Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 opens with an "Oof!". Alas, the chances that you'll actually be surprised by it are slim if you've read any of the pre-launch coverage or played through all the DLC of the first game.
But, still, it's a haunting premise. You play as Gabriel, hero of the first game, now aged a thousand years or so and walking the halls of eternity as the greatest vampire of all time, Dracula.
Doesn't get much more dark and brooding than that, does it? Your old pal Zobek is still around and yanks you out of your eternal melancholy to tell you Satan's on the rise and if you don't stop him he's going to kill the both of you. Fallen hero, now a lord-of-darkness sort, out to save the world. It's a solid premise.
The first game was, at its heart, a brawler. It wove in Uncharted
-style platforming and a spot of puzzling, but essentially it was a brawler. For the sequel, developer Mercury Steam has bigger ambitions than that. Into the mix we've got a bit of open world play, bigger lock and key puzzles, stealth sections and, more generally, a sense that there's something bigger to explore here. Yet, at its heart Lords of Shadow 2
is still a brawler and suffers from over-reaching.
For a start, while there's a bigger world to explore here there's often a sense that you're being guided quite heavy-handedly through the game. The environments don't quite feel like parts of a living, breathing world. This isn't helped by the smushing together of the old and the new.
We've been moved forward to the present day but, to keep Lords of Shadow 2
in touch with its high fantasy gothic roots, we've also got Dracula's castle looming large at the centre of the urban environment. Players are pulled back into it for sections that feel very much akin to the first game.
It's a little jarring, then, to step into a dark modern world. It's not that fantasy can't work in a modern setting, it's that the contrast between enemies that are big enough to punch a hole in the world and a 'gritty' modern world can be a bit much to swallow.
There are some great design choices at play, though. Many of the bosses have fantastic, bonkers, creepy-as-hell designs, and the sweep of the game is very impressive in places.
Dracula himself, while he does look a little like a wrestler with pointy fingernails thanks to his strange belt-cum-girdle, has been visually reimagined from a shadowy bogeyman to superpowered demon smiter well. It's just unfortunate that this grand, over-the-top fantasy is made to co-exist with some jarring decisions.
As well as the aforementioned urban environment there's the casting of Robert Carlyle, for example. While Mercury Steam gets a tip of the hat for investing some actual money in its voice casting - and with Patrick Stewart as Zobek it pays off - the use of Carlyle just feels odd and somewhat misguided. While Carlyle does world-weary well, his Scottish accent coming out of the mouth of a character from a My Chemical Romance video doesn't really work.
Stealth sections seem like a gimme when you're playing as Dracula, but unfortunately feel forced and often counter-intuitive. There are fixed points where you can change shape to become a group of rats.
I found, though, that I wasn't looking around the environment thinking, "Dang it, it'd be handy to turn into nine rats right now!". Rather, I saw that I was able to, and therefore probably supposed to, so started looking for something I might reasonably do as a group of rats.
It never really seems like there's more than one solution to a stealth section. There might be elements that look like they can be scaled or moved to help you out, but often this turns out not to be the case. The sense of achievement that comes from a stealth-based game element well-navigated just isn't here. Misleading chunks of environment pop up elsewhere, too.