Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Lords of Shadow is not the 3D Castlevania that fans of Symphony of the Night have been waiting for. What it is, is a grand adventure that evokes the essence and mood of the early titles found on the NES and SNES. Gabriel Belmont, a lone warrior of the Brotherhood of Light, is out to investigate the tragic murder of his wife Marie. Her soul and those of many others slain by the dark creatures that have risen up have become trapped in a state of limbo. Along with the help of elder Brotherhood member Zobek, Gabriel must get to the bottom of the sorcery withholding the people from eternal peace, and avenge the loss of his wife.
Although Lords of Shadow’s plot is littered with a plethora of shady and often unsavory characters, the story’s real focus is that of Gabriel’s personal journey and torment. Gabriel arrives as a broken but determined man, one who knows his greater duty to the Brotherhood, but is driven by his desire for revenge. Not long into his story he learns of the God Mask, a relic so powerful it’s said to have the ability to resurrect the dead. At this point his crusade takes on an increased sense of purpose, one filled with the prevalent hope that he might be able to return his beloved to the land of the living. What ensues is an interesting – albeit flawed by the somewhat melodramatic script – look at the personal anguish one man is willing to bear, no matter the consequence.
It’s hard to label Gabriel’s journey as a mere quest as Lords of Shadow is a crusade of often immeasurable scale. While it lacks many of the Metroid inspired guts the franchise has been associated with for the last decade, it is through and through an adventure to behold. It is a voyage from one breath taking vista to another, with each dwarfing the magnitude of the previous. And like Uncharted 2, each is revealed during the quieter moments, allowing the anticipation to build as you ascend mountains towards snow swept castles and trudge through vile, poisoned bogs.
Traversing these grand set pieces and locales is usually as easy as piloting Gabriel from one handhold to the next. Like Nathan Drake, Gabriel is an adept climber whose animations alert the player in which direction Gabriel’s next jump should be made. Lords of Shadow uses shimmering – only prior to first use – handholds to direct the player through its stages. Given the primarily linear nature of the stages the extra bit of handholding is unnecessary but it also doesn’t baby you to the extremes found in other titles. In addition to the normal clambering, Gabriel’s weapon – the Combat Cross – can be utilized as a grappling hook, allowing him to climb sheer faces, repel and swing between platforms – assuming there’s the proper grapple point. One of Lords of Shadows disappointing aspects stems directly from its extravagant scenery: a whole lot of it is unexplorable. This fact is highlighted painfully as you hang from a point but are only allowed to do the intended actions associated with that specific point. If it’s meant for ascending a castle wall you’re free to ascend and repel, but not run along the wall from side to side. Regardless of whether other actions might be of use, the forced actions remind you how fenced in the exploration really is.
Combat breaks up the journey and is one of Lords of Shadow’s finest qualities. At face value the action has a lot in common with the God of War series, as Gabriel has a similar list of base abilities at his command. What developer MercurySteam has done to differentiate the title is add a heavy dose of resource management to fights, creating a strict and rewarding system that requires players to employ strategy over mindless combo strings. In addition to his health and sub weapons – a series staple – Gabriel has to manage a pair of magic meters – one light and one dark – and a Focus meter. Both light magic and dark magic imbue differing properties to Gabriel’s normal attacks and various sub weapons, granting him further flexibility in all fights. Not only changing attack animations and properties, light magic heals Gabriel while dark magic buffs his attack power. The catch is while either magic is in use the player cannot earn magic from defeated enemies, nor can he or she affect the Focus meter. To replenish magic Gabriel either has to kill enemies without magic or max out his Focus, which builds as attacks are landed but is reset once the player is hit. These various meters encourage the player to learn how to dodge and counter-attack enemy hits, while also making sure they remain aggressive to keep their Focus high and regenerate magic, which is often in short supply.
Combat also feels very different from most 3D action games because there are very few disposable enemy types; Lords of Shadow is not packed to the brim with enemy meat bags to make you feel powerful. Most enemies can kill you and will if you’re too careless. And although it occasionally falls back on the kill several enemies to open the locked door formula, it never fills the screen with wave after wave of meaningless enemies for the sake of padding its length. Given the relative difficulty of most enemies and the scarcity of health and magic fonts – recovery stations – every fight is given a feeling of desperation, each battle is a struggle to recover a little health and deal enough damage.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about Lords of Shadow is the sheer amount of variety the game throws at the player. Yes, the game runs through dozens of beautiful locations but it also throws in a hefty share of environmental puzzles, item retrieval that requires abilities later unlocked and several mountable enemy types. There are even entire stages devoted to this idea of variety that are best left unspoiled, but serve to break up the routine of fight, platform and fight some more. Admittedly some of the puzzles feel underdeveloped and in some cases hints don’t make any sense what-so-ever (runes!), but these wind up overshadowed by a handful of ingenious scenarios.
Where Lords of Shadow stumbles a bit is also what makes it so great: the scale. Castlevania is a much longer, more involved adventure than many 3D action games, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but there are sections of the game that tend to drag and various pacing issues. The first few chapters are of particular note because it takes several stages before you’re really immersed in the gothic world MercurySteam has created and you haven’t gained many of the abilities that really differentiate the title; the first chapter alone doesn’t put the right foot forward. The ho-hum beginning is punctuated by one of Lords of Shadow’s completely disposable titan fights, which are shamefully ripped from Shadow of the Colossus.
Then there’s also the camera. Using a fixed camera, most of the game is framed in the best possible way, as it does an effective job of highlighting the scenery, revealing alternate routes or secrets and capturing an up close view of the combat, but then there are those times when it does not. The camera occasionally obscures fights as enemies move into the foreground and thus off-screen, forcing players to swing wildly into the foreground and take damage they didn’t see coming. Platforming can also be frustrating when platform distances become hard to gauge without the proper view. Probably the most annoying aspect of the fixed camera is its ability to slow down and hamper backtracking. Once you’ve gained the later abilities you’ll likely want to retrieve some of the items you undoubtedly saw but could not reach, and you’ll want to run through the levels as quickly as possible to do so. Camera angles change from one room to the next, making it nearly impossible to dash through a series of rooms without having the directions inverted at some point.
Despite the linearity of its design, camera quirks and small issues of pacing, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a resounding success for MercurySteam. No game juxtaposes so many stunning, grand moments as it does with as many smaller quiet touches, such as Gabriel crossing himself at the sides of his fallen comrades. It is a dark, somber game and a promising new beginning for the Castlevania legacy.