Recently I finished the somewhat controversial Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a title from 2010 that some may be picking up now that its “ultimate edition” is on steam. I played the PS3 version which, I heard, overcomes some of the xbox 360 problems in stutters for the most part.
I’ll admit I’m not a big Castlevania fan, but I have played through all 3 of the Nintendo DS titles and enjoyed their balanced platforming, action, and Metroid elements. For additional measure, I’ll mention that I’ve played every God of War game except Ascension, which is important considering that LoS is probably more GoW than Castlevania. Apparently the series has had a hard time transitioning into 3D, but Konami’s stayed more reserved with the series than say, Sonic Team. While I wouldn’t call LoS a failure of a 3D transition, I have a hard time calling it a proper evolution when it barely resembles its franchise.
The game is divided into 12 chapters, each with a few sub-chapters inside. The story revolves around Gabriel Belmont attempting to revive his murdered wife and defeat the 3 Lords of Shadow, who each have a piece of the God Mask which holds great power (and may be able to bring her back somehow). The process and tribulations he must endure take a toll on his mental state and there’s a nagging feeling of corruption as he proceeds through the game with new powers and relics. If this sounds like Shadow of the Colossus, it won’t be the last time.
The narrative is told through a mix of cutscenes and Patrick Stewart’s narration preceding each sub-chapter. The former are pleasant simply because important stuff happens, and they are well-directed with admirable voice-acting. The latter is neat at first but quickly becomes unnecessary since not much actually occurs between most sub-chapters. Having Stewart read a paragraph or two every single time seems like a necessity they burdened him with instead of genuine development of the plot. Stewart plays the role of Zobek, a fellow Brotherhood member who probably spends more of his time stalking Gabriel with telepathic clairvoyance than actually helping the man out. I don’t have much insight into what exactly Zobek does on the side, but it’d all be a lot less risky for both of them if they stuck together. Maybe I’m just missing something about the gravity of the Brotherhood’s split duties/paths. His narration also implies that he feels Gabriel’s violence and anger quelling up inside toward the latter half of the game, yet the game barely ever shows evidence of this. Showing-over-telling apparently isn’t a priority in LoS.
This bleeds into the gameplay design. LoS is a self-explanatory action hack-n-slash game for anyone who has touched one before. It’s fine to help out with the controls and such during the first couple chapters, but the messages just keep on coming. Some messages are so blatant that they ruin the excitement of experimentation with a new mechanic, or make you feel treated like a child during puzzles. “Looks like crow flocks don’t like to share their posts….The crows flew somewhere else” stand out as a couple dumb messages late in the game. If the designers were unconfident in their ability to communicate some things, they should make it clearer visually so that players can feel smarter for inferring things above the 1st-grade level.
That said, the combat is the game’s tightest gameplay aspect. It speaks God of War everywhere from the use of a whip-chain in 3D space and grab fatalities, to upgrades that mirror gorgon eyes and phoenix feathers. This isn’t a bad thing if one hasn’t played a GoW game in a while, or just wants something a bit different to kill than Greek monsters. Gabriel can swing his “combat cross” directly for stronger moves, or in a sweeping motion with lesser damage. Combining these two buttons in various ways, both aerial and grounded, leads into the game’s extensive combo system. These can be bought in a menu with EXP, and it’s nice that if you have sufficient points, the cursor will default to the Skills page at the end of each level. I never looked back on the controls for these combos because I honestly got by just fishing/mashing techniques I knew I purchased (but hadn’t memorized). Players will find ones they like and stick with them. Gabriel’s moves are more extensive and less streamlined than those of Kratos, yet still visually satisfying.
Gabriel also has access to the item button, which can activate one of four different items. He begins with boring daggers but later acquires “stun” fairies that home in on enemies, as well as water flasks that vampires are weak to. The final item is a dark crystal that must be assembled before being used, yet summons a very powerful creature that can obliterate a screen of enemies depending on their health. These items are what Gabriel commonly receives after killing enemies or smashing things in the environment, so you’ll never lament using them up.
