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Lost in shadow

Castlevania

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a step backwards from its unexpectedly brilliant predecessor – our own Richard Wakeling called the game in his review “Aimless, misguided and incredibly disappointng.” Critics have singled out the illogical and insufferable stealth sequences as the lowlight of the experience, but Lords of Shadow 2’s real issues stem from a poorly laid foundation, not its ill-advised accessory gameplay.

For the most part critics enjoyed Gabriel Belmont’s initial journey, citing its addictive, challenging combat and its breathtaking scenery as particular strengths. But if you look at the most repeated drawbacks it always came down to the fixed camera and linear level design. Both players and critics alike wanted full camera control, to enjoy the majesty of developer MercurySteam’s creation, and they craved for the freedom to explore the gothic fairy tale on their own terms.

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MercurySteam’s decision to restrict vision and exploration the first time around was calculated. They were crafting a journey for Gabriel, a journey worthy of the term epic. By funneling players, both visually and physically, they were able to create a tangible goal. Players were always focused on progressing forward, whether that meant clearing an arena of enemies, traversing a series of ledges and handholds or unwinding the secrets of a meniacle music box; you solved one problem and moved on to the next.

“The blueprints of God of War and Uncharted had served them well”With its sequel MercurySteam announced early on that they were developing an “open world” game with a free camera. By doing so they were ditching the well-used blueprints of God of War and Uncharted, which had served them quite well the first time around. They decided they needed to aquiesce to the expectancies of making a game with Castlevania in the title, despite their previous work going on to sell the most units in franchise history. And thus, Lords of Shadow 2 was destined to be a Metroidvania game.

Lords of Shadow 2 takes place in ‘modern’ times across eight zones which are split into two regions: Dracula’s Castle and Castlevania City. Like the various regions of previous Castlevania maps, these zones are all connected and accessable, assuming you’ve acquired the necessary traversal skills. In the 2D Castlevania games the player’s progress is updated every moment, as more and more of the map is revealed. The level design directs you from one corner of the map to the next, forcing you to track down the next ability and teaching you the overall layout, all the while teasing you with out of reach trinkets and secrets.

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One of the skills that didn’t make the cut is the ability to grapple and swing with the Combat Cross. Fictionally it makes sense that Dracula is no longer in possession of the only object that can kill him, but there’s something romantic about repelling down the sides of cliffs and swinging between grapple points. As a central exploration mechanic of both Mirror of Fate and the previous Lords of Shadow it added to the player’s repertoire of exploration, and after revisiting those games it’s sorely missed.

“MercurySteam seem to have forgotten what makes exploration rewarding”In MercurySteam’s desire to sate the appetites of seasoned Castlevania fans they seem to have forgotten what makes exploration rewarding: discovery. Though the original was linear it was still easy to be swept away by its breathtaking vistas and peculiar characters. The sense of discovery remained thanks to the pacing, the level design and the player’s desire to understand its bizarre world; see how it all fit together. In contrast, Lords of Shadow 2’s locales and fiction are drab, cramped, and poorly considered – the concept of erecting a city around Dracula’s Castle to remember the sacrifices of the Brotherhood of Light is a fascinating premise, but it’s only touched on in text logs.

Beyond the concept and aesthetics, navigating Lords of Shadow 2‘s zones is an unfortunate chore. You may now have your choice of directions and the freedom to view every inch of an underground parking garage filled with burning cars, but you’re never given the proper tools to find your own way; even after 25 hours I still couldn’t navigate the world by landmarks or any other visual cue.

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“The map is an underdeveloped and wholly inadequate tool”The map in Lords of Shadow 2 is an underdeveloped and wholly inadequate tool that hinders the player’s ability to orient themselves in MercurySteam’s world – just imagine finding your way around Symphony of the Night if the map only showed the five adjoining rooms you’re currently exploring. There’s no way to see how one area of one zone connects with the next, let alone where one zone leads to another. Map Rooms and Wolf Altars act as portals between zones and the City and Castle respectively, however there’s no labeling to indicate where either will take you. Without a comprehensive world map, one that clearly illustrates elevator ‘X’ leads to the City of the Damned, for instance, players are left to rely on the waypoint system as a crutch.

As you chase down waypoint after waypoint you’ll undoubtedly see Kreios altars and Painboxes (read: treasure chests) that are out of reach. You’ll try to make mental notes where they were and what theoretical ability you’d need to reach them, but by the time you’ve gained the proper skill you’ll have forgotten which zone it was in, let alone where it was in the actual level. In the sidescrolling Castlevania titles a quick glance at the map might reveal an anomaly on the map, a tiny area where a secret room could be filled in, or an area who’s ceiling was previously left unchecked. And unfortunately, that’s where Dodo Eggs come in, creating waypoints to secrets and yet another dose of discovery killing hand holding.

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With an overreliance on waypoints and a useless map there’s no joy in reexploring previous levels for secrets. In games like Symphony of the Night you fall into this trance-like rhythm while backtracking, juggling the map, the platforming and the easy to dispatch enemies in equal measures. Lords of Shadow 2 never nails that same feeling: the map is useless; the platforming is designed to be more cinematic than quickly traversed; and the combat is great, but rarely brief. It all slows backtracking down considerably, exacerbated by the omission of the Speed Boots found in both Lords of Shadow and Mirror of Fate, leaving it a desirable route to only those who crave 110% completion rating.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2‘s aims are admirable. Everyone wants a 3D Symphony of the Night, but the realities of designing an interconnected world that is as fun to traverse as it is easy to navigate is an unenviable task. MercurySteam had big ideas and big ambitions for its Castlevania swan song. The makings of a great, if not at least interesting game are in play, they’re just lost in its maze of derelict hallways and all too familiar city plazas.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @_seankelley.

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