By Phil Schipper / February 25th, 2014
|Title||Castlevania: Lords of Shadow|
|Release Date||October 5th, 2010|
|Platform||Playstation 3, Xbox 360|
|Age Rating||M (ESRB)|
Every long-running series has that one game that nobody can agree about. It did something really different and the gaming world is not sure if it was a good idea or not. Years later it may be easier to put it in perspective, but as long as it’s one of the latest games in the series it’s hard to tell what kind of long-term effect it’s going to have.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is that game. Anywhere you look for information on it, you can find the simplified insight that it’s less like a real Castlevania title and closer to God of War. But besides the obvious new direction the game is taking, what does it actually contribute as a game? Unsatisfied with the same comments and quick dismissals of this title by other writers, I finally took the plunge to find out about it for myself.
Lords of Shadow begins the tale of the vampire-slaying Belmont clan anew. According to part of the game’s extensive lore text, our protagonist was found abandoned as a baby and raised by the Brotherhood of Light, who gave him the name Gabriel Belmont. His wife, we soon learn, has just been killed by monsters. He’s not out for revenge, however. Instead, he is embarking on a quest to bring her back from the dead.
Gabriel doesn’t have an easy journey. It seems that some dark force has cut off the heavens from the earth, leaving the land ravaged by evil. Goblins, werewolves, vampires and undead swarm to challenge you at every turn. Luckily, you’ll be well-equipped. Gabriel starts out with the basic Combat Cross, a blessed weapon with a long chain that’s eventually nicknamed Vampire Killer (yes, that Vampire Killer). At first, you’ll be working with short strings of direct attacks, which lash out right in front of Gabriel, and area attacks, which sweep the area around him. As you gain experience, you can spend it to unlock new combos or upgrade current ones, with more options becoming available as you upgrade Gabriel’s other equipment.
Your whip attacks are enhanced by the game’s magic system. It’s pretty simple to use: just turn on either the Light or Shadow magic and keep fighting. Light magic heals you when your attacks connect, while Shadow magic greatly increases the damage. The catch is that enemies won’t drop magic-regenerating orbs while your magic is on, and you have to choose which meter to fill. This is done by pressing the left or right sticks as buttons (leaving the sprint ability you get later to a clumsy double-tilt of the left stick–yikes). You can also make more orbs drop by racking up long, varied combos or perfect blocks.
No Belmont’s arsenal would be complete, though, without a variety of secondary weapons. Lords of Shadow offers four that Gabriel can switch between freely, a mix of familiar weapons and new additions. Veterans will recognize the Daggers, which can be augmented to explode with Shadow magic, and the good old Holy Water, which adds a shielding effect if Light magic is on. New to this game are the Fairies that Gabriel can release to distract or attack enemies. They don’t deal much damage and get killed easily, but they can stun a lot of foes. The other newcomer is the Dark Crystal. Gabriel has to gather shards to even use this weapon, but when he does it releases a massive demon that majorly damages all enemies in the vicinity.
Enemies range from the weak masses, to some bigger ones that Gabriel will eventually be able to mount and ride around, all the way up to bosses and the even larger (and very rare) Titan bosses. Most serious bosses have a variety of attacks, changes in form and strategy, and very few weaknesses. They’re usually a matter of carefully dodging all their attacks, jumping quickly at their shockwaves, and striking very quickly in the free moments. Finishers and other special sequences start with a grab and require you to either pull off a timed button press, or a rapid mash. Titan bosses, on the other hand, involve climbing on their surfaces and beating at their weak points, while they try to shake you off, Shadow of the Colossus style.
Enemies aren’t the only things that will stand in your way. There’s a major platforming angle as well. Most areas will have these sequences of ledges where Gabriel will have to jump, cling, climb up and down, and swing around. One of the earliest upgrades for the Combat Cross is a grappling hook, so besides its uses in combat you’ll be able to swing across gaps, climb up and down walls, run along them and kick off them. Kicking off a wall lets you launch off, jump past an obstacle, or swing back and bust through a surface, usually a window, to land on the other side. You can even use it to grab onto and yank things down to make bridges.
