Konami has been making Castlevania games for 24 years now. They have legions of fans and followers. I was not one of them, you see when all the cool kids were cracking whips and kicking vampire ass on their NESs and SNESs, I was relegated to the pitiful Sega Master System. Our other reviewer TyrannicalDuck is far more interested in the franchise but sadly he was taken ill with the flu when this review copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow arrived. So I thought I’d give it a bash seeing as I’m now a cool adult and possess a console that is able to run the game.
Being a newcomer to the franchise I have no preconceived notions of what a Castlevania game should be, and having chatted to TyrannicalDuck it seems people are wondering how this can be called a Castlevania game when there isn’t a hint of free-roaming nor does perpetual antagonist Dracula show up as the end-of-game boss. Another thing, it’s not canon – this reboot by relatively unknown developer, MercurySteam, has nothing to do with the rest of the franchise. OK, fine. Instead of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow we could call it Gabriel “Lesley” Belmont: Melancholy Monster Slayer but it still won’t change the fact that it’s an absolutely fantastic game. So now, you know my feeling about it right off the whip. If that’s all the affirmation you need then feel free to stop reading here and hunt down the game at the nearest shop, but if you want to hear more about the innards of this entertaining action adventure title, then my review continues after the jump.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow tells a familiar tale, one of love lost and the quest for redemption. It is the year 1047 and mankind is disconnected from the heavens by an evil force, the Lords of Shadows. These supernatural beings hold dominion over the lands and their evil creatures roam free bringing death to all living things. You play as Gabriel Belmont, a warrior whose life has been touched by this evil. Your wife has been brutally murdered and her soul is trapped in the earthly plane. You have been commanded by your holy order, the Brotherhood of Light, to discover who or what has caused the rift between Heaven and Earth. With revenge in his mind Belmont must travel the decayed lands, destroy the Lords of Shadow, and restore the balance.
The story is told in sequential chapters, and each chapter is broken down into smaller levels. You access these chapters and levels from a world map. It if from here that Belmont travels to a variety of locations be it claustrophobic caves, frozen wastelands, foreboding castles, confusing labyrinths, or fiendish laboratories. All the environments are all gorgeously animated and on several occasions I tried to move the camera to marvel at the surroundings. Alas, it would not budge, the camera stayed fixed to the prescribed view that the developer wanted to show. That is my main gripe about this game, it’s a great pity that the fixed camera prevents one from truly taking in the grandeur of the levels. In a few cases, I found the fixed camera a hindrance to my already diminished directional sense – sometimes it would change in mid-stride and you wouldn’t know whether you’d be coming or going. It also proved disorienting during some of the platforming sections of the game making the timing of jumps and judging of distances a slightly irritating affair.
To aid Belmont in his quest is the combat cross, an iron crucifix which hides a retractable chain.Initially it is used to bash some simple combos but it isn’t too long before you are introduced to the game’s upgrade system. Through various bolt-ons, the combat cross is made more versatile and allows you to traverse the levels and inflict more damage upon your enemies. Aside from the upgrades that are applied to the combat cross, there are further augmentations to your physical properties. There are also secondary weapons (daggers, fairies, holy water), and further upgrades that allow you to carry more secondary weapons. Many a combat move that can be purchased using “experience points” gained from defeating enemies. It’s surprisingly deep upgrade system.
An interesting addition to the combat system is the use of light magic and shadow magic. When activated, each type of magic has a different effect – light magic is a defensive skill that heals Belmont with every successful hit on an enemy. Conversely, when Belmont activates shadow magic, his body is infused with a dark energy that increases the amount of damage he can dish out. Light and shadow magic can also be used make your secondary weapons more potent. Magic is a finite resource and your magic meters are drained whenever you use them. Luckily the various monsters you meet and beat along your journey expel neutral orbs upon death and you can decide whether the orbs should replenish your light magic meter or shadow magic meter.
