I am a Castlevania fan. I personally own a large collection of Castlevania games and merchandise. Given the opportunity to play and review Konami’s latest release would seem like a dream come true. Unfortunately, after struggling with this title for more hours than it deserves I have come to the conclusion that this game is Castlevania in name alone.
Developed by MercurySteam, Castlevania Lords of Shadow is the first full-release Castlevania console title since 2005’s Curse of Darkness. Featuring a unique standalone storyline and featuring a couple of genuinely unique plot twists the outset looks good. Unfortunately the whole project is let down by God-awful level design and some of the least-inspired gaming experienced this generation.
Castlevania Lord of Shadow‘s mission structure is divided into story chapters which are then further subdivided into several linear levels. Each chapter represents one of the various lands which Gabriel must visit and the ensuing levels represent his bromidic slog through these muddy and unimaginative landscapes before finally facing the monarch of each realm. Upon defeating each of the titular Lords of Shadow in combat, Gabriel gains a new ability with which to further his adventure. The first chapter is Wolfburg, the second Bat City and chapter three The North Zombie Peninsula. Unoriginal to a point. Of course, those aren’t the actual location titles but my descriptions illustrate as much about these monstrous provinces as MercurySteam do with their vacuous backstory and shoehorn story writing.
Historically speaking, Castlevania has never been strong on the narrative front (Dracula is alive, go kill Dracula) but at least it accomplishes its goals with charm and grace and all within a rich, authentic environment. Lords of Shadow delivers a shallow milieu and also lacks the charisma which would normally pull a game through that story deficit. Consider Darksiders – the story relies on every cliché going but does so with a smile on its face and the experience is better for it. Had this game relied only on the Castlevania clichés, at the very least it would have been consistent in its own internal logic. As-is we have No Dracula’s castle, no medusa heads, no bone pillars, no Bloody Tears and no appearance from Death. The publicity from Konami maintains that Lords of Shadow is a reboot of the Castlevania franchise so should not be considered part of the official timeline; it strikes me that if you’re not going to create a game that is truthful to the franchise proper then there’s little point in naming it thus.
As much as I would like to say that the latest iteration of everyone’s favourite vampire-kill-em-up has returned to its 2D roots with mindblowing HD sprites, I think we’re all aware of the remote likelihood of that happening. Instead, Lords of Shadow employs a 3D world solution and it’s actually rather competent; lighting and particle effects are particularly rakish and the characters and creatures are detailed, well-modelled and impeccably animated – one particular favourite of mine is how well the giant spiders move.
Following suit from Metal Gear Solid and the first few Devil May Cry titles, Lords of Shadow utilises a fixed camera angle system which – much like its predecessors – is frankly ridiculous. Rather than giving the camera controls to the player, the game designers have arbitrarily decided which angles are best and this more often than not leads to frustration; One scene in the Vampire castle tasks the player with opening the vampires’ curtains (much like the parent of unruly teenagers) whilst fighting continuously-spawning vampires and a haunted suit of armour. The task is made infinitely harder by the cinematic camera angle which seems obsessed with showcasing the far end of the room, to the point where the combat is often occurring off-screen. That’s an inexcusable sin. During the finale of the Lycan boss fight, dodging is hampered by the fact that holding the stick to the left doesn’t mean left – it’s a capricious direction depending on the Lycan’s position relative to the camera, meaning you often roll toward him rather than away.
That’s just the beginning of the trauma involved in fighting bosses. The boss fights are so ludicrously unimaginative and cheap it’s hard to believe. Cheap bosses are a real bugbear of mine – hard bosses make a good game great but cheap bosses really rustle my jimmies. A boss that tests your limits is fantastic but the egregious rubbish that this game forces you to play is beyond a joke. Firstly and most importantly the design of the boss fights is invariable; Gabriel finds himself in some sort of gladitorial arena (In Castlevania world, apparently kings live in stone arenas, waiting centuries at a time for someone to come along for a bout of pugilism) and enters into a thoughtless slugfest with a great beast many times his strength. The game doesn’t call for any intelligent problem-solving, no use of environmental advantages – just hammer away at that attack button for an eternity until you eventually chip that massive monster down.
One feature which smacks of lazy design and programming is the implementation of unblockable attacks. Unblockables are part of the fabric of video games and done right add to the frantic atmosphere of a vicious cockfight. In Lords of Shadow, all unblockable attacks deal damage on any frame of the animation with no warm up, no cool down and no recovery. If you’re unlucky enough to be touching your opponent whilst he winds up for an unblockable attack, the animation deals damage automatically, despite the fact that his hand is behind his back. Of course, due to the nature of the combat, you are going to be touching and as you’re dealt damage immediately you have no time to react to the opening frames of the animation. This really breaks the fourth wall and kills any sense of logic and verisimilitude in the game. Even Street Fighter II could manage the complicated maths of not dealing damage until Ryu’s fist touches Guile’s jawbone. It’s crap like this that makes the bosses feel tedious and really taxes the player, essentially punishing them for wanting to play a game.
The few variations to this central theme are the titan battles, which are at least different but are shallow parodies of the excellent Shadow of the Colossus but at the very least require forethought, imagination and a bit of grey matter rather than just hammering the X button to bash their head in with a length of chain.
