Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Developer: Mercury Steam
Release Date: 10/05/10
When I first got to try out Castlevania: Lords of Shadow at E3 this year, I was, I have to admit, mildly impressed with the game. My first impression was that it was basically a God of War clone, mind you, which isn’t the nicest impression to come away with, but it seemed, at that point, like a competent one, and the Castlevania series has been in need of a solid 3D title ever since the franchise attempted to go into the third dimension some eleven years ago on the Nintendo 64. The various 3D titles in the series have been adequate, at best, and none have really carried the franchise into the third dimension in such a fashion that wouldn’t make fans cringe whenever a new one was announced. As such, even an unoriginal clone of another popular game series might not be the worst way for the franchise to go, if only because the game itself might still be pretty good. Of course, at the time, I was working off of what was essentially a demonstration of the game, showcasing early levels and basically presenting them in a fashion that might get journalists interested in hopes of building hype. It’s easy to look at that and say “Well, of course you came away with a positive impression, that’s the whole point,” but I was hopeful, all the same, that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow would at least be a fun and enjoyable game and a solid part of the Castlevania series.
Not even close.
Lords of Shadow takes place back in the eleventh century and stars Gabriel Belmont, the first member of the Belmont clan to take up weapons against evil, because retcons and reboots are AWESOME. Gabriel is tasked by the Brotherhood of Light, the holy order of which he is a member, to discover why God has apparently abandoned the world. Gabriel has somewhat of a personal stake in the mission, also, as his wife was recently murdered by agents of the Lords of Shadow, and he’s looking for revenge on top of looking to fulfill the request of his order. Gabriel discovers, after meeting fellow order member Zobek, that there is a prophecy that tells of a warrior who will claim the power of the Lords of Shadow and, in turn, become as powerful as God, and Gabriel, figuring this is a good way to both save his world and bring back his departed wife, goes off to end the Lords of Shadow in hopes of fulfilling this prophecy. On its own, the story is simply adequate, in that it keeps the events going from one place to the next and does so in a way that will keep you mildly interested. There’s nothing to speak of in the way of character development (or at least GOOD character development), you’ll be able to see half of the plot twists coming a mile away (and the half you don’t see will be because they’re very bad), and the writing seems a bit too windy for its own good, but it’s tolerable enough that you probably won’t openly loathe anything about it until the very end.
Lords of Shadow is certainly pleasant to look at, as the visuals are very well designed and varied. The environments vary significantly from one to the next and the environments are all very well designed. The character models are all well animated and look good in motion, and they’re very nice looking in design. There are some graphical issues, unfortunately, as the hair effects look rough around the edges and there are some obvious clipping issues here and there, but these issues don’t stand out so much as to be a problem. Aurally, Lords of Shadow features more of the same rolling orchestral score you’ve come to expect from these sorts of games, and it’s nice, if utterly unimpressive. The voice acting is well done, and features plenty of talented actors across the various roles, but many of the actors themselves sound as if they’re phoning it in, and the game has a bad habit of actors delivering lines in a way that the subtitles do not match. For instance, there’s a frequent issue where the subtitles indicate there will be a dramatic pause, indicated by ellipses… but the character plows right on through the line without stopping, which is annoying and happens more than it should. The sound effects are generally fine and round out the audio experience well enough, as they fit the theme well and are clean and well presented.
Lords of Shadow is essentially a straight God of War clone, and as such, plays about as you would expect. Gabriel has two attacks, a regular single-target strike and an area of effect strike, mapped to the face buttons, as well as a subweapon and the jump button. The left stick controls movement, the right stick controls the camera, the left trigger controls blocking and dodging when used with the left stick, and the right trigger allows Gabriel to grapple with enemies and interact with the environment in various ways. The mechanics of the game offer equal parts melee combat and jumping/climbing puzzles, and in both cases the gameplay works as you would expect for the sort of game this is. As you engage in battle, Gabriel earns experience points which can be dumped into upgrading his abilities, by way of learning new combat combinations and skills. You can also find various parts of health and magic medallions that allow Gabriel to increase his health and magic meters, respectively, allowing him more of those resources in battle. The game also archives various notes Gabriel finds in his travels as well as character profiles in the pause screen, allowing you to review the documents at your leisure. Anyone who has played this sort of game, oh, ever should be immediately at home with Lords of Shadow and its mechanics.