The third and final aspect of Lords of Shadow‘s gameplay is its puzzles. Many of them involve pushing and rotating objects into certain positions, while another major category requires you to work out a pattern of colors. A couple of the biggest ones that remain are special one-time events that must be completed in a certain number of moves in order to progress. Finally, there are those that the game doesn’t really count as puzzles because they don’t take much thought, but you have to complete them while being swarmed by enemies.
For every “official” puzzle in the game, you can find a hint scroll by examining one of the dead knights lying around. You then have the option to complete the puzzle on your own, netting you a nice experience bonus, or sacrifice the bonus to be given the solution. Some puzzles, instead of giving you the solution, actually let you skip them outright. Honestly, they’re not huge intellectual challenges, so I’m baffled as to why the game makes them completely optional to progress.
There are other things on the corpses of those who came before you, which tend to be hidden cleverly and in hard-to-reach places. Other scrolls contain some flavor text that expands on the world of Lords of Shadow–or makes an inexplicable reference, like two blatant nods to Portal. More importantly, though, many contain gems. Collecting five gems of a color will upgrade one of your meters–health, Light or Shadow magic. While they’re usually easy to miss your first time through a level, you can still theoretically get them all right away. In contrast, Brotherhood Arks, which increase your maximum count of secondary weapons, are usually in places that are impossible to get to without an upgrade from later in the game.
These Brotherhood Arks (which aren’t very common) are the only things you’ll ever have to go back for. Because the game is organized into 12 chapters, each of which has about 2-6 stages, you can skip to any stage and just go through it until you have the Ark, then resume the story–so there’s no reason to actually backtrack, ever. This can be both good and bad–it’s very convenient, of course. If you’re used to the Castlevania conventions of the last several years, though, you might miss the ability to go back and discover lots of hidden paths.
Lords of Shadow also has a larger cast of characters than most Castlevania titles (barring perhaps Order of Ecclesia). These mostly are either major bosses, or temporary guides that send Gabriel on his way and occasionally give him a bit of assistance. One of these guides also provides oddly-knowledgeable commentary on his journey in monologues every chapter–cleverly disguising the long loading screens. The effect is kind of lost when you die and have to go through that screen again to retry, though.
The graphic direction would seem to be a very realistic one at first glance, and it certainly is for the series. But it still bears the hallmarks of animation as well. The backgrounds and lighting are often the biggest signs of a classic Castlevania atmosphere, and the textures seem to flow with the light and camera–sometimes clean, sometimes gritty, always pleasing to the eye.
I can’t say that the music was anything stunning to my ears, but it did contribute to a powerful overall sound environment. Apart from one stage where a certain character nags Gabriel incessantly, I enjoyed what I heard. To my American ears, at least, the characters sound convincingly as if they’re from that region of Europe where Dracula’s castle must be.
Speaking of Dracula, he seems to be oddly missing from the game. Gabriel has to find and defeat the Lords of Shadow, of course, but the closest thing we have to our good old villain is the Vampire… Queen. She’s not even close to being the final boss, either. The connection to our classic evil vampire is made rather abruptly, in a way you can’t possibly expect. I knew what it was going to be before playing and it still came out of left field.
One last thing that I thought was worth noting. This game, or at least the Playstation 3 version I played, is pretty buggy. Using the Dark Crystal for the first time crashed my game. Gabriel also has a tendency to hang in walls at random. Jumping usually gets you out of the trap, although one time I had to wiggle my way out. And the way I did a certain puzzle caused the camera to clip outside the map and reveal ugly emptiness.
So now we have it: the real story of what Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is actually like. For a disc that runs around $20 these days, you’re getting about 30-40 hours of a game that has its good points and its weaknesses. It’s a true reboot of the entire series, and that shows heavily in the gameplay and more subtly in other aspects. Like a movie remake with all new actors, it might not satisfy–might even anger–those who are loyal to the older material. If you can embrace a new interpretation and treat it as a separate entity, though, you can have a lot of fun with this flawed but still very enjoyable game.
Review copy purchased by the author.
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