Stealth isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Dracula, the immortal prince of darkness, yet here we are skulking in the shadows to avoid a hulking armoured guard bearing a cannon the size of our protagonist’s torso. When there’s no obvious route past, we can transform into a rat – no, that’s not a typo – passing through grilles and ventilation networks to adjacent rooms, sometimes wrestling with tank-like controls to navigate an electrocuted floor or leap bursts of flames. At the very outset of Lords Of Shadow 2, when the vampire formerly known as Gabriel Belmont is awakened from his thousand-year sleep without his powers, this stealthy approach is justifiable to an extent. That MercurySteam keeps returning to it until very late on in this bloated 20-hour adventure, however, is simply baffling.
Good stealth games afford the player a flexible approach and a viable, if fraught, means of getting out of trouble when things go south. Lords Of Shadow omits the former – there is only ever one solution – and forcibly disables melee powers, leaving a dark corner and rodent transmogrification as your only means of escape. Hideo Kojima, the man who fought Konami suits for this Spanish studio to be given the keys to such a prized series, wrote the book on stealth in videogames. Evidently, he doesn’t like to lend it out.
This thoroughly botched yet endlessly reused system is far from Lords Of Shadows 2’s only failing. There’s the banal and unfailable linear platforming, your next destination shown by a noisy cloud of bats, which kills stone dead the prospect of any meaningful exploration. The bat cloud is itself also deeply flawed. Reach a summit and you’ll hear some of the chiropteran screeching that suggests an elevated handhold is nearby. You’ll look up and around and find nothing, then look down to find the cloud at your feet, guiding you back to the ledge from which you’ve just climbed.
There’s the dialogue, voiced by a cast headlined by the returning Patrick Stewart as the shady Zobek and Robert Carlyle as Dracula. The former does his best with a hokey script that asks little more of him than gravitas; the latter doesn’t so much phone in his lines as fax them to an intern and have them do it instead. You get the sense he’d rather be somewhere else, and you’ll soon be inclined to agree with him. The talent – which includes a late-game turn from Jason Isaacs so brief it might as well be a cameo – is wasted, and so too is a setting that’s rich in potential. A Gothic reimagining of London set a thousand years in the future should have set hearts racing at MercurySteam, which proved its artistic chops with the first Lords Of Shadow. While Dracula’s castle and a few other underworld locations come close to matching the first game’s memorable artistry, this London is desperately drab and terribly small, with few exteriors and much of the action set in tower blocks, industrial facilities and, incredibly, underground car parks, perhaps the sole videogame location more dreary than the sewer network. There’s plenty of those too, of course.
Even more shocking than the unimaginative visual design is how rough it all looks. Running at 720p, but seemingly rendered some way south of that, this is a jagged mess, with texture work that at times wouldn’t look out of place in a PS2 game. It’s compounded by the fact this is arriving at the fag end of a generation, when expectations are that much higher. There’s a bizarre, excessively shallow depth-of-field effect that’s clearly being used to disguise poor level of detail on distant objects, frequently kicking in before the focal point of the scene is even onscreen. Even more brazen is the way the frequent, lengthy loading times are hidden behind endless elevators, decontamination showers and supernatural airlocks. It’s tempting to think that the frequent text popups reminding you that you can view unlocked concept art in the Extras menu were put there to appease artists aggrieved at the treatment their work received. This artwork is squirrelled about the place alongside the many other collectibles hidden within level furniture, and we found one piece in a bin bag, which felt appropriate in a sad sort of way.
The sole saving grace is the combat system, where sparkly effects and motion blur help show the game at its prettiest, though it’s all relative and the system itself is hardly without its issues. The presence of a weapon that refills your health as you land attacks tends to whiff of a flawed system, and the Void Sword, activated with a tap of L1, does just that. R1 activates the Chaos Claws, which sacrifice the range of Belmont’s signature whip for attack power great enough to break enemy shields. Use of each is regulated by screen-corner Void and Chaos meters, recharged by absorbing orbs dropped by fallen enemies or infuriatingly spaced-out magical fonts. You’ll generate a lot more orbs if you can keep a combo going long enough to fill another meter, but this is a rare event. You’re going to get hit a lot.
Every enemy in the game, from the lowest-ranked grunts to gigantic bosses, has the same basic moveset: slow normal attacks that can be countered with a well-timed block, and unblockables, signalled by a sound effect and a red flash, which must be dodged using a dash in the correct direction, since the move has no invincibility. For the bigger enemies, there are also ground pounds that send out AOE shockwaves, which must be jumped. It’s genre-standard stuff that’s complicated needlessly by that unblockable sound effect being exactly the same for every single enemy in the game. Combine that with a wayward camera and you’ve got a recipe for trouble, with the mix further soured by the absence of block- or hit-stun. You can be merrily wailing away on an enemy only for them to start up, and execute, an attack in the middle of your combo. When you finally break through an opponent’s shield, you’ll land a few hits before an AOE shockwave pushes you out of range. The only way of interrupting an opponent’s move is to launch them into the air, a feat only possible on smaller enemies and one that still leaves you vulnerable to attacks from the ground, which are even harder to see while airborne.
When it works, though, fighting performs well enough. XP, accrued in combat and by smashing up the scenery, is used to purchase skills for your trio of weapons, which you can ‘master’ by using in battle. Do so and you can feed your mastery to the weapon itself, increasing its overall power. It’s one of the game’s scant bits of smart design, encouraging experimentation and rewarding you for mixing up inputs, even though you’ll likely revert to proven strategies in a tough spot.
The boss fights are the high points both of character and combat design, these screen-filling grotesque creations requiring canny use of your weaponset and associated projectiles. They’re enjoyable, too, though that’s mostly because they’re easy: with fewer enemies onscreen, the camera fixed on the massive demon-thing that’s trying to kill you and an array of incoming attacks with which you’re almost instantly familiar, the boss fights are far more straightforward than regular combat.
Which perhaps explains why there are so many of them. It’s as if the development team belatedly realised how many bum notes it had hit and frantically started cutting the worst of it out of the main game. God knows what got taken out, though, because there’s plenty of badly designed fat left on Lords Of Shadows 2’s bones. But for all its litany of crimes, pacing is the biggest. There might be a half-decent ten-hour game in here somewhere, but instead what we have is stretched beyond breaking point and padded with dreary filler. Halfway through the game, with a mutant infection threatening humanity’s existence and a shady group making preparations to summon Satan to conquer the planet, Dracula spends a couple of hours finding Mirror Of Fate fragments because the ghost of his dead son says he needs it to play with his toys. This sojourn to the netherworld hosts the nadir of a game with copious low points: another instafail stealth section in which you must evade Agreus, the goat-headed brother of Pan, as you traverse a garden littered with dead leaves that will alert your pursuer if you step on them. If he catches you, his whirlwind attack sends you back to the start. It’s tortuous stuff, but the biggest insult is that you fight him immediately afterwards and it’s a cakewalk.
The first Lords Of Shadow is remembered as a commendable achievement from a relatively small team working to a comparatively tight budget. Its sequel, by contrast, cannot disguise the resources with which it was made. Lords Of Shadow 2 is clunky, ugly and deeply misguided. It’s a game that sees the lord of the damned as a vehicle for rat-powered linear stealth, and that takes a future-Gothic London setting and then sets the action in tower blocks and sewers. MercurySteam says this will be the final game in the Lords Of Shadow saga, and on the evidence of this cluttered, bloated and forgettable mess, it’s just as well.