Not an award winner, definitely a heart warmer
Thunderous thumps of chains meeting hard earth, haloed by globules of blood? Punctuated by close up QTE events letting you admire the gore? Occasional bits of monster jockeying? Pretty, epic vistas? It's God of War, right?
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is unashamedly derivative - even it's very concept is nicked from the campy world of the Hammer Horror film studio, pitting the greats of gothic horror together. Being cruel you could almost call it a pallet swap of God of War, and you'd not be far wrong. It borrows wholesale from the formula that the Playstation's premier god kill'em up has popularised - the linear adventure that wows the eyes and satisfies the blood lust with buckets of gore and plenty of enemies to gib in a number of inventive and gruesome ways, and big set pieces. It's not exactly a bad formula to copy and copy it Castlevania does.
It could feel cheap for that, but theres a charm to this game that had me happy to trawl through it's suitably lengthy and chunky campaign.
You play Gabriel Belmont, a member of an ancient order of warrior monks who's wife has tragically lost her life and left him heart broken and her lost in limbo for tedious plot related reasons. Did I mention theres a problem with the balance of power between good and evil and what not too? To be fair the story, as uninspiring as it is it does a good job at keep the game moving and, by and large, keeping it from lulling. The writers do make the mistake of getting a bit ahead of themselves with some aspects (a character appears for no explicable reason early on, hangs around for a chapter and then, with no development of the character at all over that time, ceases to feature. Theres also an attempt at being clever with the story that has the distinct hint, to me anyway, of the writers patting themselves on their back - but thats nitpicking and many players will raise a smile as that line of the narrative is revealed, to spoil as little as possible). Gabriel's epic adventure will see him wander Elven forests, ominous bogs, medieval towns and, of course, an obscenely Gothic crazy castle, and battle everything from dirty great pigs to goblins, trolls, werewolves and of course, vampires, which is what we're all here for really.
This is a surprisingly attractive title. I was actually taken aback at times at just how good it could look, a couple of sections in particular scattered throughout the game are genuinely stunning and give everything a sense of scale that sucks you in and keeps your mind away from quite how linear at times it can be - the approach to the castle is a long straight run punctuated with a few simple battles, but the . The good looks extend down to a number of the characters which also benefit from a truly top notch sense of character design - Pan, encountered early on in Gabriels crusade, looks to have been plucked from Guillermo del Toro's frontal lobe directly, and even the more generic characters have a solidity and believablity to them - I buy the character design and that does the game the world of good.
It sounds great too. The score is overblown orchestral at its best, with pomp and circumstance oozing from every chord and occasional nods and winks to older games in the series that will have fans that catch them raising a knowing smirk. The game really benefits from the obvious love in it's presentation and the care to nail the atmosphere. For a game that is in gameplay terms nothing earth shatteringly unique, the atmosphere and style are what the game needs to stand out. It is a shame that the one aspect of this where the game does fall down is in it's acting talent - Patrick Stewart is put to work narrating the story and occasionally appearing on screen as Zobek, an older member of Gabriel's order, introducing each chapter with a long monologue that strangely seem to have been read by Stewart after a few hours in the bar - he regularly appears to get the emphasis and emotion of the prose wrong, placing odd inflections on lines and generally having abit of a disinterested drawl. Robert Carlyle as Gabriel phones in a performance and reverses the charges too. But this is a mild slight on a game that, on the whole, looks great and sounds superb.
Gameplay is simple, the by now archetypal heavy and light attacks with combos opened up as experience is spent, punctuated by some climbing, platforming and simple puzzling. Anyone having played this sort of hack and slash adventurer in the last 5 years will feel well at home instantly. There's considerable variety in the combos for those that wish to find it, with a healthy amount of extra moves opening up over the course of the games 20 hours and beyond. If there is a failing here, it is that it is easy to fall into the trap of using 5 or 6 moves and coming to rely on them, and the counter system can feel slightly unweildy. The basic mechanic is further augmented by a simple 2 way magic system and the collection of artifacts opening up new abilites. Theres few complaints to be had here and, simple as it is it works and satisfies.
Away from combat the platforming is simplistic and kept taught by good design and camera work in the main. Puzzling is also simple and rarely will tax anyone who is familiar with action game puzzles from the last decade.
A change of pace can be found on a number of the games bosses, inspired quite unashamedly by Shadow of the Colossus but with none of the wonder of that classic, that also represent some of the most frustrating moments of the game and perhaps are the games most disappointing mistep.
A further change of pace that rewards replays of earlier chapters can be found in challenges and collectibles that require abilities collected later on the game, perhaps the closest that the game comes to it's 'Metroidvania' ancestors.
ConclusionIt's hard not to be charmed by Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It has little to no innovation, every aspect of it has been done before and probably better, it has some frustrating moments, it's story is nothing new or award winning, and it's high brow voice acting talent puts in a disappointing performance.
But theres an undeniable satisfaction to raining down righteous blows with a hulking great chain on wave after wave of werewolves vampires zombies and demons and other such undead and supernatural entities. It isn't big and it isn't clever, but I like it. The game has a great look about it, it often sounds awesome, and for 20 hours it had my rapt attention, and for the 6 chapters in the middle, I'd say that Castlevania Lords of Shadow was one of my favourite experiences of 2010 and one I'd encourage anyone to pick up, especially with DLC on the horizon...