The Lords of Shadow saga ends on a high note, but the experience of the final chapter is tempered by some questionable design choices, although none of which should keep you from playing.
The original Lords of Shadow was my first Castlevania experience. I enjoyed it for the most part; the story was good, the environments, monsters, and art direction were beautiful, and the combat was deep, addictive, and rewarding. There were a lot of puzzles I didn't particularly care for, and I actually used some Youtube walkthrough videos to help me get by several of those because they really sapped the fun out of the game for me. Still, it was a solid game and the first of three Lords of Shadow titles that developer MercurySteam would create for Konami. The second was originally a 3DS exclusive before getting the "HD re-release" treatment and while not a full-on sequel, it too was a fun title that further built up the anticipation for Lords of Shadow 2 (CLOS2).
After some delays, Lords of Shadow 2 was released last week. As you hopefully know by now, lest I inadvertently spoil it for you, Gabriel Belmont, the protagonist from the first game who was a member of the Brotherhood of Light, had actually become the Dragon, aka, Dracula. The shadowy figure of Zobek (voiced by Patrick Stewart by the way), returns with the promise that Dracula can finally rid himself of his immortality. Gabriel, or Dracula rather, would really like to find a peace he believes can only be achieved by losing his immortality. Zobek promises to help him achieve his goal, but first, Dracula must help Zobek defeat Satan's forces. Satan is due to return to establish his rule, but Zobek and his secretive society have their own plans. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Light, having lost many thousands of soldiers in the battle against Dracula two hundred years ago in the siege that saw Dracula's castle fall, understandably views Dracula as a threat. Suffice it to say there is no shortage of enemies for Dracula to fight.
CLOS2 opens with a flashback that pits Dracula against a massive Brotherhood army. An encounter with a robotic monstrosity and a Brotherhood leader get the juices flowing in what feels like a scenario from God of War. CLOS2 actually reminded me of God of War on multiple occasions, from story themes to over the top combat. Given that I put the God of War games very high on my all time list, that's not a bad thing. Anyway, after this wonderful opening, the scene shifts to the present time, which is a near-future, although very gothic-designed city. Zobek's Society is based here, as are some of Satan's forces who can exist in this realm unnoticed by humans. Zobek dispatches Dracula on missions that require he traverse the city, which was built on the ruins of the old castle Dracula once commanded. Numerous City Memorials provide historical tellings of the past, similar to the Soldier's Diaries from the first game, which are also a significant part of this game, too. Thankfully, the time that you spend in the city is balanced with the time you spend in the old castle grounds, or what I will call the castle-realm. Within the confines of the large castle are Soldiers Diaries which provide story details about the siege of the castle, and also provide some subtle tips on upcoming events.
With the creation of the city and the map rooms (for fast-traveling), as well as the White Wolf Medallion (used to go between the dimensions of the present day in the city and the 'memories' of the past in the castle), MercurySteam created an open world setting for players to explore. It's a welcomed change in gameplay design from the "point A to B" design of the first game, where missions had "rigid" start and endpoints. There's nothing wrong with that type of design, but, we all know the advantages of an open world design as opposed to the traditional format. That said, there's good reason for players to revisit areas, especially as Dracula relearns some of his old powers and picks up new abilities. As is typical with games in this genre, you'll often spot secret areas or encounter doors and obstructions that you cannot do anything about at first visit. However, as the story unfolds and new abilities are obtained, these previously inaccessible areas can be reached.
Lords of Shadow had a variety of powers and relics and things that kept the gameplay fresh throughout. The best games in this genre will do exactly that, see God of War and Darkstalkers for example. CLOS2 is no different. At first, Dracula's abilities, while formidable, are a far cry from the awesomeness they become. The Shadow Whip remains the default weapon, but a new ability called the Bat Swarm is provided at the outset that allows you to distract an enemy. In a group, if you Bat Swarm one foe, he will often run about, swinging his weapon, damaging his comrades, it's pretty great to see. The Shadow Daggers replace the numerous Daggers found in the original game, and are balanced with a fair cooldown mechanic that keeps you from using these excessively. In certain, very evidently marked areas, Dracula can now also use his Plague of Rats ability that turns him into a pack of rats (nine usually). Players will literally be playing as a rat during these times, which are used to sneak by undefeatable foes or to get into vents or between walls. Once you have gotten to where you need to be as a rat, you can change back to typical Dracula form.
