Review: Castlevania – Lords of Shadow (X360)

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It’s been five years since Castlevania’s last big outing on consoles, Curse of Darkness, whipped its way to shelves for the Xbox and PS2 – two years if anyone wants to count the wish-we-could-forget Wii-only fighting game, Judgement. While portables like the Nintendo DS and Sony’s PSP kept Konami’s storied franchise alive with hits such as Dawn of Sorrow, console fans have been left to wait for their own vampire killer. Now Lords of Shadow has finally arrived, complete with a Shakespearean read-along.

An even bigger surprise is that Konami tapped into Spanish developer, Mercury Steam, for the job and hooked them up with Kojima Productions as consultants. Though Mercury Steam’s recent track record hasn’t been so great with the disappointing occult FPS, Jericho, their roots go back even further than that showing a flair for third person adventure gaming with Scrapland. If you want to leap back even further with a few of its founders, there’s also Blade of Darkness for PCs. It’s still something of a thin resume, but when you get a chance to work on one of the most iconic series in gaming, you don’t exactly say no.

Instead, they did what any developer worth their salt would do: they pulled out all the stops to make it not only the best game they’ve made, but what is probably Castlevania’s best 3D outing to date. It takes awhile for it to warm up, but when it does, it tears at you like a rabid werewolf – with a few irritating fleas.

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It’s shortly after the start of the 11th century when the fear of God and superstition held sway in the darkest recesses of Europe. Gabriel Belmont is sent from his holy order to track down a lead on how to destroy the evil that infects the land, but in addition to the weight of his quest, the would-be hero is also plagued by the tragic death of his wife. With a heavy heart and a holy whip in hand, he pushes onwards regardless to wage his own war against the minions of the night. Little does he know that when it is all over, his life will never be the same ever again.

If fans have no idea who this Gabriel person is, there’s a good reason for it: Lords of Shadow’s story was intentionally made to stand apart from the series’ history as a clean reboot. A few name and concepts tie it to Castlevania name, but apart from the trademark whip and a castle, previous experience isn’t required.

Shakespearean thespian, Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation, X-Men), also reads the story to players line for line from an unfolding book onscreen describing the thoughts of his own character and what they see in Gabriel Belmont. The strong work of the voice actors, especially with the lead, help weave a compelling narrative of betrayal, lost love, and inspired heroism that complements the action. The use of religion as a part of the story is also a refreshing sense of maturity in treating it as a key part of these flawed characters reflecting the setting.

The orchestrated soundtrack by longtime Mercury Steam associate, Oscar Araujo, can only be described as ear bleedingly ‘epic’. At times, it can almost be overblown with simple actions eliciting a choir of thundering noise from your speakers to celebrate them. All this gives the impression that even if Gabriel had stepped into a pile of Holy Doodoo, angels with harps would fly in to commemorate it. And then when it turns somber and lowers the volume for quiet moments of heroic instrospection, it tugs gently at these scenes from a distance. Fans might be let down by its relative lack of nostalgia – though Vampire Killer cameos in the game – but Araujo’s tremendous score is a welcome salve for bruised expectations.

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The grim world of Lords of Shadow is also filled with beauty whether it’s the frosty gothic castle beckoning from far away to the deadly brass guts of a trapped music box. Some of the cinematic vistas such as a snow covered pass, standing at the edge of an overlook, or simply passing through a forest were stunning enough for me to stop awhile and simply savor what I was seeing. Even the characters had as much attention paid to them. I chuckled in one boss fight as Gabriel struggled with a demon and then subtly turned a corner of his mouth up as he tricked it into killing itself. Little touches like these are everywhere.

Mercury Steam’s design for Castlevania departs from the “Metroidvania” that has come to define the series since Symphony of the Night. Instead, it seems that they’ve gone way back to the very roots of the franchise, throwing out sandbox exploration in favor of something a bit more linear. Though you can revisit previously cleared areas to pick up upgrades and grind for experience, it’s not quite the same as SOTN’s RPG-like loot gathering and leveling within a relatively open world, something that later games picked up on. Lords of Shadow completely eschews stores, loot, and side quests for a back-to-basics approach that might not sit well with everyone.

Lords of Shadow also cribs from God of War and even Shadow of the Colossus in terms of its mechanics. This could be the closest that Xbox 360 owners get to either game without owning a PS3 or PS2, not that it’s so much of a bad thing. While it liberally borrows from these sources, it tries making the best use of each with a few tweaks, though some of these elements can still feel a little rough around the edges.

Gabriel can climb as well as Lara Croft as he easily scales up ledges and cliff faces without too much interaction other than a push on the direction stick. It almost makes it seem effortless especially when he swings across gaps using his whip which only asks the player to push the jump button at the right time as opposed to managing his momentum with it. Falling is still a danger, but the forgiving nature of the game means that you might often find yourself respawned very near to where you made your mistake to try again – even if it means in mid swing right before your last jump. This isn’t a game that will punish you with too much repetition from making a mistake and thanks to incredibly fast loads, you won’t waste much time in getting back into the game, either.

