I recently finished Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It was a very interesting game, and I found it gave me a lot to talk about. While this could be taken as a review, I'm approaching this more as an in depth critique, covering everything I think is worth mentioning, both good and bad, in much depth.
Let me start this by saying that I am not a Castlevania fan. My experience with the series is limited, although I still have respect for it. The only traditional Castlevania game I have played is Symphony of the Night, and as of yet I haven't really been able to get hooked on it. I am, however, a big fan of technical action games, so that is the perspective I'm approaching this game from.
Although I've had interest in Lords of Shadow since its release, I didn't actually buy the game myself until relatively recently. Although it somewhat spoiled the first game for me, seeing the E3 trailer for Lords of Shadow 2 is what spurred me to finally dive in to this one. I have been pretty impressed with what I have found, but the game is by no means perfect. It has some rather big problems, but a lot of great positives too.
Taking down the first Lord.
I'll start off by talking about the negatives. There's quite a lot to mention, and I have a tendency to be quite critical and negative, even towards things I hold an appreciation for. So I'm just going to get this out of the way first so I don't end this on a sour note.
The first problem I noticed with the game is a pretty big one for one of this genre; the frame rate. The game runs at 30fps, and while that's not a significant problem in itself, since I've played good action games that run at that frame rate before, it's not a steady 30fps. It tends to drop down quite frequently. Most of the time it's fine during combat, but it does noticeably drop when things get a bit too chaotic. It's not enough to ruin the game, but it does make the game feel a little less fluid on occasion, and makes higher difficulty levels more frustrating than they need to be. In cutscenes though, the frames can drop rather dramatically, especially when there are weather effects involved. I have been playing on the 360 version, where the problem is worse. According to Digital Foundry
, it can drop to even half the normal rate at some points. Because of this I intend to opt for the PS3 version of the sequel.
It does look pretty though.
Another major problem with the game is only apparent when you get further in to the game. That being the puzzles, which are mostly focused around some kind of logical problem to open the path forward. I don't have a problem with puzzles in action games in principle, they can be a good way to mix up the pacing, but here they are done badly. While some of the puzzles are okay, mostly nearer the beginning of the game and therefore easier, most of them are frustrating and just not fun at all. They end up bringing the pacing of the game to a grinding halt. They often aren't explained very well either. Sometimes it's not clear how you even interact with certain puzzles. There is an option with each puzzle to simply have the answer given to you, in doing so forfeiting an experience point bonus, but sometimes even those are not enough to help you. Through the entire game those forfeited points can actually build to quite a large amount, so it can potentially stunt your character progression. Thankfully, I didn't find that a problem.
I even somewhat take issue with the fact that they felt the need to include those solutions in the game at all. If you feel that it's necessary to include a way for players to circumvent such a large part of the mechanics of your game, then you're doing it wrong. Either make it better, or remove it completely. Preferably the former. I don't really like the idea of telling the creators of a game that something that's such a big part of it simply shouldn't be there, but that's another topic.
One of the less irritating puzzles.
Most other issues are relatively minor. One thing that I noticed more near the beginning of the game was inconsistent audio design. I don't know if I simply got used to it later, or it really did improve, but I did notice that some of the sound effects seemed badly mixed and felt kind of weak when they were things that didn't happen in normal gameplay. Things like the sound of a galloping horse, or certain things that happen in cutscenes that don't happen anywhere else. The audio design for the majority of the game is actually pretty good, but that's something I'll get on to later.
There are also problems with some aspects of the story. Like the game overall, it's a mixed bag, so I'll have some good things to say about it later too, but there are some parts of it that I found to be lacking. Gabriel himself has almost no character development. He's not really relatable. You barely hear him talk himself, and what the narrator tells you about him gets very repetitive and boring. Although his character is somewhat redeemed within the last few minutes of the game, as you finally get to see him do some talking and portraying some emotions in reaction to the finale, for the most part all we get is Zobek telling us over and over how he's really angry and doesn't sleep. Sometimes he doesn't eat either! Shocking!
Naturally, there are plenty of castles.