The Plague of Rats ability is useless in combat, as is the Possession ability. With Possession, Dracula embeds himself inside a host body. His blood is toxic to the host, however, so your time in this host is limited to roughly a minute, but that's always enough time to open a security door or whatever it is you need to do with them. These two new powers were designed for the new stealth gameplay that is a significant part of the city missions. Seeing Dracula running around a city with generic cars and fire hydrants every few feet, not to mention thousands of crates, pallets, benches, etc., just begging to be smashed, is pretty weird. Add the stealth component and it takes some getting used to. Honestly, I never got completely comfortable with the "city-integration" and the stealth sequences within, but these design choices and their execution aren't game-breaking to be sure. The city missions aren't bad, they just aren't as good as those in the castle-realm, and they generally feel out of place. Afterall, this isn't Cityvania (ok, bad joke). I will say that adding the city and stealth gameplay as opposed to numerous puzzles that, at least for me, really hurt the pacing of the first game, was good. The stealth parts aren't confusing or even all that challenging, they're just something you have to get through. On the other hand, the puzzles from the first game were often more trouble than they were worth.
Ok, so the city stuff and the stealth components are not a bright spot for CLOS2, but MercurySteam makes up ground in almost every other area. Don't forget, the non-city missions come up just as often as the city ones, so there is a very nice balance achieved there. If that's not enough, given the open world design you can revisit and thus spend much more time in the traditional battlegrounds if you prefer. In any case, there is plenty of action to go around, and that's where CLOS2 really excels. The combat system of CLOS2 has evolved some from the original game, although had it been nearly identical I would not have minded. Dracula has three primary weapons: the Shadow Whip, Chaos Claws, and Void Sword. Using the Void Sword or Chaos Claws depletes the magic of the Void and Chaos respectively, similar to the first game. Within each of these weapons is a projectile form; Shadow Daggers, Chaos Bombs (explosive, also used to damage certain marked spots of the environment) and, one for the Void that causes certain waterfalls to freeze making them climbable, or to slow ultra-fast moving enemies down. Each of these weapons has a separate upgrade tree with over a dozen abilities to purchase with experience points earned in battle and exploration. Switching between the weapons is seamless and it doesn't take much practice to pull-off some dazzling combos. Blocking, sync blocks, dodging (including with shoulder ram attack, which is great), and the Focus meter all return, too. New to CLOS2 is the Mastery system. Each of the three main weapons has a Mastery meter for different types of attacks, such as the standard four-button direct attack (press Square four times), or the aerial lift (Triangle, then X, I believe), and so on. A percentage is shown for how often you have used these abilities, and once you hit 100%, you can Transfer this Mastery to the weapon itself, increasing its overall status.
Dracula can also use six Relics to assist him. These include the Tears of the Saint, which fully replenishes your health, the Seal of Alastor, which temporarily gives full weapon mastery, and the Ensnared Demon, which maxes out your Void and Chaos magic meters but then fully depletes them when the timer runs out. You also have Stola's Clock, which not only slows down enemies for about a minute, but also gives you XP for every single hit you execute on them during this time -- it's a great time to whip out that eight-hit Shadow Whip combo. Relics can be found in the environment by smashing objects or they are sometimes dropped by fallen enemies, or you can visit Chupacabra's shop in the City of the Damned to purchase them with XP points. On the Normal difficulty, I was kind of surprised how easy it was to find Relics, like the Tears and Stola's Clock ones, which were the most commonly used Relics for me anyway. I should point out that Pain Boxes and other interactive sacrificial altars exist whereby you can find various Gems that increase your HP, Void, and Chaos meters (for every set of five you find, that is). You also get a really cool power that is used for passing through certain walls and floors about six or seven hours in called the Mist Form.
Having all of these great tools and abilities at your command is certainly sweet, but if the enemies weren't up to task or otherwise disappointing, the combat wouldn't be so darn good. Fortunately, we know that's not the case. MercurySteam did a solid job with the variety and number of enemies, and with boss fights that occur at very agreeable and regular intervals. All sorts of enemies from Satan's army, the old castle (in effort to avoid spoilers, I won't explain this "faction") and the Brotherhood of Light offer ample opportunity to flex your combat skills. Slow moving "tank" enemies, packs of weaker enemies, ranged attackers, and everyone's favorite (kidding), Harpies, are a very small sample of what you'll find.
Overall, CLOS2 has a lot going for it: the story, controls, combat, and most of its gameplay. High on this list must also be the presentation, primarily the art direction. That said, much of the city is uninteresting and drab, but the monsters and all of the castle-realm environments look excellent. CLOS2's graphics are not on the same level, technically speaking, as the current gen, but when it comes to character and art design, it does very well for itself. I also liked how the player was able to toggle about a half dozen visual combat indicators, too. I enabled, for example, "show enemy life" -- this put a small, color-coded HP meter at the head of each enemy so I knew how close I was to finishing them. I also enabled the XP counter, where for any XP I picked up, the number of point earned flashed briefly. Other choices included "show weapon mastery," "show player healing," and "show damage to enemies."
With that, let's get to the summary...