After having spent a weekend with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 I can 100% verify that the critics are collectively out of their gourds on this one. Remember kids, don't believe everything you read.
Here's your clue as to what's really up. Critics metascore: 62. User metascore: 82. You won't find that kind of 20-point discrepancy with Thief.
Here's the critical consensus, for those keeping score:
a) The game is broken, ulgly and/or unfun or the soundtrack is BS
b) Ill-advised stealth segments are torturous and singlehandedly sink the experience.
c) Story is bullshit nonsense.
d) Modern day setting was a mistake.
e) Doesn't live up to the high bar and expectations set by Lords of Shadow 1.
a) LoS2 haters are smoking more crack than our esteemed mayor. The game still has one of the tightest and most satisfying combat systems around (also a hallmark of the previous LoS) - similar to God of War with more of a focus on technique and precision over "I push buttons and bad ass stuff happens". The most valid comparison is to something like Bayonetta a comparison which I'll be getting back to later for a number of reasons.
About that art and music: LoS is absolutely GONZO in both categories, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You want to see what a game that just pours 75% of its presumably $100m+ budget into art and audio looks and sounds like? Here you go.
This complete balls-to-the-wall we're-doing-this aesthetic is a defining characteristic of this particular franchise branch: staggeringly sumptuous visuals, gothic baroque curlicues and statuary and ten thousand candles twinkling in fog meticulously rendered every-Andrew-Lloyd-fucking-where. I constantly pass by background frescos that likely took a 3D artist 3 months to render up. Example: Rediculously elaborate sculptural formations depicting a snake-bodied man holding tridents in both hands being pulled in four directions by 4 seperately sculpted beasts (taken, presumably, from Revelations) while water fountains and fire shoot out of everybody's orifices while the statue tramples an army of virgins underfoot. The statue raises its finger to god, who is represented as a totally seperate and similarly gonzo piece of decor that emerges (surrounded by cherubim) from the ceiling of the gallery above and which stretches a digit tragically down to touch the former's raised finger Sistine Chapel style. The net effect is a giant pillar of melodrama that divides the room into Heaven and Earth. I'm not making that up. It's in the first half hour, in Zobek's antechamber.
And Oscar Araujo's score is, if anything, better than LoS 1 which was literally Award Winning and one of my favorites of the last console generation(http://www.joystiq.com/2011/02/27/castlevania-lords-of-shadow-wins-best-original-game-score-from/
). Soaring, majestic, totally and completely overwrought when appropriate, hauntingly soft and minimalist when necessary, full of leitmotifs and all the good stuff the kids crave. Critics be full of shit.
b) About those stealth segments: They're in there but they're not nearly as problematic as reviews would lead you to believe. Sometimes (especially in the early game) the devs feel the need need to do this thing where "Dracula has yet to regain his powers" and so you have to skulk around feeling wimpy for a while while hiding from Satan's Minions who are, sadly, tougher than you at the moment.
These sequences allow the game to break out a seperate toybox of Not-Appearing-In-Combat style vampire stunts like the ability to turn into a seething morass of rats, do Mist Form, summon bats to distract enemies or Charm Person by sneaking up on people unawares. Each of these portions takes the form of a little stealth puzzle sequence in which you have to figure out how to traverse a room or set of rooms using only these abilities and no fighting. I have some issues with the checkpointing in these squences but they're not particularly difficult or anything. I've never had to replay one more than 3 times. Being a rat is great fun, and somewhat sadistic as puzzles often involve you having to do suicidal things like chewing on live wires (you have 9 "rat bodies" to scew around with in these instances). I also appreciated that each stealth sequence is unique, making you discover a different trick or solution to figure it out when compared to the last.
It's perhaps debatable whether players wanted
to stop being an ass kicking vampire to slum it as a sneaking lurker every so often. I can see how changing gears like that might annoy people who just want to fight 100% of the time in this game, but it doesn't bother me none. I'm an old hand at stealth sequences.