There is also one confrontation nearer the end which just doesn't make any sense in the narrative. This one had me shouting at the screen at how stupid it was. This character also takes away your magic abilities, saying that I apparently “need” to fight without them, but as the battle progresses, they then gives them back to you. Also apparently, because you “need” them. There was no reason for that character to fight you, no reason for them to take you abilities away, and no reason for them to be given back mid-fight either. The game just acts like it all has to happen, even when that means it's totally contradicting itself within seconds.
And speaking of having your abilities taken away, there is one particular enemy who has absolutely no worth in the game other than to waste your time; the Chupacabra. They take away those same magic abilities, and you have to chase them down to get them back. They don't pose any threat to you, just annoyance. All they do is take you on a pointless detour that gives you nothing, while they mock you with their irritating voices. This is definitely one aspect of the game that I would have no problem with completely removing.
Kill it with fire!
Another aspect of the game that feels like it could probably be removed is the precision platforming. While most of the platforming in the game is in the modern style emulating Uncharted and the like that almost every other game seems to do now, there are some occasions where you are required to skilfully jump across certain areas, sometimes on to moving platforms. But the jumping in this game is horrific. There is hardly any sense of momentum in the air, and trying to predict where you will land is very frustrating. It's inconsistent, and when you land you usually slide forward a bit too, leading to many falls after you have already landed where you were supposed to. This is also sometimes used as a part of certain puzzles in the game, making them controller smashingly infuriating.
Lastly, we have the Titans. I like them in concept, and I think the general fan reaction to them has been a little too harsh, but I can see why they are criticised. The Titans are colossal, ancient stone creatures who act as bosses throughout various points in the game. Although you fight only two actual Titans, there is one other equally huge boss near the end of the game that you fight in a similar way. Visually, they look stunning. Their design is brilliant, especially so with the third non-Titan. The game does a great job of really selling their size too. With the way they move and how the camera frames them, they really feel massive, and like actual creatures instead of just set pieces standing there waiting for you to kill them, like how most similarly sized bosses do in other games.
Presenting: The Dracolich.
But actually fighting them is a bit dull, and kind of frustrating. You don't so much “fight” them, as you do climb over them and spam “X” when you get to the weak spots. Going up against them feels like trial-and-error. All you really have to do is follow the single, linear path up them, using the same somewhat clunky Uncharted style platforming mechanic. It takes the tension right out of it, and slows the pacing down too. Huge bosses can be done in an exciting way, many games have proven this, but this game doesn't really do that. The Titans have some value, but a lot of missed potential too.
But enough with the complaining. Overall, I really like this game and I'm excited for the sequel. I'm even considering getting a 3DS so I can play the spin-off game that bridges the two as well, because there is a lot to like here.
Since I've already said some positive things about the Titans, I'll start off with the other bosses too. Almost all of them are very well designed, visually at least. Although they may not be the most original in terms of how you actually fight most of them, they all feel like an event. They each pose a nice challenge, and some have some very interesting backstories to them. While I'll go in to that in more depth later, I will give some examples of the kind of things you go up against. There are the aforementioned Titans, as well as the Lords of Shadow themselves, and some of the other less important foes, in terms of their story significance.
For example there is one boss who is a crow witch, who has a very imposing and menacing presence, and who you battle on the top of the tower where she lives. Her story is that she attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself off the tower, but survived, only to be pecked apart by crows. But she also fed on the crows herself, and as she regained her strength she became the monstrous creatures you fight in the game.
Enemy design in general across the whole game is pretty impressive too. While earlier enemies are fairly generic (lycanthropes, giant spiders, goblins), later examples are very interesting. For example later on you come across some zombie-like creatures who have no legs and crawl across the floor, except some of these inhabit coffins and spread out root-like appendages for limbs. Another that stand out are the Scarecrows. While in concept they may not seem very exotic, their imagining is very interesting. They look like strange skeletons, with elongated limbs that are partly made of dry, dead wood. Their bodies are engulfed in flame and their eyes have a menacing glow. They also carry a long scythe in each hand, which they sometimes use to walk on as they bend over backwards and crawl around on all fours. It looks very twisted, in a very “Guillermo del Toro” kind of way. In fact, the influence of his style is apparent through much of the game.
The nightmarish Scarecrow.
