Less Whips, More Chains…Oh, and an Awesome Castlevania to Boot! Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Lords of Shadow Review

An Identity Crisis

For quite a while, I had been contemplating purchasing a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadowfor the 360. I’ve been playing the series since the NES and GameBoy days, off and on, and it’s one of those series that will always interest me with a new installment. However, I have heard both positive and negative opinions on Lords of Shadow, and have myself played Lament of Innocence – briefly – which failed to impress or even interest me. So it was with something of reluctance that I finally bought it for myself; the deciding factor in the end was that I was able to purchase a brand-new Special Edition with the soundtrack and an artwork book for a very reasonable price.

I’m glad I did, because looking back on the game now, I have to say that it was easily one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had on my 360, ever.

Lords of Shadow Review

Fearsome though he looks, this still isn’t Dracula

Right from the get-go, many players who fondly remember the origins of this franchise may be upset to see very little that ties this game into their beloved roots of the series. The hero, who is at least a Belmont, is out to find the means to bring back his love from the dead. To do this, he must hunt down the three Lords of Shadow and recover from their lifeless corpses pieces of the Godmask, a relic that bestows the power to bring back the dead. Not only is this a pretty trite videogame plot device, but it also replaces the familiar objective that nearly every Belmont has ever had to date: find and destroy Dracula, the Prince of Darkness. Not only that, but as the plot unfolds a bit more, it becomes evident that there is no Dracula in this game, nor is a different vampire the ultimate goal of your quest (although vampires do figure into the game’s story a bit later).

Next comes another small detail that will be a big deal to many: Gabriel Belmont does not wield the iconic whip that has been as much a staple of the franchise as its main villain. Simon Belmont, in the original two games, and many of his subsequent ancestors/predecessors have always made good use of the whip, destroying candles for power-ups, and slaying foul beasts, ghouls, and undead with a flick of the wrist. However, Gabriel’s weapon of choice, the Combat Cross, does feature a long chain that extends from the weapon during combat, which is whipped around to inflict damage; in essence, it acts as a whip would.

A Whole That’s Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Gameplay-wise, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes bits and pieces of several well-known games and incorporates them in a pleasing and satisfying combination. Being a 3D epic, there is big focus on high-flying platforming in the vein of the current-gen Tomb Raider titles. Gabriel’s chain serves to swing across large chasms and repel up and down building facades and sheer rock or cliff faces. He can even do a bit of a Spider-Man-like move by throwing his chain to latch onto a hook point while still being in free fall from a previous swing. Shimmying along ledges and leaping precariously through the air to catch onto distant grip-points are commonplace movements. Sadly, the levels are generally linear, so the platforming is quite straight-forward, and exploration is almost completely abandoned.

Combat, too, draws on outside influences. Players will quickly recognize Kratos’ signature visceral, sword/chain swinging fighting style in Gabriel Belmont’s use of his Combat Cross. Initially only divided up into heavy direct attacks to inflict significant damage and lighter area attacks to keep foes at bay, Gabriel’s battle repertoire can be upgraded quite substantially by unlocking a myriad of combos by spending experience points earned in previous levels. Even though, by game’s end, Gabriel will have been built into a killing machine with aerial and ground-based combos galore for every conceivable occasion, I found myself only using a small handful of combos throughout most of the game, or else button mashing like mad. Even with such rudimentary techniques, combat remains incredibly satisfying throughout the game, and Gabriel comes across as quite the bad-ass at times. All enemies feature unique finishing animations when their health is critically low, and some larger ‘feral’ beasts, like the Giant Spider or the Warg, can even be made to submit to Gabriel and be ridden as a mount, each with its own special abilities.

Lords of Shadow Review

One guess what “Gabriel’s invited for dinner” means to this guy

Boss battles are worth mentioning, as most bosses range from extremely large to downright gigantic; the Titans Gabriel must battle can comfortably fit him into the palm of one heavy stone hand, and are more than happy to crush him into so much jelly. These particular battles take a major cue from the memorable and epically crafted Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus. Gabriel will be required to find ways and methods to scale these behemoths to ever so slowly make his way to their solitary weak spots before he can even begin to think of damaging them at all. Every boss battle feels epic, and most require players to take unique approaches, such as having to fling giant slabs of rock back at a Titan using your chain when he lobs them at you, and you can expect some quick-time button pressing sequences thrown into these intense bouts.

There Be Magic in These Woods

Another new mechanic built right into the game’s combat and puzzles is the use of two divergent types of magic; during the course of his journey, Gabriel acquires the use of both Light and Shadow magic. Each type has its own uses – Light magic will cause each blow Gabriel lands on an opponent to heal him a little, while Shadow magic increases his damage output. The rub is that activating each type of magic will quickly use up your stored reserves of magic ability, and the only way to recharge it is by absorbing magical orbs dropped by enemies in combat (or at a magic fountain, but that’s a freebie). But even when harvesting magical orbs to replenish your stores, you have to decide which school of magic you’d like to stock them in, for they both have their separate pools of magical energy they draw from.

