Monthly Archives: March 2014

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 1 and 2 musings

Castlevania BannerThis page will contain spoilers.  Take heed of this before continuing on.  I am working on the assumption that people reading about a specific game on this page will likely either already have played it, or don’t mind about plot details being discussed.  I have however put specific plot details under a heading within the game discussion, so that those who wish to, can skip reading it.

Previous Castlevania games

It goes without saying that the Castlevania games have been going on for a good long time now, back in 1986/87 with the aptly named “Castlevania” on the NES, Commodore 64, Arcade and Amiga (I found a nice site that lists them all here).

While I did have a copy of the Playstation’s Castlevania Chronicles, I was never very good at the traditional platform games, and set it aside for playing Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (which shall ever be etched on my life as the game that started my love of gaming).

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night cover

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night PS1 cover

The game in the Castlevania series that did get me into it was the more up-to-date one that was released for the Playstation 2: ‘Castlevania Lament of Innocence’ which saw you take up a whip against the evil undead, and the later ‘Castlevania: Curse of Darkness’ (of which I remember little).  What I do recall is that the Lament of Innocence game had me hooked, and I spent a great deal of time exploring and finding all the hidden rooms and items, and I seem to remember the map system for doing that was excellent.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocent ps2 cover

Castlevania: Lament of Innocent ps2 cover

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness PS2 cover

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness PS2 cover

Lords of Shadow 1

So when the Lords of Shadow was announced for the PS3, I was, I have to admit, pretty excited.  Here was a game that took the old fight against evil and threw it into the 21st century.  Oh, how I looked at those trailers and gushed over the graphics compared to the ps2 versions.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 1 PS3 cover

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 1 PS3 cover

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 1 Ultimate Edition PC cover

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 1 Ultimate Edition PC cover

A friend bought me it for my birthday, and I was eager to dive in, as I had with the previous games, expecting something of the same sort of combat and game type, but I was immediately brought to a halt.  So frustrated was I in fact that I stopped playing it after a few hours and didn’t pick it up again until just before the release of the Lords of Shadow 2 came out.

The issue I had had with it at the time of initial release was not because it was a bad game, but because it was not what I had been expecting, and not what I was used to playing.  Castlevania Lords of Shadow took the basic story of the fight against evil and put it on a completely new play-style that was not what I was used to, and to be frank, I found it difficult to get used to.

When I picked the game back up all that time later, I had played a lot of other games and so the playstyle of LoS1 was not as difficult to pick up as I had first found it, and I actually enjoyed the game a lot more.

Skills and Controls

I would say that the skills are fairly simple.  They are given to you as you move through the story and upgrade your weapons (seen on the items image), and each weapon and attack can be upgraded or learned through the skills page, which will show you how to do each move if you click on it.

Castlevania LoS1 Items

Castlevania LoS1 Items

Castlevania LoS1 skills

Castlevania LoS1 skills

I think there are really only two flaws that I noticed in the system.  The first is that it is fairly annoying trying to find a move to look up, because the list you have gets fairly long, and you have to remember what the move is called to cut the time your search takes.  By the end of the game your list is fairly massive.  The second thing is that there is nowhere to actually take time to practice the moves except by redoing early levels.  I think that if there was a tutorial mode that could later be used for practice, it would have benefited the game.  Not everyone will remember how to do these moves, or be as instantly well practised.  This means that as the game goes on, you end up doing lots of fairly similar moves, and while this is okay, it isn’t really very efficient.

Enemies

I don’t remember having any particular problem with enemies in the game.  The boss fights are impressive, and the trash mobs seemed to die okay.  You can’t really ask for more than that.

Camera

I think the initially most contentious issue for me in the game was the camera usage.  It is the game, and not the player that chooses where the camera is set, and how it moves.  It is put in static points depending on where the player is at that current moment, and will move it accordingly to guide the player to where the game wants you to go.