The gameplay proper is a great deal better but it hopelessly repetitive. Once you’ve played this game for two hours you’ve pretty much seen everything the game has to offer. The gameplay on offer predictably swings between platforming and combat, with the pendulum swinging so wildly between the two you can practically see chalk lines drawn on the ground where the climbing up stuff ends and the whipping monsters begins. Neither aspect of the game has a great deal going for it in any eventuality, so switching the gameplay up is like substituting your third spoonful of all-vanilla sundae for a nice slurp of your vanilla milkshake. There’s nothing wrong per se with the way in which the game plays – in fact the game is very enjoyable in several sequences but it’s more a case of been there, done that.
The platforming elements aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. The climbing isn’t as well-realised as in its contemporaries (I’m looking at Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted here) but the levels are absolutely saturated with my biggest hate in video games – invisible walls. Considering the events take place in ruined cities and crumbling civilisations it’s ridiculous to fill the game with so many invisible barriers and doing so is just bad design, simple as that. Exploration is hampered by the volume of these inobvious panes and it’s actively discouraged by the level design. There’s no appreciable MetroidVania gameplay, instead the option to retry levels to find the hidden treasure you may have missed. Treasure hunting is purposefully hampered – every fork in the road represents a permanent decision; if Gabriel chooses left then the option to backtrack and choose right is often removed via a falling tree, a crumbling wall or some other means – this heightens the emphasis on re-trying levels rather than the organic method of exploring used effectively in other games.
Combat is a fairly drab affair. At first the affray seems fairly tight with rigid controls, sound combinations and a pretty balanced system of parries, blocks and dodges. The downside is the aforementioned problems quickly rear their ugly head and once these flaws are apparent the skirmishes lose their apparent fluidity and become dreary and repetitive. The player is offered a great list of combos via the end-of-level upgrade screen but these do little to address the issue and have little effect in-game; whipping, chipping and dodging remains the best way to play. Besides which, in another example of the weird Capcopying, the fiery uppercut move is called the Flame Dragontail; that’s more derivative than it is homage.
One thing this reviewer found vexing is the gradual and conspicuous manner in which your opponents improve as the game progresses. The first mini-boss enemy has striking moves, the second has strikes and a ground-pound manoeuvre, the third has the strike, ground-pound and an unblockable attack and so on. This is something I’ve always found puzzling in a real-world way – it’s like the Nazis not utilising Tiger tanks on the front lines, but keeping them back in Berlin for when all the other, lighter tanks have been blown up.
Defeated enemies drop magic orbs, reminiscent of the hearts in other Castlevania games. This magic is responsible for your various spells and as holy water, throwing knives and other such items have their own inventory, Lords of Shadow uses these orbs to power two unique types of combat magic; light and dark. When active, dark magic imbues Belmont’s attacks with energy, meaning he deals more damage. Light magic increases Gabriel’s health but is the single most useless system of health regeneration in any game I’ve played. To refill some of the health vial, Gabriel must kill an enemy with light magic activated, hoping beyond hope that the light magic meter doesn’t empty before his enemy bites the big one, which it often does. A grab, QTE or other combat eventuality will cancel the use of light magic so Belmont won’t receive the HP in return for killing his enemy. In a game where a steady diet of fighting monsters is commonplace, it would be nice to have a comprehensive system of health regeneration and this is an overly-complicated way of doing things. If your health is low, the system goes thus: kill enemies; collect magic orbs; fill light magic meter; activate light magic; kill enemies; refill health. The system is further rendered counter-intuitive as to collect magic orbs the game makes you hold in a button which stops Gabriel in his tracks, opening him up for attack. As there is a finite time the orbs are available to be collected, this really messes with the pace of the game and forces gamers into a corner. A system of defeated enemies dropping raw health orbs and dark magic would be a lot less stupid, or a system of turning light magic directly into health, rather than a cack-handed pillar-to-post system. Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia all have far better health systems than this and countless other fantasy adventures have more accessible ways of handling health regeneration. Like the health, it seems that numerous instances of this game are missed opportunities. Every facet of this game feels like it’s not quite up to scratch. Sequences where Belmont is riding a magical horse or a giant eagle are great ideas and yet they still under-deliver. You don’t even get to ride the eagle like you would in nearly any other game – a missed opportunity for a bonus level.
The score however is excellent and is the one part of Lords of Shadow that really stands out. With a sound more akin to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, composer Oscar Araujo has crafted a swooping, epic soundscape as opposed to the hair-metal Gothic sound of previous games. The score does go so far as to re-arrange some previous Castlevania music, unfortunately not the tracks a diehard like myself would want, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the music itself. Near flawless in fact, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow features some of the best music I’ve heard in a recent video game.
Overall the game feels like a shallow copy of the games Konami are attempting to lampoon. With puzzles that range between unimaginative and nonsensical and flawed, imbalanced combat it’s as if MercurySteam have made a conscious decision to make their game difficult to play. There’s an air of a purposefully hard game, for no reason other than the sake of it being hard. Konami are expecting their customers to treat Lords of Shadow as if it were cut from the same cloth as the flawless Symphony of the Night or the glorious Dawn of Sorrow, whereas what they’ve delivered is a sub-par action title which is not worthy of the Castlevania mantle. Castlevania Lords of Shadow is Konami’s Devil May Cry – furthering the strange obsession this game seems to have with the Capcom legacy.
Had this game been titled differently it would certainly have been given a higher score but expectations are going to be high when developing the latest game in a franchise with such pedigree. As such, rated as a Castlevania game this is about as fun to play as Simon’s Quest but it lacks the cute skeletons.