Based on critical tooth-gnashing I was expecting atrocious, near unplayable brokeness out of these sequences but nope, the truth is that you're just occasioanlly forced to be a rat or to hide sometimes and during these times you're playing a stealth puzzle game instead of an action game by author fiat. They don't overstay their welcome. They're not terrible. Some are even conceptually brilliant, if flawed a bit in execution. I had a great Vulcan Raven hide-and-run style fight in a field of dry crunchy leaves against an opponent with bad eyesight but good hearing. Parts of that fight's implementation were janky, but nothing gliding over leaves silently as a pool of mist couldn't fix.
c) Story is bullshit: There is truth here, but the correct phrasing is more like like "Story is a confusing goulash where the devs' ambitions are simply all over the place and nobody hired an editor for anything, ever." LoS2 is certainly disjointed and crazy narratively and there's a lot more references than I would have expected to portable/download title Mirror of Fate, which I never played, so I'm missing some of the connections.
This fumbling is a shame because LoS1 had a fairly focused and comprehensible (if overwrought) story: Wife is dead. Protagonist, consumed with angst (like you do) wants to change this fact. 3 Douchebag Lords of Shadow stand between you and making that happen and somewhere along the line you have to assemble a mask artifact as the magical macguffin. In the end, SURPRISE, it's all about Lucifer punking God out of spite to make a point about the corruptability of mortals while you as Gabriel get to enjoy being collateral damage in this argument. Nothing personal. Oh, also you're Dracula now, sorry about that.
Satan: Mortals are gormless idiots, Trololololll. Dracula: OOOOOooooooh Im'ma get that guy.
This one? Slightly more... uh... ambitious. Revenge on Satan for screwing around with your life in LoS1, certainly. Preventing his return, check. Some stuff about Dead Wife. Uh... Patrick Stewart is also The Grim Reaper and also you guys are in a buddy cop movie fighting to get a hold of a viral antidote from a tech lab so that you can inject it into one of Satan's Daughters who you have taken prisoner in a Corporate Necrofortress. Uh, also some stuff about Trevor Belmont and Dracula's parenting issues. Also Alucard may or may not be in the game right now and also he may or may not be a cyborg ninja. Also Toymaker, WTF. Also Jealous and Obsessed vampire mistress cameo sideplot involving slapfighting Dracu-brides. WHOOOP WHOOOOOOOP. Can you taste the influence of Hideo Kojima at work? Dance puppets! Dance!
So, yeah. If you're expecting focused, serious thoughtful narrative which treats its subject matter with respect and nuance, that's not happening. Metal Gear Revengeance with Vampires? That IS happening. Nanomachines, son.
This script is essentially a nonstop Internet GIF creating hilarity vehicle where the actors mug constantly for the camera, spew one-liners, scream and rant or brooooood overdramatically I'll BATHE IN YOUR BLOOOOOD IN FRONT OF MY FAAAAAAATHER!!!). To illustrate: at one point Dracula spears an NPC through the chest with an iron bar then baseball flings the NPC into a wall before javelin-hurling the bar through the NPC's still shrieking lips from 100 feet away. Then he mic drops a Schwartzenegger one-liner. Does it make 2 licks of sense? Is it treated with gravitas and respect? No. Are we trying to be serious here? Overtly? Not really.
Let's examine expectations: The game OPENS with Dracula brooding on his blood throne while spewing Symphony-of-the-Night-isms and twirling a wine glass full of blood right before a forty story tall Roman Catholic Golem covered in gold (who is also a fortress) punches Castlevania. It goes uphill from there.
Who is driving? Bear is driving!
Have you played Bayonetta? It's like that. It's basically Bayonetta, only you're Dracula and your job is to punch Satan... not some allegory for Satan... SATAN. In the face.
They had an oppportunity here. They could have done the gritty, brooding tastefully restrained storyline and quite probably could have done a great job of it. The material was there. They opted for PATRICK STEWART in the PATRICK STEWART voice instead.
The Castlevania franchise is no stranger to the kind of quote-unquote 'plot' where NPCs randomly pop in and pop out while continually spewing melodramatic nonsense until ultimately someone ends up transforming into a big blue demon. It's a goof show. I half expect Sypha Belnades to leap from the shadows and high five SHAFT from SOTN at any moment. Somewhere, a Konami exec actually greenlit one of THOSE Castlevanias In 2014... only this time with a $100 million dollar budget and fully-rendered, exquisitely modeled and voice-acted nonsense. Think about that. Accept it. Revel in the absurd fact that this actually exists and is a thing you can play in the AAA space.
