This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2.
Feels like it's been a while since I've had a chance to use the phrase "Like God of War but", not to be confused with the related phrase "I like God of War's butt". One of the undisputed masters of "Like God of War but" was the first Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a.k.a. "Like Castlevania but (not much like it, actually)". A burly warrior type fights mythical creatures with a weapon on the end of a chain, they're really cross about their wife who died off-screen and he killed her but managed to convince himself that some magical deity-like thing is actually responsible, when all it did was point him vaguely in the direction and give him a gentle slap on the bum to get him going, then at the end of it he gets to become a magical deity-like thing himself, and spend the rest of time sitting on a throne looking like a Lifetime movie about the importance of a happy marriage just came on the TV but he can't be bothered to get up and turn it off.
"Well, shit, that's basically just God of War, isn't it?" fretted the creators of Lords of Shadow. "Wait! God of War's never been set in the present day, has it? Bingo-bango, sequel time!" Actually, I can sense a conscious effort to be more Castlevania-y this time. Our hero Gabriel is now Dracula, because there's a limit to how much mopey self-pity a mere human can project, and the writers managed to work the classic "What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets" line into the prologue, as smoothly and naturally as a toilet brush can be worked into a sparrow's cloaca. He delivers the line just before he fights a giant robot, the same way Superman delivers the line "Up, up and away!" I'm not sure why you brought it up now, Dracula, mate; maybe you're expressing disappointment in man for having secretly built a giant robot, when you made a point about going around all the villages saying "You'd better not be secretly building giant robots around here or I'm gonna sulk so hard!"
Anyway, after being not-technically-killed in the siege upon his castle, Robert Carlacula is revived in the present day to find the armies of evil in control of the world and just about ready to summon Satan Isaacs, unless he can stop them by entering a pact with Death as played by Patrick Stewart (couldn't think of a decent pun for that one; Professor Ex-Mortis, perhaps?)
If you ask me, Lords of Shadow 2 misses a golden opportunity for some fish-out-of-water comic relief here. Dracula, sometimes going by "Dracul" 'cause he's too Dracul for school, hasn't even demon-coughed up his sleepy-time cobwebs and Death is telling him to go recon some evil pharmaceutical corporation, and if I were Dracula, I'd be wanting to find out what the hell any of those words mean, but I guess he doesn't want to lose face in front of Captain Grim Reapicard. So he angsts his way over there without a word, and this leads him into one of the game's major bugbears, which is a pretty vintage bugbear at this point but still gets taken off the peg to rub its arse on the carpet now and then, and that's forced stealth sections in action games. What with being not-at-full-power, Dracula has to sneak around some giant armoured fat dudes who look like someone made an inflatable pool toy based on a Quake II monster, partly by turning into a mouse and going "Oh, please don't hurt me, Mr. Giant, I'm ever so little!" And that's not something I associate with being the all-powerful lord of darkness! Can't wait to come back when I'm at full power and feed them their own tits, I thought. "Guess again!" sang the game. You're still sneaking past these motherfuckers right up to the fight with Satan Isaacs! One wonders why they aren't kings of the planet yet!
Aside from that, combat's generally vanilla God of War classic: you have the lighter sweepy attacks, the directed heavier attacks, blocks, dodges, more complicated moves that you have to abort half-way through in order to block or dodge something. Weapon upgrades are a bit over-extensive considering that the best approach is to mash normal attack and occasionally get out of the way. Each attack can also be mastered by using it a lot, whereupon you can smear your mastery all over your weapon's face and upgrade it to level 2. Yeah, not entirely sure how this works in context, nor am I clear about how level 2 differs from level 1; maybe it does more damage but I didn't really notice. Maybe it looks nicer over Dracula's mantelpiece. Probably best not to worry about it, but every time you have the points or the mastery to do anything, the game will nag you incessantly with obnoxious hints. "Why haven't you spent all your points? Don't you want to stimulate the economy? Are you some kind of communist?" So I turned the hints off, but then I lost the other hints that none-too-subtly remind you of what the button for throwing daggers is when you can only progress forward by daggering a small and easily-missed scotch pancake someone glued to the ceiling.
In continued efforts to actually be a Castlevania game this time, the game world has "Metroidvania" open-ended-ness, or, should I say, game worlds, for there are two: the modern-day world where all the plot happens, and (bear with me on this) a dream version of Dracula's old castle created from his memories, where nothing much happens at all. Nothing related to the plot at large, anyway; you just go there every now and again and fight a parade of boss monsters related in some way to the canon. It's an entire plot interweaved with the main plot that just doesn't go anywhere or affect anything. It reads like Dracula's day in the life: doing an inspection tour-cum-pest removal, occasionally making time to hang out with his wife and child what he murdered. And after piddling around long enough, you confront a giant blood monster that looks like someone stuck Dracula's head on a novelty standing lamp, and then that's about it for the castle half. Nothing seems to have been resolved but there's nothing else to do. Maybe they thought they had to have a castle in there or the title would have come across as disingenuous.
The game should've either been a big introspective cleanup of Dracula's brain-castle or Dracula in the present day, Star Trek IV-style; preferably the latter 'cause there's a lot of mileage in that. I wish we could've seen him knocking around a nightclub or the DMV or riding the teacups at Disneyland, trying not to look like he's having fun, instead of the endless parade of the usual factories, sewers, and ruined buildings. Trying to do the castle and the city at once leave them both feeling kinda flimsy and like they both only exist to pad out the other.
On the whole, Lords of Shadow 2 is a few good ideas failing to live up to potential. It is a nice idea to be able to play as Dracula; I look forward to the game that allows us to do so! Rather than the shirtless mopey pantywaist presented for us here. Despite constant lip service to him being the "Prince of Darkness", all the creatures of darkness are trying to kill him as well.
Dracula does not tussle with the groundlings like a terrier at the bear-baiting!
Dracula does not do mandatory stealth sections!
Dracula does not fetch-quest!
Dracula is the guy on the far end of an army of minions, slouched on a throne, tossing expensive wine glasses aside 'cause he couldn't give two licks of a used tampon for whoever has to shampoo the carpet!
- And hello to Jason Isaacs: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Transylvania seems to be dialectically closer to Glasgow that I'd been led to believe
- Can we go back to when vampires weren't sexy please