Best 3D Castlevania!
Well into this current generation and several top quality 2D titles later, Konami has finally delivered a 3D title since 2006. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is finally here and not only does it surpass the previous 3D games in the series but also stands up to modern games in the genre as well.
Game play and Design
Game play style is similar to recent modern action games most notably the God of War series. Lords of Shadow however also incorporates elements from a lot of other games in aspects such as platforming, boss fights and puzzles. If you've played a lot of 3rd person action adventure games over the last decade then you'll be able to recognise where LoS gets its inspiration from.
Combat is fairly straight forward as you only have one weapon which is the Combat Cross. This is a chain like Whip that can be used to attack in various ways. X button is used to fling the Combat cross around in light swift attacks while the Y button will execute slower but more powerful heavy attacks. During the course of the game you will be able to purchase and learn a number of new moves which Gabriel can perform depending on button combinations which involve the X light and Y heavy button attacks. You'll be able to view animations of Gabriel performing the attacks which is a neat feature as you can visually see how it performs. Gabriel also obtains additional sub weapons which he can use along with the combat chain. These don't replace the primary Combat cross but aid him in his offensive armoury. Some of these include dash boots and gauntlet which can unleash powerful and devastating attacks, especially if they are combined with one another.
The other main element of combat is driven by magic which includes both Dark and Shadow magic. Each magic type when activated will allow Gabriel to perform a variety of unique attacks depending on the magic activated and also have different output results. For example Activating Shadow magic will allow him to perform shadow based attacks which do 2x the damage compared to Normal mode. Some moves can only be executed in Shadow magic mode. Light Magic allows Gabriel to regain health and improve defences against enemy attacks. Both set of magic are contained in two separate bars which can be refilled using magic orbs dropped by enemies. Additionally you have a focus meter which fills up after consecutive hits without taking damage. Once it's full, orbs will accumulate in large quantities.
There are also secondary items Gabriel can use such as knives and Holy water (from previous CV games) with the B button (when equipped) and also a powerful summon which deals heavy damage to surrounding enemies. These items have different effects depending on which magic is activated.
Finally LoS includes a lot of QTE (Quick time Events) which need to be executed in order to progress and successfully defeat enemies. These include rapidly tapping the button presented on the screen and pressing a button at the right time before a circle closes on the screen. These events provide a more cinematic approach to the game play that can be entertaining to watch.
Puzzles and Platforming
Puzzles and platforming plays a significant part in this game as you will be moving from building to building and scaling huge castles and ruins. The platforming involves swinging across ledges and buildings with the combat cross acting as a rope and also climbing up massive architectures. Platforming elements for the most part are quite basic and may require simple timing in some areas. There are also a lot of puzzles in this game which require a lot of thought to complete. Some puzzles can be solved by paying out skill points if you find them too tough and others are based on trial and error which you can solve just by doing a lot of combinations.
Design, Difficulty and Progression
The game is structured in chapters which include a lot of levels between them. There are 12 chapters in total and on average each chapter has about 5 levels. Each individual level contains a trail which can be completed after the level is done. In fact every level can be replayed by selecting it from the menu. Trials are challenges presented in the levels for example kill a certain amount of monsters or beat level in a certain amount of time. There are many variables within trials. Each level also contains items to upgrade health and magic metres as well as weapon upgrades.
There are 3 difficulty settings you can start with and they can be changed at any time during the game however in order to complete a level on a difficulty setting you must not change mid-level. This system is incredibly flexible and you can redo levels as much as you want to grind out skill points and do trials on easier settings.(which are used to buy moves and combos). The harder settings give enemies attack boosts and can KO you in a few moves while on the easier settings the focus meter charges really quickly and enemies don't do as much damage to you. As far as I'm concerned the enemy health and the damage Gabriel does is similar though you'll have to dodge more often and be more vigilant and quicker on harder settings as enemies can finish you off with combo hits. There is a bonus difficulty called Paladin which is unlocked after beating the game. This presents the highest level of challenge so be wary.
I feel the combat aspects of LoS are incredibly well done and the sense of reward is high as there are many challenges that await you. The number of moves Gabriel is able to perform with additional magic elements and attacks is overwhelming and the games combat system is quite deep and it gives you enough variety to work with when disposing enemies. Enemies are also fairly well designed in that they can be extremely quick in attacking you and won't submit to being button mashed to death like some other games. Dodging is really important in this game but being required to jump and block at the right times also adds to the challenge. Some of the bosses in this game are enormous and epic. The smaller bosses require a lot of good reflexes and good dodging/blocking skills to beat. The combat does a great job in giving you a system that works well in relation to the enemies you fight and bosses. There are no cheap enemies in this game and there isn't anything you can really exploit to beat enemies with no effort, at least not on the harder settings.
