Castlevania, is one of the most beloved and long standing franchises in the industry. We have thrown axes at bats, jumped from platform to platform, and indulged in the series iconic eight and sixteen bit soundtracks. As the classic console era died. The series was reinvented by then a brilliant mind Toru Hagihara, giving us a blend of Metroid and Castlevania with Symphony of the Night. One of the greatest games to have ever been made, but as with every blessing, pardon the pun, there must be a curse. Curses are what Castlevania seems to have, even in the real world, and at that time Koji Igarashi, picked up the baton of the franchise. I call this period. The Dark period. We have been subjugated to clone after clone of the formula, series retcons. Iga even writing out one of his stronger efforts Circle of the Moon, and the general madness of this mans mind. In this time, Castlevania had degraded from cult wonder, to handheld shovel ware, stocked away on the dark recesses of Nintendos handhelds. When the series did venture outwards from their handheld stockade, the entires ranged from abysmal; Castlevania 64, Curse of Darkness on the Playstation 2. To the mediocre but serviceable Lament of Innocence. We were firmly in Igas prison. Devoid of creativity, the series looked to have been staked, in the heart. No one even knew what Castlevania anymore at this point was. Was it about a White cropped haired fluff boy inheriting powers? Was it about a man controlling Innocent Devils? I'm not saying all of Igas game were mockery's, Circle of the Moon and Order of Eccelsia were fantastic entires, but TWO good games from an almost ten year span is troubling, but it was clearly time for someone to get rid of this man, Castlevania Judgement being the final straw in his legacy of compounded ignorance.
Konami heard the cries, maybe inwardly, as the franchise was languishing. When we heard that Castlevania would be outsourced, to unknown developer Mercury steam, and it would be 3D, initial thoughts weren't positive, we had so many unhealed scars from Igas 3D ventures, fans were tentative. Has Kojima and Mercury steam finally laid to rest the issues that plagued the series jaunt into 3D? Kindly read my detailed review as we venture towards the gothic night.
Graphics and Presentation.
From the title screen alone, we are presented with an intricate detailed locked diary, which will serves as the log or journal for our hero, Garbiel Belmont. This alone should hint to the artistry, craft and extreme lengths Mercury Steam has gone through in presenting Lords of Shadow as a work of art, attempting to bring the world they are about to lay before the player to life with exquisite vision. This alone from the borders of a simple log. Prepare then to feast your eyes upon the new land Gabriel will have to traverse. Sprawling vistas, crumbled monuments, forests and much more. This particular Castlevania is positively stunning. The lighting in the environments are immaculate, the views breathtaking and jaw dropping. Each area surpassing or rivaling the next in sheer splendor. I'm sure everyone who sees through Gabriels trek will have their favourite environments. My brother loved the Bogs, the Bone Forest, Three Towers. Mine being The Waterfalls of Agharta, The Hedge Maze, Crow Witchs level and the Vampire Castle, outside so hauntingly beautiful with its snow, and the inside, depressing gothic, chaotic. Each area is blessed with hues, and colour pallets that attack the sensory perception. Totally magnificent and gorgeous, Mercury Steam have done everything in their power, to create a strong atmosphere with varying each environ.
Gone are the days of the bland walls as in Lament of Innocence, draw distance "fog", gone are the cubed rooms of previous entires. This world, actually feels alive, or should I say was alive, and ravaged. The old making way for the new world. It actually feels like a world now. As opposed to what have had to suffer before.
Mercury Steam has opted to wrestle control of the camera away from the user. Areas are separated with fixed or static cameras to an extent. Much as you would see in the God of War titles, or the Devil May Cry series, with every design choice, there are positives, and weaknesses. The camera allows them to express the beauty, hide secret items in the world, and as usual with any title, this form of camera can sometimes hinder combat. From my experience, the camera was never a major factor, with the exception of few occassions when enemies would go off screen and be difficult to attack or read their incoming attack. This would account for 5% of the trouble I personally encountered, all the times seemed to have me fighting Sword Masters. So mostly the camera does a good job while you battle.
One of the most spoken about topics seems to be the titles framerate. While the engine used allows for extravagant graphics and lighting, the flip side of the coin is the frame rate dips, from decent to bad. For those who do notice the shift, it can be irritating, but for those who are less sensitive this issue is a nonfactor. As the frame rate will never hinder combat.
At the beginning of the title. We are introduced to Gabriel and we are given a brief tutorial to face down an incoming Lycanthrope raid on a fear struck village. Gabriel has two main attacks, direct attacks which act as horizontal lashes and the other area attacks, where Garbriel will swing his "whip" or aptly dubbed the "combat cross" around in arching circles to tear the flesh off of enemies who attempt to surround him. He has access to secondary weapons which the player can use, the first being simple knives. As you would expect there is a jump, dodge mechanic, grabs, blocking, quick recover and air stomp only available to our hero. In this meager state his combat options are minimal.
