REVIEW: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 1:45AM
Ernie in castlevania, konami, lords of shadow, mercurysteam, ps3, reviews, xbox360

Castlevania is one of the most prolific titles of our generation, yet depending on who you ask, the series has staled of late. And no matter who you ask, it's a universal truth that the Belmont clan's quest to slay Dracula and his minions has never successfully made the jump from pixels to polygons. Fans of the series were hoping that Konami could, with Hideo Kojima's stamp of approval, turn their floundering franchise into something grand, worthy of the Vampire Killer's history. Does Castlevania: Lords of Shadow live up to the legacy, or is it a miserable little pile of secrets?

You take the whip of the latest addition to the Belmont family, Gabriel. Lords of Shadow is a pure reboot of the series' history, therefore making Gabriel the de facto patriarch of the Belmonts. An evil force has conjured a spell that has cut off the world from Heaven, both preventing the dead's ascent from purgatory, and causing demons to roam the lands unchecked. As a member of the elite knights known as The Brotherhood of Light, it is up to Gabriel to set right the world's unholy affliction by seeking an ancient artifact said to give the user the power of God, and in the process, bring his recently departed wife back from the limbo of death.

Right off the bat, let me say, this game is not clone. Pre-release, and during the game's first few weeks, I can't believe how many people compared it to God of War because Gabriel uses a whip, or Dante's Inferno because of the religious undertones. I'll just leave this here. Just saying.

That said, Lords of Shadow is pretty much what games like God of War have evolved into over the years, with a touch of Belmont flair. Your main weapon is the "Vampire Killer" combat cross whip, which, in conjunction with sub-weapons and magic powers give you a varied, albeit basic way to deal with your enemies, which typically aren't much of a challenge in their own right. Though it seems as if they have an ally in the game's locked camera, which has a penchant for choosing terrible viewpoints during battle. I spent almost as much time jockeying for a position where the camera has the enemy in unobstructed view as I did actually fighting.

As the story progresses you upgrade your combat cross with various pieces of utility, though no true strength upgrades. There are many different combos and skills to purchase with experience points, but your basic combos remain the bread and butter, even if they don't get much stronger. The game changer comes with strategically balancing your magic use; light for healing and other beneficial effects, and dark for making your attacks stronger. A token idea that was brutally underutilized, only really shining during the final battle, where the timed magic switches felt almost like Ikaruga (right before Gabriel became freakin' Goku from DBZ). I think Lords of Shadow's battle aspect would have been more enthralling if this switch system were required for more than just a puzzle every few stages.

There are many puzzles, most of which give clues to how they should be solved, or for the uninspired gamer, even straight up tell you how to solve them, as long as you don't mind relinquishing the bonus experience earned from a little brain work. At their most complex, the puzzles are pretty tricky, but there are more gimmes than mind benders. Funny enough, the one that gave me the hardest time was within the first hour of the unusually lengthy adventure.

There's a good 12-15 hours of righteous ass-whipping within, not taking into consideration backtracking completed stages for missed upgrades. Though not a Metroidvania model, there are still a nice number of items to be found in the earlier levels of the game once you've unlocked certain abilities. The items, used to increase health, magic, and sub weapon reserves, will technically ease the difficulty of the game's later battles, though I had no problem vanquishing evil without having to double back for any of the optional upgrades.

The length can be attributed to many segments that could've been completely omitted from the final product without the story suffering at all. Scenes like the Chupacabra chases and all of Baba Yaga's forest seemed like nothing more than filler instead of additions to enrich the experience. Sadly, even the titan battles felt like more of an ill-planned throw in than an integral part of the story. Instead of fighting the titans on multiple occasions, and so early in the game, I would've liked to have fought just one at the end, to make navigating the crevasses of the colossal beast a little more momentous.

The platforming is simple at most parts, but effective nonetheless. Gabriel can climb and navigate walls, as well as whip onto the environment for a lift, rappel, or swing-shot. You wont miss your step often, though at times the well indicated path becomes a little less so, causing you to fall to certain death in trial and error. Fortunately, falling to your death only penalizes you by shaving off a chunk of your health, avoiding harsh punishment for your miscued maneuvers. Sections requiring precise jumps suffers from the same locked camera that plagued many of the battles, thus inciting frustration.

Art Design
Developers MercurySteam put a lot into making Lords of Shadow a graphical masterpiece. There are many varied settings, some of which looked out of place in Castlevania's lore, though all are carefully crafted and filled with beautiful nuances and details. Most times, amazing concept background and stage art seem to miss something when rendered in game, though Lords of Shadow gets it absolutely right, almost like concept art drawn on a living tapestry.

Character design is strong as well; I thought Gabriel's design was pretty bad ass since the initial reveal. Many names familiar to Castlevania fans make appearances in interesting redesigned forms, from Carmilla, to Cornell, right down to trivial characters such as the Mandragora. It's good to know that, while Lords of Shadow doesn't quite feel like a Castlevania title, MercurySteam has fun with some established characters, such as Olrox and Brauner, a complete departure from their usual appearances. Though it's a shame some of the series staples didn't make the cut, I would've loved to have seen Lords of Shadow's rendition of Medusa heads or the Mermen. 

Sound Design
The increasing trend of employing established actors as voice talent shines through here. Sir Patrick Stewart lends credibility to whatever he touches, instantly adding a new layer serving as Lords of Shadow's narrator and Gabriel's companion. He only stumbles when the writing does, which happened a little too often, both during the narration and elsewhere. Gabriel is voiced by one of my favorite lesser known actors, Robert Carlyle, who adds a somber resolve to the lead with his voice. While his vocal parts were excellent, his battle grunts could use a little work.

Oscar Araujo's 100-something piece orchestra seemed like it would be something fantastic, but it feels just short. The compositions, while hauntingly lovely, lacked personality. This soundtrack could be mistaken for the score to any recently released fantasy blockbuster, just very generic sounding. I know this project moved in a completely different direction, but I think the orchestra should have been given to Michiru Yamane and company for a reworking of some of the old tunes that still send chills down my spine. Instead, the only nod the composer could give to Castlevania's legendary soundtrack, is a 20 second loop of Vampire Killer, in a section of the game that felt like a bit of a waste anyway.

In the end, I fear Castlevania: Lords of Shadow stumbles on its own grandeur. It seems to stray too far from its roots as a Castlevania game in an attempt to woo the mainstream action fantasy fan. However it is what it is, and I enjoyed the game regardless, though I am a series fan of Iron Blue Intention. The story became a little muddled toward the end and some gaps were left unfilled, but the action should be enough to see you contently through any plot holes. MercurySteam and Konami can rest easy knowing that, while not perfect, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has given the revered series some much needed power and relevance on the crucial console market. MercurySteam has cryptically leaked word of a possible sequel, which will be interesting to say the least, based on how Lords of Shadow ended. If it learns from its mistakes, I see no reason why the next entry in the Castlevania series can't be a holy phial of liquid fire.

Buy it if: You're a Castlevania fan, enjoy Western Fantasy, appreciate stories with religious and anti undertones
Don't buy it if: You're looking for multiplayer or leaderboards, not a fan of third-person action, looking for a different experience
The Score: 7 outta 10 blasters!

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