As you progress, Gabriel will acquire two additional magical artifacts, a Light and Dark medallion, which allow him to use magic from those two schools. By simply kicking on the medallion of choice with either of the bumpers, Gabriel is immediately given a passive effect; with the Light medallion, Gabriel heals damage whenever he hits an enemy, while with the Dark medallion, Gabriel deals more damage. In both instances, this costs some of his stored magic, which he can replenish by defeating enemies and absorbing the neutral essence they leave behind. This is done by holding in either of the analog sticks, which absorbs the magic into that corresponding medallion. Holding in both sticks spreads the magic out over both medallions, if you don’t want to specifically absorb everything into one of them. You can also buy magical upgrades that allow for damaging combinations when the appropriate medallion is enabled. You will also earn several different subweapons throughout the course of the game, including the daggers you start with, a giant naked demon that deals massive damage to enemies, and other odd things, which can also be upgraded through the finding of items and the spending of experience. Gabriel will also earn various upgrades to the Combat Cross as you progress through the game that allow him to rappel from obstacles, swing around, cut through obstacles and other fun things, as you’d expect from such a game, and since you can revisit stages you’ve completed previously, you can go back and collect hidden items that were protected due to your lack of the needed tools to do the job.
You’ll want to revisit the older stages, also, as you’ll be tasked to complete various challenges in each completed stage on top of collecting items that were previously out of your reach, which in turn ears you additional experience points you can use on new skills. This is a positive thing, as the enemies will in no way make the game easy for you. Regular enemy encounters are filled with small and larger sized foes of various sorts, but the boss fights you’ll encounter will also be a bit of a challenge, as many of the bosses are several times your size and quite menacing, and there are even some Shadow of the Colossus styled boss fights that feature you climbing around on giant monsters, stabbing at weak points and holding on for dear life all the while, which are interesting if nothing else. You’ll find that most of the boss battles are as much about pattern recognition as anything else, but they’re no less challenging for this, and as a result, they’re challenging enough in their own right.
The core game clocks in at about the eight to ten hour range, possibly longer if you go back and complete the various challenges in each stage or collect the hidden items you might have missed the first time around. There are a total of four difficulty levels to choose from, with three available by default and one unlocked for completing the game, so if you’re looking for a challenge you’ll certainly find it here, after a fashion, though this mostly just makes the enemies hit harder instead of making the battles more complex or anything like that. There are also fun little cheats to play around with and unlockable things to earn, and plenty of achievements to unlock if you’re interested. To be honest, though, I’m really fighting for nice things to say about the game at this point, so let’s just get this over with and move on to the bad.
Now, there are plenty of issues to be found in the game, let us not dispute this. There are significant camera problems, especially when the camera randomly changes angles mid-jump or swing, causing you to have to re-acclimate to what’s going on at a time when such is a bad idea. Many of the stages simply end, with absolutely no explanation or justification, leaving you confused and annoyed. The game has occasionally spotty detection issues, which you’ll see when you dodge an attack entirely only to get hit by it anyway, as Gabriel teleports into a grapple the enemy initiated that he was nowhere near in the first place. Gabriel can also get stuck in the environment, forcing you to jump him out of it, in more than a few places, and at one point I literally had to fight to get him off of a ledge because the game kept making him jump BACK onto the ledge. This is not a technically proficient game in a lot of respects, and compared to something slick like Bayonetta or God of War III, it’s not even in the same league. That said, there are two major issues throughout the game that far and away eclipse the smaller issues, and in turn, make the game hard to recommend all around.