There are QTEs in the game for varying enemies. None as in God of War however. They mostly serve as one button presses, during the right time as the circle flashes, any button can be pressed, to finish enemies, preventing you from falling off a certain Mount, opening mechanisms. To the usual mash one button as fast as you can to get desired result. They don't become annoying.
As you rip gashes into your foes, you are rewarded with experience points to upgrade our warrior and get him into tip top monster slaying form. Upragdes are purchased from the travel log, once again, animated for our convenience. To how our new desired move will look before we purchase it. This type of mechanic is similar to what you would see in DMC or God of war, experience just being swapped out for souls or orbs.
Enemies range from small such as Gobilns and Trolls, to medium and to large, and in occassions gigantic. An array of enemies and bosses await you. Some very easy, others very troublesome.
Initially I had heard that the combat itself would be similar to God of War, when infact, that is the furthest thing from the truth. In LoS combat is a bit more cerebral than in God of War. Gabriel has no bread and butter launcher combo like Kratos, taking to the air initially in the beginning to middle of the game; will not make Gabriel safe as it does with Kratos, allowing you to spam air throws. Enemies in LoS will routinely knock you out of the air, stronger enemies will do it with alarming regularity, so have to pick the opportune moment to juggle in the beginning stages. LoS is far more restricted not in the fact that moves are limited, but in the ways you can exploit the engine. More thought is needed here. Wild slashing will get you nowhere. Especially on the more difficult enemies.
Enemies seem very good at blocking, dodging your attacks, so mixing it up is paramount. It is also important not to become too greedy with your attacks, as enemies employ painful dodge and smack routines. Other enemies have varying attacks, although tougher enemies will seem to have unblockable moves where you must dodge, ground splashes were you must jump, and a normal attack. Much more than opposed to a typical grunt in God of War.
Extreme importance must be paid to Gabriels counter attack, two of which you can use. Direct and Area, but the initial block is the most important. As you time your block just as an enemy attacks you.
As you progress through the game, and unlock more combos, functions for your secondary weapons, and moves. Gabriel will also attain Light Magic and Dark Magic. Light Magic gained none too soon. Gabriel cannot carry healing items, and fountains serve as the only alternate way to replenish depleted energy. When light magic is activated, every swipe of the cross that connects with an enemy that hasn't been blocked by them and will restore partially some of your life bar with each lash. Light Magic however is not infinite, and if an enemy is killed with any form of magic with the whip, they do not release neutral orbs for you to replenish the magic you consume. Dark Magic acts as a buffer to increase damage to your foes.
Here is where the tactics of the battle begin, especially on the last two difficulties, where enemies can be brutal to your health. You can attack, but if you want to heal you can activate your light magic, heal quickly, deactivate. Did you score a perfect block and have a counter attack oppurtunity? Mash the Dark Magic during the block to bust out massive damage in the counter. To further elaborate on your thinking, and not to get reckless and sloppy. Gabriel attains focus during combat. Each successful hit with magic deactivated produces neutral orbs on a full focus bar for you to absorb. So that you can replenish either bar, activating magic during a focus depletes the gauge slightly. So its good to activate magic; while it dips a bit, score your healing or damage, then deactivate. Time some more slashes and blocks that will refill your bar. Brilliant. Its a risk reward system, so the better you perform in combat you gain a bounty of neutral orbs.
Dark and Light Magic combos become available, and they can also be applied to your secondary weapons, which allow different properties for each.
How important it is to effectively learn to counter attack? Very. Not only does it raise your Focus meter a ton, allows you to hurt bigger enemies. Light magic can even be applied to blind surrounding foes for a time. For those with slower reactions it can be frustrating. For those that can judge a hit and take time to study your enemies patterns to know when the counter block is feasible will be rewarded. Its not as lenient as God of Wars, were Kratos had time upon time to lazily counter, nor are you invulnerable during a counter, so even sometimes if you are surrounded its best to just get the foucs and dodge out, do an area attack, do a direct counter, or just keep blocking. Whereas a counter attack with Kratos makes you invulnerable to everyone as long as you activate the splash on the floor. So its not as lazy as God of Wars, nor is it as close to the wire as Dantes "Just Guard'. Its somewhere in the middle, but not as loose as Wars counter in the fantastic Zelda-esque Darksiders
. I suggest raising the sound effects, because only then can you hear positive confirms for a counter, from enemies such as the Dolls, the default setting is too low, and you can barely hear the unblockable charge up moves to dodge, so adjust the volume accordingly.
