Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

By Christopher Monfette - Posted Sep 28, 2010

Is Lords of Shadow a good, albeit familiar game? Absolutely. But is it truly a Castlevania game? That's ultimately up for the diehard fans to decide. For our money, it's close enough to earn our respect…and to tempt our fangs with the promise of even greater blood-letting in the future.

The Pros
  • Engaging visual presentation and design
  • Intense, fast-paced offensive combat
  • A rich, substantive campaign roughly 15 hours long
  • Replayability with hidden areas and additional challenges
The Cons
  • Clumsy defensive maneuvers slow combat
  • Story and design elements borrow too heavily from other games
  • Doesn't truly feel like a Castlevania title
  • Excessively expensive power-ups

The history of 3D Castlevania titles has been fraught with as much horror and supernatural peril as the Belmont clan itself, flogging its hungry, quasi-vampiric audience with a holy whip of utter mediocrity. With Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Konami and MercurySteam – along with the aid of Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima – have attempted what ultimately proves to be the most successful translation of the franchise beyond its two-dimensional, side-scrolling pedigree. While the end product is neither a whip-wielding display of Transylvanian heroism nor a crimson soaked, disarticulated bloodbath, gamers finally have a title that’s well worth embarking on a new crusade.


 

Everything New is Old Again

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will no doubt feel instantly familiar to most gamers – not because it feels like a true successor to the classic Castlevania bloodline, but because it so faithfully, almost unabashedly, mimics the conventions of today’s most popular action titles. Comparisons to games such as God of War or Dante’s Inferno have almost become a critical cliché, too often lobbied at the merest hint of similarity, but from its epic storyline to the very core of its gameplay mechanics, Lords of Shadow does relatively little to distinguish itself from better known – and dare we say better – titles…

Gabriel Belmont is a fearless warrior, a devoted member of the Brotherhood of the Light, whose beloved has fallen at the hands of his supernatural enemies. In order to avenge the death of his lover and vanquish the servants of the Lords of Shadow – earth-bound evils who threaten the balance between Heaven and Hell – Gabriel must embark on a supernatural quest to defeat iconic, mythological villains as well as ten-story tall elemental titans.

If it sounds as if you could easily swap out Belmont for grieving warriors such as Kratos or Dante – or if Eastern European folkloric monsters could readily substitute for Grecian creatures or Biblical devils – or if towering, multi-tiered bosses have too quickly progressed from unique works of genius to a tired staple of the genre – or if, or if, or if…you’d no doubt find that Castlevania adopts them all.

Lords of Shadow

The title is equally guilty of looking beyond conventional gaming tropes into Hollywood cinema for its immediate influences, patterning entire levels from the aesthetic qualities of Lord of the Rings or the works of Guillermo del Toro. And if this seems like something of a critical stretch or a cynical grab – after all, what great works haven’t been influenced by those who’ve gone before – keep in mind that it’s only moments after the conclusion of a level inspired by the collapsing, moss-covered stonework of Middle Earth that a character named Gandolfi is first mentioned…Or that an interior sequence ripped straight from del Toro’s sketchbook precedes the arrival of a faun named Pan.

And all of this as the game itself continually fails to feel like a true Castlevania title. In fact, it’s only at the half-way point – perhaps seven or eight hours into the game proper – when a sprawling, gothic castle first appears in the distance and the series’ mainstay vampires finally become a threat. Until this mid-point moment, the title – for all its graphical splendor, visceral combat and strategic magic system – only feels like a Castlevania game by virtue of a whip and the surname of its hero…Until this moment, the sunlit landscape is simply too bright, too other-worldly; the Lycans and ogres too generic; the story too disconnected from the series’ accepted cannon. But once than game turns inwards, focusing on lavishly ruined and torch-lit interiors, things become immediately more comfortable for series diehards.

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Gabriel Belmont and the Killer Crucifix

While the combat in Lords of Shadow is a relatively simple affair – two basic attacks leading into a series of meticulously timed combos – the title manages to feel fast-paced and frenetic throughout each and every battle. The enemies you encounter may never outnumber the on-screen hordes of, say, God of War, but the handful of Lycans, goblins and vampires surrounding you at any given moment are smart, powerful and brutally effective. You’ll have to make strategic use of your combos, magic and evasion maneuvers to survive. And even then, you’re going to die…A lot…Maddeningly, frustratingly often…

The real highlight of the game is the magic system, consisting of Light Magic and Shadow Magic. When activated in battle, Light Magic will regenerate your health for every successful blow you land. Shadow Magic will increase your offensive power. Enemies killed will leave behind neutral orbs which players can choose to pull into either their Light or Shadow meters, but choose wisely…Some of these battles, especially the boss battles, are long, multi-stage affairs, so saving your Light Magic to heal up is often more important than opening a medieval can of whip-ass with your Shadow Magic. And stacking up combos without taking damage – no easy feat given the speed of combat – will result in more and more orbs left behind to scavenge

Completing levels and environmental puzzles – i.e. the ever-familiar light-reflection challenge or the brain-teasing platform manipulation – will result in players earning Skill Points, the currency necessary to purchase additional combos and specialty magic powers. The problem, however, is that the very best skills are excessively expensive, forcing players to forego some of the most basic combos to save for better upgrades later down the road. Multiple play-throughs will ultimately be necessary for those wanting to unleash the greatest possible fury.