Castlevania LoS1 camera illustration

Castlevania LoS1 camera illustration

This is, on paper, I guess a fairly decent idea.  In this instance though, it is one of my bug-bears, as it doesn’t allow for the exploration of areas properly.  This becomes an issue when you are trying to get past a certain point in the game that requires you to find items.  The screenshot here shows one such place early on in the game on the way to Pan’s temple.  The camera at this point is a fairly static wide angled view (hence why Gabriel is so tiny on the screen) and stays there until you move past where the red arrow goes. However in order to progress you need to find an item that is along a very well hidden path where the broken-line orange arrow is.

Many people may well go ‘well finding hidden paths is part of the fun in games’ and ordinarily I would agree, however not in this case.  There is no way to turn the camera to get a better grasp of the land, and so you end up having to systematically bounce off every section of invisible wall of identical foliage until you find a break in it.  This isn’t a puzzle or fun, merely an annoyance.

Map

Castlevania LoS1 map

Castlevania LoS1 map

The map, or lack thereof in the game was another annoyance for me.  As someone who likes exploring, the ability to keep track of where I have been and what areas I have covered, is fairly important.  So the fact that there is no in-game map of the actual areas you are in, is a pretty big issue.

The only thing I can say in defence for this oversight is the fact that each part of the game is clearly listed on the ‘world map’ where each chapter in the story has a page for the areas.  This feature is important for achievement hunting.

Achievements

What I will say about the game is that it doesn’t fail in the art of achievement hunting.  Once I had got used to the game, this was one of the main features that kept me coming back to it.

Castlevania LoS1 Chapter completion pages

Castlevania LoS1 Chapter completion pages

Each chapter in the story has its own page, and that page has on it links to each part of that story.  Each part has its own list of achievements to do, such as Difficulty setting, magic gem upgrades found, weapons upgrades found, and trials unlocked and completed.  Some of those achievements can only be completed when you have done more of the game, giving it a good replay value even after completion.  The fact that the achievements are easy to see and keep track of is great.  What is not as great is the lack of a map in each place, meaning that it is far more difficult to keep track of where you have been in some levels, but overall the system is good and I enjoyed (and still enjoy) working my way through the achievements to get them.

Quests and content

The quests and content of the game is fairly simple.  You work through each chapter until you get to the end.  It is a very linear way of storytelling, but in this case I really didn’t mind too much.  It was clear from the outset that they were telling you a story and there was no ambiguity that you might have a say in how the story progressed.

The game is made up of both action and puzzles, the sort of content that players who played Legacy of Kain: Defiance or the Darksiders games will be familiar with.

Plot

Like the quests and content, the plot itself is fairly standard, and not exactly that complex, perhaps catering more towards the younger market (despite its 15+ year old age tag).  In places I found the plot to be a bit cliché in terms of the religious side of things, but then I guess it might be expected to follow a very strict Christian lore background considering the game’s history and it’s content.  Not my thing though.  Saying that, I did like the story enough to get engaged with parts of it and want to know more, especially as the story progressed, and that is a thumbs up.

DLC (spoiler alert)

The PC version of the game had two DLC that took the end of the game and brought it beyond that.

Reverie
Reverie takes place directly after the end of the Lords of Shadow game is completed.  Gabriel heeds the call of the child vampire Laura that you met earlier in the game in order to stop an ancient evil.  Apparently the Lords of Shadow had been keeping a massively destructive being locked up, and the destruction of the Lords then weakened it’s prison.  Laura needs your help in order to try and keep it sealed in.  Overall the dlc was okay.  An extension of the previous game by a bit, and an extension of the plot. I can’t say I loved it, but it was fun enough to have been glad it came with the Ultimate Edition of the game I purchased.  The dlc itself is only the first part of a two-part dlc, which must have sucked for people getting it when it first came out.

