Rebooting a 24-year-old beloved series is a bold move. Choosing to reboot it in 3D when its roots are in 2D and its previous attempts at 3D have been lackluster is even bolder. Yet, that's just what Konami has done with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Developed by MercurySteam with assistance from Kojima Productions, Lords of Shadow is a new take on the series with Brotherhood of the Light member Gabriel Belmont setting out on a quest to free the souls of the recently deceased who have become trapped in limbo. Behind it all are the Lords of Shadow, leaders of monstrous factions that are attempting to drive a wedge between man and God. It's an interesting, if protracted, tale that spans Medieval Europe as Gabriel's search for the Lords takes him from the lush forests home of Pan to barren, frigid hinterlands teeming with fierce vampires and rabid ghouls.
For as much that has changed in Lords of Shadow, much has stayed the same. Gabriel, like his fellow Belmonts, still whips the beejezus out of monsters, still uses an array of subweapons, and still calls upon magic to solve puzzles and humble the ferocious. All isn't quite as it seems though, with the whip, a family tradition, replaced with a massive crucifix known as the Combat Cross. With a surprisingly long and retractable inner chain and break-off tip, the Combat Cross acts not only as a whip but ends up being something of a Swiss Army Knife for Medieval monster hunting as its various upgrades allow it to saw through concrete, act as an anchor for rappelling, and serve as an extended stake for impaling vampires. The sub weapons have also been switched up, with distracting faeries, throwing knives, holy water, and a demon-summoning crystal rounding out the arsenal. Magic has been tweaked as well. Instead of learning particular spells, Gabriel can engage either Light or Shadow Magic, through the absorbed orbs of defeated foes, to unlock a variety of enhancements as well as combat moves that are useful in brawls and in solving environmental puzzles. The most useful of which is the Light Magic's ability to refill health for every blow landed while activated. But instead of simply being called upon for one-time casts, both types are heavily integrated into the combat system and serve a more augmentation role. That said, there is a lot to keep track of as in addition to both magics, their respective extensive move lists, and sub weapons, there is also a focus meter that builds as damage is dealt but avoided, culminating in enemies dropping more orbs for absorbing whenever hit. There's definitely a lot going on.
Upgrading is done by allocating points received in combat and solving set puzzles to a variety of melee- and magic-based moves. The system works well, though in regards to the moves themselves, like most action titles, only a handful of combos are really necessary. Amongst the regular fighting are context-sensitive encounters, which are initiated whenever a weakened enemy is grabbed. The context-sensitive moves are slightly different than in other titles as only the X button is required for one type, which runs the gamut from being the only move necessary to merely being a setup for a more involved, button-tapping follow-up. For example, say a vampire has been beaten to the point of unconsciousness; it will glow, indicating that Gabriel can grab it, and then initiate a context-sensitive move when grabbed that displays two white rings on the screen with the outer ring closing on the inner. If X is pressed while the outer ring is within the smaller circle, a kill animation is initiated of Gabriel impaling the vampire. Other enemies don't have to be roughed up to be grabbed, such as ghouls, and those always result in some very satisfying, bloody finishes.
Actually, that brings up another significant break from previous Castlevania titles. Lords of Shadow is very, very messy. Creatures will be stomped, bashed, and ripped apart, all in fantastic detail. If the buckets of blood don't surprise you, then the graphics should, as this is one of the best looking titles I've seen. Some of its sweeping, gorgeous vistas are reminiscent of Uncharted while its towering boss encounters are right out of Shadow of the Colossus. Save for Gabriel himself, who looks slightly ogreish with a disproportionately large neck, the game is a jaw-dropper. And as great as the character detail is – gremlins look amazing – their end is just as graphic. After a few levels, it's easy to see why the game is on two DVDs.
After a few hours, though, it also becomes obvious that two DVDs were required for more than the graphics. I don't think there is anything in Lords of Shadow the developers didn't love, because everything is piled on to excess. At around 15-20 hours, I could easily see a few trimmed off without the game missing a beat. What can be trimmed are largely monotonous puzzles and repetitive encounters.