This is not SRS GAEM. This is a game where we're lampshading a Miserable Pile of Secrets, and an obsequious chupacabra who in the Japanese version is no-shit stunt-voiced by Hideo Kojima himself
runs an item shop in the basement of Castlevania and who bows and scrapes and m'lords you all over the place, gamboling about each time you show up to buy potions and dungeon keys.
d) Modern Day setting is a mistake. Agree. The structure of the game is this: 50% of the time you're in The Present, 50% of the time you're in The Past. The Present means running around in the Modern World, aka World of Darkness Vampire the Masquerade flavored cityscapes fighting SATAN and his minions. The Past means you're running around as Lord of Castlevania, IN Castlevania, brooding and working on Dracula's Personal Problems.
Their problem is not that the present is bad, it's that Castlevania is so much more Awesome. It's that "two hands both of which were in extreme temperature water now plunged into a bowl of lukewarm water" sensation. Castlevania hand feels warm and happy, modern hand feels clammy and ill. See above mention of curliques, (over)wrought iron, badass sculpture, etc. No matter how awesome your Crow-inspired skyscraper and glass skyline is your concrete and pipe industrial wasteland wil not be as awesome as the crumbling gothicness of Castlevania. It can never be.
I can certainly see the designers' minds grinding here... After making Lords of Shadow and squeezing Baroque art out of your creative team like you were juicing lemons, there has to be an incredible urge to change it up a bit. Stretch your wings. Try something different. "Maybe we can make something as awesome and epic as Castlevania, only in the modern world." Nope. You can't. That's why Castlevnia is a thing.
They do as good a job as they could have done with the Modern Day. Facilities look suitably industrial, corporate towers are suitably marbled, nut-house insane asylums look sufficiently like crumbling deathtraps you don't want to take Grandma to. Generally it looks a lot like the Devil May Cry reboot, which looked good.
Then you warp into Castlevania and there's some giant yawing fire cavern with 1500-foot long iron chains big enough to walk along artistically twined about blasphemous promethean art which also happens to be rendered in hammered gold. And then some bowing and simpering demon crawls up and flagellates itself because it's so happy to see you home once again m'lord. Then you warp back to the present and you're running around in an otherwise unremarkable underground parking lot. Advantage: Castlevania.
Upside: Warping to Castlevania is always a delight. Downside: Leaving it is always a bummer.
Curious fact: While in Castlevania, I can't stop myself from constantly talking out loud to Lynette about whatever batshit environment I happen to be traversing and rationalizing its existence in character. Being Dracula, the act of touring around Castlevania amounts to you walking around your real world living room and family room, critiquing the interior decor. It's hilarious. As a player you can't stop processing thoughts like "Hey remember that time I got it into my head to build the Hagia Sofia in the basement and then suspend it from a hundred silver threads of wire? Hoooo, boy. And how about that rotating lava fire room... Damn! I forgot I put that in the basement in the spring of '07. Oh man, what was I THINKING?
I appreciate that Castlevania talks to you all the time too, configuring itself around your desires while also (passive)aggressively doing its best to keep you there, back at home where it wants you.
e) You got me on this one as well. Following Lords of Shadow 1 is an act that Lords of Shadow 2 just doesn't quite match. It's not LOS2's fault: LoS2 is hilariously EPICz0r in its sensibilities -- almost a parody of itself -- but LoS1 was a straight-up out of nowhere shining star that felt both polished and humble at the same time. The bar was set very high by the original, even if it took years for gaming's who's who to acknowledge this fact officially. LoS wasn't your PS1-era Castlevania and it departed seriously from The Lore in terms of tone and gameplay. This took some adjusting to. As if The Lore was anything to write home about in the first place.
It's a rare gaming sequel that doesn't surpass its predecessor but it does happen from time to time. Devil May Cry 2 anyone? Thief 3? Dead Space? People forget what made the original good, start taffing around. Accidents happen. We can't all be Mass Effect 2...
... that said: Is LoS2 the critical stinker you've been led to believe, deserving of only scorn and raspberries? No way. It's a blast. Not as good as LoS1 maybe but it still holds its own just fine in its own MGS Revengeancy way. I think my personal score would be closely in line with the community's. Low 80s for LoS2, High 80s for LoS1.
Play it for the art, play it for the epic EPICCCCC foolishness of it all. Have some slack.