I have long been a huge fan of the Castlevania series, dating back to when I was jumping over maddeningly quick Medusa heads and whipping iconic horror monsters to death. The series has evolved over the years, with the RPG elements found in Simon's Quest and masterpiece titles like Symphony of the Night. If you hate spoilers and have not yet played the first Lords of Shadow game, you may want to stop reading here. There are no spoilers for this title, but for how the first game ended just below.
This latest iteration of the series sees you taking on a new role. In the past games, you were one of several people hunting the undead - usually Dracula. Here the role is reversed, because if you complete the first Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, you realize that Gabriel in fact becomes Dracula (sorry for the potential spoiler if you ignored the above warning, but Lords of Shadows 2 is all about this dynamic so there is no getting around it).
I was a big fan of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow when it came out, reviewing it to an overall score of 8. The atmosphere was excellent, the voice acting was top of the line and it played like a convincing God of War clone. This follow-up sees Gabriel/Dracula in modern times, though the story takes a mythical approach to the story at times, warping you back to your home castle.
Graphics - 8:
The visuals are impressive, but they do not stand out quite as much as they did in the first game. I absolutely loved the dark atmosphere when I am in the castle, but the modern environments just felt jarringly out of place for me. Many of the backgrounds lack detail, but fog and weather effects feel more at home in and around the castle than they do in the often bleak modern setting as well. Character models are detailed and generally move well, though some performance issues do crop up in the framerate once in a while. Thankfully this does not happen terribly often, but it does occur.
Sound & Music - 9:
What a voice cast - let me get that out of the way right now. Patrick Stewart, Robert Carlyle and Jason Isaacs are all inspired choices, just as they were in the first game. Unfortunately the script does not hold up its end of the bargain nearly as well, but I can give no fault to this trio, who do the best they can with their given material. Add to it a nice variety of sound effects and a soundtrack that is often appropriately creepy and moody, and you have a pretty solid bit of audio design.
Gameplay - 6:
The game actually plays almost identically to the last game, which I scored a 7 in this regard then. I think more than anything, I am just a bit irritated that the camera is still sometimes a bit of a mess after all the feedback the team must have gotten last time around. The platforming generally handles pretty well, but there are times where it can feel a bit cheap and unfair. Thankfully generous checkpoints and saves keep you from feeling like you have wasted time along the way. The combat still works better than most God of War clones, because Dracula's whip, sword and claw attacks all have a nice bit of weight to them and function differently from one another. Shielded enemies were a bit annoying at times though, doing their best to force you to use the claws, which I did not particularly like. The rat/stealth elements really did not click for me either, though the mist ability was cool.
Unfortunately about two thirds of the way through the game, there is a stealth sequence that can only be described as horrible. Horribly laid out. Horribly executed. Horribly frustrating. The controls in this game do not back up such a sequence, and it was without a doubt one of the most aggravating moments in gaming for me so far in 2014.
Intangibles - 6:
The story here is a bit of a mess. I really enjoyed the tale told in the first Lords of Shadow game, and at first I had high hopes for this sequel. The tutorial events do a great job of giving you the basics and explaining the back story. Having been hunting Dracula over so many games over the years, I thought the introduction did a nice job of tidying up a lot of those details. As I mentioned above however, the script was a bit nonsensical at times, with characters choosing to do odd things at odd times. Thankfully for those who stick with it, the story gets considerably better during the last third or so of the adventure.
That said, the approach to how Dracula was handled was strange. Gone were the epic, sweeping, Shadows of Colossus type battles (for the most part - there was an early sequence with one and the very end had components of this as well), and instead Dracula was treated to some over the top scenes of dismemberment after otherwise generally mundane boss battles.
There is some pretty good meat to Lords of Shadow 2 as well, clocking in around twenty hours. God of War and many of its ilk tend to land somewhere between nine and twelve, so you get a little more bang for your buck here. There are some light RPG hooks in the skills you learn and master along the way, but after beating the game I see very little reason to go back to it.
Overall - 7.25:
It was an interesting choice, putting the character of Dracula into the hands of players, but in the end he felt like a missed opportunity who was not much different than any of the characters we have played with previously. The game creates a great atmosphere the majority of the time, but something about the modern setting simply failed to gel for me. While the conclusion does provide some closure to fans of the series such as myself, I do wish the journey to get there had been somewhat more rewarding. Instead we have a perfectly decent game that fails to match its predecessor's level of quality overall.