It also wouldn’t be Castlevania without the whip. Though the mechanic feels borrowed from God of War, it’s a system that’s also ideally suited for wielding Castlevania’s signature slayer. There are even QTEs, though these only ask the player to mash a specific button or hitting one right when an onscreen circle shrinks inside of another one instead of playing Simon Says.

Combat uses a basic combo system and the experience earned from killing enemies is the currency with which you can unlock new moves. New weapons and combos slowly make themselves available to Gabriel over the course of the game, though not all of them will be free requiring a little grinding for experience on the player’s part to get everything.

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It can also occasionally feel bland. Trying to pull off some of these combos can come off as clunky exercises ill suited to a fast moving environment. Gabriel’s collection of whip combos turn his reliable weapon into a do-it-all sort of tool, but longtime veterans might also wonder where the boomerang, axe, and other old favorites are to help add a bit more flavor to the sometimes stale action. When it comes together with dodges, blocks, and near misses with some of the closer encounters, it’s great. But most of the time, it’s simply mashing through so many enemies to get to where you need to go with the same handful of moves.

Magic also plays a key part with both Light and Dark sides. Imbuing attacks with Dark magic, for as long as Gabriel has any, charges his whip with brutally damaging attacks while Light magic allows our hero to heal up from what he dishes out. Absorbing ‘neutral elemental orbs’ released by defeated foes feeds either his Light or Dark magic gauges depending on the player’s preference. Both add a tactical twist to simply mashing away at foes, especially when they often turn out to be the only way to replenish Gabriel’s magic reserves in the midst of battle.

Puzzles also play a huge part in several areas though you can opt out of these – and lose out on the experience point prizes. But it is the fighting that will keep your reflexes working overtime for most of the game. The difficulty curve isn’t very consistent, however. Some boss battles can take only a few minutes to defeat, while others can be crushingly hard servings of humble pie. The good news is that the generous, and automated, save point system tries to alleviate some of the pain of repetition even during some of the longer boss fights.

Game progress is measured through the book-like menu as different areas open up in linear fashion and as each is finished, the game is also saved and displays what you might have missed out on such as the number of upgrade crystals for magic or extending Gabriel’s life bar. Never did I feel that the game unfairly forced me into an schoolyard exercise of rote repetition simply to pick up where I had left off.

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But the flaws dogging the gameplay throughout the experience are hard to forgive. The jerky camera doesn’t quite reveal how bad it is early on, but later as more enemies pile on the screen and bosses the size of the Empire State Building start showing up, it can make it hard to simply avoid attacks that it can’t see as it zooms in and out like the human focus. Especially annoying were those coming from the bottom edge of the camera where it was easy for Gabriel to walk off the screen and risk getting pummeled by enemies that follow him down there in several instances. And with as many point-of-view shifts as there are – three in one room alone – keeping Gabriel pointed in the right direction from time to time was something that I had to put up with for the entire length of the game. But I only started feeling that way hours later after the glacial gait of its first few chapters.

To put it bluntly, the early third of the game is boring. My ‘wow’ moment didn’t actually hit me until several hours in, and with a game as long as Lords of Shadow, it’s a question of whether players have enough patience to make it far enough to find out. Even then, the difficulty can wildly vary from encounters serving up humble pie to areas that take only a few minutes to get through. Other knotty elements include invisible walls keeping Gabriel from doing things such as jump down from the side of a staircase to a platform directly beneath it to simply preventing him from backtracking. Sometimes it felt as if he were fenced in for no good reason other than that the designer wanted him to use the stairs.

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Lords of Shadow is a long game, easily surpassing fifteen hours if you take the time to find and unlock everything in Gabriel’s arsenal which is actually a good thing. Once finished, however, it’s light on the extras aside from an art gallery in which you can open up concept art with experience points, a costume tweak or two for Gabriel, and the lure of additional difficulty levels. And unlike the PS3′s blue-ray version, there’s disk swapping on the Xbox 360 which can get annoying for when you want to revisit certain areas after you go so far into the game.

Even with its warts, and even if you have never played a single Castlevania, it’s still a fantastic adventure packed into a solid story filled with captivating characters and a blistering lead up to the incredible climax – once you get past its slow boil. It’s not be as revolutionary for the series as Symphony of the Night’s 2D boldness and fans may feel that it isn’t a ‘true’ Castlevania by that measure, but by the time you catch your breath after the credits stop rolling, you’ve also witnessed the beginning of a new legend.

Castlevania – Lords of Shadow
Konami / Mercury Steam / Kojima Productions
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature