In my opinion, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series of videogames is one of gaming’s crowning achievements. While many detractors complain about the excessive amount of cutscenes and the oft-confusing plotlines, you can’t argue with the franchise’s success and longevity. It was for this reason that I was particularly excited to get my hands on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (CLoS), knowing that Kojima Productions had been brought in to work with developer Mercury Steam on the latest incarnation of this legendary series.
The Castlevania franchise is an interesting study in contradictions – ask any old school gamer and they will go on at length about how incredible the original game was, both in the arcade and on the NES. As time wore on and successive entries in the series were released, it seemed that the critical response to each game was less and less. In 1997 there was a resurgence in the quality of the games with the release of Symphony of the Night, which gained huge popularity, and rightfully so. The first Castlevania story to establish an official canon and implement RPG elements, Symphony of the Night was a landmark game in the series and one of the most popular titles ever for the original Playstation.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Castlevania is the ongoing tale of the Belmont clan and their struggles with vampires in general and Dracula in particular. The original Castlevania told the story of Simon Belmont, armed only with his trusty whip and a cross as he battled his way through Dracula’s castle to confront the ultimate vampire. Each new Castlevania game featured another member of the Belmont family with their own trials to endure as they faced the ultimate evil.
Which brings us to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow; this time around the protagonist is Gabriel Belmont, a member in good standing of the Brotherhood of Light. The Brotherhood is group of holy knights, determined to battle darkness and evil wherever they find it. Gabriel himself is haunted by the death of his wife, Marie, and begins his journey across the land in search of a way to bring her back from the dead.
And what a land it is – every single environment in Lord of Shadows is unique and well laid out. Each level presents plenty of amazing vistas to appreciate, to the point where you’ll often find yourself stopping and looking around just to enjoy the incredible landscape. All this gorgeous scenery is enhanced by creative use of camera angles and cuts from one viewpoint to another, giving a very cinematic feel to the game as you play.
One thing you have to give developer Mercury Steam credit for is their attention to detail and the amount of creativity that has gone into every visual in CLoS. It would have been easy to churn out a bunch of generic werewolf, demon, and vampire models and call it a day. Instead, the artists made sure to differentiate their creatures so they were both familiar and new at the same time. In CLoS there are five different types of werewolf models alone, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and strategies for attacking Gabriel.
The originality doesn’t stop there by any means, with the bosses being suitably epic and intimidating, both in size and demeanor. The best way to describe the visuals in Lord of Shadows is “atmospheric”, as Kojima’s influence is clearly seen in the game’s many set pieces. From the moment we see Gabriel Belmont emerge from the darkness and rain at the start of the game to assist villagers in defeating a group of Lycans (werewolves) to his first confrontation with a titan, the look and feel of CLoS is dramatic to say the very least. The only thing that keeps this title from earning a perfect score is the infrequent framerate issues it experiences. While this is not a chronic problem, it does pop up frequently enough to be a distraction, which is unfortunate.
Another area where Castlevania: Lords of Shadow scores big is the fantastic voice acting in the game. The first voice most people will recognize is that of Patrick Stewart, who plays the part of Zobek, another member of the Brotherhood of Light who appears to help Gabriel with his quest. Not to be overshadowed at all, Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty) provides the voice of Gabriel Belmont and is spectacular in his performance. The rest of the voice cast is solid as well, with particularly good showings from Sally Knyvette as Carmilla and Emma Ferguson as Claudia. Oscar Araujo created the original score, which is excellent and contributes greatly to the game’s atmosphere.
If nothing else, Mercury Steam deserves high praise for the way the control scheme is implemented in this title. There are just so many control options available in CLoS that it’s hard to know where to begin describing them. Fortunately for all of us, the developer doesn’t have that problem, instead revealing new controls throughout the first several chapters of the game in a logical and controlled manner. By the time you’re midway through the title you’ve been introduced to a truckload of options for physical attacks, combos, light and dark magic, relics, the list goes on and on. The beauty of the way these elements are introduced into gameplay is that at no time do you ever feel overwhelmed by all your choices. Players will definitely gravitate to favored methods of approaching each enemy and environment, but those adventurous enough to experiment with different combinations and styles will be rewarded with better experience bonuses.
For the most part, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow follows the usual RPG recipe; kill everything in your way, gain experience, level up, kill things faster and more dramatically. In a slight twist on the usual RPG leveling formula, Lord of Shadows has you build up experience as you kill creatures and solve puzzles, but then spend that experience to unlock new attacks (both magical and physical) as well as upgrades for your equipment and weapons.
You heard that right, there are plenty of puzzles to challenge the player throughout the storyline of Castlevania, albeit with another twist. Near every puzzle location players will be able to find a scroll that not only provides a hint to the puzzle’s solution, it also gives players the option of solving the puzzle for you. The only drawback to this choice is that the player misses out on the experience point bonus that you would have received for figuring out the puzzle. This keeps the story moving forward, so gamers never feel “stuck” anywhere in the game.
This focus on maintaining the pace of the narrative is really the key to Lords of Shadow’s success – at no point in the game do you feel like there is wasted gaming time. Players are constantly faced with minions to defeat, bosses to face down, puzzles to solve and upgrades to purchase. Matched with a plotline that twists and turns frequently, and you have an outstanding gaming experience.
It takes a special sort of game to be able to provide good replay value without having any multiplayer component included. The God of War series was able to do this not once, not twice, but in all three entries in that series. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow pulls this off beautifully, and yes, I’m comparing CLoS to God of War! On the surface, Lords of Shadow seems to be a close imitator of God of War, but it’s not until you dive into the gameplay that you realize how deep Castlevania truly is. While excellent, God of War doesn’t come close to conjuring up the same passion and emotional investment that the plotline of Castlevania does. Evil, temptation, betrayal, self doubt – all these things are explored in this title and handled exceptionally well.
3D settings have always been kryptonite for the Castlevania series. As well as nearly every 2D entry in the franchise has been received, the attempts at 3D have almost always been panned. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow breaks this curse completely by excelling in nearly every way a game can be measured. The excellent voice acting, the suitably grand score, the gorgeously crafted vistas, the compelling plot; everything just clicks when it comes to this game. Without the Castlevania characters and settings this game would have been excellent, but with all those things included, this title becomes magnificent. Action/adventure players will greatly enjoy what this game has to offer and fans of the Castlevania series will be thrilled with the positive direction the series has taken.