Resurrection

Resurrection takes place directly after the first dlc, and continues the story on, taking Gabriel, now suffering the sometimes agonizing transformation to undead, into the prison of the Forgotten One in order to stop it.  This is the entire dlc.  A lot of fighting, as well as some ‘stealth’ bits where you have to completely avoid its notice.  The hiding bits were not something I enjoyed much, but it was okay to complete with a bit of practice.  It is instant death though if you get spotted, which was seriously annoying.

Overall, if you count the two dlc as ONE dlc, then it is a decent package.  It takes the story onwards towards the next game, and it is fun and interesting to do.  I would say that if you have the opportunity to get the ultimate edition, it is worth getting that, rather than merely the standard game.

Overall

Despite my initial negative impression of the game, I have to admit I was wrong about it.  The game gave me over 25 hours of initial playtime, and likely to be more than 30-40 hours more as I go back and redo the various levels for the achievements over time.  Considering you can pick up the Ultimate Edition for under £20 now on the PC, or less in a  sale, I think it is well worth the cost vs playtime given.  The game does have replay value, and that is important.

I would probably give the game 4 out of 5 stars, because while it is a good game, there are things that frustrated me about it at times.

Lords of Shadow 2

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 PC cover

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 PC cover

I was ever so interested to get the next game that lead on from the last.  Although I hadn’t been entirely on-board with the plot of the first one, the trailer at the end of it, as well as the ones released about this one caught my imagination as it called to my deep love of the older vampire genre.  But more than that, the trailers seemed to offer up the chance that you could have the plot go two different ways: the ‘goody-goody’ route, and the ‘muahaha I am evil now’ route.

Several months I waited and pre-ordered until it was finally released.  What I know now, but didn’t back then, was that the entire production had been fraught with dissension and controversy within Mercury Steam.  The release date had originally been 6 months earlier, and there had been many people leaving the studio, and then after release most of the remaining staff got sacked. (The wiki has a letter describing some of the problems by a developer of the game.  It has subsequently been taken down off the wiki in the last two days but can be seen here).  You have to worry about a game in which so many of the staff seem dissatisfied with what they have put out.

I was, at the time of starting the game, completely unaware of this, and as such had a far more open mind as to what the game might contain.  However it was the frustrations that the game itself held that prompted me to look into what other people had been saying about it, only to find that my frustrations were not in the slightest uncommon.

Controls

The controls in the game are much like the ones in the last one, and so people who got used to the controls in Lord of Shadows 1 should really have little difficulty in playing this.  It is fairly straight forward even for those who have not played the game before, though I will admit I checked back on the game information if I had forgotten something, which is adequate.  Overall the controls are fine.

Skills

While the skills in the previous game were made up on a list, this game has made it into a sort of tree of skills, that as you purchase and use them, they will level up that particular skill, allowing you a greater mastery overall.  I think this system is actually a bit better than the other one, as it is easier to find skills, and easier to see how proficient you are in them.

One thing I would mention is that there is no real place for you to practice the skills.  More than once I found myself wanting to practice certain different skills that I had been neglecting, but other than fighting enemies in the actual areas, there was no place to do so.  This is perhaps because they expect people to remember from the first game, or to be a bit more on-the-ball than I am with it.  I hold my hands up and say that yes, I am more of a casual gamer these days.

New Vampire Skills

I have to say that I do like the addition of the vampire skills to the game.  They have been used quite well to get around various obstacles, and achieve things that you wouldn’t have been able to had you still been human.  Nothing quite like om nomming on some enemies as a finisher, or misting through a gate to get to treasure.

Another thing I wanted to mention about the vampire skills is the animations for them.  Someone has spent a good amount of time getting actions and skills in the game to click with the vampire genre.  The first time you see this truly in action is when you hide in the dark.  It still makes me smile when I see it.  Vampire fans will like these details even if other parts of the game fall a bit short.

