imperiousrix's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (Xbox 360) review

What is a man?

Castlevania is one of my favorite gaming series.  Konami's vampire killing romps have been hitting consoles and handhelds since the NES.  Yet, despite its longevity and the relative quality (at least of recent installments) of its games, Castlevania seems to be looked on as a second-stringer in the grand scheme of video game franchises.  Out of this shrouded lineage come Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, what one could describe as a reboot or an adaptation of the series as a whole.  It might not follow canon, but this is a dark and melodramatic tale that is Castlevania top to bottom.  Does that make it a good game, though? 

 STORY 

In LoS, you take on the role of Gabriel Belmont, a member of the knight-ly order of The Brotherhood of Light, an ancient organization tasked with upholding the will of God and keeping peace among the denizens of the land (kinda like a medieval Jedi order).  However, a curse is plaguing the lands, unleashing mythical and hellish creatures and blocking the good souls of the deceased from reaching the afterlife.  Among these dead was Gabriel's wife, Marie, and knowing her soul still resides in the world, they task Gabriel with finding it and learning more about the threat they face.  From here, the adventure spirals off into a quest to retrieve the pieces of an omnipotent mask and destroying the Lords of Shadow, the leaders of this hellish invasion, freeing the land from its sickness, restoring the peoples' faith in God, and hopefully resurrecting Marie in the process.  The story is among the most distinguishing factors in LoS, simply because of how infinitely dark it is.  This is not a happy story, and there exists an increasing feeling of dread as the tale unravels.  By the end, you're wondering just what kind of man Gabriel is and if he's fighting for the right reasons.  It's melodramatic, but it works in this hopeless world that it exists. 

 CONTENT 

LoS is a lengthy adventure for its genre, but there's not much to do after the game's over.  Basically, you get a 12 chapter campaign that spans two Xbox 360 discs.  The story is long and encourages returning to previous levels to get more XP and retrieve upgrades previously unattainable with Gabriel's skills, but the two disc system truly hinders this prospect (more on that later).  There's also a heck of a lot of concept art to unlock, and one of the mini-games in the story gets unlocked as a seperate game mode after playing it in the campaign, but there's not much reason to jump back into the story after it's complete except for achievements or to prove your mettle on one of the game's four difficulty settings, one of which doesn't unlock until after a playthrough. 

 GAMEPLAY 

From a gameplay standpoint, Castlevania very much falls in line with the rest of the hack and slash genre, but has its own unique feel and pacing.  You attack with Gabriel's weapon of choice, a whip-like creation called the Combat Cross, and a handful of secondary weapons.  However, unlike most games which separate their main modes of attack by "strong" or "light" attacks, Gabriel instead splits his repertoire into damaging "direct" attacks and crowd controlling "area" attacks.  His moves are deliberate and definitely have some weight and delay to them, and this forces you to alter your playstyle significantly depending on the encounter.  Don't get me wrong, this still plays remarkably like games like God of War, Devil May Cry, Dante's Inferno, etc., but veterans of the genre will definitely feel a difference.  It also happens to share the weakness of those games in that it can become a tad repetitive after a while.  Luckily, LoS does a good job of consistently feeding you brand new enemies to fight as the game progresses, and it breaks up long combat sections with surprisingly long periods of no combat, something that truly helps the pacing of the game.
 
The other part of combat revolves around Gabriel's use of Shadow and Light magics and sub-weapons.  At a certain point of the game, Gabriel will gain the powers of the before mentioned magics, which augment his skills in battle (and occasionally in platforming sections).  Apart from having unique moves to each magic, Light and Shadow magic play on a risk/reward system.  Since both are fueled by the same "orbs", items that can be somewhat difficult to come by, the game forces you make the decision of whether you want to fuel the healing properties of Light (which heals Gabriel with each successful hit), or the damaging skills of Shadow (which ramp up Gabriel's attacks with extra damage potential).  Ultimately, it's a matter of preference, but I found the ability to stay alive a lot more desirable than a damage buff, making me lean more heavily on Light Magic.  
 
 On top of these options, you're also given sub-weapons, most of which have individual strengths and weaknesses against different enemy types.  Silver Daggers, for example, are direct projectiles that obliterate Lycanthrope enemies and ground flying foes, where as Holy Water devastates Vampires and the Undead.  The most unique weapons include Fairies (yes, Fairies) which distract your foes and open them up to Gabriel's combos (or explode in a kamikaze attack if combined with Light magic), and the Crystal.  The Crystal itself needs to be assembled, but once you have a complete Crystal, breaking it open unleashes a horrific demon which instantly kills all enemies on-screen and highly damages bosses. 
 
The last part of the LoS gameplay package is its platforming and puzzle solving elements.  These are simultaneously the best and worst of the game's gameplay.  On the one hand, although the platforming can be thrilling at points, a fixed camera and some spotty movement options mean you're going to be taking a few missteps here and there.  It also doesn't help that, on occasion, the camera takes form over function and makes it maddeningly obscure as to where you're supposed to go.  On the other hand, the puzzles in this game make fantastic use of environments and do a great job of breaking up the pacing of the game.  I think the developers were under the impression that many would not be a fan of them, as there's an option to skip any of them for an experience penalty.  In my opinion, however, each of them is beautifully designed and a joy to watch unfold (not to mention a joy when you finally figure them out). 

 PRESENTATION 

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a beautiful game.  From a purely artistic standpoint, this is one of the best games I've ever seen.  It sticks so closely to the darkly gothic feel, doing so with such skill, that when it finally does open up into beautiful landscapes or hauntingly sullen architecture that it's difficult to not just stop for a second and revel in it.  The character design as well is unique, mixing a stylized Eastern feel with a more realistic look  featured in most Western titles.  Adding life to these characters is a relatively all-star cast of voice actors.  Robert Carlyle adds a stern gravitas to his voicing of Gabriel, and Natascha McElhone as Marie is the lone light in an overwhelmingly black story.  This black tone can almost entirely be credited to the voice-work of Patrick Stewart, who both narrates and plays an active part in the story as the character of Zobek.  Throw in a classical score which actually uses some staples from the series as a whole (including an unsettlingly beautiful music box rendition of the "Vampire Killer" them), and you have a game whose beauty almost overshadows the power of its gameplay. 

 FINAL VERDICT 

Is Castlevania a wholly unique experience?  No.  Does it feel wholly like a Castlevania game?  No on that account to.  Is it a fantastic amalgam of modern gameplay conventions and Castlevania aesthetics?  Hell yes.  A fan of either could easily find a lot to love in this package, but what truly shines about Lords of Shadow is the fact that, when combined, this game towers above the sum of its parts.  It's a shame that many will overlook this game based on misconceptions, but that doesn't diminish the fact that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow contains within it an amazing gameplay experience wrapped in a beautiful shell that would make anyone cry bloody tears to look upon.
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