Over the years, there have been various attempts at bringing Castlevania into the 3-D realm. Some have worked better than others, but none have really stood out as an amazing game. Although specifics may differ depending on who you talk to, Castlevania fans will generally point to one of three games when asked to name the "best" of the series: Castlevania IV on the Super NES, Dracula-X: Rondo of Blood on the Japanese Duo or Symphony of the Night on the original PlayStation. The DS Castlevania games are also highly regarded, but the hardcore love the console classics. After Konami fumbled the XBLA release of Harmony of Despair this summer, all eyes turned to Lords of Shadow to see if there was any potential left in the future of the franchise.
The good news is that there is plenty to like about Lords of Shadow, even if it does stray from the roots of the Castlevania franchise.
Set as a reboot of the series, Lords of Shadow pushes aside all of the previously referenced Castlevania canon and sets its own path with new heroes and villains alike. There are some subtle nods to well-known franchise characters and locations, such as mentions of Rinaldo Gandalfi or Veros Woods, but they are just that, nods to the past. Lords of Shadow has less to do with classic Castlevania than last year's "Star Trek" film has to do with the classic TV show. It's a clean break.
As the story goes, you take on the role of Gabriel (Robert Carlyle), a member of the Brotherhood of Light whose wife Marie was murdered by the forces of darkness two days prior. Determined to avenge her death, Gabriel ventures forth into the savage wilderness in search of the God Mask with which he hopes to resurrect his beloved. Along the way, you'll meet a number of companions, including the mysterious Zobek (Patrick Stewart), who also doubles as the narrator, the old god Pan (Aleksandar Mikic) and a mysterious girl protected by a supernatural knight. Villains run the gamut from lycans and vampires to ogres, trolls and the colossally imposing Titans. There are also some nods to classic Castlevania character design, most notably in the Warg, but for the most part, what you face off against here has more of a grounding in fantasy than in horror. It's yet another way for the game to distance itself from the past entries.
Gameplay-wise, Lords of Shadow is an interesting beast if only because it never really sets a tone of its own. The best way to describe it is as sort of a gaming "highlights" reel of all the action games of this generation. Game design was clearly influenced by the likes of Devil May Cry, God of War, Metal Gear Solid, Shadow of the Colossus and Uncharted, among others.
And by "influenced," we mean "directly cribbed."
If you've played any major action games in the last decade, their contribution to Lords of Shadow will be immediately obvious. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the developers at Mercury Steam have done an impressive job of weaving together a number of disparate gameplay styles into a single adventure. There's also enough innovation here to make the experiences feel fresh, even if they aren't wholly original.
Lords of Shadow is at its best when the game is focused on combat. It can be a bit harsh with the health at first, but after you unlock the health and magic upgrades, as well as the first few special abilities, the action starts to come into its own. Whether you're fending off a group of baddies, complete with requisite blood spatter, taking down one of the towering titans or going head-to-head with one of the Lords of Shadow, the game offers up a well-oiled mix of challenge and combat. The only time the game really misfires is when it forces you into repetitive fights for no obvious reason, most notably when you need to take over a creature to use as a mount.
There are certain obstacles in Lords of Shadow that can only be overcome by riding one of the creatures in the game. You do so by weakening said creature and then hopping on its back. Unfortunately, you cannot dismount without killing the creature you've just tamed, so if you dismount early, it means a run back to the creature spawn point and another fight just to grab another mount. Given the sometimes confusing level design, this occurs more often than you'd think.
Haphazard level design, combined with the fixed camera, is the biggest gameplay flaw affecting Lords of Shadow. When you're moving forward on a linear path, the scheme works well, but as soon as you try to deviate from the expected, say to backtrack and explore, the issues quickly become apparent. The fixed camera means that enemies can easily move out of view during combat, and level exploration can be rather hit or miss. Without an ability to look around, different sections of the map can appear to be completely disjoined rooms, even though they may be located right next to one another. Specific paths that you need to progress, such as a ledge or grapple point, are also occasionally out of view, leading to trial-and-error exploration.
The game attempts to mitigate the camera issues somewhat by employing an all-encompassing hint system, which highlights ledges, grapple points, breakable walls, etc., on-screen as well as giving you text-based advice on what to do next. Early on, it seems like a nice way to lead the player into the more advanced mechanics, but once you've been playing for a few hours and realize the tips are still appearing, it become obvious that they're there because the developers realized the limitations of their level design and wanted to ensure players didn't get stuck.
A perfect example of this issue actually occurred early on, when we had to mount a spider and use it to cross a chasm in the second level. We got on the spider's back and repeatedly fired its web shot across the chasm to no avail. It seemed like the logical thing to do, but it wasn't having any effect. Stumped, we wandered around the edges of the platform until the hint system kicked in and informed us that we had to use the web shot to create a bridge. With the hint now on-screen, the web shot worked as expected. Though it didn't happen all that often, this was not an isolated occurrence during our time with the game.
In-game puzzles are generally well executed, with the exception of one or two instances that required use of a very specific skill to pass. Perhaps knowing that most players will be jumping into the game for the action rather than the puzzle elements, the developers have flagged most of the environmental puzzles in the game as puzzles. When you come across one of these, you are given the option of figuring it out yourself for an experience point reward, or forgoing the reward and having the game reveal the answer so you can move on quickly.
"Quick" is one word that isn't likely to be associated with Lords of Shadow. Playing through on normal difficulty, your first adventure is likely to consume around 15-20 hours of gameplay time. This is a notable uptick from the standard 8-12 hours that most action games take. Despite its length, Lords of Shadow is generally well paced. You will hit lulls in certain points where it feels like grinding, but by and large, you're always progressing. Each of the larger levels is split up into multiple bite-sized chunks, which make it convenient to drop in for a quick gameplay session or settle down for a few hours.
Visually, Lords of Shadow is impressive, which makes the haphazard level design and fixed camera all that more frustrating. At certain points during exploration, you will want to look around and just take in the scenery — only to find that it's not possible. This is likely due to the fact that Lords of Shadow is pushing the Xbox 360 hardware to its limit, as evidenced by the occasional drop in frame rate. By keeping the camera fixed, the developers can ensure that the number of rendered polygons stays within a known limit, keeping performance issues to a minimum. It is still disappointing, though, as the environments are ripe for exploring.
Audio is just as well done with a sweeping score and spot-on voice acting. Stewart gets a bit melodramatic at points, but Carlyle is spot-on throughout the game. It's too bad that a large portion of Gabriel's quest is a solo affair, as much of his characterization is due to Carlyle's performance. The supporting actors complement the leads well. Musically, the score is robust enough to be worth seeking out on its own. If you're one of those considering plunking down the extra $20 for the collector's edition, know that your money isn't being wasted on the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the plot. For all the effort put forth in production value, Lords of Shadow's script is about as subtle as a recent M. Night Shyamalan film. Major plot points are forecast early on, and there is little to nothing in the way of layering. None of the events in the game are a surprise, least of all the ending. We're not going to spell out the details, but if you've been following any of the preview coverage, yes, they went there with it. Given the rich backstory that has been woven throughout the franchise, having a weak script is easily the game's biggest disappointment.
When all is said and done, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has much in common with the Super NES version of Dracula-X that was released in the U.S. Lords of Shadow is a solid action game that incorporates some of the best moments from across the genre, but it's not the next great Castlevania game. If you can overlook the rough spots, there's an enjoyable romp here, but this reboot strays a bit too far from the core elements of the franchise and borrows too much from other titles to be the standard bearer for the mantle.
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