Castlevania in 3D has never worked. For one reason or another, the platforming, combat, and exploration have all fallen flat. With the release of Lords of Shadow, Konami and MercurySteam have finally broken that curse. Anyone expecting a game styled after Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow should drop that idea immediately. This is a Castlevania that draws its inspiration from the earlier games and the multiple stages of Order of Ecclesia. The ultimate outcome is a gothic horror adventure that borrows elements from other games but is ultimately a true reboot of the Castlevania franchise.
The story takes place in the year 1047, close to the chronological beginning of the original series, and follows Gabriel Belmont on his quest to discover why the world is slowly descending into chaos. He soon discovers that man has been cut off from God and only by destroying the Lords of Shadow while collecting the shattered fragments of an artifact known as the God Mask can the world be freed. Gabriel also has a personal stake in this journey as his wife was murdered days earlier and the Mask would give him the power to resurrect her. Although it takes a while for this tale to pick up, once it does it never lets you go. There's no doubt that it is filled with clichés, but they are used effectively and still add up to the best Castlevania plot to date. The greatest failing of the story, however, is that it insists on telling instead of showing. The player is constantly told how tired Gabriel is or how he is filled with hate but not once is there any visual indication of this. Even just the smallest scene would have brought this to life and made it something really special. As it stands, the story is an entertaining monster adventure.
Much like the story, it takes the gameplay some time to warm up before finally becoming something worthwhile. When Lords of Shadow begins, everything about it screams a God of War clone. It's not bad, but it's certainly not blowing me away. Gabriel starts out with his whip which takes the form of the Combat Cross, and you're quickly shown how the basic combat mechanics work. It all works well enough except that dodge and defend are placed on the same button making it easy to do one instead of the other. However, once Light and Shadow magic are introduced along with other elements that are distinctly Castlevania, the combat truly comes into its own. Light magic restores Gabriel's health when striking enemies while Shadow magic doubles the damage dealt to the monsters. Strategy truly comes into play when using the two wisely decides whether you will live or die. A neutral orb will fill one or the other depending on what you decide so you're constantly trying to decide whether you want magic to beat enemies or keep yourself alive. This is given even further depth when the focused state is introduced. If the player is able to avoid getting hit while dealing out a variety of damage, Gabriel will become focused and release orbs with every hit allowing him to constantly refill his magic. Oftentimes becoming focused is the one thing that will keep you alive in the more difficult fights.
The Combat Cross itself becomes a more viable weapon as the game continues as well. Where past Castlevanias made you wonder how a whip could be so effective as a weapon, the Combat Cross feels weighty and powerful as it is slowly upgraded. New moves can also be unlocked as experience is gained, many of which are extremely useful in taking on the hordes of monsters. More than once I was saved by a particular devastating move that laid waste to an enemy that previously had me on the ropes. Items are also able to be collected and used in battle including the classic throwing knives and holy water. Everything that is at your disposable is almost necessary as the monsters in Lords of Shadow are absolutely brutal, often killing me on the normal difficulty. They aren't cheap by any means, but they are always prepared to block before unleashing an unblockable attack. Discovering the rhythm and patterns of each enemy is almost a necessity to survive in combat. The game also has much less emphasis on quick-time events than either God of War or Dante's Inferno. They are certainly there but nowhere near as intrusive as the aforementioned games.
The final element of the combat is the boss and titan battles. Boss battles are some of the best parts of the game and happen just as frequently as past Castlevania games. Most have a great challenge to them which require you to memorize the patterns and know when to go in for a few strikes. It's during these moments that the focused state truly comes into play and deciding whether to double your damage or heal yourself will often be at forefront of your mind. You will likely die a lot but it never feels unfair and always comes down to skill. That's why it's too bad that the final boss is one of the easiest fights in the game. The fight is definitely one of the longest to be sure, but I never felt even close to actually losing. The same could be said of the titan battles. Pulling directly from Shadow of the Colossus, Lords of Shadow features moments where Gabriel has to take down ancient titans. While they are visually interesting, they don't have the same kind of challenge as the modern classic. They're the only part of the game that feel like nothing was done to make them unique.
When not fighting, the game has Gabriel either platforming or puzzle solving. The platforming mainly consists of the usual wall climbing or using the Combat Cross to swing to different platforms. It works as well as any other game but when it comes to the actual jumping sections, the platforming falls apart. Judging distances is incredibly annoying with the fixed camera angles. One of three things would almost always happen: I would jump over the platform, I would fall short of the platform, or I would land before accidentally walking off. Fortunately these moments are few and far between. Puzzles, on the other hand, are spread throughout the entire game and can range from insultingly simple to absolutely mind boggling. The problem with the more difficult ones isn't that they're actually tough but that there's little instruction as to what the goal is or what tools should be used. Once those are figured out, most of the puzzles can be solved through trial and error. At any point though any puzzle can be skipped by at the sacrifice of some bonus experience. It's a great touch so no one will get agitated, but every puzzle is certainly solvable. They just tend to be obtuse at times.
Where Lords of Shadow truly shines is in its presentation. The first thing out of any of my friends' mouths when they walked by was how pretty it looked. It is absolutely one of the best looking games to come out this year with a fantastic art direction to match. The characters and monster designs are also great with many of the monsters being pulled directly from previous games and given a much more threatening appearance. In much the same way the original Castlevania was inspired by the classic monster movies, Lords of Shadows monsters are a cross of the classic look and a stylized appearance drawn from the work of Guillermo del Toro. It's an appealing design that increases the implied threat of these creatures. The humans look good as well, all sporting an impressive amount of extra detail though Gabriel's head looks rather small on his shoulders. It's a small complaint but one that always stood out when I looked at him. The level design is just as lush as the characters with areas ranging from lush forests to dank caves to snowy villages to ancient castles. It puts you directly into this gothic world and makes you wish for camera control so you can get a better look at these vistas. Of course you'll also want control because of how often the game insists on hiding the correct path ahead. It got so bad that there was a point where I wandered around for twenty minutes trying to find the way forward. The fixed camera also causes problems with the controls at times. Whenever the camera changed angles, I was never sure if the analog stick would allow me to continue in the same direction or make me walk right when I was still pushing left.
The sound design is just as strong as the graphics and may just be one of my favorite soundtracks this year. I was unable to recognize any of the classic Castlevania songs but the music fits every possible mood of the game. It can become blazingly adventurous, darkly foreboding, or even heroically epic and continues the tradition of fantastic Castlevania music. The voice acting thankfully well done too. If it wasn't, the story wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as it was. I cannot stress enough how much the voice acting improves the script of this game. The dialog, when read, is stilted and extremely cheesy at times, but the actors are able to find the emotional core of their characters and make them much more realistic. Gabriel would have been wooden and generic but Robert Carlyle of Stargate Universe fame easily makes the player sympathize with him. Kudos has to go to Patrick Stewart as well for making the laughable introductions to each level interesting to listen to. The rest of the cast is fantastic and comes together to make a good story shine.
While Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has its problems, it's still an excellent game and the first truly worthwhile 3D entry in the series. Some have tried to claim that this reboot doesn't have enough in common with the classic series, but that's simply not true. The references are there, cleverly hidden and perhaps not as plentiful as some would have liked though the groundwork is most certainly set. I cannot wait to see where MecurySteam takes the series from here.
Note: This game was reviewed on Playstation 3
Developer: Kojima Productions,Mercury Steam Entertainment S.L.
Genre: Adventure, Action
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
2D Castlevania games - Love 'em
3D Castlevania games - Hate 'em
God of War - Love it
Shadow of the Colossus - Love it
Dante's Inferno - Meh