The lights are on
Castlevania is one of those legendary titles that is instantly recognizable to nearly any gamer. Throughout its quarter-of-a-century history, the franchise has received massive popular and critical acclaim matched by very few series in gaming… at least in the 2D realm. Though many of its 2D entries are often revered as some of the greatest games ever made, the series was never able to find sure footing when thrown into the third dimension, despite numerous tries over even more numerous years. That is where Lords of Shadow comes in. This pseudo-reboot of one of gaming’s oldest and most adored series finally gives it its first truly great 3D experience by heavily borrowing gameplay mechanics from some of today’s biggest hits, which it weaves together with a terrific story littered with some of the most memorable moments I have ever experienced in my gaming career.
The story opens in the year 1047 in a fictitious part of southern Europe, with the player being thrown into the role of Gabriel Belmont. A warrior from the Brotherhood of Light, a group bent on defending humanity from supernatural evil in the name of God, Gabriel is on a quest to defeat the malevolent beings known as the Lords of Shadow, who are seen as the root of the evil that is plaguing humanity. The story takes a while to get going, seeming fairly clichéd, somewhat out of place, and downright boring for a good portion of the early game. However, once it finds its footing it quickly escalates into a spellbinding narrative that will keep you completely fixated as it carries you into what is easily one of the most jaw-dropping climaxes in gaming history. I won’t go into much more detail as to not spoil anything, but the game will end up taking you through a variety of unique and awe-inspiring locales, some of which will be very familiar to Castlevania veterans, all the while delivering a thoroughly entertaining narrative that will appeal to both series newcomers and fans alike. As a word of warning, though the opening segment of the game may be a bit boring, DO NOT skip the cinematics or ignore the story in these areas. Though seemingly unimportant at the time, nearly every element of the game shown during these moments will have some greater importance as you progress through the story, and should not be ignored unless story is completely unimportant to the player.
The game features some amazing locales, which almost always contain memorable moments
Though the story ends up being an entertaining romp through
amazing locales, a game isn’t a game without gameplay, and luckily Lords of
Shadows delivers in this department as well. Way back in 1997, the masterminds
behind Symphony of the Night apparently decided that Super Metroid was a really
great game, and thought it would be really cool if they did that, but with
vampires. This lead to arguably the series greatest success, as Symphony of the
Night went on to be regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. For
Lords of Shadow, the developers seemed to think that God of War and Uncharted
were really good games, and decided they wanted to combine the two and add in a
few vampires in order to make Lords of Shadow, and ended up with a similar
success. The gameplay can be split up into 3 primary categories: combat,
platforming, and puzzles.
The combat will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has played God of War: it features the protagonist using a weapon primarily composed of a blade attached to a chain fighting mythological creatures using a combo-based system in rooms with a fairly-fixed-camera perspective, And like in God of War, the combat proves to be and incredibly fun, challenging, and satisfying experience. The difficulty is challenging, but fair, and there is a difficulty slider if the game ever feels too easy or difficult for your liking. Combos are unlocked using an experience system in which garnered experience is spent to unlock more powerful attacks. Most of the combat will see you taking on a variety of enemies, either smaller and weaker enemies whom attack in swarms, larger and more powerful enemies with a greater range of attacks and a larger health pool, or some combination of the two. Though early-game enemies are slightly weaker in terms of health pools and attack damage than later game enemies, most of the increasing difficulty is handled by the game putting the player in increasingly dangerous situations rather than simply upping the power of the enemy, which is very refreshing amidst the slews of games that decide to simply throw more enemies or enemies with greater health or damage-dealing capabilities at you in order to keep difficulty increasing at a reasonable rate. The game also features a variety of memorable boss battles, including some old favorites that should greatly please series veterans, ranging from God-of-War style battles against colossal enemies that are mostly managed through quick time events and uncharted-style platforming, to extremely powerful enemies of a more reasonable size, each with their own unique abilities that you will have to defeat using the basic combat skills you have hopefully acquired throughout the course of the game. The game also implements a dual magic system, in which Gabriel has access to 2 separate mana pools, one for light magic, and one for shadow magic. Light magic allows Gabriel to absorb health from his enemies when dealing damage, and shadow magic drastically increases his damage-dealing capabilities. Both magic types can be combined with secondary weapons for deadly combination attacks, and certain combos in the game can only be pulled off while having either shadow or light magic active. This use of magic helps add a level of strategic management to what otherwise would be a skill-centric hack and slash, but I never felt it was utilized to its full potential, and hope this is something that developer Mercurysteam is looking into for the announced Lords Of Shadows 2. Your total reserves of light and shadow magic, as well as health, are increased through a Metroid or Zelda-esque system in which you find power-ups hidden throughout the levels; Acquiring 5 power-ups increases the maximum quantity of the corresponding energy container by a small increment. This is definitely an interesting way to entice people to replay levels, but it can be a pain when you get through an unreasonably long section only to realize you missed a single energy piece, since you are required to complete a level in order to keep any power-ups you obtain. This means that if you get through a level with a difficult boss, or a particularly long or tedious level, and miss a single power-up, you have to go through the entire level again to get a power-up that might be located literally right at the very entrance of the level, which can be extremely infuriating.
