Well, folks, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 came out this week, and I know I’m not the only one here dancing the happy Belmont dance. (That’s a thing, right?) A whole new game means a whole new epic adventure, with more castles to explore, more blood to shed, and, most importantly, optional quick time events. Just in time for the launch of number two, I’ve been playing through the Ultimate Edition of the first Lords of Shadow, and I’ve learned the hard way how to love a game in spite of a combat mechanic I absolutely detest. When I found out the sequel would give players the option to skip the headaches, I kissed my imaginary combat cross and smiled, my faith in the goodness of the universe restored. Up until now, I’ve (mercifully) had relatively minimal experience with games featuring quick time events. I’ve also never actually shouted and thrown my controller across the room in an uncontrollable rage before, either. I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Of course, I entered into the fray forewarned, if not fully prepared. Anyone who’s heard of the series, even if they’ve never played the games or seen a Let’s Play, probably knows three basic truths: there are castles, there are vampires, and there is no “easy” setting, merely the pretense of one. I knew what I was getting into, but I did it anyway. The thing is, I don’t regret it. Lords of Shadow is a gorgeous game, inside and out. Plummeting towards the ground and almost certain death astride a crow witch, beating the snot out of a Lycan lord too big for his cyclone boots, bringing an ogre roughly the size of a mountain to his knees – these are moments gamers live for. I still can’t forget, after exiting the perilously claustrophobic Veros Woods, catching my first glimpse of the castle, not just any castle but the Castle, looming over Wygol Village in the distance.
What I wish I could forget were those d*** quick time events. I’m well aware that many a gamer and writer before me has already ranted about the inevitable frustrations and shortcomings of QTEs in a number of video games, but in this case, I believe the subject bears repeating. At the very least, it will serve to remind us all to be very, very grateful when we tackle Lords of Shadow 2, and realize mid-rage-quit that even the hardest levels are still a hundred times more bearable than just one more on-screen prompt to “Press R2 to hold on!” I exaggerate (slightly), but the fact is, Castlevania is better than that. And so are we, the players. If I’m going to take down a mighty Titan, David-and-Goliath-style, I want to be in the moment. I want to feel the heat of that miniature meteorite that just narrowly missed squashing me like an ant under a flaming boot. I want to feel my gauntlet smash into the giant’s crystalline weak spots, shattering each with a satisfying crunch. I don’t want to be watching for prompts and thinking, “Oh, please, no! If I don’t hit this next combo right, I’m going to have to do that entire sequence all over again!” That’s not to say the Ice Titan showdown was total torture. In fact, despite having to restart from the last checkpoint a rather embarrassingly large number of times, I sort of enjoyed it. The idea of little ol’ me scaling this titanic beast and essentially punching it to death was definitely an attractive prospect. Unfortunately, during the actual execution of this incredible feat, I missed about half of Gabriel’s undoubtedly awesome moves while I was frantically alternating between L3, R2, and square. I had to take Claudia’s word for it that she was, in fact, tossing me a dark crystal and not, say, a ticking bomb, because I was too busy watching for the exact moment the QTE circles would start to glow.
This is the main problem with quick time command prompts: put simply, they distract from the action and, by extension, the story. Though intended to add to the dramatic tension and excitement of a given scene, what the game’s QTEs actually do is pull the player’s eye away from where the real focus should be. Not only do the associated prompts literally take up screen space – too much of it, all too often – but they also work against an otherwise fairly immersive world by constantly destroying the player’s suspension of disbelief. The instant I see an on-screen command, it’s like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. My holy combat cross turns back into a cheap plastic controller; the Veros Woods are exposed as being mere tricks of light and electricity on a two-dimensional television screen. I am a righteous warrior of the Brotherhood of Light no more, because I am reminded that, after all, I’m just a girl, sitting on a couch, playing a video game. If it sounds depressing, that’s because it is. Not because being conscious of playing a game is somehow inherently disappointing (in fact, some games thrive on playing with this awareness), but because a beautiful spell has been broken too soon. The real crime of saddling an otherwise fantastic game with n**** little quick time surprises isn’t that it distracts from those epic finishing moves we love to lust after, but that it holds players at a distance from the true heart of the experience, the story.
Mega-complex combos and trial-and-death battles are best suited to games with combat at their core, where the story and the fights are the same thing; something along the lines of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, for instance. If I’m just winning a match, I expect the highlights to be some kickass moves and a curb-stomping deathblow. And yes, I admit that even outside of these, the occasional b***** decapitation or ground-shaking demolition certainly makes for some delicious eye candy. But if I’m seeking to avenge my lover’s death and/or questing to save all of humanity from an encroaching eternal darkness, I’m not likely to be overly concerned with, say, perfecting the timing of my Falcon Punch technique. Challenge is part and parcel of the series, of course, and I don’t propose to deprive the games entirely of their trademark blood-boiling level of difficulty. But the devil’s in the details, and it’s the tiny difference between thinking about dodging a deadly blow versus thinking about hitting X at a precise moment in time that defines whether the player is in a game, or just playing one. So thank you, Lords of Shadow, for teaching me, at the very least, to have patience with a faulty combat mechanic. If I hadn’t suffered through those insufferable hit-or-miss moments of truth time and time again, I would never have known the privilege and pleasure of walking in Gabriel Belmont’s shiny metal shoes. Nor would I have known the true meaning of the verb “to rage quit,” a valuable lesson indeed. But most of all, thank you, Lords of Shadow 2, for giving the story a chance to shine, and not forcing me and my fellow vampire-slayers to endure the same h*** twice.