In order to successfully reboot a classic video game franchise, you have to go back to the roots of the series, distilling the essence of what made those first games fun, and tossing out all the extra baggage that got heaped on over the years. Long before Symphony of the Night coined the term “Metroidvania” and forever altered the evolution of the franchise, Castlevania was originally an intense action platformer about a man with a whip and an unhealthy obsession with flailing the creatures of the night. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty apt description of Lords of Shadow, too.
The year is 1047 AD, and supernatural creatures are terrorizing the people of Europe. A dark spell has been cast, separating the earth from the heavens, and Gabriel Belmont, a knight in the holy Brotherhood of the Light order, has been tasked with finding a way to reverse the evil incantation and save the world from the forces of Hell. Mourning the recent murder of his wife Marie, Gabriel sets out to take his revenge on the Lords of Shadow, the evil masterminds responsible for the current miserable state of affairs.
Story was never exactly the Castlevania series’ strong point; its plots have typically ranged from nonexistent to silly-as-hell, so it’s refreshing to see Lords of Shadow treat its narrative more seriously. Between the complex plot, well-written dialog, and solid voice acting, the game manages to tell a mature, immersive tale. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Sir Patrick Stewart (!) lends his voice talents as both a main character and a narrator in between levels. Detailed character models, fluid animations, gorgeous backdrops, and an epic score round out Castlevania‘s cinematic presentation, and place its production values on the same level as games like Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII.
One of the other refreshing elements of Lords of Shadow‘s presentation is its unapologetic sense of masculinity. Let’s face it, the Castlevania games that have been produced of late have not been the most macho titles out there, and the whole vampires and werewolves idea has been pretty thoroughly effeminized ever since those damned Twilight books came out. Lords of Shadow ambitiously seeks to reclaim the supernatural birthright of the franchise with a darker tale, gratuitous staking action, and a vampire slaying protagonist with sufficiently rugged facial hair (sorry, Alucard–you know I still love you, man). I’m not talking about the overcompensating, chainsaw-up-the-butt hypermasculinity of Gears of War, either. Lords of Shadow is just a cool game you could have a beer with after a long night of massacring the denizens of the underworld.
Which brings me to the game’s combat. Gabriel is quite the skilled fighter, capable of unleashing dozens of devastating attack combinations with his trusty combat cross. Most of the time you’ll be using the whip-like chain of the combat cross to deliver punishing blows from afar and keep foes at bay, but it’s far from the only weapon in your arsenal. The game pays homage to classic Castlevania titles by also including some of the franchise’s iconic sub-weapons: throwing daggers, holy water, a dark crystal that Gabriel can shatter to summon a powerful demon, and… fairies. It’s pretty hard to look badass when you’re dazzling your opponents with tiny forest nymphs, but I guess you’re rarely forced to use them. To be perfectly honest, most of my sub-weapons went unused for the majority of the game. Some of them could be pretty handy in the right situation (silver daggers against lycanthropes, holy water against the undead, etc…), but using them often interrupted the flow of combat and made fights less enjoyable.
Luckily, Gabriel has even more options at his disposal for those times when he needs a little extra help clearing out a room. Light and shadow magic augment Gabriel’s combat abilities, respectively healing him each time he strikes an opponent or making his attacks deal more damage. Using magic also opens up additional special attacks and combos which can be purchased by spending the experience points. Between your bread-and-butter whip combos, sub-weapons, relic powers, and light and shadow magic, the game offers up a great deal of combat variety, should you choose to pursue it.
And some of the game’s more powerful foes will force you to use a variety of tactics in order to topple them. Boss fights are some of the best and most memorable parts of the game, alternating between traditional bouts with particularly tough baddies that need an extra strong dosage of whipping to take down, and colossal Titans that will put your platforming skills to the test. Consistent — though not excessive — use of quick-time events makes boss battles cinematic spectacles that almost always conclude with Gabriel delivering a series of gruesome (and highly entertaining) finishing blows to his hapless victim. Quick-time events are a touchy subject — they can be a crutch that gets in the way of good game design, but LoS doesn’t overuse them the way some games have (*cough*ResidentEvil5*cough*), and it’s pretty forgiving with the timing.
