SCHLOCKTOBER '21:This October I have been playing a number of games with Halloween appropriate themes, focusing on older and less appreciated games in my backlog. These aren't necessarily horror games but rather games with strong horror elements. I've decided to blog about these games and whether I think they're still worth playing as a seasonal treat or the gaming equivalent of an apple full of razor blades.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came at an awkward time for the series. It had been a couple years since Order of Ecclesia, and while Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth was well regarded, it was a remake of an older game and it was only for the Wiiware service, which meant it had limited distribution. That meant that people had a growing appetite for the Metroidvania style of Castlevania and instead Konami offered up an alternate timeline 3D game done by a Western studio. As it would turn out there would never, as of this writing, be another mainstream Castlevania again because Konami was about to enter its steep decline, but at the time all that people knew was that they wanted a Metroidvania and instead they were getting a God of War clone in Castlevania clothing with a whole new mythos. Interestingly enough Mercury Steam, the studio behind the Lords of Shadow franchise, would go on to reboot classic Metroid with Samus Returns and now the well-regarded Dread, but of course that was almost a decade later and just makes for an interesting post hoc historical footnote.
I understand why many Castlevania fans didn't want to play a 3D action game where you don't even get to fight Dracula when they weren't getting their traditional Castlevania fix but I also understood why Konami at the time thought there was more money in a big budget 3D action game than another handheld take on Symphony of the Night.
Stripped out of its historical context Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is kind of a weird game. Its clearest inspiration is the God of War series, from which it draws its fixed camera angles, the basic flow of its combat and some of the mixing and matching of mythology that it contains, but it cribs liberally from other games as well. It has Uncharted style climbing, including the introduction of a rope grapple before that series added it in the 4th entry. It has a few Shadow of the Colossus style boss fights where you climb around on top of an enemy and hammer their weak points, but these, frankly, are pretty bad and show what a careful balance of design that game was. It is constructed out of dozens of linear levels but lets you replay one whenever you want as an apparent nod to the Metroidvania fans, though in this case it’s just a big pain in the butt because it means you can’t collect everything your first time through a level and you have to replay it from the start if you want to access them later. It has the ability to tame and ride beasts and experience that you can use to purchase new moves and minigames and on and on and on. It is fairly liberal with checkpoints but leaves you with half health and no magic refill after death, meaning that some bosses that have checkpoints in between phases are very difficult, especially before you get health upgrades.
It's kind of a mess.
The game starts you off on kind of a bad note when, after a big fight against some werewolves you get on to a magical horse and gallop through the forest in a weird and unfun minigame that turns out to thankfully be a one off. Then you find yourself in a bog where you have to wade very slowly through the muck and wait for poison pools to dissipate before proceeding and it is legitimately one of the most boring things I’ve ever done in an action game. At this point I was worrying that the game was going to be a complete slog to get through, much like that horrible level.
Fortunately it opens up a bit after that and it focuses more on the combat and climbing, which are both decent, and kind of finds it groove. The combat is God of War light, with your “vampire killer” whip acting very much like the Blades of Chaos and you having the ability to parry and dodge roll, as well as some classic Castlevania subweapons like the dagger and holy water. Unfortunately the game isn’t as good as God of War in a couple important ways. The first is that you don’t build and upgrade your abilities like you do in God of War. Other than the subweapons most of the upgrades you find are not combat focused. You do get light and dark magic relatively early in the game, and those are used to enhance your whip, granting you either healing on strike or extra damage. You can also learn combos and abilities unique to when those magic powers are activated, but there’s nothing like the various magics that Kratos gets in his journeys or the alternate weapons he picks up. It’s not bad combat but it’s shallow.
That shallowness is really brought on by the lack of animation canceling. Unlike Kratos, once Gabriel Bellmont commits to an attack he cannot block or combat roll until it’s completed. This renders many of the complex combos in the game completely useless. Enemies do not have long flinch windows, meaning that if you plant your feet and try to execute a combo you’re likely to take hits, if not from the enemy you’re attacking than from others around it. This isn’t as true of the weak cannon fodder type guys, but of course you also don’t need those combos to dispose of them, so the game relies heavily on parrying or dodging attacks, getting a few strikes in, and then getting out of the way. You can execute some of the weaker enemies and there’s a combo meter that builds if you hit enemies with varied attacks or parry without getting hit and after it maxes out hitting enemies will drop orbs you can use to refill your magic (sometimes executions drop those too.) Boss fights likewise are all about dodges and parries rather than offense, though a few throw in some wrinkles like making you destroy items in the environment to make the boss vulnerable. The game has an XP system with the XP spent on new moves and combos (or art for some reason) but you’ll quickly find a few favorites and those should work throughout the game.
Traversal is at least a bit more complicated than something like Uncharted, relying on lots of timed jumps and some actual platforming, and at least referencing old Castlevania games with some of its designs. But it’s also a relatively small part of the game. There’s also a tiny bit of puzzle solving, all of it relatively simple and easy. This is primarily a game about combat and it’s a shame that the combat isn’t any better.
