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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

November 03 2010

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review
by Samodean

Those who have read my Castlevania Retrospective will know that I am a huge fan of the franchise. So, when Casltevania: Lords of Shadow was announced, I was both excited and cautious. The game looked good, but the franchise’s previous attempts at 3D games have not been very successful. I’m glad to say that Lords of Shadow is overall very successful and a welcome addition to the Castlevania line. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a 3D Action/Adventure for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It’s published by Konami and developed primarily by MercurySteam (Clive Barker’s Jericho) with assistance from Kojima Productions (Metal Gear). While the two console versions are similar, the PS3 version has been shown to have a smoother framerate, as well as the advantage of a single disk; for a game that features quite a bit of backtracking and replay, disk-swapping is a large issue for the 360 version. This review is based on the PS3 version.

Much of the criticism aimed at Lords of Shadow has been in comparison to other games. It’s impossible to release a 3D action game these days without drawing the inevitable comparisons to God of War. Lords of Shadow has been accused of being another God of War clone, which is flat-out untrue. Anyone who has actually played both games can immediately tell there’s very little the two have in common. While Gabriel’s Combat Cross (an evolution of the traditional Vampire Killer whip) has a passing similarity to Kratos’s Blades of Chaos, at no point do the two games FEEL the same; God of War’s combat has a certain brutal and visceral feel to it, while Lords of Shadow is more about finesse.

Heavenly Sword is an example of a God of War clone, as it’s similar in look, feel and tone… not Lords of Shadow. Another God of War-style game Lords of Shadow has been accused of ripping off is Dante’s Inferno. Both main characters have similar motivations and both use a cross, but the similarities end there. Since both games were in development at the same time, any comparisons are pointless. Finally, there’s Shadow of the Colossus. Yes, Lords of Shadow features three boss battles seemingly ripped straight out of that masterpiece, there’s no denying it, but they’re such a small piece of the overall game, it’s mostly inconsequential. Besides, I doubt it’s possible to handle combat with an enemy hundreds of times your size better than in Shadow of the Colossus, so why mess with what works.

Anyway, I believe each game should be judged on its own merits, so this is the last time I’ll compare Lords of Shadow to any other game not featuring “Castlevania” in its title.

Lords of Shadow is a reboot of the Castlevania franchise. It uses the same themes present in many of its predecessors, but is set outside the timeline established by the twenty previous installments. The story sets up a new origin of the Belmont clan and a new world for them to battle the forces of evil. The story takes place in 11th Century Europe, where three powerful beings known as the Lords of Shadow have cut Earth off from Heaven. Evil creatures roam the countryside and the souls of the dead are unable to pass on.

The main character, Gabriel Belmont is a member of the Brotherhood of Light, one of the few forces with the power to protect humanity. Gabriel’s wife, Marie, was recently slain by a monster and her spirit serves as a guide for Gabriel, sending him on his quest to defeat the Lords of Shadow and reunite the three fragments of the God Mask, a powerful relic capable of bringing back the dead and reuniting Heaven and Earth.

Early on, Gabriel meets his mentor, an older member of the Brotherhood named Zobek, who is voiced by Patrick Stewart and absolutely badass at every possible opportunity. Zobek formulates a plan to take out the Lords of Shadow one at a time; the Lord of Lycans first, followed by the Lord of Vampires and the Lord of Necromancers. The two go their separate ways, but Zobek remains a constant presence throughout the game, serving as the narrator.

Along the way, Gabriel encounters more characters, some friendly, most not, but all of them unique and engaging. Many references to previous Castlevania characters can be found in the game, from Rinaldo Gandolfi (Lament of Innocence) to Cornell (Legacy of Darkness) to Brauner (Portrait of Ruin) to more surprises later on. The surprises aren’t limited to character cameos, however; Gabriel has to make sacrifices throughout his quest, and the origins and motivations of the Lords of Shadow will constantly surprise the player. The plot advances at a good pace and does a great job building a world; by the end of the game, Lords of Shadow establishes itself as its own franchise within the Castlevania family. Going forward, Konami could easily put out titles in both the core Castlevania universe as well as the Lords of Shadow setting.

Of course, there’s more to building a world than solid story. While it’s a term used quite a bit these days, Lords of Shadow truly is an immersive experience. The voice acting is fairly good throughout the game, but a bit inconsistent at times; most notably Gabriel’s accent and some of the mission introductions. All the menus in the game are designed like a journal in Gabriel’s possession, even with hand-drawn sketches in the character bios and ability descriptions. Bodies of fallen Brotherhood knights hold scrolls, giving gameplay hints and expanding upon the lore, with even a few jokes to be found. The game’s puzzles are all integrated into the environment and never really feel out of place; many of them even feel like they would have been deliberately placed there to hinder an enemy’s progress. I found the mad scientist’s lab and the chess game to be particularly entertaining. While the puzzles are skippable, the player will be missing out on a large experience bonus.

