More than two decades before fang-baring franchises Twilight and True Blood sunk their choppers into popular culture, gamers were driving stakes through the hearts of bloodsuckers in Konami’s NES classic, Castlevania. Since then, the 30-plus title-spawning series has seen its ups -- 2D benchmark Castlevania: Symphony of the Night -- and downs -- fighting game flop Castlevania Judgment. Konami’s latest vamp-slaying entry, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, doesn’t arrive till October 5th, but we’ve already completed its first chapter. Read on for our blood-soaked impressions.
Developed by MercurySteam, in association with Kojima Productions, LoS is Konami’s latest attempt to bring the series -- previously defined by its classic 2D entries -- into the third dimension. It’s a full-on, current-gen console-pushing, third-person action/adventure in the vein of 3D juggernaut God of War. So anyone expecting to side-scroll through static backdrops while dodging floating Medusa heads are in for a surprise. Our demo, opening with a highly produced cinematic cutscene, wasted no time proving that Castlevania’s now intruding on Kratos’ triple-A turf.
We were immediately introduced to handsome, long-haired protagonist Gabriel Belmont, who was arriving in a Victorian-era village in the thick of night; torch-wielding peasants ran through rain-soaked streets as a pack of red-eyed werewolves clawed at the town’s gates. The rickety defense soon gave out and, just like that, it was on! Belmont, wielding a whip that shoots from the top of a crucifix, took on the snarling beasts as we were schooled on the basic controls. Soon we were unleashing direct and area attacks, supplemented by the occasional life-saving jump or evasion, and tossing daggers into the hungry hordes. The lightning fast, whip-focused combat recalled Kratos' Blades of Chaos, and the daggers impressively turned our furry foes into explosions of crimson plasma. We also learned a grappling move that allowed us to grab the animals up close before driving the blunt end of Belmont’s killer crucifix through their chests, again blanketing the screen in fresh blood.
The dynamic hack-and-slash combat was soon shelved in favor of a more refined strategy when an enormous fanged beastie, that made the others look as threatening as a basket of puppies, broke through what was left of the gate. This larger threat wasted no time snacking on Belmont’s jugular, triggering an on-screen icon prompting us to hammer on the DualShock 3’s “square” button. After an adrenaline-pumping, back-and-forth encounter, one that most titles wouldn’t dare put in a tutorial mission, we capped the fight with a context sensitive finisher, leaving the animal creatively and violently dispatched. And, you guessed it, more buckets of blood.
This right-out-of-the-gate battle immediately taught us that 1) the famously hardcore Castlevania still isn’t afraid to throw its fans into the deep end, and 2) LoS is aiming high, looking to do for the series’ 3D reputation what Symphony of the Night did for its classic 2D formula. What we experienced over the next few hours continued to drive these points home like a sharpened stake through a cold, black heart. Varied environments, such as lush forests, foggy swamps, crumbling graveyards, and ancient ruins played host to all sorts of uglies; goblins, trolls, werewolves, warthogs, spiders and other things we couldn’t identify, save for the presences of horns, fangs, claws or some combination thereof, relentlessly attempted to thwart our progress. Like the intro village, many areas closed with a pulse-spiking encounter. A giant cemetery-dwelling troll, repeatedly beating Belmont into the dirt with a shattered gravestone, comes to mind. But like the oversized wolf we left skewered back in town, this towering menace could be worn down until a context-sensitive prompt instructed us to hop on its back and strangle the last bit of life from it, yielding yet another satisfyingly gory finisher.
While we faced all manner of nightmare-conjuring creatures, we were well equipped for the task. Experience is racked up during battles and can be cashed in for all kinds of death-dealing attacks and upgrades. We spent our first chunk on a dagger customization, and came away with the screen-clearing ability to toss five knives at once--great when multiple low-level grunts are crowding you. We also invested in a whip upgrade that tore through enemies like a buzzing circular saw, easily delivering the game’s bloodiest kills. Other tweaks, such as the ability to use your whip as a grappling hook, come free of charge. Once earned, this one opens the game up to more platforming, sending Belmont swinging over gaps, rappelling down cliff faces, and generally reaching places he otherwise couldn’t. Combined with the game’s directed cinematic camera, these moments also yield some epic views, often reducing Belmont to a spec against expansive backdrops of crashing waterfalls and stretching vistas.
When we weren’t scaling daunting mountainsides, sending beasts back to hell, or engaging in light turn-a-crank puzzling, we were sucking up orbs God of War style; the glowing spheres, which can be transformed into light or dark magic, grant an extra edge on the battlefield. When activated, the light magic gradually fills your life bar with each successful blow to a foe, while the dark engulfs Belmont in flames, making his attacks more effective. Allowing the player to decide how to allocate these neutral orbs is a neat little twist we’re guessing will give way to some mid-combat strategizing later in the game; even early on, we struggled between the two tempting options of upping our life-bars versus slicing through baddies with a flaming whip.
What impressed us most about LoS was its ability to continuously throw new things at us. Over the course of the first chapter we’d seen a variety of enemies and environments, learned new skills, and even had an entire new gameplay element open up with the grappling hook’s platforming. So, it came as a nice surprise when we learned to use enemies as mounts; once stunned, giant spiders, warthogs, and trolls can be climbed on and recruited to do your dirty work. Much like the mounts in Dante’s Inferno, you control these beasts to crush smaller monsters like cockroaches, but LoS also uses them in other interesting ways. Some can climb to otherwise unreachable areas, while others can break down obstacles. Spiders can even shoot web-constructed bridges across progress-halting gaps. Best of all, once these beastly rides have outlived their usefulness you can strangle them and siphon a few orbs from their lifeless husks.
LoS is a big game. It consists of 12 meaty chapters, each containing a half dozen or so levels that can be later revisited -- in true Castlevania style -- once an upgrade calls for a return trip. We spent a decent chunk of time in the opening chapter even before reaching its challenge-amping boss battle. We won’t spoil all the fun for you, but let’s just say a screen-swallowing ice giant, whose size easily rivals that of God of War 3’s Kratos-carrying titans, requires a Shadow of the Colossus-like strategy to take down. From the second this chilly behemoth broke from beneath an icy lake, to the moment we evaded his final icicle-spewing attack, our hearts raced with an enthusiasm usually reserved for boss battles that conclude entire games, not intro chapters.
This epic ending tacked another 30 minutes onto our time with the game, leaving another 15 or so hours for us to savor once LoS lands this fall. We played a near final build and came away impressed by its ambitious scope, gameplay depth, gothic presentation, and addictive combat. If we found any fault, it was in the occasionally unforgiving camera perspective; while more often than not it complemented the action with immersive cinematic flair, it sometimes had us wondering where to go next. While we doubt much can be done to tweak this minor issue before release, we would encourage Konami to drop the price of upgrades in the final version. Maybe it will balance out later in the game, but during our demo most items were 5,000 points or more, while our satchel barely brimmed with a scant 2,000 most of the time. That said, these nitpicks will most likely be washed from our minds like a vampire under holy water once we’re immersed in what’s promising to be a must-play for fresh and seasoned Drac-haters alike. Our stakes are already sharpened in anticipation!