Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
It's no secret that the Castlevania series has thrived in its 2D incarnations but stumbled when taking the step into the third dimension. While the latter titles weren't absolute trainwrecks by any description, they lacked a certain magic that was present from the NES originals all the way through Symphony of the Night and the DS incarnations. Producer David Cox wants to change the series' reputation by rebooting Castlevania in 3D and reminding gamers why it's such a legendary name in the industry.
"The first plan was actually to remake the original NES game in 3D," Cox says. The team at MercurySteam decided against it when they realized that Super Castlevania IV essentially tried the remake approach back on the SNES. Instead of doing taking a similar route, they set their sights on putting together an all-new quest that harkens back to the feel of the 8- and 16-bit classics."We want to go back to that feeling of being a lone warrior facing off against tons of supernatural enemies with nothing but your whip," says Cox.
Despite this statement, new protagonist Gabriel Belmont will have plenty to work with in addition to his whip (referred to as the Combat Cross this time around). Secondary weapons return in Lords of Shadow, including the iconic dagger and holy water. These will be acquired by destroying environmental objects like candles, replacing the hearts usually seen in the franchise.
As is the standard with modern 3D action-adventure games, you'll collect experience as you defeat enemies. This replaces the RPG-esque leveling seen in Symphony of the Night in lieu of a currency system like those seen in God of War and Devil May Cry. It's clear that the focus of the game isn't on returning to the style of SOTN, as many of its elements are nowhere to be seen here (highly customizable armor, a multitude of weapons, combat focusing primarily on swords, etc). "This is an action game through and through," according to Cox.
You may not find yourself in a massive nonlinear area like in the "Metroidvania" titles, but it won't always be a point A to point B affair. Replayability has always been a focus in the series, from the elusive 200.6% in Symphony to the soul/ability collection in the recent DS titles. Lords of Shadow is no different, with tons of hidden items and secret paths scattered throughout the varied levels. There are fifty stages in the game, and each can be revisited without any backtracking required (it's handled via the menu).
One completely new addition to the series is the new Light magic/Shadow magic system. The former helps you by regenerating health and boosting defenses, while the latter increases your damage and makes Gabriel more aggressive. When enemies are killed, they drop neutral orbs that can be sucked into either your Light or Shadow pool and distributed towards the powers you desire. Games like Dante's Inferno and Infamous allowed the gamer to shape their character along good/evil lines and give them abilities according to their alignment, but Lords of Shadow is taking a different route. Your Light/Shadow orbs aren't based on how virtuous or malevolent you are, so you can pick and choose what ability you want to work towards every time you collect orbs. Simply decide what power you want to work towards and absorb the neutral orbs to the relevant side.
"I want the gamer to have five minutes of combat, followed by five minutes of puzzle-solving, followed by five minutes of platforming," says Cox. While he wants the gameplay to constantly rotate through these varied methods, some areas will heavily lean on one in particular. One of the classic areas from the series is the Clock Tower, and it returns in the form of a lengthy stage that's almost 100% platforming. I watched Cox as he perilously hopped from spinning gear to spinning gear, avoiding various electrified hazards. It appeared to require a more precise touch than the basic platforming seen in other titles in the genre, and should be a nice bit of nostalgia for those familiar with dodging Medusa heads in towers past.
One obstacle the game will have to overcome is a bit of "Darksiders Syndrome." That title was criticized by some for borrowing gameplay elements almost directly from other games. Like the THQ sleeper hit, there's no denying that Lords of Shadow resembles God of War during combat and evokes memories of Zelda during the puzzles. Adding to this, much of the platforming is reminiscent of Prince of Persia and the new Titan bosses are handled almost identically to Shadow of the Colossus (you have to platform up the massive beast to a "rune" spot to take him down).
It's too early to tell if this will be a major criticism of the game, but at least one element proves that MercurySteam doesn't want to directly ape Kratos' combat style. When I asked if quicktime events will be a gameplay element, Cox was quick to react. "We wanted to avoid that. We felt that when it's done like that, the gamer focuses too much on the button and gets distracted from the actual action that's happening." They're instead aiming on presenting the gamer with exciting action scenes without having to worry about a giant button icon distracting them from Gabriel's quest.
Lords of Shadow diverts from the Castlevania formula in a major way when it comes to storytelling. Previous games featured basic frameworks of plot that basically boiled down to "Hey, let's go kill this Dracula dude." This time around, the series will be presented with an in-depth plot complete with Hollywood voice-over talent. Robert Carlyle voices your vampire-hunting protagonist, Patrick Stewart plays the swordsman Zobek, and Californication's Natasha McElhone provides VO for Gabriel's slain wife Marie. Early in the game, Gabriel learns that a shady group of three men known as the Lords of Shadow are behind his wife's murder. These three each carry a piece of the "God mask," which supposedly carries the power of bringing back the dead. As you can expect, Gabriel will face off against all three in boss battles throughout the game in an effort to obtain the mask and revive Marie.
It may borrow elements from other titles when it comes down to gameplay, but the look and atmosphere of the game is what makes it stand out from the pack. The human characters are distinctly in the Castlevania mold, but the enemies look far more vicious and aggressive than we've ever seen them. Ghouls are no longer slowly-shuffling whip fodder, they're now quick and pose an actual threat to the player. One character that appeared especially disturbing was the "Evil Butcher." He's a lumbering, deformed beast with slabs of meat hanging off hooks on his belt, and the menacing cleaver he carries isn't just for the gutted pigs that hang from his ceiling. "We wanted to get away from the art style of the originals and make it a bit darker," Cox says. "The old games had this boyish depiction of vampires and monsters and we wanted them to have a darker edge this time around."
Time will tell if Lords of Shadow's gameplay separates itself sufficiently from the rest of the 3D action pack, but it's already clear that its aesthetic is distinctly Castlevania. Everything from the music to the character designs to the beautiful environments is looking fantastic. If it presents gamers with compelling gameplay, we may finally get to see a 3D Castlevania game that does the series justice.