A further element in the combat system is that of a “focus meter” which gradually increases when you perform varying attack and once it is filled, enemies will drop loads more neutral orbs than usual. This allows you to refill your magic meters faster and can be extremely helpful when you’re on the brink of death. However, one hit from a monster and your focus meter is reset. The amount of magic you can store can be increased by finding gems hidden throughout the world – collect five light gems and your light meter will be extended, the same goes for your shadow meter. Clearly magic is key to combat in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and it’s a very rewarding experience when you use the combination of these elements to successfully get past dangerous enemies. And there are a lot of different creatures to destroy, from diminutive irritating ones to the huge bumbling titans.
Once you have finished a level, you are informed of the gems and weapon upgrades that you have missed during your exploration. Some of these items cannot be accessed as you may not have the right gear to acquire them. Just as it uses the focus meter to rewards skillful play, the game wants to you return to previous levels to gain missed treasures. It’s also useful to replay levels when you want to grind some experience points. A trial is also unlocked for some of the levels and you can complete them for extra experience points. So there are a lot of things to do if you’re a completionist and want the accolades for truly finishing the game.
Depending on where you sit, these replays could be seen as a challenge or as an exercise in frustration, there’s a fine line between the two. You don’t necessarily need to find the all hidden gems and upgrades to complete the adventure, but it’ll just make it a little easier. And speaking of difficulty, this game doesn’t pack your sandwiches and lovingly walk you off to combat school. Nay, callous disregard for the block and dodge buttons is rewarded with cold, swift death. Rather than all-out button-mashing attack on your enemies, you’re in for a slower-paced, more methodical attack that requires some concentration. When you die in combat, you have to restart from the last checkpoint. Every time you die during a platforming section, a bit of health gets taken away from you health bar just to tell you to stop being silly. Mercifully the checkpoint system is generous and pretty much starts you off a few paces before you failed.
When it comes to the platforming elements, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does a good job. You can use the combat cross’s hook tip to hoick yourself up sheer drops and swing from one ledge to another. It is fun, flows quite nicely, and reminiscent of Prince of Persia. So are some of the puzzles actually. A few aren’t too taxing, others require some thought. I was surprised at the good the selection of puzzles. Your brothers leave behind notes about how unsuccessful they were when attempting the puzzles but given the easiness of some of them, they clearly mustn’t have been the sharpest swords in the armory. In some cases if you haven’t found a scroll that gives you a hint, the puzzles can just turn out to be trial and error, which can be irritating. If you’re stuck with the puzzle you can choose to unlock the solution, it comes at the cost of any experience points you might have earned by figuring it out yourself.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a lengthy game, and one could spend 20+ hours just getting to the end of the first playthrough, and further more attempting to beat the trials and finding the collectibles. This could prove too demanding for the more casual gamers. Granted there are issues with the fixed camera perspective and the game reuses combat and platforming mechanics from other games but that doesn’t tarnish the polish of this wonderfully crafted game. It does a great job of building the suspense, and there is always a sense of dread when you get to the top of a tower of the bottom of a dungeon, wondering what manner of evil you’ll be facing next.
There is so much to like about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, even something that one often overlooks. The game’s menu is presented like an ancient tome that includes the bestiary and a travel journal that gives you info about the scrolls, gems, upgrades, and bits and pieces that you’ve collected. The monsters are sketched out well and the various combat moves are animated well. It’s a nice resource and I like the attention to detail. The sound design has been given the same treatment too. In some games I’ve played recently, it’s been purely incidentally and only ramps up at boss battles, but not so in Castlevania. The haunting sweeping tunes are always with you, as if to accompany Belmont’s melancholy demeanour. It’s beautifully done and complements the game. The voice acting it top-notch with Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, 28 Weeks Later) providing the voice for Gabriel Belmont. Popular facepalm image and distinguished actor Sir Patrick Stewart not only narrates the introduction to each chapter with poise and elegance but plays a part in the tale too.
So, to cut a short story long, I thoroughly enjoyed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It is beautiful to look at and the storyline is pretty competent. It is lengthy, challenging, immersive, and is certainly one of the two surprising hits (Darksiders is the other) that I’ve played this year. Thank you for the experience, Gabriel “Lesley” Belmont: Melancholy Monster Slayer.