Enemies

I wouldn’t say there was a great amount of enemies in the game, many are pretty similar with the exception of bosses, however some are far more difficult to defeat than others.  I, for example, have tremendous trouble with the risen skeletons that you first see in the LOS1.  You have to defeat the skeletons (usually taking out their shields with chaos power first) and once they are defeated, you have to do some manner of power attack on the pools of blood they leave before they reach a pile of bones.  If they do reach it they become whole again and you have to do this all over again.  These skeletons tend to spawn here in twos, and it is pretty difficult to do a finishing move when the other slams you from behind.  In the end, I generally use a special collected artifact to take down these ‘trash’ mobs.  Frankly I have less difficulty with a boss than these.

Camera

Unlike the last game, you can in fact move the camera here.  Huzzah!  This means that you can look at the scenery around you if you should wish to.  It is also a good way to find new locations to explore.

Map

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 map

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 map

Despite the fact that they have put in some mapping, the game actually doesn’t have a true map of places you have been like you see in the old Castlevania games on the PS2.  What you do have are two things:

1. A sketch of your current location in your book.  This does not show all the places you have been in the area, only the current section, making it pretty useless.

2. A map room.  Despite its name, it really is just a ‘fast travel’ system, that isn’t really that fast or easy to find or use.  More on that next.

Both of these factors mean that it is pretty impossible to easily find your way in the game.  I expect this is partially to encourage players to spend more time in the game without actually consuming the content, and partially just really bad design.

This isn’t at all helped by the fact that you flit between the present and the ‘past’ in order to get to different places early on in the game.  There is no way to easily get from one place to another except spending an age getting to the map room to go to another general area that you have to then traverse in full to get to where you want to go, and that is if you actually remember the way.. which is not a task that is easy unless you have a photographic memory, which I do not.

Travel

There are three different vehicles of transport.

1. On foot
2. Via the wolf pendant – takes you between the present and the ‘past’
3. Map room

The map room requires the most talking about I think, because as a concept it is fairly good.  You use a room that was pre-designed to cover vast distances in order to save time.  However there are only a very few in the entire world, (most of them are inaccessible until you get skills to get past obstacles to enter the room) which means that you have to likely run through perhaps 1/4 of the game in order to get to the map room to get to a different section.  This generally includes more mobs, remembering the route via jumping, misting, etc etc to get there in the first place, and a lot more time if you accidentally go in the wrong direction.

Yes, the map room is a good idea, and it is visually pretty impressive, but there really needed to be far more of them around.

I found that the best way of getting where I was wanting to do was just to follow an arrow on the minimap to lead me to the next location.  Sometimes it leads you to a locked door though that needs to be opened from the other side. Not perfect, but at least it doesn’t rely on your memory.

Overall travel is pretty poor in the game.  It isn’t easy to get from one place to another until you have pretty much completed the game and thus have more access to all the map rooms, but even then, it is a slog.

Achievements

In a game like this, all of the replay value and extra time you spend in the game is generally due to you hunting for things to complete achievements.  This can be going back through earlier areas in order that you pick up previous items that you missed due to not having the skills yet.  Like the last game, there are many, many places like this.  Unlike the last game, there is no easy way to tell what areas you missed them in.  There is a counter on the world map (or rather, the city map) that shows a count for each zone, but yeah, it is very vague, and let’s be honest here, it is pretty easy to move from one zone to another without really realizing.  It is, however easier to finish picking them up after you have completed the game, since there are significantly less mobs around to distract you.

Castlevania LoS2 World map showing achievements

Castlevania LoS2 World map showing achievements

I would also point out that unlike the last game, there is no real way to show the achievements you have got other than through your game platform, or the general town map counter.  My specific achievements are via Steam, and I assume that PS3 and Xbox also have them there.  But my point is that they are not listed IN the game  like you saw in the last one.

All in all, I feel this game is a massive step back when it comes to achievement UI.  In terms of the achievements themselves, I feel that while the previous game had two main types of achievements, the collection ones where you pick up special powerups etc, and the challenge ones which were shown in each area, LoS2 only has the former.  In both the UI and the content of the achievements I cannot look favourably upon it compared to the last game.