Subscribing to the old God of War design theory that a puzzle is only good if it requires a laborious task over multiple screens broken up by multiple, you will be tackling more than a few tedious tasks. Putting a crank into a gear is okay once - heck, even three times - but when I've done it a dozen times and am now backtracking through multiple areas to use one crank on multiple gears, I'm just going through the motions. Bosses can also take a while to kill, with even your deadliest moves taking off mere slivers of their life bar. And in what I can only take as an effort to try to make me not enjoy Sir Patrick Stewart's soothing tones, his voice is utilized for some of the most extensive voice-over work that I've come across. In addition to the area introductions, his character, Zobek, a fellow brother, also appears during the adventure. And he is utilized to the fullest. The problem isn't Stewart, who hams it up with gusto, but a poor script that is as melodramatic as it is droning.
With that said, the overarching story is quite good. Set in a world where man believes God – the Judeo-Christian capital 'G' God – has abandoned them, the Old Gods and mythological creatures (e.g., Pan) are being called upon to try to mend the rift. When the time period is taken into account – 1047 – there is a lot of interesting material there, with the superstition of the age keeping the old beliefs around, and the final vestiges of paganism being called back from the depths with a desperate cry for help. It's a changing, confused world, and there are nice little touches that emphasize man's plight. Throughout Gabriel's journey, he will run across the bodies of fallen brothers – who tend to look like the poor fellow from the Demon's Souls cover – whom he can pray over to send in peace. In the process, he receives whatever items they had on their person, be it one of the crystals to extend health and magic capacity or scrolls. The scrolls often include insights into the brother's journey and investigation, revealing panicked men who are gradually losing hope and their faith.
The brother's notes also include reminders for themselves and advice to others of the Order, such as an upcoming enemy's weakness or a tip on how to get out of a situation. Some even offer the solution to one of the set puzzles, which are those given special recognition due to their emphasis on figuring out a rudimentary riddle or elaborate object's workings. If the solution is accepted, time is saved but the bonus experience is forfeited. However, the puzzles tend to be so easy that the time saved isn't worth the sacrifice of passing up the extra experience.
The set puzzles and environmental puzzles bring up another negative of Lords of Shadow, and that is its inconsistency. The game is littered with areas and situations that don't make sense. There are some pathways that you cannot fall off of while there are others that you can. There are times when I was pressing the exact keys needed for Gabriel to jump, but he wouldn't; then, on the fourth attempt, doing the exact same thing, he did. There are times when I would move past an area multiple times, confused, only to finally have the required trigger event randomly occur so that I could proceed. While the camera angles allow for some amazing shots, they will also leave Gabriel and monsters obscured to the point where you don't know what's going on and, especially in the later levels, absolutely bewildered as to where to go. At one point, a rather dramatic upside-down angle didn't show Gabriel at all. The puzzles tend to on par or easier than the environmental ones that are required to navigate, so their singling out often doesn't make sense as I'd rather have sacrificed experience to opt out of one of the more monotonous tasks or trials that are so vague that you still can't believe the solution even when you find it.
Most of the problems seem to stem from inexperience. Not necessarily inexperience in the field, but in the genre, particularly one that attempts to mix so much action with so much platforming. Some new features, such as mounts, are handled fairly well, while many basics like camera angle and pacing hit some frustrating snags. As an attempt to reboot the franchise, Lords of Shadow ebbs and flows between forgetting what made Castlevania what it is and hitting the nail on the head. The intricate level design of its predecessors has been replaced by largely linear areas that offer only slight detours that, while offering an incentive to re-explore after upgrading a bit, just aren't the same. Then there are the times when you're impaling vampires, side-rolling under a monster's massive cleaver, and leaping from one crumbling spire to another and it all clicks. As a fan of the franchise, but not a diehard, I can see where the series is going and am happy to go along for the ride.
For all of its frustrating and drawn-out moments, and there are plenty, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow manages to be an exciting and satisfying adventure. There are encounters and environments here that you just won't get anywhere else, many of which are quite staggering the first time around. It might not be the Castlevania you remember, or as polished as it could be, but it certainly makes for an interesting start.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)