The graphics are stunning; each environment is wonderfully designed and everything just feels real. The forests seem alive, the caves are dark and confined, and the castles are suitably atmospheric. With the quantity of environments MercurySteam created for this game, it’s quite the accomplishment that each one is fully realized and, more importantly, unique. The only issue I found with the environment is some awkwardly placed invisible walls in the outdoor areas. The camera is stationary, attempting to give the player the best view of their surroundings, and it works well most of the time. It pans up at times, showing the immensity of a nearby tower or stares down a chasm during particularly treacherous platforming moments. Occasionally, the placement would be awkward, obstructing a pathway or enemy, but for the most part, it works well; I never found myself making blind jumps during the platforming segments.

Those platforming segments were one of the most impressive aspects of Lords of Shadow to me. I was amazed with just how smooth they were; the controls are very responsive. When you press ‘X’, Gabriel jumps immediately, there’s no awkward animation and you don’t have to plan a half-step ahead, he just jumps. Between running, jumping, grappling and hanging, I always felt in control; any failures and deaths were my own fault, not the game mechanics. Gabriel will always give the player an indication of which direction is safe to jump in the cliffhanging segments; if he looks down, it’s safe to jump down, if he looks behind him, it’s safe to jump across. As far as navigating the environment is concerned, the only issue I had was with the mount system. Certain large enemies can be mounted and controlled to help you cross gaps, break down doors and access other areas Gabriel can’t get to on his own. I understand the concept; once Gabriel can do these things on its own, it shows how far he has progressed. Unfortunately, the execution is just awkward, boring and overused early in the game. Thankfully, it’s not present very often after the halfway point.

The combat in Lords of Shadow is an absolute blast. All the responsiveness the controls demonstrated in the platforming is present here and, again, everything just feels smooth. Basic combat consists of a direct attack, an area attack and the standard Castlevania sub-weapons. Switching from one attack type to another is quick, with no delays or awkward animations; everything combos together naturally. As the game goes on, Gabriel adds dashes, grabs, throws, punches and many other moves to his arsenal. You earn experience from defeating enemies that you then spend on new moves. With the cost of the moves, players will have to choose which ones they want to use, leading to players developing unique playstyles. There is no “wrong” way to play the game, but there are several different “right” ways. Placing block and dodge both on the same button, while the right analog stick is left unused is a bizarre design choice, but it doesn’t affect the gameplay much. Many battles with larger enemies make small use of Quick Time Events, but they’re the least intrusive ones I’ve ever experienced. I could do without them, but I understand their place in the design of the game.

Whipping enemies with the Combat Cross is fun, but Lords of Shadow also has a magic system. Early on, Gabriel gains access to Light and Shadow Magic; Light Magic heals Gabriel, and Shadow Magic deals extra damage. Additionally, each magic type has its own moves and combos, giving the combat even more options. Enemies drop Neutral Magic orbs upon death, forcing the player to choose which type of magic to absorb them as, but there’s more depth than that. The game has one final combat element in the Focus Meter. As Gabriel attacks, the meter builds, emptying when he takes damage; basic attacks build it slowly, while advanced tactics like counterattacks and defense breaks will fill it quickly. Once the meter is full, magic orbs will drop from enemies with each hit, enabling magic to be used almost constantly. It’s a great system that rewards players for performing well and using their entire arsenal of moves. If you try to button-mash your way through Lords of Shadow, you WILL die.

In a move away from recent Castlevania games, Lords of Shadow breaks the game up into missions instead of one large environment. Each mission is preceded with an introduction by Zobek, ensuring that the story never gets in the way of the gameplay and vice versa. Many missions have branching paths, either leading to power-ups or just multiple options for the objective. Many of these side paths will not be accessible at first, requiring the player to go back to previous missions after Gabriel has gained new abilities. It’s not necessary to do so, as Gabriel will find plenty of upgrades along his quest, but it will make things easier as well as giving completionists a great deal of replay. Additionally, each mission has a bonus objective on replay that will give extra experience rewards, further increasing replay value. The mission transitions can be a bit jarring at times; I would have preferred a slow fade-out instead of a big “Mission Complete” screen popping up out of nowhere.

As a longtime Castlevania fan, I can give no higher praise than saying Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a fantastic addition to the franchise. It’s easily the best 3D entry to date and a welcome breath of fresh air for a franchise that has shown very little innovation in recent years. Those that accuse it of “not being a Castlevania game” have clearly never played any entry prior to Symphony of the Night, as it’s mission-based structure is more in line with the earlier entries and many comparisons can be made to Super Castlevania IV, one of the highlights of the franchise. Honestly, the only place I feel Lords of Shadow falls short of the Castlevania standard is the music. For a franchise known for its iconic tunes, the use of a generic high-fantasy score here is disappointing. The Zelda and Final Fantasy games have shown that it’s possible to take beloved old-school game music and translate it to a bigger, modern style, so it’s sad to see very little of the music associated with Castlevania present.

While Lords of Shadow isn’t perfect, even annoying at times, the game just keeps getting better as it progresses. It’s a high-quality game and well worth a purchase.

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