Quests and Content

To say that I didn’t enjoy all the content would be a blatant lie.  I did indeed enjoy some of the content, but not all of it.  It seemed to be a very mixed bag of actions in the game.  Sometimes you would be fighting, other times watching cut scenes, sometimes you were in the past sometimes in the present, you might be doing jumping puzzles, other times you were hiding from enemies, and the rest you were kicking their arse.

Some of these worked well.  The enemies you fight and the jumping puzzles were interesting, though a lot of the time you would be like ‘oh there is a pain box, how do I get to it?’ then shortly realize that you can’t without another skill.  You had this in the last game, but when the room is filled with those blasted skeletons, it kind of puts you off coming back there.  So much of the game content seems to be hit or miss, it really is that much of a tilting balance.  I spent much of the game going from having fun, to being frustrated, then confused, then snarling, then back to having fun again etc etc.  There were a couple of aspects that do require some mention.

Linear puzzles
I cannot stress enough how much these annoyed me.  I don’t mind puzzles, I love them, and I understand the need for linear storytelling in some games, but here, it wasn’t about the story.  You would get to a room and there are massive blobs of guys (Golgoth Guards) standing there with big guns. You cannot, as a prince of darkness merely kill them, that would be ridiculous!  You have killed so many uber destructive forces in the world, slaughtered hundreds if not thousands with your own hands and weapons, and yet you cannot kill these guys apparently.  No, you have to use distractions on them, or possess them in order to get past.  The annoyance of this is however somewhat minimal compared to the fact that there is only ever ONE way to do these rooms, and if you get spotted, pretty much instant death.

Games with good stealth puzzles offer a range of different ways of getting past things, but this does not.  You have to get past these guards several times during the game, and some encounters are far more frustrating than others.  You have to learn the exact route to take, and just when to hit the various skills in order to get past, and if you fail, you get thrust back to the previous automatic save point.. which in some cases, is annoyingly far back.

Hiding with bosses

Agreus boss

Agreus boss

This is another failure of gameplay in this game in my eyes.  You saw it first in the Resurrection dlc for the first game, and it was annoying back then, and it is more annoying now.  There are two bosses in particular that you have been made to tackle first with stealth, and then in the real encounter.  In both you have to completely avoid their notice and activate different things to open the gate to get to the next area where you take them on head to head.

These are so frustrating.  If you get seen, instant death, return to the start.  The only saving grace is that if you actually manage to click on the switches, they will usually stay on after you die.

But yeah, instant death during the hiding part, but then you get to take on the bosses after you get through that part, and its a cake-walk.  Why was it instant death before?  Well because it was meant to be fun to hide?  Not to me. I resented those 15 odd times I had to restart the same area again.  Thankfully these events are few and far between.

Plot (major spoiler warnings here from both Lords of Shadow games)

Are you surprised I left the discussion of the plot till last?  You shouldn’t be, really.  I may not be fully coherent of the plot in general, but even to me the thing seems so filled with inconsistencies and such.

Part of my initial confusion is because the game naturally tries to make things more confusing for the player.  Like a poor version of Pulp Fiction where the past and the present are all muddled up.  You also don’t know what is exactly real and what isn’t.  It is one reason I held off posting this blog until I had actually finished the game, because you really need to see to the end to understand the plot.

Well, I made it to the end, and while some things are clearer, other things are clear only in the fact that it is obvious they make no sense.

Previous Lore:
The last game takes you through the life of Gabriel as he fights against the powers of darkness.  There are twists and turns of course, but the plot was generally quite clear.  We had bosses to fight, and we fought them.  We killed them.   And yet in Lords of Shadow 2, they are back.  What?!  But it isn’t like they are all back.  No.  Only two of them, despite the fact that we totally totally killed them last time.