The first is that the game is utterly devoid of any originality to speak of. This game owes its entire existence to God of War and its ilk, because it liberally borrows from those games with no shame whatsoever. You won’t see ANYTHING in this game that doesn’t immediately call to mind that game, except possibly for the lush forested scenery, which readily calls to mind Lord of the Rings in style and execution. It’s not even a problem that the game liberally borrows from such games as it is that it does NOTHING new with those concepts whatsoever. It’s literally God of War, right down to the massive amounts of gore and the liberal helping of naked beasts who have absolutely no reason to be naked. Oh, except for the Shadow of the Colossus boss fights, which, in addition to being spot-on like the fights in that game, are an insulting version of the fights in that game. Shadow of the Colossus made its fights beautiful and tense in their execution; Lords of Shadow just makes them a gimmick, and an unsatisfying one at that, complete with stupid active time events, because this game, like most of the God of War clones its ripping off, LOVES that sort of thing, and they’re no more welcome here than they are anywhere else.
The second is, you will note, the reason why I have almost exclusively addressed the game as Lords of Shadow throughout the course of the review: this game is about as far removed from the Castlevania series as Metal Gear Solid is. They call this a “reboot”, and if that’s the case, it’s an awful one and everyone involved should be ashamed for slapping the Castlevania name on it. There is NOTHING here save for the last name “Belmont” and the namedropping of a few notable characters from previous (and far better) games by way of making them antagonists here to tie this to the series proper, the aesthetics are dramatically removed from what the series is known for, and if this is the direction the series is going in, sorry guys, I’m out. This game is rubbish as a Castlevania game. Castlevania 64 was a better game because at least it understood what the series was all about and held to those tenants. The game is artistically devoid, the presentation is wrong in every way imaginable, and the story is a gigantic middle finger to anyone who considers themselves a fan of the series. And what was Hideo Kojima doing anywhere near this game? What is with this “we’re going to hire people to make our games, then never let them make our games” mentality, Konami? First you assemble Team Silent, a group dedicated to making Silent Hill games, only to stop allowing them to make Silent Hill games, and now you’re not letting IGA, pretty much THE GUY as far as Castlevania is concerned, anywhere near this? You let Hideo Kojima, mister windy exposition himself, near a franchise he had no business touching? Really?
Oh, and what was up with all that Chupacabra nonsense? You took a monster known for murdering livestock and turned it into a deformed brownie-like monster that steals your gear for twenty minutes? If your intention was to piss off the gamer, CONGRATULATIONS! Otherwise, I don’t get it.
Look, the bottom line is that Lords of Shadow is an adequate game, no better, but it’s a slap in the face as a Castlevania title and anyone who considers themselves a fan of the series will have little patience for it. The story is uninspired and windy, and while it does its job fair enough, it’s a mish-mash of Castlevania characters crammed into a story that has nothing to do with the franchise at all and features an ending that will piss series fans off. The game is visually and aurally pleasant enough, but the visuals and audio are so far removed from the series fair as to be more similar to the games this is ripping off than anything else. The game plays fine enough all in all, and offers plenty of content for the casual God of War fan to appreciate, but the game is technically unsound and it’s basically a straight ripoff of a handful of games that did what this game does FAR better than this does it. If you’re a very big fan of the genre (and ONLY the genre), Lords of Shadow is an adequate, if uninspired, way to pass the time, but anyone who considers themselves a discerning gamer or a fan of Castlevania has no need to ever play this, at any price.
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Lords of Shadow is to Castlevania as Golden Axe: Beast Rider is to Golden Axe: an uninspired, derivative attempt at rebooting a classic franchise that frankly has no need for such a thing, and certainly not the way this game does it. The story is dull and uninspired, and while it carries along the game acceptably, it’s insulting to fans of the franchise and unexciting to anyone else. The visuals and audio are perfectly good, but utterly devoid of the charm of the franchise, content to rip off the games this emulates instead of the games this is rebooting. The gameplay is acceptable, and while it does nothing new and exciting, it’s not particularly bad either, and there’s enough content in the game to make it worth a look to genre fans. However, between the technical issues, complete lack of originality or, failing that, ability to make the derivative gameplay seem fresh, and the complete disdain this game seems to treat the franchise with, Lords of Shadow is a Castlevania game in name only, and should be treated as such. If you’re a big fan of God of War and not a fan of Castlevania you’ll want to maybe give this a look, but if it’s anything resembling the other way around, don’t bother; you’ll only make yourself mad.