Light and Shadow magic are two separate modes that Gabriel can activate his body with. Attacking with light magic on drains your blue meter, yet each hit on enemies restores Gabriel’s health. Shadow magic drains the red meter, but each hit deals extra damage. There are also bonus benefits to these modes, such as exclusive attacks for each mode, or a modified effect on the items. All in all, these modes aren’t game-changers to the familiarity or fun of the combat, but they are definitely something players need to utilize throughout the game.
Then there’s the other obstacles, like puzzles and platforming. True puzzles are few and far between, and rarely tested my noggin for more than a minute of thinking. If the player hates these sequences, they can opt to “buy” their way out with EXP, yet it just shows unconfident game design in blatant ways. I’d much rather “buy” my way out of the platforming. The game has a fixed camera, which doesn’t help the case that these sequences are often the most tedious in LoS. Gabriel’s jumping feels too stiff and not designed for these types of challenges. The game gives him a double jump eventually, but it happens way too late in the game and could’ve had much more potential if done with variety. I’m still surprised LoS didn’t imitate the function of the Icarus wings from God of War 2. Platforming often consists of climbing, which I can usually get by even if they aren’t challenging at all (like in Uncharted). However, the rappelling function of the whip-chain includes a major flaw: it doesn’t make clear what Gabriel’s threshold for climbing down is. I often rappelled down a step too far only to let loose and fall to my doom. I know this is all LoS trying to add some variety to its 15-20 hour linear design, but the developers should refine these extra aspects before trying to implement them, especially when gamers have high standards for these conventions nowadays.
Lords of Shadow is almost at its best with boss fights. Oddly enough, I enjoyed the fights that focused less on size and more on fighting/dodging. I’ve never cared for boss sizes in action games mainly because they usually aren’t any harder than smaller ones. Lords of Shadow splits its boss fights into two types: the duels and the titans. Duel bosses, as I like to call them, are fit for the GoW style gameplay and feature some excellent thrills (the Evil Butcher stands out). There are only 3 titan bosses, but I found them rather dull compared to their immediate inspiration. While Shadow of the Colossus bosses felt organic and puzzle-infused, Lords of Shadow’s titans feel like automated climbing with clear button prompts that tell players when to grip. Nevertheless, both smaller and bigger bosses are Lords of Shadow’s most memorable points when it comes to action.
The greatest strength of the game, however, is its graphics. There are lush greens, rocky ruins, and massive towers to look at, among many other areas. If the gameplay started to bore me, I’d keep going just to see what lies around the next corner. One of my biggest gripes with God of War 3 was its art and environments not matching up to God of War 2’s locales, even with the massive polygon count it gained. Lords of Shadow combines the best of graphical power and artistry to create one stunning canvas after another. Sometimes the camera is perfectly placed to let players admire the scenery, and I love it when downtime is used that way.
The sound is decent, but nothing to write home about. Castlevania’s music is well-known for being one of gaming’s heavy hitters in composition, but you won’t find much in LoS except some dynamic orchestration that does its job and not much else. The sound effects are fine but could’ve used a bit more punch (other than the gauntlet attacks, which are awesome) in violent situations. It shouldn’t bother anyone though, as the visuals are what kept my eyes distracted from my ears.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a decent action game with stupendous visuals and an occasionally intriguing story. The epilogue is truly excellent and might just tempt me to check out the upcoming sequel, where they will hopefully have fixed the many issues present in this first entry. If you’re a Castlevania fanatic, think twice before getting this game unless you’re also a God of War, Devil May Cry, or hack-n-slash fan. There’s a bit of backtracking shoehorned into the game, but I was never intrigued to go back and acquire bonuses since I knew this wasn’t Metroidvania anyways. The game starts off slow but thankfully becomes better mechanically toward the last third. Overall, Lords of Shadow’s eye candy prevents it from being entirely obsolete in its genre, and I can only hope LoS2 imitates less and innovates more.