Way back in the day, Castlevania was a linear game. It's important to remember that while playing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, because this is the most linear game the series has seen in years. Many fans of the series may be confused by this game's abandoning of the " Metroid-vania" structure that has served them well for years, but in this case a mostly straightforward path is indeed a better one. By taking a few hints from some recent action games, God of War and Shadow of the Colossus in particular, Mercury Steam has created an incredible and engrossing action game that's worthy of comparison to those classics.
From the very first second of game play, Lords of Shadow will have you on the edge of your seat. The game simply oozes with cinematic style; the sweeping camera angles, dramatic score, and unbelievable action prove that Kojima Productions and Mercury Steam make for a formidable team. Mercury Steam in particular deserves credit for crafting such an interesting world brimming with breathtaking locales and creatures strange and familiar. Especially towards the beginning of the game, events maintain a fierce momentum because new play styles, enemies, and weapons are constantly being thrown your way. As the game reaches its middle sections, a pattern of "fight, explore, repeat, boss battle" starts to emerge, but this doesn't make the game any less interesting.
Part of the reason that Lords of Shadow remains engrossing for its entire twenty hour play time is that the story continues to take new turns even hours into the game. The plight of Gabriel, who has recently lost his wife, is immediately sympathetic. Although later events become increasingly convoluted and the story does tend to lose focus on its key characters, the story line never delves into cheesy or confounding territory. The fantastical events occurring onscreen are grounded somewhat by the lead character, who really just wants his wife back.
Unfortunately for Gabriel, hundreds of lycans, vampires, trolls, titans, and many more monstrosities stand between him and his beloved. Gabriel must have studied under Kratos, because his chain whip serves a similar function to the Grecian's Blades of Chaos. Although the whip does move similarly to Kratos' blades, Gabriel's attacks are less sweeping and more precise. This is due to the unique way in which combat controls were mapped to the face buttons. Instead of the square (or X on the 360) button handling light attacks and the triangle (or Y) button dishing out heavy attacks like in most action games, in Lords of Shadow the square button is used to perform precise attacks and the triangle button executes sweeping area attacks. This will allow you to effectively target either one enemy or a large group of enemies depending on what the situation calls for.
Later in the game, further depth is added to the combat via a complex magic system. Again, Lords of Shadow differs from most games in the way it handles magic. Gabriel can use both light and dark magic, and each has not only a different effect on his attacks, but separate magic meters as well. Light magic, when activated, will restore a bit of Gabriel's health with each successful strike of the whip. Dark magic, on the other hand, will make each attack more powerful. Magics must be used sparingly, however, because the meters will run out fairly fast. Luckily, when an enemy is killed it will drop magic orbs that can be siphoned into either your light magic pool or your dark magic pool with a press of L3 or R3, respectively. However, enemies will not drop magic orbs if you kill them while either form of magic is active. This is where strategy comes into play. You will often need to switch on light magic to restore health during a fight, then switch to dark magic to dish out some extra damage, before switching the magic off to deal the finishing blow.
The combat gets even more complex as Gabriel continues to level up. Each kill provides him with experience points, which can be used between levels to purchase new combos and abilities. Certain abilities can only be used while light magic is active, while others can only be performed in the air. Before long each battle will take on a life of its own, and each encounter will become a brutal tug of war between life and death. Lords of Shadow certainly isn't an easy game, but it's usually a fair one. Countering and dodging at the right times and discovering all of the enemy's weaknesses will give you the upper hand in battle, but these are sometimes lessons that can only be learned through failure. Sometimes, though, the game can feel like it is stacking the odds against you due to a weird design decision regarding health. For some reason, Gabriel never starts a level out with full health. After obtaining light magic, it's up to you to simply get to full health by fighting enemies. It's a weird decision, but one that doesn't impact the game play too significantly. In general, the combat in Lords of Shadow is excellent, and it demands that you be paying attention at all times.
Platforming has always played a large part in Castlevania games too, though, and it's in this area that Lords of Shadow falters ever so slightly. The climbing and jumping in this game will again remind you of God of War. When Gabriel can jump or climb somewhere, it's usually made obvious by the fixed camera angles and glowing protrusions of rock and stone. The act of climbing itself isn't flawed, as Gabriel is perfectly competent at jumping from ledge to ledge and swinging around on his chain whip. It's just that sometimes, it doesn't feel like your button inputs are being registered as intended. Sometimes Gabriel will just decide to fling himself off of a cliff because you pressed slightly too far down on the analogue stick, which can be frustrating as it results in a loss of health. It's a lucky thing that the platforming doesn't get too demanding until the end of the game.
Platforming and combat are combined in some pretty crazy ways during the epic titan boss battles that punctuate each chapter of the game. These fights are a clear nod to Shadow of the Colossus, as each enemy is a platforming challenge in and of themselves. Only by climbing up their bodies and attacking their numerous weak points can Gabriel kill these massive beasts. Titan battles are real battles of attrition, because they can deal some heavy damage to Gabriel, but his individual attacks do little to harm the enemy. It can be frustrating to lose one of these fights during the last leg, but they largely come down to pattern memorization and quick timing. When killing a titan, and indeed several of the game's larger mundane enemies, it's often necessary to input a quick time event to finish the enemy off. Quick time events as a whole are starting to feel stale in gaming, but they actually feel surprisingly fresh and contributory in Lords of Shadow.
This is largely due to the visceral nature with which Gabriel dispatches his foes. Gabriel's animations flow smoothly from striking out with the whip to throwing knives to finally brutalizing the enemy with a finishing move. The character and enemy models look fantastic as they engage in their deadly ballet, and the explosions of gore that accompany some enemy's deaths give a nice feeling of permanence to the kills. There is also a really nice variety to the types of enemies that you'll encounter over your journey, and each foe has clearly been painstakingly designed and lovingly rendered. Environments are even more gorgeous, standing tall as some of the most beautiful you'll see in a video game this console generation. The epic camera angles serve to remind you that Gabriel is part of a large and dangerous world that is worth exploring. Tying the environments, characters, and enemies together is a haunting and stunning art style that perfectly conveys a sense of twisted whimsy and wonder. The world feels like it has a history and a future, like everything has been around and will continue to be around long after Gabriel passes through it. Simply put, this is a world that you'll want to get lost in.
Lords of Shadow may borrow many of its elements from other games, but it brings them together in a way that is so unique, so engaging, that it takes on a life of its own. Gabriel's quest to resurrect his deceased wife is one hell of a roller coaster ride from start to finish, demanding precise timing and quick thinking throughout. The beautiful graphics and twisting story will give you reason to squeeze all twenty hours out of this game and leave you drooling for more. Whether you're an old school Castlevania fan or a first time vampire slayer, you owe it to yourself to play through this fantastic adventure.