Monday, October 18, 2010

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow seems like a risky move for the franchise. Previous attempts to bring the series into the world of 3D haven’t necessarily rendered the results fans have craved. After three successful 2-D titles on the DS, the series is having another go on consoles and developer MercurySteam has finally broken the 3-D curse. Lords of Shadow isn’t a perfect game but it’s certainly a good one which takes many liberties with the Castlevania license while crafting an appropriately epic story along the way. While elements of the gameplay take direct inspiration from other franchises, the game has more in common thematically with the likes of Tolkien than anything else. Gabriel Belmont has embarked on a journey following the death of his wife as a scourge of evil and darkness threatens to overtake the world. High stakes, to be sure, but all in a day’s work for a member of the Brotherhood of Light. During his travels, Gabriel will trudge through poisonous bogs, up treacherous mountains, and deep into the bowels of the underworld while battling all manner of skeletons, lycanthropes, vampires, and other creatures of Castlevania lore.

As I said, the story is quite epic, spanning various locations with incredible vistas, characters, and monsters. Gabriel is not alone in his quest as Zobek, fellow member of the Brotherhood, accompanies him for much of his journey though he only takes part in the action for a very short time. Zobek is voiced by none other than everybody’s favorite follically-challenged Trekkie, Patrick Stewart, who does his best with the source material. Problems arise with the storytelling as every chapter begins with a lengthy narration by Stewart which borders on the melodramatic. As the game can last up to twenty hours, players will find themselves constantly pulled out of the experience as the next chapter loads and another narration begins. It’s not all-bad but it made the experience feel somewhat disjointed. Despite the heavy-handed approach to some of the storytelling, the tale can be riveting. It's what kept me coming back to the game. The lengthy story is coupled with gameplay that is mostly satisfying making the journey toward the stunning conclusion all the more enjoyable.

Lords of Shadow is an action game in the same vein as God of War, taking much of its inspiration from the likes of Sony’s Spartan series, platforming reminiscent of Uncharted, and the occasional boss battle ripped straight out of Shadow of the Colossus. While elements of the gameplay might feel somewhat derivative, Lords of Shadow still feels incredibly rewarding, offering complexity, tactility, and weight to its combat. As players progress through each level, they gain experience points which can be traded for additional combos and other upgrades. Added depth comes by way of Light & Shadow magic. Gabriel can harness magical abilities, allowing players to regain health with Light magic and increase damage with Shadow magic active. It’s an extra layer that increases the complexity just enough to reward players looking for more depth in the combat. Meanwhile, players hoping to hammer on the square and triangle buttons will be challenged but can probably manage on lower difficulties just fine.

The game deviates from the “Metroidvania” design of recent Castlevania titles in favor of a more linear, stream-lined experience. It isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply a different direction which could turn off some hardcore fans. I didn’t find myself missing any of the back-tracking. The game isn’t trying to tell the same story or give the same experience as a game like Symphony of the Night. The closest thing to back-tracking is the game’s repayable design. As each level is completed it’s made available to go back, find all of the upgrades, complete on higher difficulties, and attempt various challenges such as beating a boss without using Light magic. Lords of Shadow wears its influences on its sleeve and while the gameplay is enjoyable, for the most part, it does stumble when the fighting subsides.

Occasional puzzles break up the action offering brief moments of lever-pulling, dial-turning, and color matching. The puzzle aren’t going to offer much in the way of head-scratching but at the very least they help to mix up the pace, avoiding the monotony of having the action constantly turned up to 11. However, Castlevania’s weakest points are the moments of exploration and platforming. Gabriel’s movement lacks the fine-tuned feeling we’ve come to expect from games like Uncharted, making certain sections of the game (yeah Music Box level, I’m calling you out) feel extremely frustrating. The problem comes from a lack of weight to Gabriel’s character. His model never feels as weighted as he could and problems abound when standing on moving surfaces. I often encountered an issue with moving platforms as Gabriel would inexplicably walk of the edge without any input from me. A tiny but annoying problem that, to me, illustrated some of the frustration and lack of polish present in the platforming.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take time to mention how beautiful the game looks. From a technical standpoint, the graphics are top-rate. But more importantly the environments and other design elements are, simply put, amazing. There was a moment in particular, as Gabriel stormed across the landscape, a huge gothic castle loomed in the distance, snow whipped at the screen, that I stood back for a long time and stared in awe. The design of Lords of Shadow could be arguably its strongest asset. I remember thinking several times that I hope everybody who plays the game makes it to the end so they can enjoy the views.

The game would have benefited from some editing. It can take a few hours for it to really hit its stride which could turn some gamers off. When an action game of this ilk takes so long to get down to business, more time could have been spent examining what’s absolutely essential. It may seem strange to complain that a game is too long but several levels in Lords of Shadow clutter up an otherwise great game. I would have much preferred a slightly shorter but more concise experience.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes inspiration from many great games. Is the combat better than God of War? Debatable. Are some of the boss battles greater than Shadow of the Colossus? No. Is the platforming as finely-tuned as Uncharted? Not really. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game- far from it. It might not step out from the shadow of its influences, but Castlevnia is a good game that’s absolutely worth seeing through to the end and stands on its own accomplishments of design and story. In fact, in many regards it surpasses a game like God of War. Kratos would be wise to take an acting lesson or two from Gabriel. It’s a slow-burn, offering players an experience that takes more than 20 hours to see the first time through. The game is far more than a miserable little pile of influences, managing to bring a charm all its own offering themes, characters, and locations unique to the franchise. I hadn’t heard of developer MercurySteam before this game and throughout my time with Lords of Shadow I kept asking myself where on Earth they’d been hiding all this time.


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