There are entire puzzles, and in one case even a whole boss fight, built around the proper use of these divergent magics, and they are much more than an added afterthought put into the game for you to take or leave as you please. Puzzles are also incorporated cleverly into many aspects of the game; there is even an entire level, in which Gabriel is shrunk and placed inside a magical music box, which is one long, intricate puzzle.

Lords of Shadow Review

The Vampire Killer – once again the number one cause for heartburn-related Vampire deaths

There is a very well-paced steady stream of upgrades, new abilities, and new powers given to Gabriel throughout the length of the adventure. Rather than throwing a crushingly intense learning curve at the player, developers MercurySteam and Kojima Productions spaced out new gear like the Vampire Killer, an addition to your Combat Cross that turns the handle into a sharp stake to impale vampires. This gradual doling out of upgrades leads to a nice sense of progression, as you steadily watch Gabriel growing stronger and able to tackle even the most challenging of foes.

The Teeming Undead Make for Tough Sons-of-Bitches

Even with all of Gabriel’s considerable arsenal to aid him, combat remains jaw-clenchingly intense. Even at ‘Normal’ difficulty, groups of three moderately tough enemies could quickly give me a run for my money. There were multiple times when three Swordmasters or a pack of Greater Lycanthropes could exterminate me in a matter of moments. The flip side of this is that vanquishing your foes gives you a true sense of accomplishment, and nothing’s better than feeling truly badass after putting away a squad of Ghouls that have crawled forth from their graves in the cemetery of a Transylvanian mountain village in the dead of night. The game features several such moments, and I loved the sense of dread I felt when I was deep in the Vampire Lord’s dilapidated castle and realized, to my horror, cold chills running down my spine, that the sun was setting behind the mountains on the horizon, and a guttural stirring and moving was beginning in the holes that housed squads of Vampire Warriors, waking to feast on the blood of this warrior who had mere moments before thought himself safely protected by the light of day.

Lords of Shadow Review

Pan in one of his many forms

Of course, the stereotypical Vampires and Werewolves populate the enemy ranks. But MercurySteam have also seen fit to give Gabriel some more unusual foes to compete against, such as the huge voodoo ragdolls brought to life by Laura, the childlike Vampire, and the mischievous Chupacabras that steal all your magical abilities and leave you practically naked and defenseless until you find them and reclaim your gear. The hordes of monsters, undead, reanimated corpses, etc all look savage and beautifully brutal; Wargs and Greater Lycanthropes hulk over you and are armed with razor-sharp claws and fangs, while the Scarecrows in the swamp look like something gleefully twisted out of a torture aficionado’s handbook.

An eclectic host of characters populates Gabriel’s 11th century Eastern European-inspired world. One of these is the versatile god Pan, who looks to be straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Late in the game, Gabriel’s path takes him through a swamp, in which resides the witch from Eastern European folklore, Baba Yaga – this was the most creeped out I’ve been by a NPC in a game in a long time; the whole experience of making her acquaintance was quite unsettling! The developers drew on such various sources for their inspiration in populating this game world, and it pays off in spades in many richly varied interactions.

A Classic Atmosphere

Lords of Shadow excels in painting a rich atmosphere, a fusion of fantasy and horror action. On the audio front, composer Oscar Araujo composed a grand and sweeping masterpiece of a score of motion picture-quality. Eerie and pulsating tunes set a beautiful backdrop, and orchestral and choral arrangements lend an immense scope; the music as a whole is truly epic. Vocal talent is also top-notch, with Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle receiving top billing as Zobek and Gabriel, respectively. At game’s end, Jason Isaacs also makes an appearance in a surprise twist reveal that I won’t spoil for you here. Unfortunately, the script does occasionally approach a rambling quality, especially between levels as Patrick Stewart narrates the story’s progression.

Lords of Shadow Review

A snowy village graveyard, nestled in the shadow of the Vampire Lord’s fortress

Visually, the game is quite gorgeous to look at, and the amount of detail is sometimes staggering. Each of the three main areas of the game has a distinct visual theme, and an easy personal favorite for me is the hauntingly gothic middle section of the game, in which Gabriel goes after the Vampire Lord. If the tower of the Crow Witch and a corrupted, Vampire-infested abbey aren’t enough for you, then how about the decrepid remains of a village built right onto the snowy crags underneath the crumbling remains of the Vampire Lord’s castle looming overhead?  Hunting Werewolves in a forest in the middle of a midnight downpour of rain; the Hostel-like gore of the Butcher’s kitchen where human remains are chopped up and prepared to be fed to the castle’s ghouls; visceral environments like this are commonplace and represented in all their sickening detail.

The Final Verdict

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow converges tried and tested elements of many other games to great effect. Epic boss battles; Colossus-sized Titans; combo-heavy combat; environmental platforming. Add to that a larger-than-life soundtrack and locales bursting at the seams with atmosphere, and the fact that the game is fairly long, and you’ve got a great game on your hands. This being a reboot of the franchise, fans will hopefully have more of this to look forward to; oh, and by the way, those that persevere through Gabriel’s trials will indeed be rewarded with a Dracula-related – and quite surprising – teaser of things to come!

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