Overall on top of the challenging and deep combat I feel the game progression and design is well developed and easier to enjoy. You have the ability replay older levels and collect upgrades so you never have to worry about missing anything, which is a great thing to have. Camera can be a bit dodgy in some places but for the most part the fixed camera does a great job of giving you a good viewpoint of the action and scenery's. Some of the puzzle elements are not as well designed and a bit frustrating but others are really clever and rewarding. Platform is simple in this game and very well structured, there isn't any areas which have impossible platforming sequences that are annoying to pull off.
STORY AND CHARACTERS
This is an apparent reboot of Castlevania which has no relation to any other games. The game is structured around Gabriel Belmont and his quest to bring his deceased wife back to life. Without going into detail and spoiling the game has you progressing through different levels and beating enemies which hold significance to death of Marie (Gabriel's wife) and her supposed resurrection. Apart from Belmont there are a few characters which help Gabriel on his journey and a few that hinder him. The game has a narration prologue before every level which is voiced by Patrick Stewart. There are also many scrolls hidden in every chapter which you can read on the legacy and history of the story. These include details on various enemies and the cities and wars that took place between the different species.
Overall I feel the story while competent isn't really that interesting to give high praise. For such a long game I feel the story segments could have been worked on more especially with maybe more plot twists and additional cameos, just to give the story more depth.
The voice work especially for the sub characters are very underwhelming and not very well delivered. Gabriel voiced by Robert Carlyle does a great job and so does Patrick Stewart however some of the side characters such as important enemies have some horrible voices and dialogue is even worse. There was one particular scene chapter VIII involving a girl who really made me cringe it was that bad. Characters sometimes sound way too forced or unbalanced compared to their dialogue while Gabriel is more consistent in his approach. The balance isn't right and some of the conversations and encounters can be really off balance and unconvincing.
The soundtrack in this game is a lot different to previous Castlevania games even compared to the 3D games. There are some really good symphonic and ballad style scores but there just isn't enough variation in the music and not a lot of memorable tracks either. The main theme is well composed but plays too often and sometimes you feel that it's the only track in the game. The ability to play custom sounds is nice and mixed in with previous CV music will definitely enhance your experience.
Overall I feel the music while decent is weak compared to some of the older games and the voice work just isn't up to the standard I was expecting. This won't detract too much from the game as it's more combat driven even compared to previous games but I feel a more coherent and better presented story and voice work could have done a lot to improve the emotional aspects of the game.
GRAPHICS and PERFORMANCE
Technically this is arguably one of the better looking games this generation. Textures are extremely detailed bar some landscape areas and the details on some enemies are incredible. The surroundings and levels are very beautiful designed and look really nice, they improve the immersion factor and the castle level design is sublime. Overall graphics are top notch and the development team have done well to visually create an awe-inspiring world. There are several different levels as with a ton of variety in different environments. Art style is top quality and concept art can be viewed in the game in the art gallery in extras menu. You will need to purchase and unlock them though.
With graphics however comes performance and while this game runs at a solid 30FPS on 360 there can be some minor slowdowns during some fights although none of these slowdowns are dramatic. The game does however reach 60FPS in small areas and this is where I wish they would have sacrificed some of the quality textures to improve the frame rate to 40-50 because it just looks so smooth. It's still great and more consistent than some of games which can drop severally during some points.
I have thoroughly enjoyed playing this game and will continue to do so. I feel as a huge action adventure fan this game delivers a great and compelling experience. The combat which is the most important aspect is a lot fun and has enough depth to keep you playing. This is a lot longer and more challenging than most action games out there which is a good thing since you won't be done with it after a day. The game has a very user-friendly design which is easy to use and progression is simple and rewarding, something which is lacking in a lot of other games. It's not without its flaws and has some issues but I think overall they are not significant enough to really put this game down. It does not really progress like the 2D Castlevania games but I would not say it alienates the fanbase because I think the fanbase wants something different from a 3D title. I would at least give this game a shot if you're a fan of Castlevania. Try to keep an open mind though.
In the end I feel Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is not only the best 3D game in the series to date but also a fine Action adventure game in its own right. The game is huge and will provide a thrilling and challenging action adventure that will last you twice or even three times the length of most action games out there. If you're a fan of the genre then do not miss this game.