Where Lords of Shadow shines is in its sheer variety. The story focuses on the aforementioned Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light who’s wife has been murdered and who seeks to bring her back by gaining power from destroying the Lords of Shadow, evil beings of immense strength who rule over the world and have cut the humans off from being able to talk to God. There’s a werewolf lord, a vampire lord, and a necromancer lord, and Gabriel traverses their various lands alongside the narrator Zobek, an older member of the Brotherhood of Light who is voiced by Patrick Stewart. There are an absolute ton of locations in this game and a lot of variety in them. The werewolf lord rules over forests, swamps, and icy lakes. The vampire lord controls a giant castle and estate, with designs taken straight out of classic Castlevania, and the necromancer controls the lands of the dead and their environs. Each section of the game feels different, and there are lots of seemingly random asides along Gabriel’s journey when he might, for example, meet the ancient god Pan to ask his counsel, or battle a crow witch atop her tower, after defeating a giant ogre along the way. There are 14 chapters and up to 8 levels per chapter and there’s a lot of game here, with tons of story and characters and just different places to explore. You might ride a giant spider and use its web to create a walkway or fight an evil butcher in the vampire castle’s kitchen. Baba Yaga even shows up, kind of at random, and she has you battle scarecrows to gain access to her music box that she shrinks you down to put you inside. The game is much more creative and wilder than the vast majority of games of the era.
The story itself is pedestrian, the cast Is pretty good (Patrick Stewart is, of course, phenomenal) and the writing is fine, but really this is a tale about Gabriel’s emotional development as much as his exploits, and most of those are strangely told to you via pre-chapter narration rather than shown. We are told that Gabriel is getting angrier and angrier as he goes, sleeping less and empowered by how driven he is, but we don’t see any of that in the in game cut scenes. It creates a disconnection from the narrative and makes the game feel even more fractured than its level based design.
Also why were there so many games about men descending into the underworld to chase their dead wives around 2010? Dante’s Inferno, Shadows of the Damned, and Lords of Shadow are all structured around that basic plot and it really shows how video game stories treat women.
In the end Lords of Shadow is just a tremendously uneven game. It’s great looking with some truly epic camera angles that frame the action beautifully but sometimes at the expense of playability. Its controls are responsive but its combat is shallow and starts very hard but then gets easier as you find more life and magic gems. The creature riding stuff has promise but is all but abandoned in the back half of the game and the titan battles are frustrating and terrible. At times it feels like a Castlevania game with familiar elements (especially in the castle) and at times it feels more like a Lord of the Rings rip off adventure, fighting goblins and trolls in brightly lit ancient ruins. It’s kind of a big shaggy mess of a game with lots of highs and lows and parts that are just alright.
This game got a mixed reception upon launch and I had a mixed reaction to it myself over a decade later. People at the time wanted a Metroidvania and instead they got a 3D Castlevania game that only feels like Castlevania part of the time, and that has a lot of issues. I won’t spoil the game’s big twist at the end, but it’s pretty bonkers and was an audacious take on the whole concept of Castlevania that came off as fresh and exciting to some people and inauthentic to the franchise for others. Personally, knowing how everything played out with Konami I think this game at least reflects a time when they were still making big ambitious interesting games. Lords of Shadow is not Symphony of the Night but it’s also not a pachinko machine or a horrible mobile asset flip.
I ultimately had a good time with Lords of Shadow, but it was a rollercoaster of levels that I liked and those that I didn’t and if it hadn’t been for the visual variety and my love of Patrick Stewart I could easily have soured on the game much more than I did. And that opening. Rough.
A Note on the DLC: Lords of Shadow has 2 DLC chapters, available for $10 each. These flesh out some of the details of what happens after the final boss fight but before the game’s actual ending, but not very much. They’re pretty light on story and especially character development, and they’re way too short to justify their price. The first DLC is just another short and mediocre chapter like some in the main game. It doesn’t reach the heights of the best parts but it’s fine for what it is and even has a couple unique gameplay wrinkles.
The second DLC is essentially one long boss fight and it is legitimately one of the least pleasant things I’ve ever played. You’re stuck in an ugly lava world where you have to do some timed traversal sequences with the boss chasing you and then you actually fight him and the fight itself is flat out horrible. He has four stages, during which he does the same attacks but quicker, and where his weak spot moves up his body from stage to stage until you need to double jump in order to hit it, which leaves you totally defenseless if you stay up there too long attacking, meaning that the way to get through this is to dodge a lot until you get a good attack angle, hit the boss once or twice, and then move again. The boss has a ton of health and though his attacks are telegraphed they aren’t always avoidable depending on your positioning, and a lot of them intentionally look similar so if you miss a subtle difference in movement your dodge won’t work. It’s infuriating and boring and you don’t get to recharge your health or magic at any point during the fight. I only got through it by quitting out, maxing my health and magic, going back in, and strictly rationing them, saving each bar of magic for the last two phases (the fight is checkpointed) and even then it was an ordeal. I hated this fight, it didn’t work at all with the forced camera angles, it has QTE events interwoven in it and if you don’t immediately figure out what to do (they’re not just button presses but require doing something like dodging multiple exploding fire javelins and then running back to grab them and throw them at the boss, which is the only part of the game that requires manual aiming and is touchy and awful.)
The first DLC is merely overpriced but inoffensive otherwise. The second DLC made me hate the people who made it. It’s like the developers took the feedback that the boss fights were too easy and decided to make a hellacious cheap boss to get revenge at the players. It’s not the hardest boss I’ve ever faced but it is probably the one that best combines difficulty and sheer lack of fun or engagement. I’d rather take an 8 hour bus ride than have to do that boss fight again.
Schlocktober Rating: Uneven Schlock.
Lords of Shadow is a game that's sometimes enjoyable and gorgeous and sometimes infuriating or boring. It's ambitious but weirdly segmented and its story goes in weird places that rewrite much of the history of Castlevania for its alternate timeline. I found it worth sticking through for the good parts, but I could just as easily see someone finding the bad parts not worth it. And that second DLC is a bigger waste of money than the PlayStation mini. If this were a Halloween Candy it would be those novelty jellybeans where some of them are delicious flavors like strawberry or lime and some are gross flavors like blood or snot but you can't tell which is which until you taste them.