Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Staff Review

Castlevania is one of today’s oldest and most iconic gaming series, with its roots tracing all the way back to the NES. Back in those days, it was a platformer famous for its tricky jumps fraught with traps that usually resulted in an untimely death. With the PlayStation came Symphony of the Night, a game that expanded upon the basic gameplay of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and incorporated the exploration of the Metroid series to create a very long running and well-liked RPG series. With the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation 2, the series went 3D, and those games are largely considered disastrous by all but the most hardcore fans. With Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the series tries to merge all three styles of gameplay into a cohesive game, and it largely succeeds, albeit not without copying a few other games along the way.

Before the review goes any further, it should be pointed out that this game is a bit different than any of the other games in the series.  All of the other Castlevania games reside in the same timeline, but Lords of Shadow is a rebooting of the series.  As such, it is not considered canon in the greater Castlevania series as a whole.

The game starts out in the year 1047, and the land is plagued with monsters.  Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, seeks to rid the world of the evils and avenge his recently murdered wife.  To do so, he must fight the three Lords of Shadow, powerful monsters that rule over the three monster tribes: The Lycans, the Vampires, and the Necromancers.  In doing so, a vast, tangled plot unfolds that holds more than a few twists, especially as the tale comes to its conclusion.

Pffft.  It's only a model.
Pffft. It’s only a model.

Anyone that has ever played a God of War game will immediately feel right at home with Lords of Shadow.  If one were to take Kratos from God of War, dress him in a red version of Altair’s clothing from Assassin’s Creed, and then give him messy brown hair, you’d have Gabriel.  If it weren’t for the different character model, you might easily confuse the games. Square does focused single strikes, and triangle does wider area attacks.  Fortunately, the game does mix things up a little bit with its magic system.  Gabriel quickly gains access to Light Magic, which allows him to replenish his HP with every attack.  Dark Magic powers up his attacks, making him hit for double. Three of the game’s four subweapons also become infused with magic and produce special effects when they are used while Gabriel has a particular magic polarity equipped.

Magic works by collecting Neutral Orbs during battle, which are dropped by either filling a Focus Meter by making successive attacks on monsters without sustaining damage or by finishing foes with another God of War staple, the quick time event.  The player can choose to fill either or both magic types by pressing the appropriate analog stick(s) to pull in the orbs.  Doing so leaves Gabriel open to attack, but it is the only way to refill magic.

There are also a multitude of upgrades that can be purchased as the player progresses that give Gabriel new attacks or longer combos.  None are necessary to finish the game, but some skills are so incredibly useful that they are all but required.  They do, however, allow the player to choose a style that works well and allows for a great amount of versatility in the gameplay.

The game is divided into twelve main chapters, with all but the last one being further divided into stages.  Any completed stage can be reattempted at any time, and most players will frequently revisit past stages as Gabriel picks up new abilities and becomes able to access areas that were previously unreachable.  Fortunately, stages that are revisited don’t require the level to be finished in order to keep an upgrade.  As such, the game flows relatively well.

Visually, the game is quite stunning.  It is one of best looking games yet, and Lords of Shadow frequently gives panoramic views of the world that show off the amazing detail to which the world was created.  There are also several cut scenes that are fully voiced that really show off what the PS3 can do. It should also be noted that with high definition graphics comes high definition blood and gore.  If you don’t like seeing violence, this might not be the game for you.

Apparently the game’s creators were so impressed with the world they’d built that they wanted you to experience it from all angles, including some camera angles that just do not make sense and can be jarring. Aside from the borrowed mechanics, this is the biggest gripe in the entire game.  Unlike God of War, which always seems to point the camera in the direction you need to go, Lords of Shadow likes to mix it up a bit.  Sometimes, you’ll go into the screen, and at other times, you’ll move away from the screen.  It can make getting where you need to go a bit of a hassle, and occasionally, the camera angle actually hides where you’re supposed to go.

With the budget spent on fancy visuals and Patrick Stuart's voice acting, they only had enough money to hire midget cameramen.
With the budget spent on fancy visuals and Patrick Stuart’s voice acting, they only had enough money to hire midget cameramen.

Luckily, the game has far fewer snags in the audio department.  Most of the voice acting is good enough, but Patrick Stewart does a great job as Gabriel’s mentor Zobek and as the narrator, reading long bits of story before each stage.  The sound effects and music are quite subdued by comparison, but astute fans will recognize tunes like Bloody Tears and Vampire Killer.  The game truly is about Gabriel as he goes on his solo quest to rid the world of the three Dark Lords.

As for the plot, it is pretty good, and it gets better as the game progresses.  Once the player gets to the first Dark Lord, the story takes a radical shift, and it gets much more interesting.  By the time the game reaches its conclusion, there are a lot of loose ends that the player will enjoy watching get tied up.  Though some of the ultimate plot twists are pretty easy to guess, most players will still have some surprises in store for them at the finale.  In spite of the fact that the game is set in an alternate timeline, it does a good job of explaining how such things as the Vampire Killer whip came to be.

Finishing the game will take 20-30 hours depending on how much grinding the player chooses to do.  There are multiple difficulty levels that can be changed at any time, but on the whole, the game rather difficult in the beginning and gets easier as time progresses.  This is due to the fact that once you get a good handle on the battle system and how to fight most monsters, even new foes present much less challenge.  While some could see that as a negative, it actually improves the pace of the game by making it flow much more smoothly.

There is one other thing that needs to be addressed, and that is the fact that the game borrows a bit too heavily from one other game.  Several of the bosses have you climbing on various titans, stabbing them in their glowing weak spots.  It is not as big a deal as it seems early on, but Castlevania already has a bit of a reputation for ripping off other games.  Few can deny that the 2D exploration-based games resemble Gothic-skinned Metroid games, and now the series is directly lifting its control system from God of War and its bosses from Shadow of the Colossus.

In the end, Lords of Shadow is a pretty solid game despite its flaws. It combines gorgeous visuals, a surprisingly deep plot, and tried-and-true battle mechanics with an overall game pace that gets smoother as it progresses to make a thoroughly satisfying experience.  There are definite elements of all three previous genres of Castlevania, and they meld together very cohesively.  Also, though the game borrows heavily from other games, it actually shines brightest when it’s doing its own thing.  Ultimately, it never gets better than the sum of its parts, but the pieces it uses to stitch together a game are all great, even if they aren’t amazing.  If you can forgive the game for rewriting some of the Castlevania lore, it’s definitely worth a look.

This game was played to completion and reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

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