A troublesome yet promising reboot
Castlevania as a franchise was in dire need of some kind of re-imagining. While the DS games were fun, it was literally 6 games in a row where the series tried its best to replicate the awesomeness that was Symphony of the Night and while results were frequently excellent (with Ecclesia being my personal favorite despite the fact its damn difficulty), too much of the same thing can be a bad thing. So Konami is trying its hand at trying new ways to explore the franchise with 2 releases: the multiplayer-focused Harmony of Despair, and their biggest release: Lords of Shadow, a 3D action game developed by MercurySteam, with aid of Kojima Productions and some impressive choices for voice acting. Which makes it a damn shame this game only does things right some of the time because for everything that astounds, there's something that seriously becomes aggravating and there's an unshakable feeling this game could be better but as a stepping stone, it does its job admirably.
You play as Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light which tracks down and kills enemies of the supernatural and underworld. But when departed souls are not passing on to Heaven, among them Gabriel's wife Marie, it's up to you and another warrior by the name of Zobek to discover the mystery and search after the mystical God's Mask, which is said to be able to bring souls back to life. To do this, Gabriel must travel and defeat the masters of enemy clans and kill the Lord of Shadow to bring his wife back to normal and set the world right.
When it comes down to the storytelling, Lords of Shadow truly does excel with some excellent voice work and some creative uses of the Castlevania lore without it feeling like it's way out there for anything to get ahold of. The pace however seriously falters since the game just feels long, a really good 16 hour adventure that could've been condensed to an excellent 10-12 hour experience. I wouldn't call certain sequences filler since most tend to have unique puzzles or beautiful scenery but there's just so much of this game that I wonder if there's anything that didn't appear in the game.
The gameplay has been written off as just another God of War despite the existence of games before God of War that were similar but one thing sets this game apart then something like say Dante's Inferno which is that game felt like it was a clone without any real identity other than a religious-medieval setting yet everything reminded too much of Sony's beloved franchise. This game though works with its combat and how things are set up despite the fact some obvious influences show up such as the platforming of Uncharted and the boss-scaling of Shadow of the Colossus.
The combat works very well actually and the controls never got in the way but there's 2 different kinds of fighting systems: one's where you mashing buttons does fine enough and others where you really have to learn its mechanics to succeed and Lords of Shadow is kind of similar. I laugh at one's who say they button mash this game because enemies are relentless and they tend to hit very hard which can make for a very frustrating experience, particularly in the first parts where you don't have much combos or really anything but things open up more and using Light and Shadow magic and yes, even sub-weapons to dish out additional damage helps the combat feel dynamic and intense. The puzzles though can seriously become grating, mainly for their lack of direction and in some cases, just being poorly designed. One puzzle requires you to use ground switches to move a spark travel across a path on a wall with the switches acting as directions. However you have to ground pound each switch and it just becomes tedious. And speaking of, the chupacabra's with their high-pitched squeaky voice are going to be the cause of some raging.
Presentation wise, well Lords of Shadow mightily impresses with some incredible vistas, really sharp attention to detail and despite some framerate issues on the 360 version, it's a very beautiful game. Music-wise it's kind of like most other "epic" games or movies: it's very orchestral filled with rousing scores, sweeping strings and haunting choir but none of it seems to stick and it becomes a very pretty soundtrack when it's actually on yet doesn't linger as other Castlevania themes have. Voice acting is uniformly strong (aside from that chupacabra bastard mentioned above) with Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart, Natasha McElhone and Jason Isaacs though it is kind of strange you'll hear more lines from Patrick Stewart then the other 3 combined despite Carlyle voicing the main character.
Castlevania's the kind of game where I really had a fun time with the overall experience but looking back on it in detail, I'll get frequent reminders of its unnecessary length, platforming and puzzle woes and at times, irritating difficulty. But the storytelling and graphics and combat that actually rewards learning its intricacies makes it a good start for what I hope is more great games in the series.