I had been eagerly waiting for Lords of Shadow for a long time. The Castlevania series is near and dear to me as a long time retro-gamer, and I appreciate nearly all of the entries in the series in some way or another. LoS rose a few red flags early on, but I remained optimistic. Each of the last three DS games, two PS2 games, and one WiiWare Castlevania titles had found their ways into my heart, so why would this be different?
This was going to be an all new Castlevania from Madrid-based developer Mercurysteam, who previously made Clive Barker's Jericho. Jericho was okay in my book; while it was not great it had a lot of potential and good characters and storytelling. LoS was pitched as a reboot to the series that would feel fresh while still maintaining the Castlevania flavor and charm. While I wasn't too keen on this, as the main series had plenty of avenues left to explore, I understood that there can only be room for so many Belmonts in one universe and let it slide.
On the day it released, I marched eagerly to the game store to pick up my nice shiny collectors edition bright an early. I could be one of the first people playing this game! I listened to the included soundtrack CD in the car on the way home! This was going to be rad! The music didn't seem to have any classic Castlevania tunes, but it was epic in scope! I didn't give up hope then, but boy should I have. It was the first in a long long line of disappointments.
Other than the soundtrack CD and two(!) game discs, the collectors edition of LoS was said to have an included art book While the article included is technically a book and has art, it was fairly deceptive advertising. The art book contains almost entirely screen shots of character renders and game scenes, and is not removable from the case at all, disappointing me more than a little.
The game starts out when Gabriel Belmont rolls into a small village besieged by these gangly werewolf-things called lycans. I don't much appreciate the use of this name as it reminds me of the Underworld movies, nor do I appreciate the idea of a Castlevania drawing inspiration from a tween mall-goth action film.
In-game tutorials instruct you in the arts of whipping these critters to death using either direct attacks centered on one opponent or slightly weaker area attacks hitting all nearby enemies. You can chain these together as you see fit. A neat thing you can do is jump in the middle of a combo and automatically swing smaller enemies into the air with you for a continued lashing. The combat animations are all very nice, but some problems become apparent later in the game. Continued use of area attacks seems to be futile as it rarely interrupts enemy attack animations, leaving you open to counterattack. Infuriatingly this seems to happen more and more often with the standard direct attacks as the game progresses, but we're not there yet; we're back in the village. The lycans are dead and a much larger Warg has appeared.
The Warg lunges at you, prompting the game to tell you how to guard. It seems easy enough. One of the Warg's later attacks glows with a white flash before coming out and the game tells you you need to perform a dodge roll to get out of the way, as such attacks are unblockable. Peachy. These would be standard action game commands if they WORKED properly, but our man Gabe is not so fortunate.
I discovered to my horror all throughout the game that hitting the guard button would not interrupt my attack animation, letting enemies score hits when I felt I had defended properly. I committed to using the dodge roll more often only to find myself constantly getting hit in the middle of a roll! There's no invincibility in the dodge roll! If you roll in the wrong direction or face an enemy with attacks that cover a wide area then you're screwed! Almost every battle has you facing either groups of smaller enemies, one or more large creatures, or a mix of the two. You can also time your guard just before an attack lands to perform a synchronized guard, leaving the enemy open for counterattack, but this is hardly an option in regular fights. Attacks are hard to see coming as most enemies are smaller than the main character, the camera is zoomed way out, and attack animations are quick and not telegraphed very well.
Back to the Warg. After you diminish his health you don't even have the opportunity to deliver the final blow yourself; a glorified quicktime event instructs you to lift a large sharp branch off the ground as the wolf lunges at you, impaling itself. This sets precedent for two more awful afflictions this game has: QTEs and over-instruction.
QTEs work in a truly bizarre way. When one starts you will see two white concentric circles on screen, the larger outer circle is rapidly contracting and the medium sized inner circle stays put. Gamer's instinct told me to hit the button as they met (also because that's how it worked in Lost Odyssey), but this is not what you need to do here. Strangely, you need to hit the button any time the dynamic circle is within the boundary of the static one, but before it disappears. And there's no button prompt: the QTE tutorial just instructs you to hit any button. What it doesn't tell you is that the shoulder buttons don't work for this; only the face buttons do. This is confusing if you weren't aware of this beforehand and the QTE you're engaged in involves defending or dodging an enemy attack, two actions which normally require the use of shoulder buttons. Go ahead, ask if that happened to me.
