Castl­e­va­nia: Lords Of Shadow 2

EDGE - - PLAY - Pub­lisher Kon­ami De­vel­oper Mer­curySteam For­mat 360, PC, PS3 (ver­sion tested) Re­lease Fe­bru­ary 25 (NA), 28 (EU)

Stealth isn’t ex­actly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Drac­ula, the im­mor­tal prince of dark­ness, yet here we are skulk­ing in the shad­ows to avoid a hulk­ing ar­moured guard bear­ing a can­non the size of our pro­tag­o­nist’s torso. When there’s no ob­vi­ous route past, we can trans­form into a rat – no, that’s not a typo – pass­ing through grilles and ven­ti­la­tion net­works to ad­ja­cent rooms, some­times wrestling with tank-like con­trols to nav­i­gate an elec­tro­cuted floor or leap bursts of flames. At the very out­set of Lords Of Shadow 2, when the vam­pire for­merly known as Gabriel Bel­mont is awak­ened from his thou­sand-year sleep with­out his pow­ers, this stealthy ap­proach is jus­ti­fi­able to an ex­tent. That Mer­curySteam keeps re­turn­ing to it un­til very late on in this bloated 20-hour ad­ven­ture, how­ever, is sim­ply baf­fling.

Good stealth games af­ford the player a flex­i­ble ap­proach and a vi­able, if fraught, means of get­ting out of trou­ble when things go south. Lords Of Shadow omits the for­mer – there is only ever one so­lu­tion – and forcibly dis­ables melee pow­ers, leav­ing a dark cor­ner and ro­dent trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion as your only means of es­cape. Hideo Ko­jima, the man who fought Kon­ami suits for this Span­ish stu­dio to be given the keys to such a prized se­ries, wrote the book on stealth in videogames. Ev­i­dently, he doesn’t like to lend it out.

This thor­oughly botched yet end­lessly reused sys­tem is far from Lords Of Shad­ows 2’ s only fail­ing. There’s the ba­nal and un­fail­able lin­ear plat­form­ing, your next des­ti­na­tion shown by a noisy cloud of bats, which kills stone dead the prospect of any mean­ing­ful ex­plo­ration. The bat cloud is it­self also deeply flawed. Reach a sum­mit and you’ll hear some of the chi­ropteran screech­ing that sug­gests an el­e­vated hand­hold is nearby. You’ll look up and around and find noth­ing, then look down to find the cloud at your feet, guid­ing you back to the ledge from which you’ve just climbed.

There’s the di­a­logue, voiced by a cast head­lined by the re­turn­ing Patrick Ste­wart as the shady Zobek and Robert Car­lyle as Drac­ula. The for­mer does his best with a hokey script that asks lit­tle more of him than grav­i­tas; the lat­ter doesn’t so much phone in his lines as fax them to an in­tern and have them do it in­stead. You get the sense he’d rather be some­where else, and you’ll soon be in­clined to agree with him. The talent – which in­cludes a late-game turn from Ja­son Isaacs so brief it might as well be a cameo – is wasted, and so too is a set­ting that’s rich in po­ten­tial. A Gothic reimag­in­ing of Lon­don set a thou­sand years in the fu­ture should have set hearts rac­ing at Mer­curySteam, which proved its artis­tic chops with the first Lords Of Shadow. While Drac­ula’s cas­tle and a few other un­der­world lo­ca­tions come close to match­ing the first game’s mem­o­rable artistry, this Lon­don is des­per­ately drab and ter­ri­bly small, with few ex­te­ri­ors and much of the ac­tion set in tower blocks, in­dus­trial fa­cil­i­ties and, in­cred­i­bly, un­der­ground car parks, per­haps the sole videogame lo­ca­tion more dreary than the sewer net­work. There’s plenty of those too, of course.

Even more shock­ing than the unimag­i­na­tive vis­ual de­sign is how rough it all looks. Run­ning at 720p, but seem­ingly ren­dered some way south of that, this is a jagged mess, with tex­ture work that at times wouldn’t look out of place in a PS2 game. It’s com­pounded by the fact this is ar­riv­ing at the fag end of a gen­er­a­tion, when ex­pec­ta­tions are that much higher. There’s a bizarre, ex­ces­sively shal­low depth-of-field ef­fect that’s clearly be­ing used to dis­guise poor level of de­tail on dis­tant ob­jects, fre­quently kick­ing in be­fore the fo­cal point of the scene is even on­screen. Even more brazen is the way the fre­quent, lengthy load­ing times are hid­den be­hind end­less el­e­va­tors, de­con­tam­i­na­tion show­ers and su­per­nat­u­ral air­locks. It’s tempt­ing to think that the fre­quent text pop­ups re­mind­ing you that you can view unlocked con­cept art in the Ex­tras menu were put there to ap­pease artists ag­grieved at the treat­ment their work re­ceived. This art­work is squir­relled about the place along­side the many other col­lectibles hid­den within level fur­ni­ture, and we found one piece in a bin bag, which felt ap­pro­pri­ate in a sad sort of way. The sole sav­ing grace is the com­bat sys­tem, where sparkly ef­fects and mo­tion blur help show the game at its pret­ti­est, though it’s all rel­a­tive and the sys­tem it­self is hardly with­out its is­sues. The pres­ence of a weapon that re­fills your health as you land at­tacks tends to whiff of a flawed sys­tem, and the Void Sword, ac­ti­vated with a tap of L1, does just that. R1 ac­ti­vates the Chaos Claws, which sac­ri­fice the range of Bel­mont’s sig­na­ture whip for at­tack power great enough to break en­emy shields. Use of each is reg­u­lated by screen-cor­ner Void and Chaos me­ters, recharged by ab­sorb­ing orbs dropped by fallen en­e­mies or in­fu­ri­at­ingly spaced-out mag­i­cal fonts. You’ll gen­er­ate a lot more orbs if you can keep a combo go­ing long enough to fill an­other me­ter, but this is a rare event. You’re go­ing to get hit a lot.

Ev­ery en­emy in the game, from the low­est-ranked grunts to gi­gan­tic bosses, has the same ba­sic moveset: slow nor­mal at­tacks that can be coun­tered with a well­timed block, and un­block­ables, sig­nalled by a sound ef­fect and a red flash, which must be dodged us­ing a dash in the cor­rect di­rec­tion, since the move has no in­vin­ci­bil­ity. For the big­ger en­e­mies, there are also ground pounds that send out AOE shock­waves, which must be jumped. It’s genre-stan­dard stuff that’s com­pli­cated need­lessly by that un­block­able sound ef­fect be­ing ex­actly the same for ev­ery sin­gle en­emy in the game. Com­bine that with a way­ward cam­era and you’ve got a recipe for trou­ble, with the mix fur­ther soured by the ab­sence of block- or hit-stun. You can be

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