In 2009, I remember feeling a little left out of the geek fervor when I went to go attend a showing of the new Star Trek movie. For some reason or another, I just had never been a fan of the beloved series, and had only ever seen one movie (which I thought was boring). Still, the new movie seemed like it would be worth a watch, so I thought I would check it out with the rest of the red-shirt masses. Long story short: I left the movie feeling high on adventure, and itching to check out all the Star Trek that I had missed up until that point.
If you want to bring this over to gaming terms, I guess you could say that Castlevania has always been my Star Trek, so to speak. It’s one of those titles that I’ve just missed out on over the years. And now, after having spent a whole weekend plumbing the depths of Konami’s newest entry in the long-running classic action franchise, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the results are the same: I think Castlevania’s got a new fanboy.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a reboot of the revered Castlevania franchise, developed by Madrid-based Mercury Steam with some expertise and oversight provided by the famous Hideo Kojima of Kojima Productions. In it, you don’t resume the role of well known vampire slayer Simon Belmont, but rather Gabriel Belmont, one of the members of the Brotherhood of Light, an elite team of warrior-monk types that trot around the land slaying fell beasts and all manner of supernatural baddies.
Gabriel is on a quest to avenge and resurrect his recently deceased childhood love Marie, whose spirit has informed him that the Lords of Shadow are up to some dark magic that is preventing the passing of souls to the next realm, and also threatens the heavens and the earth. Naturally, Gabriel sets out on a mission to take out these demigods and everything else that draws breath in the countryside. His goal: assemble the God mask, which each dark lord has a piece of, and reverse their evil and bring back his love. He’s a simple man, really. Baby steps, Gabe.
In terms of gameplay, Mercury Steam was given the task of turning what was a puzzle/platform/action 2D game into something that matched that content in this generation. The path they chose is something more akin to God of War, and the game makes no bones about its influences in that regard. From the opening level, it’s clear that Gabriel’s moves are straight from Kratos’s repertoire. The Combat Cross turns the whip from the old games into what are essentially the GoW chain blades.
In addition to your chain attacks, you have special items at your disposal, each of which are useful for a different type of foe. There are shadow crystals which summon a dark force to your aid, fairies which distract ghouls and other undead creatures, daggers for lycans and holy water for vampires. All of these things work in tandem with your Combat Cross to make Gabriel a veritable priest of death.
Where I think the game’s combat is at its best, however, would have to be its magic system. Rather than just giving Gabriel a handful of magical abilities that he could unleash in addition to his regular arsenal, he also has access to two separate magic bars. Using light magic means that every hit you connect on an enemy replenishes your own health bar, while dark magic deals additional damage with each hit you place. The tandem of these two together makes combat an ever-flowing scenario, where you switch on the fly between defensive and offensive tactics, with sets of moves and combos that compliment each mindset. It makes even the most mundane of battles fluid and really adds an entirely new element to how you approach each situation, keeping it from becoming something more like Wolverine, a game that while great fun, proved ultimately repetitive. Really, Lords of Shadow feels like a much more refined version of that game.
That devotion and attention is what makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow stand out for me. As gamers, we lament all the time that “they just don’t make them like they used to”, but Lords of Shadow is proof positive that this isn’t the case. Nearly everything about this game feels polished, from the combat to the art design and even the structure and the pacing.
In terms of how this game looks, it is gorgeous. Not only did it surprise me graphically (seriously, the game videos have not done this thing justice), but it sports some fantastic art design. Fear not the dreaded next-gen brown in this Castlevania title. You move from lush fairy-populated forests to underground caverns to abandoned snowy villages and through the depths of a vampire’s castle. This game takes you to all kinds of interesting locales visually, and includes some stunning set pieces to boot, giving a great anchor to the levels.
Which brings me to the game’s pacing. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a long game for what it is. Clocking in at about 15-20 hours, it’s going to keep you button mashing and exploring for quite some time, and quite honestly I was worried that it was going to lose its luster by the game’s end. However, it’s so brilliantly paced that you hardly notice just how long the game actually is. Mercury Steam accomplished this in a variety of ways. Firstly, the game is split into 12 chapters, each with its own set of levels, which number about 50 in total. The great thing is that each of these levels is only about 20-30 minutes apiece, providing much needed breaks in the gameplay. Secondly, the abilities Gabriel acquires are spread out nicely over the course of the game. Much of this happens in the earlier chapters, which is the only place where the game feels slow, taking its time to build up steam. It’s not until the fifth chapter or so when it really starts firing on all cylinders, and you’re using all of Belmont’s abilities together in some entertaining ways. But again, that slow start is lessened in impact by the length of the levels.
