Classics are definitely hard to follow up, and previous Castlevania games have always had this daunting task of outshadowing each other. Many of them have failed, leaving this series’ only good memories in installments from the past or on a handheld. Enter Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the newest title in the series in dire need of a redemption. Part combat game, part exploration and puzzles, Lords of Shadow tries to juggle a lot of different gameplay styles to create something substantial. It may not hit hard on any single target, but it does a good enough job on each to be something memorable.
Lords of Shadow begins simply enough. Gabriel Belmont, your manly-but-heartbroken hero, must resurrect his love for… well, love. He is told that in order to achieve this bold task, he must murder the Lords of Shadow to put a mask back together to then finally be able to regain his love, Marie, again. This premise motivates Gabriel to kill anyone to get to his goal and is reappears throughout the story as her ghost pops in frequently to remind you that she is still dead. The premise is okay, as I liked Gabriel’s character, but it wasn’t told to show its full potential. The story isn’t told as much through cutscenes, but rather boring narrated pages out of a book while the game loads a chapter. The narrator, Patrick Stewart, lays on some thick melodrama, giving the parts of the story he tells to seem like all of it is up its own ass. Sections told by Mr. Stewart would have been better served as cutscenes because the route of “read these story lines” seems like the laziest, most uninteresting way to relay the story to the player.
Another problem the story has is, as with some other games, the story telling is good in the beginning and end, but falling off in parts in the middle. The set-up was solid, but the middle had little story motivation other than “go kill this guy and take his stuff.” At the final battle, the game must have woken up from its slumber and remembered it had to finish the damn story with near-twenty minute cutscene before the last fight explaining events. While some cool revelations happen in this part, I couldn’t help but feel that too much happened at that exact moment and the story would have greatly benefited from spreading out the thick story in place here by putting some of it in the mostly-barren middle. You end up fighting someone who comes out of nowhere with little build up and more of a “what the hell?” factor. I won’t spoil anything, but this character should have been revealed earlier to cause a (greater) hate for it.
Besides the shortcomings of the story, I was always rooting for Gabriel to achieve his goal and the cutscenes in the game were enjoyable. While I wanted it to have a better structure, the story was good enough to keep me engaged. Be sure to stick around after the skippable credits for one of the coolest, left-field curveballs I’ve seen in a while. Seeing what happens to a certain character is definitely one of the highlights of the game and sets up an incredibly cool idea for a possible sequel.
Even though traversal does get some improvements, the core isn’t as solid as it should be, especially given how often you have to jump and platform. Gabriel feels very stiff when he moves and more so when he leaps because his direction can’t be changed mid-jump. This becomes problematic especially since Mr. Belmont seems finicky to grab on certain platforms when he brushes up against them, which leads to you falling. A double jump does help the situation but it is procured so late in the game, that it is hard to make up for all the past times where I fell face first into countless bottomless pits after missing a ledge. The platforming isn’t broken by any stretch of the mind, as swinging and jumping can have its thrills, it just needs a bit more polish to avoid the needless frustration.
Puzzles have a similar fate with traversal. They are sprinkled throughout the levels, each with a different goal, with a sometimes tricky way to achieve it but some are obtuse and hidden in their solutions. Some of them didn’t tell how I was supposed to interact with them, so I was aimlessly wandering around until I looked it up on the internet. I didn’t feel guilty any of the times I “cheated” because they were always something that I wouldn’t have naturally figured out because the game did a bad job of helping me progress. A couple puzzles are novel and interesting, but most fall flat as confusing level layout and garbled objectives plague these “brain teasers.”
One of the other facets of this Castlevania game is the combat. Instead of a sword on a chain, Gabriel’s weapon of choice is a holy cross with a sharp whip extension. This mighty crucifix has a couple neat tricks up its sleeve to have combat that is actually fun to execute. Instead of having a “heavy” attack button, pressing triangle (or Y) unleashes an area attack that punishes in a wide circular vicinity around Gabriel. These can be combined with the more traditional direct attacks to make an extensive list of combos and are generally exciting to deal out. Bosses, which can either test your skill or just amaze you in scale, are a good test of your combat prowess because every one of these battles was fun to watch and play as the battles are quick with gory, fascinating quick time event finishers. Progression and experience unlocks even more combos to create an impressive list of ways to kill during your long journey.
