MercurySteam has taken successful mechanics from combat-focused, character action games and blended it with Castlevania
I was pleasantly surprised when Castlevania: Lords of Shadow released in 2010 – mainly for the fact that it was a great 3D Castlevania game that I thought would never happen during this generation’s home consoles. It was a departure from the norm, since Castlevania, for the most part, has offered quality 2D action-adventure titles on handhelds, holding up its part of the Metroidvania sub-genre that fans love to throw out at anything that features similar gameplay mechanics. Lords of Shadow went in a different direction, aiming for new players to come to the franchise by focusing on the action side, cloning such games as God of War and slotting in its own lore. This worked, because Lords of Shadow is the most sold entry in the Castlevania franchise. Now, three years later, PC fans can experience the tale of Gabriel Belmont with this fantastic PC port that removes one thing that spoilt the console iteration of the game, the fluctuating sub 30 frame rate.
I’m not going to get into a lengthy review about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, , but I will state some of my own things that I enjoyed and disliked about the title.
Players jump into the red robes of a holy warrior named Gabriel Belmont (voiced by fellow British man Robert Carlyle), who is a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group of protectors who keep the civilians safe from the supernatural infestation that goes on in the world ofCastlevania. Gabriel has recently suffered the loss of his wife, and feeling so depressed about her death, Gabriel follows the lead that points him to the Lords of Shadow, an evil presence that wants to take over the world. There is also a rumour about a strange mask that can bring his beloved back from the dead, so like any good gentleman, he decides he must hunt down this mask, kill ferocious beings and be the hero – all in a day’s work for the Belmont family, if only that was the case.
Gabriel is armed with the Combat Cross, a holy cross with a deadly embedded whip that acts suspiciously similar to Kratos’ Blades of Chaos/Athena. Gabriel has access to various moves that work the use of heavy and light attacks to chain together combos. If you’re using an 360 pad (which I fully recommend to do for the PC version), then these are assigned to X and Y, with X activating heavy attacks made for focusing on one enemy, while the Y attack is a large area swirl that will hit anyone around you. The beginning of the game is an awful demonstration for Lords of Shadow’s combat (it’s one of the main reasons why the demo is bad), as it starts by offering the player the most basic moves. It’s not until a few hours in, where you’re pulling enemies in (à la DmC) and pulling off ridiculous combos combined with Gabriel’s magic that you appreciate the diversity on offer with the combat. It’s not on par with something specialised like Bayonetta, but the game offers deep and varied enough combat that it feels satisfying for the people that want to do just more than mash a few buttons.
Magic is very important in Lords of Shadow and early in the game you’re given your first taste of it through the light magic, which when activated and used in combat will gradually refill Gabriel’s health bar with each hit of the Combat Cross. Later in the game the shadow magic becomes available, adding extra strength to each attack. Both magic feature their own metre, so metre management is something a player has to focus on, especially on the harder difficulty, where the use of light magic is a must to keep your health in good condition. The developers have smartly given the player the option to choose which magic they would like to refill by offering two ways to go about it. The first one is less stressful, as scattered around the game’s stages are small statue’s that allow Gabriel to absorb orbs by clicking down on the left stick (light) or right stick (shadow) to refill the desired magic. The other is to do with the rune. If you manage to deal enough hits and don’t get hit yourself, the rune powers up, causing small magic orbs to be left by enemies on each successful hit. If you use magic or get hit the rune will reset back to nothing, leaving it requiring more hits to charge again. It’s a handy way to gain health back in the middle of a fight, as there are no items that offer health during gameplay (just the shrine system).
What I really love about Lords of Shadow is how the developers have incorporated the weapons and magic into the game’s platforming and puzzle solving. Nearly every tool is used at points throughout the game. The ability to double jump is worked in by having longer jump sections, which are often mixed with the use of the sprinting boots that allow Gabriel to jump greater distances. The gauntlet is used to punch objects to move them across areas or to activate switches, shadow magic is used with a shoulder charge to smash through weak walls, and the hidden chain in the Combat Cross is used to cut down stone obstacles. I could go on and on with examples, but all you need to know is that when it comes to mixing up puzzles and combat, Lords of Shadow is a great example of utilising all the features it has to offer.
Lords of Shadow is a meaty game. Just finishing it took me around 20 hours, which includes my deaths and the two DLC chapters that are added into the Ultimate Edition. It’s an impressive feat that MercurySteam managed to keep Lords of Shadow interesting throughout this grand adventure. There are a few missteps here and there, such as some exploring levels going on far too long, feeling like filler to extend the game, or a boss fight or two that isn’t any fun or exhilarating to take part in (looking at you stone titan – throw the damn rocks!) but for the most part you’re going to have a great time moving from the various locales that range from a Gothic vampire castle that stands taller than any other building, visiting the sinister, snow-filled village set to the light of the moon, to the titan graveyard, which is riddled with bones of dead giants that would put some skyscrapers to shame. Variety in locales is another strong area for Lords of Shadow.
It also looks mighty impressive on the PC. Gone are any signs of frame rate problems – this title is solid 60FPS through and through. Some of the animations from Gabriel can look wonky – almost robotic – at times, giving off a sense that that their animations were targeted for the 30FPS console version in mind, but if you can overlook that, then the game displays at a silky smooth rate. The console release of Lords of Shadow already looked mighty impressive and three years later this game still manages to be a looker. The amazing character models, comprehensive texture work and environmental artistry by the team at MercurySteam are on full display. Textures are sharp, extremely detailed and really help make the Gothic nature of Lords of Shadow come out at its fullest, even holding up well for PC standards.
Sadly, all the other problems with Lords of Shadow are still present with this Ultimate Edition. The camera is fixed, which is great for showing off the grand scale, but it does occasionally mess up, affecting some of the platforming and movement directions when it decides to flip to the next camera location. It can also get trapped behind pillars and other inanimate objects when in combat, which is not something you want happening when you’re trying to do your best to avoid being hit by whatever supernatural nasty is gunning for you. I also ran into a bug that stopped the Boss (one of the vampire bosses) from progressing to its next phase. Luckily, using the “restart from checkpoint” option in the menu solved that, but by now those things should be fixed.
It may not be the Castlevania as fans know it, but MercurySteam has taken successful mechanics from combat-focused, character action games and blended it with Castlevania’s lore. When it comes to bringing Castlevania to the PC platform, then this is probably the best way to open up the franchise to new people, especially when the sequel is arriving February 2014. If you’re a PC gamer who has never played Castlevania: Lords of Shadow or a hardcore fan that is looking to replay the game before the sequel hits, you should certainly pick up the PC version. It’s undoubtedly the “Ultimate” version, and with DmC being the only recent title to offer similar gameplay on the platform there isn't much choice when it comes to these types of games. Sitting at a welcoming £19.99 on Steam (and cheaper in other places), there is plenty here for your money that would make even Dracula come out of the shadows for a taste.