Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review
By -- Tom M.
It's hard to remember the last great, 3D Castlevania game. When was it again? Oh that's right - there never was one. Some of them were admittedly fun but ultimately shallow experiences. When developer Mercury Steam announced Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and their intention to reboot the series into darker and grittier territories, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of worry. Their last game was Clive Barker's: Jericho. I was justified! However, against odds, they crafted something worthy and created a refreshing take of what Castlevania can be.
The story is a familiar one. Gabriel Belmont, member of the Brotherhood of Light and all-around tough guy, is on a quest to defeat the Lords of Shadow and recover the pieces of the God Mask. This particular MacGuffin grants the user God-like powers, as well as resurrecting the dead. Gabriel wants the mask to revive his beloved wife, Marie who was tragically murdered. Dracula is not the focus this time, making the ending a little less predictable.
The story obviously won't win any awards, but it has enough twists to keep it fun and interesting. The narrative is driven through narration by Sir Patrick Stewart. His silky, dulcet tones add a welcome panache to what could have been an otherwise underwhelming tale. Playing fellow Brotherhood member Zobek, Stewart delivers a powerful, if borderline over-dramatic, performance. While Zobek seems like a stalker, following Gabriel everywhere he goes, it adds a lot of clarity as to what is going on in the world as Gabriel progresses.
Perhaps it was the contributions of Kojima Productions, but cut-scenes are surprisingly well done here. The scenes are framed well, with slow pans to show the often-gorgeous backgrounds. It's a good thing too, as there around an hours worth of them; undoubtedly another Kojima influence. If you could not care less about the story, they've mercifully added the option to skip all of them. Behold modern game design!
Chapters are broken into linear levels, but can be revisited at any time once beaten. While the game is not truly "open world", there are areas and items that can only be accessed once you have obtained certain powers. It strikes a decent compromise between the linear and the "Metroidvania" style. When levels are completed, trials are unlocked which are optional challenges. They can range from beating a boss within a time span, or kill X amount of enemies in a levels. It adds a great incentive to revisit old levels.
While I found the story interesting, the combat is the true star of Castlevania. By abandoning established canon, Mercury Steam was free to reinvent not only what Belmont's fight, but also how they fight. Replacing the Vampire Killer whip, Gabriel uses a metal cross containing an extending metal chain called the Combat Cross. Obviously it has whip-like properties, but it allows for far more options. The grand, dramatic swinging reminds me of God of War, which was an obvious influence. Thankfully, combat becomes much deeper and ultimately more satisfying. New abilities can be purchased through earned experience or found as upgrades throughout the game. Along with regular attacks, Gabriel can mix in light and dark magic which, when activated, adds another layer of abilities during combat. Your options become almost overwhelming. The "Focus Meter" rewards skillful play, as it fills up faster when varying your attacks, and empties completely once you are hit. If you manage to fill it, neutral souls pour out after each successful hit, allowing you to refill your magic. It's an elegant mechanic and allows you to come back from near death if you play well. I'd often find myself completely surrounded, near death, and about to be pummeled into oblivion. I'd take a deep breath, lean forward and really pay attention. Very quickly, the tides turn and I come out on top. It was so gratifying and kept me engaged through almost every encounter.
What I didn't expect out of Castlevania was its Prince of Persia-esque platforming. Often, Gabriel will have almost no enemies in a level, but must navigate through destroyed environments, hanging onto ledges, and using the Combat Cross to rappel up and down walls. I've always enjoyed this style of exploration and was impressed at how well it was done here. There were times were it wasn't clear where to leap to, but even if I fell, I was generously placed back with minimal health loss. Exploring heavily through the environments will quickly reveal how much is protected by invisible walls. It's disappointing that it's not more open, but it's understandable.
There's also a healthy dose of puzzle-solving involved. Some of them are downright devious; I wasn't expecting an action-heavy game to channel the logic-cortex. Those who don't wish to work their brain can decide to spend experience to instantly solve them. It's a clever compromise and gives the developers more overhead on the difficulty. I admittedly lucked into the solution on a couple of them. One especially genius level is a giant puzzle in and of itself. I won't spoil any more than that, but it does involve a cute version of the classic "Vampire Killer" tune.
The visuals and art direction of Castlevania: LoS are quite a diversion from past games. It would be easy to mistake LoS for something non-Castlevania. The art is much less cartoony and more substantial; don't mistake that for boring, however. It often reminded me of Guillermo del Toro's movies, such as Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth. It's obviously fantasy, but carries the notion that "if this were real, it would look and feel like this." Settings range from gorgeous forests, to gothic castles, and to Hellish planes. It's a total whirlwind of settings thrown at you, and it's often hard to appreciate it until you've gone through repeat plays. Familiar enemies such as lycanthropes, goblins, ghouls, massive titans, and vampires populate the various levels. They certainly fall within Castlevania conventions and feel right at home.
While the settings range from attractive to gorgeous and some of the enemies are downright brilliant (especially some of the boss battles), there is a performance trade-off for the visual lushness. The framerate is fairly inconsistent and was not uncommon to dip into the 20fps range and even below. While it's unfortunate it couldn't be more solid, it doesn't really interfere with combat but can be distracting. I've also had a couple instances where enemies completely disappeared mid-fight. I don't mean invisible, I mean actually dropped out from play. As soon as I moved a bit, they phased back in. It was jarring to see it happen more than once.
It's not often that a purely single player would warrant a full $60 recommendation from me, but Castlevania: LoS is a meaty game. Expect a 20-25 hour playtime on your first playthrough. It's impressive how much content this game actually has. The aforementioned trials and hidden items add a lot of replayability. Those wanting to get 100% will be busy for quite awhile.
While it isn't perfect, Castlevania: LoS marks a welcome diversion from the traditional series' fare. The combat system is deep and satisfying, and the platforming elements are a welcome change. The visual style strays from old Castlevania but strikes a style all its own. The excellent audio, both voice acting and soundtrack, add to creating a cohesive, epic world. There's some bugs to work out, and I'm excited to see what the sequel will hold. There's an impressive foundation here. While it's unlike past games in the series, it's worthy of carrying the Castlevania name.
- Enjoyable, fun story
- Deep, satisfying combat system
- Gorgeous graphics
- Genuinely impressive boss fights
- Large amount of replayability
- Subtle references to Castlevania roots
- Framerate issues
- Minor bugs
- Copious usage of invisible walls