Castlevania IV in 3D
Possibly due to the presence of one or more angry ghosts living on the second and third floors of my childhood home, I grew up being afraid of the dark and everything in it. Dracula? Scary. The mummy? Scary. The wolf man, the rancor monster, clowns, the girl from The Exorcist, zombies, Chucky, Mr. Boogedy, Carol Channing’s character in Alice in Wonderland—all such things haunted me when I tried to get to sleep every night.
Which is probably why I have such strong memories of watching my friend Ryan Steele play Castlevania on the Nintendo Entertainment System. This was a game in which you fought all of the classic Universal movie monsters as well as other mythological creatures associated with darkness, danger, and death. Mario this was not.
Castlevania became so popular that two sequels appeared in quick succession on the Nintendo, followed by the inimitable Super Castlevania IV on the Super NES. The first four Castlevania games subjected several generations of the Belmont family to graveyards, swamps, ghost towns, and, of course, castles. And though the games were fairly different from each other, you could rest assured that in the end a member of the Belmont family would face off against the baddest vampire of them all, Count Dracula. The end credits saw the sun rise over Dracula’s crumbling castle while [Insert Name] Belmont watched from a distant cliff.
In addition to these series staples, Castlevania was also known for a few other things: iconic weapons (bullwhip, silver daggers, a boomerang, a throwing axe, and holy water), creepy art design, amazing music, memorable boss battles, and punishing difficulty. The newest entry in the franchise, Lords of Shadow, arrived on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 5, 2010, almost exactly twenty-five years after the original release. Lords of Shadow mostly eschews the exploration elements introduced in later Castlevania games in favor of the direct, action packed, and challenging feel of the original four installments.
David Cox, the game’s director, has claimed several times that his main inspiration was Super Castlevania IV, and it shows. The levels in Lords of Shadow are narrow chutes that lead the newest Belmont, Gabriel, from one magnificent setting to another. The game comprises twelve chapters, with each chapter spanning anywhere from one to eight sub-chapters. There are a few divergent paths leading to weapon/health/magic upgrades, but most of them cannot be reached until you have unlocked new abilities such as double-jump in later chapters.
Lords of Shadow shows you around its immense and beautiful world through the lens of a fixed camera, meaning you can never control the angle or point of view in any situation. In the hands of a decent programmer, I’ll take a quality fixed camera over a free-motion camera any day, mainly because locking down the camera allows level designers to cram as many details and effects as possible into every scene. The camera in Lords of Shadow also wavers constantly, as if carried by an exhausted but suicidally brave filmmaker documenting Gabriel’s quest.
And Mercury Steam didn’t waste a single kilobyte of processing power. Only Final Fantasy XIII has made my PS3 work so hard (as measured by fan noise), and the payoff is obvious. Lords of Shadow is one of the best looking games of the generation. The different chapters take you from lush jungle to icy cliff sides to a sprawling gothic castle and every area looks better than the last. It all scales incredibly well too. Sometimes Gabriel fills the screen as he trudges through snow, sometimes he is the tiniest speck on an icy parapet. At some point in every chapter you’ll probably want to put down the controller and just stare through your TV into the world Mercury Steam has created.
But you can’t put down the controller. Gabriel Belmont’s path is so littered with danger and malice that navigating it can be as nerve-wracking as it is breathtaking. The level designers did a good job of switching up the gameplay between combat, platforming, and puzzles. Gabriel’s main tool for the first two tasks is the Combat Cross, a crucifix-shaped tool with a chain hidden inside. Gabriel can use the chain as a whip to swing across great chasms or to unleash righteous punishment on the various supernatural terrors that haunt his trek toward the three Lords of Shadow, three supreme, malignant beings who supposedly hold the keys to resurrecting Gabriel’s murdered wife.
Traversing the enormous levels is mostly quick, intuitive, and satisfying, with plenty of environmental obstacles and puzzles. The game focuses so strongly on moving forward that, when you do come up against a real melon-scratcher, you at least have the solace of knowing the solution is close at hand. The only exceptions are a couple of maze levels, but even these won’t hold you up for long.
The pace of combat, in contrast to the story’s relentless forward momentum, feels measured and deliberate. Hurrying through fights will earn you a quick Game Over, while a combination of quick reflexes and strategic attack and defense will keep you alive and healthy. Boss battles require particular skill and attention, and often require you to use a certain skill in conjunction with the environment to put the each boss down for good. On a personal note, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the three Shadow-of-the-Colossus-style battles fit into the game’s control scheme, art design, and story. Bravo, Mercury Steam!
Strategy comes into play even more strongly once you have access to the magic system. Defeating enemies releases magical energy which Gabriel can absorb either as light or shadow magic. Light magic makes each successful hit raise Gabriel’s health, while shadow magic makes attacks much stronger. Activating either one drains a bar and keeps enemies from dropping more magic for Gabriel to refuel. Add in the Focus bar, which charges after an unbroken string of attacks and causes enemies to release magical energy with every hit, and battles quickly become more about strategy and skill than simple button mashing.
The story can be both predictable and overly grand—think Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—but does not suffer for either of those “faults.” Patrick Stewart leads a strong cast of voice actors and narrates the story during level loading screens. Hearing Captain Picard talk about raiding a vampire’s castle is only one of the many nerdy joys to be found in Lords of Shadow.
If had not lost about 20 hours of progress due to the dreaded "Unhandled Error" during the final boss fight, I would have nothing ill to say of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. But it’s inexcusable that Mercury Steam and Konami allowed such a massively game-breaking bug into the retail code of one of their highest profile releases this year. What’s more, I can’t think of any good reason why they chose a one-file automatic save system over a manual save with multiple slots.
At any rate, I’m sure a patch is incoming from Konami. And I will gladly play through the game a second time (and a third and a fourth…). If you like Castlevania, games with lengthy stories, or action games that can bite you back, I wholeheartedly recommend Lords of Shadow. Just be sure to back up your save file.