Shadow magic gives you access to some awesome combination moves.
The platforming segments are very
reminiscent of Uncharted, featuring a lot of crawling around on the walls of
crumbling ruins, castles, and natural environments. They are thoroughly
enjoyable and well done for the most part, and I can’t really think of much to
fault them on.
Platforming segments are abundant, and generally a lot of fun
The puzzles done in this game are
some of the best I have seen outside of a dedicated puzzle game. They are often
done with very elaborate set pieces, sometimes encompassing half or an entire
level, including one level that is quite possibly my all-time favorite single
player level in gaming. They are often clever, but never too difficult, and
each one has a solution scroll where you can unlock the answer at the cost of
voiding the experience bonus, so like the platforming, I have nothing to bad to
say about the puzzle system.
The visuals of the game are overall
terrific, with amazing character, enemy, and environment designs. The graphics
aren’t on par with something like Uncharted, but they are far from bad, and
should please the vast majority of gamers.
There is an issue with textures not always loading properly, but this is
a rare occurrence. The only major issue I have with the game’s visuals is the
camera. Generally the camera angles work fine, but there are several instances
in the game where it is placed awkwardly that can lead to unnecessary
frustration or death due to unforeseen obstacles.
Enemy design is one of the visual highlights of the game
I have never played a Castlevania game
with bad music, and Lords of Shadows is no exception. Some of the more common
tracks can begin to feel a bit overused by the end of the game, but for the
most part the game utilizes several great songs and sound effects from both
older entrees In the series, as well as brand new tracks. The voice acting is
also top-notch, never really sounding forced or unnatural, so on a sound level
my complaints with the game are extremely minor.
Overall Lords of Shadow proves to
be a terrific game, but it isn’t without its flaws. The opening chunk of the
game seems to drag on far too long, being slow both in terms of story and
gameplay, with some early locales feeling very out of place in not only a
Castlevania game, but also for a game with Lords of Shadow’s tone, though all
of these problems are remedied after the first slow segments. Though I really
enjoyed the light and shadow magic powers, they feel underutilized, basically
only being used to strengthen your character and solve the occasional puzzle,
save two bosses near the end of the game that actually force you to
strategically use your powers to take down your enemy, leaving me to wonder why
this system, or at least a similar system, hadn’t been implemented throughout
the rest of the game with other enemies to any degree. As previously mentioned, there are also
occasional problems with texture loading or camera angles, but these are rare
occurrences. Some of the levels ended up having the problem where the path the
character is meant to take is obscured or difficult to find (often due to a bad
camera angle), and the lack of in game map would mean that you would end up
running around aimlessly, which is never a good thing in an entertainment
medium. It also suffers from the aforementioned flaw of forcing the player to
complete a level in order to save any upgrades they find in the level, which
can be extremely frustrating with regards to some of the more obnoxiously long
levels in the game.
Even with these flaws, Lords of
Shadows remains a truly incredible experience that I would have a hard time not
recommending to almost any gamer. It proves to be an overall extremely well
made and entertaining game, and plays host to what are easily some of my
all-time favorite moments in gaming, rather it be a towering colossus of a
boss, an awe-inspiringly designed level, or a jaw-dropping story sequence,
including a finale that is arguably one of the greatest story moments in modern
gaming. This reboot of one of gaming’s most storied franchises is one of the
best games I have played in the current generation, one which any gamer,
whether they are a newcomer to this revered series, or one that has been
slaying vampires since Castlevania first appeared in 1986, would be
hard-pressed not to adore.
Final score: 9.5/10
Lords of Shadow 2 can't arrive soon enough