Segmenting the game into these manageable chunks was a fantastic move, and really helps break up the monotony. Levels come in a variety of different sizes: brawlers, puzzlers, platformers and straight up old school boss battles. Lords of Shadow is constantly rotating between each of these kinds of levels, so you really stay on your toes in terms of gameplay. Just when you feel like you couldn’t possibly slay another goblin, you find yourself in a platforming level, or solving one of the game’s many brain teasers.
In terms of platforming, it’s one of the games weak points. It certainly has its moments, but is occasionally marred by strange button response times as well as the game’s camera. Rather than following you, the camera is almost always at fixed angles to make the game more cinematic or display some of the previously mentioned art design. While the camera does its job well for the most part, you occasionally run in to that last generation problem of going to a new area (and thus a new angle) and having the controls glitch on you. It’s never completely annoying, but becomes an issue just enough to cause some irritation. This becomes most obvious when trying to jump or run to new platforms, only to have the camera change and find you jumping the wrong way. But as I said, overall this doesn’t hurt the game much, as some of these sections are a blast. In particular, the Portal-esque puzzle-platforming of the penultimate chapter is where it feels sublime, but sadly it comes just a bit too late.
The puzzle levels are great fun, particularly the music box puzzle, which is one of the more creative and interesting levels I’ve seen in a game in awhile. One thing I enjoyed about the way Lords of Shadow treats puzzles is that it offers you a chance to buy out of the solution, meaning you can skip puzzles that prove to be too much of a challenge, or hinder you from tearing apart more vampires.
And finally, we come to the boss battles. Seriously, I could talk all day about how much I appreciated the many boss battles of Lords of Shadow, but I’ll try not to. The game is full of a spattering of mini-bosses as well as huge, epic bosses. The Shadow of the Colossus titans are a blast to play, and one of them in particular was probably huger than anything you’d find in that game. I also enjoyed fighting the solo bosses, especially the dark lords. They offered just the right amount of challenge and usually ended in climactic quick-time events. These aren’t like the QTEs of the God of War series (which I’ve never been a fan of), but are closer to what you’d find in Heavy Rain, relying more on timing. My one complaint is that when you miss these QTE prompts, the boss gets some of his/her health back and you have to wear them down all over again. As you get better at the game, this isn’t as much of an issue, but believe me when I say I was swearing at my TV for some of the first encounters. Most especially though, I loved the game’s final boss fight, which I won’t spoil.
Allow me to back up, because this touches on the game’s story presentation and cut scenes. You can definitely tell that these cut scenes and the story progression draw their structure from Metal Gear Solid (thanks Kojima-san), which in turn drew its presentation from the original Castlevania games. It’s a cool way of the past meeting the present and vice versa, and I thought it was handled marvelously. The cut scenes, for lack of a better word, are just awesome. Some of the moments and the vistas you see are stunning and grandiose, and the encounters with the enemies are intense and well done. One of the reasons the final boss fight is so memorable is because of how cinematic it is in its presentation, and seriously makes for one of the more epic final boss fight experiences I can remember.
All in all, the best way to describe what I loved about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is that it is old school game design, skillfully crafted like the titles I played as a kid, but wrapped in a next generation coat. It’s the perfect way to bring a franchise like this into a new generation, and an excellent first step to rebooting it in a way that fans new and old can both appreciate. The bit that happens after the credits, while somewhat predictable, still managed to give a twist I wasn’t ready for, and serves as a great tease for what could be to come. On top of all of this, I haven’t even touched on the game’s inherent replay value, with level-specific challenges, extra hard difficulty levels, collectibles and secret areas. The experience is not over by any stretch when you finish.
Lords of Shadow is by no means a perfect game. There are some that will criticize how much it borrows from other titles, and while this is true, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It manages to borrow while simultaneously tweaking in ways that keep it from feeling stale. Truth be told, I have always found God of War to be a repetitive game, but never felt that way about Lords of Shadow. As I said before, it is well paced but suffers from a bit of a slow start. In addition, the platforming controls could have used a bit more attention. There were also a few missions that felt out of place to the rest of the game, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see them removed because of the variation they provided. Despite those things though, it’s a great title that should be checked out by any fan of the series, potential fan of the series, and people that just love the way games used to be. I eagerly away what Konami and Mercury Steam do with this series next.
Until then, I think it’s time to start visiting the old Castlevania games.
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Full disclosure: A copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was given to us by Konami for review. I beat the game on Warrior difficulty and pummeled Evil with my bare hands.