The Titan battles forgo straight-up combat for massive “David vs. Goliath” style encounters. In order to defeat his towering opponents, Gabriel must find a way to scale their enormous bodies and destroy the magical runes that animate them. Victory in these fights requires patience, foresight, and a good sense of timing, as Gabriel must keep moving in order to evade the Titans’ attempts to dislodge him. It’s not always obvious how you’re supposed to make it to the next rune, and you’ll probably die more than once just trying to figure out the bosses’ patterns, but checkpoints help ensure that you don’t have to restart the whole process if you get knocked off right before dealing the final blow. The epic scale of these unique events helps break up the monotony of normal combat and definitely closes out the chapter with a bang.
Gabriel does plenty of non-titanic platforming throughout the rest of the game, as well. In order to get from one end of a level to the other, you’ll often be required to jump, climb, rappel, and swing your way to the next objective. Thankfully, Gabriel is a regular monkey, and scaling gigantic walls, swinging across huge chasms, and navigating crumbling ruins are relatively effortless. If Gabriel does have a weakness, though, it’s jumping. Most of the time, making jumps isn’t too difficult thanks to Gabriel’s ability to grab onto ledges. However, as the game progresses, you’ll be asked to make more literal leaps of faith, where Gabriel’s questionable footing and occasionally bad camera angles can lead to plummets into the abyss. The game only punishes you for such falls by removing some life, but making unassisted jumps is always a harrowing process that only gets worse once you gain the ability to double jump. Solid jumping mechanics are an integral part of any self-respecting platformer, and it’s a shame that LoS makes some missteps in this area, even though the rest of the platforming mechanics feel very solid.
Interspersed throughout bouts of combat and platforming are a diverse set of puzzles, ranging from the light reflection puzzles that have practically become mandatory in every adventure game since Ocarina of Time, to a chess-themed war game. Most of them are simple yet entertaining enough distractions, but if for some reason you find yourself stumped on one, the game does give you the option of skipping it by forfeiting the associated experience point reward. It’s not exactly Braid or Portal, but the puzzles in LoS help keep things fresh, even late in the game.
And it is a long game, indeed. Normally, I couldn’t really fault a single player game for boasting a 20 hour campaign, but I almost feel like Lords of Shadow would be better off if it were only half as long. The first part of the game is chock full of innovative ideas and new gameplay elements that make each successive area new and exciting, but by the second half of the game, those innovations have all but worn out. Some of the later levels are just downright uninteresting, or frustrating compared to the earlier stages. It’s as though halfway through the game, developer MercurySteam ran out of… well, you know.
Still, it’s hard not to come away impressed with Lords of Shadow when you look at the game as a whole. Some folks might complain that the best parts of the game have been lifted straight out of God of War and Shadow of the Colossus, but LoS puts its own unique spin on these encounters, and it manages to almost seamlessly tie all of its disparate gameplay elements together. It might be a bit rough around the edges in places, but Lords of Shadow is a massively ambitious title that falls just short of masterpiece. It’s so good that it almost makes me stop wishing for a 3D successor to Symphony of the Night — almost.
Things We Liked: Gorgeous visuals and epic score. Darker, more complex narrative. Visceral combat and massive boss fights. The entire part of the game that you spend fighting back-to-back with Patrick Stewart’s character against hordes of ghouls and vampire warriors.
Things We Disliked: Finicky jumping. The second half of the game is a bit of a let-down. Occasionally bad camera angles can make dicey situations frustrating.
Target Audience: People who missed out on God of War and Shadow of the Colossus. Grown-up Zelda fans. Retro reboot fans. Edward-haters and Aragorn-lovers.
(Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Developers: MercurySteam, Kojima Productions. Publisher: Konami. Available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 - Xbox 360 version reviewed. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)