Fighting these enemies is fun too. This game does a commendable job with what is the most important aspect of any action game; the fundamental combat mechanics. At the start of the game, the mechanic seems a little sparse, with not much options in how you fight, but it grows throughout the game and becomes something very respectable. Although you only have a single major weapon through the game, the whip-like Combat Cross, you do gain other equipment that generously bolsters your move set. As well as some minor items you have at your disposal, such as thrown daggers and holy water, you get a gauntlet that allows you to do strong punching moves, some boots that allow you to sprint, and some magical wings that allow you to double jump. The magical abilities mentioned earlier also allow access to some special moves, as well as adding special effects to other weapons that certain enemies may have a particular strength or weakness against. You have Light Magic that allows you to drain the health of enemies as you hit them, and Dark Magic that boosts your attack power. By the time you have unlocked a significant amount of these upgrades, the combat mechanic opens up quite a lot. It's admittedly not on the level of some other games in the genre, but it's still more than enough for a satisfying experience.
It's all very well designed kinaesthetically too. Although the running and jumping animations are a bit goofy and feel like they lack a little momentum to them, all the animations and accompanying sound and visual effects for combat are great. They are very fluid and acrobatic, and give a real nice sense of impact when you use the stronger moves. It's done in a unique way too. Some people have said the game is just a God of War rip-off because of the similar way the chain weapons works, but the way they have done the animations and audio in this game is very distinct from God of War, and it has its own personality to it. It's a significantly different experience.
One of my favourite moves.
The audio/visual design of the game as a whole is very impressive and unique too. The graphics of this game are utterly gorgeous, both from an aesthetic and fidelity sense. This might somewhat be the reason for the problems with the frame rate, but what they have managed to create is spectacular. Everything is so highly detailed. Lighting and texture effects are consistently great. Sometimes it's hard to believe it's running on current generation hardware.
What they have rendered with such detail has a really strong sense of style to it as well. The game is full of highly detailed Gothic architecture, as well as lush forests, and twisted, demonic realms, among other environments. They are scaled and framed in such a brilliant way too. There are so many moments which take your breath away, like when you turn a corner and see the majestic and imposing castle you are approaching, or making your way across the ancient ruined bridge at the end of the forest, its crumbled pillars standing defiantly skyward. Often in even the most beautiful games, it can seem like there has been something lost in translation between the concept art and the final product. Not so here. It looks stunning.
Yet another magnificent castle.
Adding to this, the music is fantastic. The Castlevania series has a reputation for great music, and I know people have been disappointed by the music of this game for straying away from the usual sound of the games. It may not have the strong, bombastic melodies that get you hyped to “have at” some vampires, but I think what they have done instead is just as stirring in its own way. I'm usually someone who appreciates a strong melody in music, and I don't care much for soundtracks that are supposed to be there only to set a mood and not really be memorable on their own, but in this case I must make an exception. Even though the songs don't really have a catchy tune to them, they are wonderfully arranged. They do much more than just set a background mood. You can't help but notice them, and they do a brilliant job of giving character to a certain place or moment, and give the game its overall tone. It's not just “combat music” or “peaceful music”, it has so much more nuance than that, and it works together with the visuals to give the game a unique identity.
And at last, I want to come back to the story. While I mentioned the problems with it before, there were parts to it that I really enjoyed too. It should go without saying, that Patrick Stewart's voice as the narrating character is wonderful to listen to. Even when he's saying things that are redundant in the larger plot, just listening to his delivery is a joy. Robert Carlyle as Gabriel is pretty good too. While he doesn't get to say much, when he's given something to work with he does a pretty good job.
There's some lush foliage too.
And as I mentioned before, some of the bosses have some interesting stories to them. In particular, the Lords themselves. While saying anything more would be too spoilery, I have to say that they are some really interesting characters, and how they came to be is a cool story and one of the many exciting twists of the narrative. And talking of twists, the ending is fantastic. I thought that seeing the trailer for the sequel would have totally spoiled it for me. I was wrong. Although there were some vague clues through the game, I was genuinely surprised by the reveal at the end. It was very well handled. It also included some of the best moments for Gabriel himself.
Overall I really enjoyed the game. There were some frustrating parts, and aspects of the story could be much improved, but the game got it right where it counted. It also created a beautiful and intriguing world that I'm eager to jump back in to. Lords of Shadow is a prime example of a flawed gem.