The QTEs are terribly overused as well. As foreshadowed by the first boss battle with the Warg, virtually every large and medium enemy is finished the same way: when you get it to nearly empty health it glows a shiny white (as all items do that can be grabbed), you grapple it and kill it with a QTE. Boss battles are even more egregious, working on this same principle but much more frequently over the course of a boss' life bar.
Even stranger is LoS's inclusion the ability to ride certain large monsters. Often you will come to a door or other obstacle that can't be dealt with by Gabriel's powers alone, so a convenient monster will appear such as a troll, giant spider, or warthog that you can ride around following its low-life QTE. Then you can use it to bash down a door, spin a web bridge, or get you from point A to B in some other contrived way. If this happened once in a while it would be merely odd, but it happens dozens of times within a few hours in the early levels. It gets to the point that every time you see certain obstacles it's a sure sign that the corresponding enemy type is going to come crawling out of the woodwork so you can conveniently get through, but it ends up feeling scripted and forced.
LoS crams every piece of information you could possibly need to play the game down your throat. There's a part where another character sends you to collect four crystal pieces, and not only is there an indicator on screen telling you how many pieces you have, but she's constantly shouting at you out loud how many pieces you need every ten seconds and there's also on-screen text telling you the same thing! “Keep going,” it says, “pick up three more pieces!” “Now you only need to get two more!” The level is linear anyway; it's not like I'd be doing any thing else. She won't shut up during the boss fight she's present for, either. Every time the boss changes its attack pattern, she's literally screaming at you telling exactly what to do whether or not you're already doing it, whether or not you already know what to do. LoS force-feeds you everything and never lets you just experience the game on your own in your own way. It doesn't even feel like you're playing; you're just following instructions for hours on end.
This comes into play not only during boss fights but the interminable platforming sections. These seem at first glance to be lifted from Prince of Persia, except without being fun. Gabriel does lots of ledge climbing and chain swinging, but the next thing you need to interact with is always highlighted and the actions are so easy to perform and the stages so linear that they just feel like a time-wasting diversion from the combat segments of the game.
None of this is helped by the camera issues. At no point can you control the camera in this game, and it frequently sits behind you and presents Gabriel with a ledge to leap off, giving no indication of what lies on the other side. Other Gabriel will be heading down a set of stairs, only to be assaulted by enemies who haven't come into view yet. This removes any pleasure I would have taken out of mentioning that the graphics themselves are actually quite nice.
Even worse than the platforming is all the other inane tasks the stages put you through. There's a timing puzzle in a swamp level early on that has you waiting for bubbles in water signifying submerged enemies to disappear before proceeding safely, but you're trudging at a snail's pace through waist-deep mud the whole time. When has wading slowly through muck ever been fun in a game? Later on you have to cross balance beams made of spiders web, being careful not to tilt the analog stick too far left or right or you'll lose your balance and fall. I could pose the same question of this task, but more pressing is what is this even doing in a Castlevania?
Like many action games before it, LoS offers you combat upgrades that you can purchase with experience points as well as relics that improve your abilities throughout the game. This ends up needlessly over-complicating the controls. For example, one commonly used ability has Gabriel smash through walls first by pressing right bumper to activate shadow magic, then click the left stick to ready the poewr while holding left trigger (which normally guards), then tilt the left stick in the direction of the door or wall to be smashed. That's a long an fairly confusing ability, and the game is full of them. It makes you not want to even buy any new abilities to avoid having to learn these byzantine input sequences.
Lords of Shadow is an atrocious game. Every step of the way I'm assaulted by objectively awful displays of game design. Whether its combat or platforming, each type of gameplay that Mercurysteam tried to implement is horrible to experience. The developers have lifted a bewildering array of elements that have appeared in other games and put them all together in one 3D action game without any regard to whether or not these elements are fun. There's a glimmer of hope in the combat engine that's crushed under the weight of everything that doesn't work. Avoid this game whether or not you like Castlevania. Avoid it unconditionally.