Perhaps I missed a bit in the lore from the last game, but this seems wrong on so many levels.  It wasn’t even explained this time around either.  It was like the game designers couldn’t be bothered to think of a better overarching story so merely randomly resurrected two of the biggest mobs from previous games and shoved them in, because, well.. why not?   Because I killed them!!  They were dead!!  You can see my frustration with this.

Some of my lack of knowledge about this is because I seem to have missed a game in between (it wasn’t released on the pc before, and the pc version is being released at the end of March 2014 in HD in an attempt to get some money back on the franchise).  ‘Castlevania Mirror of Fate was brought out after the events of the first Lords of Shadow, but as far as I can tell from the wiki page, no explanation was given as to why Zobek was there either.

Current Lore:
As seen in the E3 video, Gabriel is now the Lord of Shadow.  He is Dracula, and he has powers most awesome.  Yay!  But, unlike in the first Lords of Shadow, you are left feeling confused for most of the game.  Much as he himself is meant to be.  That is fine if the story actually made much sense, but having got to the end of the game, I don’t really think that much IS made sense of.  Sure, there is a big reveal thingy near the end, but it doesn’t answer all the questions.

Marie - Gabriel's dead wife

Marie – Gabriel’s dead wife

When Dracula is sent into the past to regain his powers etc, he sees his dead wife and his child whom we are shown was turned into the undead.  They are there, and he can physically touch and interact with them.  But how can that be?  The only way that is known to be able to touch ghosts was with the mask from the first game, and he doesn’t have that on in the second game, one mask was taken by his late wife (who despite being a ghost was somehow able to pick it up) and the second was the darker mask which was left, which might be interesting I guess, but he isn’t wearing it.  Nor do I think that any goodness that he has would be seen if he was.

Another thing about the ‘ghosts’ of the past, is that while this skill of someone else, it doesn’t explain the fact that they react to current events.  If these are the replayed memories of Trevor’s past, why is the mother acting to things that are being seen around them?  If they are merely fabrications made by the mind of the person who created them, then why were they sometimes substantial?

I also didn’t understand why we ended up fighting Zobek.  Even after the revelation, I didn’t get why we were going against him.  Sure, they were not buddy-buddys, but it was my impression that we were all working towards the same goal: to take down Lucifer.  And yet we fight Zobek instead of telling him why we have a change of plans?  That doesn’t make sense to me.  You could at least have left killing him till after killing Lucifer, the fight may well have been easier with Zobek helping, after all.

It is inconsistencies like this that annoy me, but let it be noted that I was not hating the ending.  I didn’t necessarily love the ending, (The plot has no room for personal choice, I would have liked to have gone more evil), but I did like it as an alternative to the story choices I might have made.  I was really worried for most of the game that it would turn into a gushy ‘god is good’ Christianity propaganda campaign, but thankfully that was not the case.  There will be many who don’t necessarily like the ending, as it isn’t cookie cutter, but that is perhaps why I did like it.

DLC

Despite the game only recently being released, there is already a DLC due out on the 25th of March that is a pre-sequal to most of the events in Lords of Shadow 2.  You take on the goody goody form of Alucard, son of Gabriel.

I honestly have not looked much into the DLC, but I think it is fairly unlikely I will get it, considering that the game itself was fairly average and poor in places.  It would likely depend on just how cheap it ends up going for.  £5.. maybe.  More than that? no.

Overall

I think overall I would have to be fairly critical of this game.  It didn’t take what was in the first game and improve on it in many areas.  In fact in many areas some of the things were really a fair bit worse.  However there were things I did like about it, and perhaps a lot of that goodwill is wrapped up in my love for the Dracula style vampires.

Despite this, from my own playing of the game, I would have to give it a miserly 2 out of 5 stars.

The game was poorly paced, the gameplay utterly frustrating in many instances, and trying to get around easily, was not.  The plot did have big holes in it and massive inconsistencies but I didn’t dislike the ending and some of the interactions were interesting.  The actual combat was fun as well, when it wasn’t skeletons or stealth.

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