Unlocking new combos is one way to extend your possibilities while fighting, but Gabriel has other ways to become stronger. Little by little, new equipment is given to you and this happens at such a steady pace that it keeps things fresh throughout the game. Early on you gain the ability to absorb light and dark magic, each having useful attributes. Good magic heals you while it is active and has a more defensive position while evil magic deals out damage and goes for an all-out offensive barrage of attacks with its upgrades. This slightly cliché but awesome mechanic adds even more depth and choice to combat, which is always welcome. Other equipment granted to you helps you in traversal, combat, or both. A double jump will let you juggle more enemies, a gauntlet will push buttons and pummel foes, and boots will help you clear gaps and evade attacks. The double usefulness of items helps extend your combat and traversal abilities which is pretty nifty.
Combat isn’t perfect though. I already do not like when combat games have block on L2, but Castlevania takes this annoyance to a new level. On top of having block on L2, the dodge mechanic is also situated on that button (with an analog stick movement), giving L2 one more function than it needs to have. Since blocking and dodging are split second decisions, you’ll more often than you want to, dodge into an attacking enemy when you need to block which can cause an evasive roll that’s, you know, not evasive. This problem is twice as frustrating knowing that the perfectly-capable right analog stick is just sitting there, completely unused (no camera control, folks). It’s not a deal breaker, but in my long stay with the game, I could never get comfortable enough to feel like I was totally in control. I even made the choice to set the difficulty from hard to medium halfway through because of it.
The camera can also be less than ideal when fighting. When Gabriel isn’t slaying Lycans, the camera zooms out to show off the glorious vistas and have you in awe soaking in all the details. In combat, however, the camera still stays a bit too zoomed out. Konami, I get you want me to see your pretty game but when I’m trying to keep a horde of vampires of eating my the skin on my neck, I’d like to see what is going on on the ground level combat arena. Too often I found the camera to be too zoomed out to be rightfully prepared for oncoming attacks because I just couldn’t see as much detail. When you take into account how block and dodge can be a bit unreliable, fighting can feel like it isn’t hitting its full potential.
Whether the camera is zoomed in or out, one thing is for sure: this game is dazzlingly beautiful. From the boggy swamps to the tall, gothic castles, every one of the distinct environments is full of stunning detail which is apparent from afar or up close. The clever camera work (outside of combat) does a great job of showcasing scale in the environments and some of the titan bosses, most of which had me flabbergasted at how damn good it looked. Characters, especially Gabriel, look great too, all looking mystical and creepy or, if not some sort of beast, just possessing an insane amount of detail. With all of the different locales and variety in enemy types, I never found something to be visually unpleasing.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does a lot of things. It wants to be up there with the combat giants, have bright puzzles, explore environments with the best of them, and platform like any Nintendo icon. Each pillar of Lords of Shadow is fun, but each also possesses an odd quirk to hamper some of the overall enjoyment of said facet. Still, it is better than the sum of its parts and comes together to be a great game. People may be debating whether it is a “true” Castlevania game but does that really matter? All I see is a solid, if slightly flawed, game, regardless of brand name.
+Graphically stunning game
+Combat can be satisfying
+Good sense of growth and progression
+Intense boss fights and finishers
+Long, replayable game
+Incredibly awesome post-credits sequence
-Combat controls get frustrating under stress
-Platforming isn’t as precise as needed
-Camera zooms out a tad too much during combat
-Puzzles can be nonsensical or can lack vital clues or information
Final Score: 8.5/10
Platform Differences: The PS3 version is on one Blu-Ray as opposed to the Xbox 360 version coming on two DVDs. It is the same game on both systems, but all of the content could not fit on a single DVD.