Lords of Shadow

However, what keeps the combat from approaching a brutal and bloody perfection is the evasive and defensive posturing. The evasion roll – which you’ll find yourself using over, and over, and over again – features an animation that takes about a half-second too long, slowing the action considerably and forcing players into a rudimentary series of roll-hit-roll maneuvers. Aerial combos are virtually useless as there’s no way to abort your onslaught fast enough to evade an incoming blow. And while the toe-to-toe, whip-scourging action is an absolute blast against easier and fewer opponents, the moment a more defensive strategy is required, combat grinds to a far less enjoyable halt.

Certain enemies such as ogres and wargs become ride-able mounts once defeated, granting Belmont the power to bash down reinforced gates or climb previously un-scalable structures. Sadly, where such mounts were a blast to play in previous titles such as God of War or Dante’s Inferno, dealing out a gloriously satisfying amount of damage to the smaller ilk, the creatures here are a slow and clumsy bestiary. Players are likely to find themselves returning to the ground the moment these monsters have outlived their usefulness.

Lastly, Belmont continues to have access to back-up weapons. Throwing daggers prove to be a surprisingly powerful long-range asset and floating, green fairies – think Moulin Rouge or Tinkerbell – will swarm and daze your opponents as you deal with more pressing threats. There’s also a system of amethyst crystals that, once collected, will allow Belmont to summon – in the most Final Fantasy sense of the word – a deadly demon to decimate your enemies. And the classic vial of holy water makes an appearance, as well. 


 

You’re So (Castle) Vain (ia)…

Wherever the various designers might have culled their influences, there’s no doubt that Lords of Shadow looks spectacular. As you progress through the lands of Lycans and Vampires, progressing into the game’s even darker conclusion, there’s a real sense of traveling through an ancient world, baring the supernatural scars of centuries of ruin and war. While there is a real, tangible absence of the series’ namesake castles – at least through the first half of the game – Belmont will journey through aging ruins and collapsed temples, landscapes remarkably beautiful for their sullen degradation. You’ll see snowy mountain passes and 13th century Germanic villages; you’ll travel through sun-filtered forests and torch-lit, underground caverns.

Even the character designs are as appealing and well realized as their voice actors. Robert Carlyle – who players might recall from Trainspotting and 28 Weeks Later – voices Belmont with an eerie, apathetic calm, imbuing the character with a sense of almost kamikaze melancholy. Belmont is a man driven by guilt, unconcerned with life or living, but kept alive by a vague sense that he can somehow make things right. Patrick Stewart, the videogame mainstay for wise and grey-haired tutors, plays Zobek, a fellow member of the Brotherhood and the mysterious figure who pushes Belmont forward when he begins to stumble. Zobek also serves as the game’s ham-fisted and heavy-handed narrator, delivering poetic, over-scripted monologues about Belmont’s progress during mission load-screens. 


 

Metal Gear Shadow: Whip-Eater

While the presence of Hideo Kojima certainly lends the title an air of next-gen street-cred – if not necessarily sophistication – it’s relatively difficult to spot his influence in the gameplay itself. Lords of Shadow doesn’t feature the kind of measured, carefully paced stealth combat of Metal Gear Solid; nor does it ever achieve the over-the-top bad-assery from its boss fights and cinematic encounters for which Kojima is genreally known.

If anything, one can find the Metal Gear master’s personality more heavily featured in the narrative. This is the most conversation-heavy Castlevania to date, featuring sweeping, melodramatic character arcs that aren’t entirely dissimilar from Kojima’s previous work. Thankfully, the action never stops on a dime for preachy, socio-economic global sermons, but Zobek’s mid-mission narration recalls the longer, talkier passages in which Kojima so often revels. That said, the story never feels as secondary as it easily might have become, and that’s likely in large part to Kojima’s supervision.

For Sale: One Castle, Many Rooms, Modern Amenities
 
Lords of Shadow is a robust and lengthy game, offering between 15-20 hours of action-packed gameplay depending upon how much of a completionist you are…Each mission features collectible travel journals and scattered gems to increase your life and magic meters, as well as the series’ most engaging feature: hidden arenas.

One of the best moments in any Metroidvania game is the satisfaction earned from sleuthing your way into a chamber on the map that had somehow eluded you the entire playtime. You knew it was there – hiding away some secret item or power-up, robbing you of your rightful 100% -- but you’d lacked the ability to reach it until now…While Lords of Shadow doesn’t feature a level map to taunt your inner explorer, it does offer a clever combination of unreachable areas, branching pathways and entirely hidden chambers to encourage a second go-around. A helpful menu at the end of each mission will tell you what percentage of each level you’ve completed, but you’ll want to keep track of the far-off objects and blocked hallways you encounter to more effectively target your mission replays.

In addition, certain levels and boss fights will offer unique challenges or specific criteria upon a second attempt, rewarding gamers for improved performance. 


 

The Harmony of Despair in this Symphony in the Night calls the Dawn of Sorrow to Shine Upon My Portrait of Ruin….

Castlevania has lived a long life in only two dimensions, and for as long as they keep making these supernatural side-scrollers, we’ll keep playing them. While the effort to create a 3D adventure in the Castlevania universe has been a long, sorry road of bones, this latest chapter proves that success is indeed possible, if not yet fully achieved.

Is Lords of Shadow a good, albeit familiar game? Absolutely. But is it truly a Castlevania game? That’s ultimately up for the diehard fans to decide. For our money, it’s close enough to earn our respect…and to tempt our fangs with the promise of even greater blood-letting in the future.