, generic and repetitive
- On/off character design

< 8.0 >

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