Considering how much complaining I’ve done in the past about Konami bringing back the barbarians, I felt that I should take some time out and reflect on Lords of Shadow, the recently released Castlevania game in which the barbarians have been… uhh… broughten.
Lords is the very definition of an ambitious game. This classically designed single player experience borrows from many different genres and introduces so many new mechanics and ideas that the first few hours leave the player confused and frustrated. The God of War inspired combat feels natural enough at first, but it isn’t before long where the player will discover that pounding the attack buttons will get them nowhere. Once players finally get a feel for that, they’re asked to conquer Shadow of the Colosuss inspired Titan battles, which once again introduce a new set of rules. Factor in the increasingly complex battle mechanics (the game slowly introduces different magic types, new items, and plenty of useful combats and gadgets) and Uncharted style platforming and players will find themselves in over their heads. Let us not forget the many different puzzles also sprinkled throughout the game to break up the fighting and the jumping (each of which can be bypassed by the player if they chose, though the player will miss out on valuable experience points for skipping them).
Thankfully the long length of the game (which is impressive for a single player campaign these days) allows the player enough time to adjust to everything the game tries to teach them in those first few levels. By the mid point most players that haven’t given up will be one with the deep combat system and they’ll be experts at dodging, making use of well timed blocks, balancing between dark and light magic, and have no problem spamming monsters with holy water and fairies. The game demands a lot from the player, but patient and persistent players will be rewarded with a really well thought out combat system.
Outside of the extremely steep learning curve, Lords of Shadows suffers from some of the typical issues of other 3D games. Sometimes platforming is tricky leading to many unintentional deaths (makes me respect the nearly perfect platforming in a game like Mario Galaxy even more), and while I mostly appreciate the fixed camera (I hate dealing with a camera these days. Seriously, mapping a camera to the second stick is lazy game design these days) it occasionally has a few moments where it’s not placed well. Some other technical issues, like the inconsistent frame rate, are blemishes on what would be a stunning game in the graphics department (and don’t get me wrong, some scenes look fabulous).
The pacing picks up around half way through the game as well, though I’m not so sure if it’s that the pacing became better or that was the moment where the game clicked with me and I found myself enjoying it more. Having gone back to previous stages to find items I missed, I found I actually enjoyed the stages more the second time around now that I knew what I was doing. Regardless, once players find their way into the castle, the game comes into its own and has its fair share of unique stage design and incredible boss battles.
But is it Castlevania? There are conflicting reports that this game was never supposed to be a Castlevania game (a teaser from 2008 suggests it was originally called “Lords of Shadow” but Konami employees have stated that was a test, so we won’t know for sure), but the fact of the matter is that if it’s titled Castlevania, then it’s Castlevania. And really, was Symphony of the Night a Castlevania game? Not really, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the highlights in the series and changing the direction of the series forever. From my perspective, someone that has grown up with and owns nearly every single game in the series, I would undoubtedly say this is a Castlevania game. It has enough Castlevania elements in there to warrant it being part of the series. It’s just sort of the Batman Begins of the series, taking 25 years of history and essentially flushing it down the toilet. As a fan, I have zero problem with that. The timeline is a tangled mess only rivaled by that of the Zelda series, so it’s about time for a fresh start.
Speaking of the story, Lords of Shadow easily has the best plot of the entire series. Sure, it has plenty of poorly written moments (please name me games that don’t) but as a whole it works well. Between each stage Patrick Stewart, as his character Zobek, gives us some understanding as to what Gabriel is doing and how he might be feeling. These pages can sometimes add to the plot development, but you can practically see Patrict Stewart rolling his eyes while reading some of this stuff. Outside of the normal cut scenes and the narrated segments, the game has tons of optional details about the world for the player to uncover. Every monster and character Gabriel meets get an entry into the player’s journal, and their are scrolls littered throughout the game that offer both hints and insight into the overall lore. There is some really cool stuff in here, particularly where the developers put their own unique spin on classic Castlevania staples (I seriously loved the history of the castle they share here and there).
I could probably write another five or so paragraphs on this game but I should probably wrap this up before it gets too long winded. Just know that despite suffering some technical issues and having a rough learning curve that Lords of Shadow absolutely delivers a grand adventure. It’s the sort of 3D Castlevania adventure I’ve wanted to play since Castlevania 64, and as someone that has grown slightly tired of the Metroidvania line of recent Castlevania games I’m glad to see the franchise manage to go back to its roots and also reinvent itself at the same time.
Also, count me in for the (hopefully) inevitable Lords of Shadow 2, where developers MercurySteam can perfect what they implemented here, and also bring the series into what appears to be their daring new direction for the franchise.