Streaming back to artistry. Your intricately drawn and bordered travel log also keeps track of enemies encountered. Giving you small descriptions or tale of each, for e.g the fantastic writing of the Naiads. In addition it shows you which secondary weapon with or without magic is most devastating to them. One would take care to remember this, and check it, to help deal with enemies quickly, especially stronger ones. Also in the travel log you can read the scrolls of your fellow fallen brotherhood, which adds a nice touch to the encompassing level, some are tips about puzzles, while others are personal thoughts, before their lives were taken; but also begs the question how on earth did some of them get there? Guess they were bad-ass too, but not bad-ass enough.
The gameplay stretches further outside of combat. Our brave Belmont, has a fair sheer of platforming to do, and with some traversal to break up the clobbering, it functions as you would expect. It does not claim to be Mario Galaxy, or claim to be Unchartered 2 in that territory, but its satisfying none the less. Even more surprising is the platforming and traversal is not as automatic as Enslaved, a poor game built on platforming. Castlevania actually outshines that title, in base implementation mechanics wise. Gabriel will gain relics, and upgrade his Combat cross with accessories, that will also aid in truly exploring of the landscape further.
Some of these will come into play. As many hidden gems, such as Life, Dark, Light and secondary weapon upgrades can be seen, but will require this upgrade or relic to return to acquire them. As you would expect with any Action Adventure game worth anything, puzzles are liberally littered in certain areas, allowing you to solve them before you progress. Some of them can be easy, some can be vague. It depends on your gaming expertise. I found some to be easy, and some to be hard, and for others, vice versa will apply.
After every level has been conquered. You can return to try again to gain hidden items, or even attempt some of the various trials the developers have laid out to test gamers. My only disappointment is, they should have employed a Golden Eye N64 system, with each difficulty level new trials would be there, so that if you are pathetic and begin on the easiest level there is only one trial, the normal difficulty yields two trials, all the way to the last difficulty which would yield 4 trials to complete. Just to set objectives for players to better themselves and experiment after they beat a fantastic level.
For me, I could envision this would have been one of the most difficult and heated talking points in the studio. Should they go along with tried and true staples of the franchise? Or do they create to what I refer to as "orchestrated mood music". I personally believe, and I think I may be lynched for my view, by my fellow Castlevania acolytes, they made the correct choice. Thinking about it, "stage themed" music would not have gone along well with this title. Where it benefits the older titles such as Super Castlevania 4 with top class music, looped themes might have brought down the atmosphere or even some of the battles in this particular game. For e.g magnificent games like Vanquish benefit from "stage themes", the structure of LoS best suited this type of "OMM". Truthfully some of the tracks are haunting, serene and beautiful, while others are eerie and ghastly. I must commend the composer, Oscar Araujo, for these tracks, he had a monumental task, and a rough one, this could not have been an easy decision, but in retrospect it was for the best. Although for old Vania heads such as me, there is still a theme there for us, if ever so small.
The voice acting in the game is superb and impeccable. Of note we cannot say enough about Patrick Stewart, who oozes professionalism and brings definitive class to the voice overs. He reads each stage entry with dramatic flair and highlights to us our heroes inner thinking, one which I wish Mercury Steam had shown us, as Gabriel never emotes these feelings to us during play. A missed opportunity I feel. Laura was also wonderfully voiced, and although her part was brief Sally Knyvette did an amazing job with the little she was given. She nailed it, how expertly did she deliver the line " You have been betrayed, there is no resurrection, only this living death you see before you"!. Full marks. Robert Carlyle did a good job on Gabe, and other characters such as Pan, Baba Jaga all expertly voiced. Only Claudia I feel was the weakest of the lot, but still this was very good work, and I'd like to congratulate everyone.
So. Has Kojima Production, and Mercury Steam done this franchise justice? Did this title earn the Castlevania moniker? Indefatigably! Is it perfect? No. A few levels showed bad design, by hiding progression with blind corners, the frame rate is inconsistent, and borrows elements from a few titles, a few latter levels do drag; but the game never feels lacking in ambition or derivative.
Is it the best 3D Castlevania ever released? You better believe it. A stocky quest, an interesting story with a heart shattering ending, tons of depth, artwork to purchase, and there is even a Vampire Wargame for two players ( lets see if they can patch in network play for that baby, too much to hope for ), and more.
Mercury Steams latest attempt aims to run with the big boys. Is it better than DMC4, Enslaved and Dantes Infeno? Without a doubt. Better than God of War 3? Yes and No. God of War 3, its beginning was at its most epic and cannot be matched, but the last quarter was one of the most disappointing aspects. So that is left to debate further my friends. I'd also like to see classic themes revisited in a sequel if allowed but I know they would need extensive reworking with an orchestra to fit into the tone.
However I cannot wait to see where they go next and how they expand everything, and learning from the mistakes in this title. The sun is rising, and Castlevania definitely has a bright future ahead of it.