The last time the opportunity presented itself, we amused ourselves at E3 by calling the new 3-D Castlevania a Devil May Cry clone. If somebody were feeling really clever, they might come up with a nifty new name for it, such as Dracula May Cry or Devil May Whip.
Now, a few years after the release of Curse of Darkness, Konami is working on another 3-D Castlevania, and now we're all amusing ourselves at E3 by comparing it to God of War.
The point is that we're not very creative.
Lords of Shadow is reportedly a reboot of the Castlevania series. The previous "first" Castlevania, Lament of Innocence, was set in the mid-11th century, but Lords of Shadow is set even earlier.
You play as Gabriel Belmont, who is a hunter of monsters in what I'm assuming is England during the Dark Ages. It's generally an awful time to be a human, with monsters lurking just outside the firelight and a hilariously low life expectancy.
Gabriel has come to a besieged village on the edge of the forest in search of the Lords of Shadow. By dealing with them, he intends to both resurrect his deceased wife Marie, who still lingers as a ghost, and lift the curse from the land.
Lords of Shadow has two major things going for it. One is that it looks good, although it's a high-budget game from a major studio, so that almost goes without saying. The tutorial level is set in a village during a rainstorm at night, and it manages to convey a lot of things without beating you over the head with them. The villagers are barely holding it together, their fortifications are patently worthless, the enemies can come from anywhere at any time, and humanity in general is mostly a race of victims, clutching desperately to whatever they can find that gives them half a chance of survival. This is stuff you can tell by looking at the stage, even though it's raining at midnight. The level design is incredible.
The other is that Lords of Shadow has a surprisingly talented cast. Gabriel is voiced by Robert Carlyle ("Trainspotting," "The World is Not Enough," "Stargate Universe") and Marie by Natascha McElhone ("Californication," The Truman Show," "Ronin"). Patrick Stewart narrates the game as well as playing Gabriel's mentor Zobek, and Jason Isaacs is in there somewhere. For whatever reason, this is a crew that wouldn't be out of place in a pretty decent BBC production, which is a spectacular departure from both the Castlevania series' low-budget tendencies and from video games as a whole. Usually, a triple-A game is denoted by the presence of Nolan North, Jen Taylor and/or Steve Blum.
As for gameplay ... well, like I said, a lot of people were walking away from the kiosk talking about God of War. Gabriel carries the series' trademark whip, or at least something that's very whip-like, and can throw silver daggers. As you defeat enemies, you gain points that can be used to buy advanced combinations from your skill book, which seems to be the only real "action-RPG" elements that the game has to offer.
Hideo Kojima was a consultant and advisor on Lords of Shadow, which may help explain the focus on set pieces. In the E3 demo, you go from fighting in the village, taking out a few stray werewolves, to a hell-for-leather dash through the forest on horseback with giant worgs harassing you all the while.
The old 3-D Castlevanias, like Curse of Darkness, were repetitive and just plain weird (I'm still not sure why collecting chairs was a big deal in CoD or why Lament of Innocence feels like half the game's missing), but if the demo is any indication, Lords of Shadow will be a much more varied experience. The combos are well-constructed, and enemies are sufficiently dangerous that you can't get through a typical fight by simply mashing the Square/X button until everything around you is in bits. Gabriel also doesn't appear to have an inventory system to speak of, which should prevent the typical Castlevania strategy of shotgunning healing potions like you're doing a keg stand.
In the end, though, there just wasn't enough of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow at E3 to make a judgment call one way or the other. Konami is throwing a lot of real money at Castlevania, after years of the series being a yearly excuse to recycle old sprites, and putting Kojima on the project usually leads to a game that is, at the very least, interesting (he said, diplomatically). Castlevania has not traditionally had very good luck in 3-D, but if Lords of Shadow doesn't do it, it simply can't be done at all.
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