18th October 2010 - Developed by Kojima Productions and MercurySteam, the latest Castlevania hits the consoles amongst a storm of top tier titles. A complete reboot and technical spiritual successor, can this new addition to the franchise do justice to all previous titles before it, or does it get lost in a myrid of other similar games and would be heroes. Find out why Castlevania might just be the sleeper hit of 2010...
At this point in the year two games stick out as technical 'sleeper hits' for 2010. Games, that by right are not as good as they could be, but are far better than anyone expected, seemingly dropping out of nowhere to gain critical acclaim and a new swag of loyal followers. First up is Enslaved, which pinged the radar of many people earlier on in the year only to blow them away (and impress a lot of female gamers) in the last month. In direct competition for peoples wallet though, is Castlevania LoS, a 3rd person Action Adventure that is deeper and more complex than could first be imagined.
With a long history of Castlevania games dating all the way back to the SNES, Kojima and MercurySteam had their work cut out for them, and yet apart from the recent re-release on XBLA and PSN one might be forgiven for never having heard the name before. Certainly Lords of Shadow is the most, accessible and “Western” adaptation yet, following previous titles in idea only with execution and gameplay firmly rooted in so many other similar titles this year.
Not God of War
You will find yourself playing as Gabriel, not Dante but just like Dante's Inferno, Gabriel is communicating with his dead wife early on in the game and chasing her memory into the deep dark in hopes of either joining her, or bringing her back. Slowly he becomes more unhinged and loses his grip on reality. Gabriel can command the use of big creatures to ride, just in Dante's Inferno or God of War and luckily he is the spitting image of War from Darksiders to boot. He has a nifty cross and chain whip like so many games and balances shadow magic and light magic to the full effect of his powers.
Where Castlevania really defines itself is in the approach to the otherwise cliché story and gameplay. For a series that is marred with arcade titles and Asiatic designs and characters, Lords of Shadows is a lot lighter on the darkness and wholly European. Set during the crusades in Europe, Gabriel is a Knight Templar and the crux of the story rests on the balance of relationships with God. The villages are condemning God, that He has left them and now darkness is spreading, while Gabriels order defends that God in fact is not absent but a powerful magic has severed the connection between man and Lord so that he can no longer be heard. Rather than degenerate into hell, and blood and guts and daemons, Castlevania for the most part prefers mythical creatures and a lot of Werewolves and Lychens. There are fairies and Pan (pronounced Phan, of Pans Labyrinth fame) makes an appearance,even though his decent is of Greek not Celtic lore as in the game. There is a lot of Celtic lore written into the game, with designs and symbols littering the forests and castles around.
Specific gameplay is three fold: beat the blood out of a lot of mythical creatures using a deep and progressing number of combos, ride big creatures to solve puzzles, solve some more puzzles, spend a lot of time climbing and jumping platforms and eventually reach a level encompassing Titan to defeat and complete a chapter.
In the shadow of the Colossus
Titans really are the icing on the cake to this game, which shamelessly rips off most other action adventure/ role playing games in fine form. Where Shadow of the Colossus, was both artful and technically acclaimed for it's story telling, the Titans in Castlevania are more dangerous and easier to defeat. For those who never played the Playstation classic, shame on you, now you can get a taste of what it is all about. Rather than 'attack' a Titan, skill is involved to climb up these behemoths slowly, and without falling down. Progressing up the moving body mass, Gabriel will have to pierce a number of points on different areas of the body to bring it down once and for all. Doing so is time consuming and the swinging camera and moving mountain will work against you as you try to climb at the same time, but the reward is a fitting end to each chapter and with 14-16 chapters in total, the game is one long epic slog.
Game length is just one of many things that Kojima and MercurySteam have done right but Lords of Shadow is not without some issues. With such a long game, some of the combat can get repetitive while the puzzles are nothing new and all very simple. Literally the only weapons are the cross/flail and daggers, combined with dark light magics but the step up is that levelling skills and combos is quite deep. So much so that each skill upgraded can be upgaded again, upgrading an upgrade will change the combo and adds depth to a simple number of button combos. With so many different variations though, it becomes difficult to remember all the combos and by the end only a few are needed anyway. For Castlevania purists also, it may be 4 to 5 hours before you even reach your first Castle proper, which is a step away from the previous claustrophobic titles. Lastly, Kojima seems to have had some trouble with the difficulty curve, because this particular iteration is as hard as any game before unless you put it on easy in which case you are more or less invulnerable. There is no middle ground with the game either being well too easy or well too hard, even on the middle difficulties. If you are not a fan of dying at each intersection, playing on easy is recommended as levels can be retried harder and with more powers later on.
Wether it is the well defined Celtic creatures, like Pans different forms of fawn or horse, or Gabriel himself, Casltevania oozes polish and production, which is perhaps the most pleasantly surprising thing of all. Not even mentioning Sir Patrick Stuarts soothing overtones, this is a game that for all intents and purposes, does it's best to rival God of War 3 and Uncharted as a good looking game.
Rain will splash against the screen as does snow, and while a lot of the characters have a slightly large and chunky appearance, each one is unique and it never gets boring to fight them. The enemies are split up into basic units, larger boss units, even larger mounts that need to be tamed and then of course Titans, which would not look as good without the power and tech to back them up.
Put simply there is a lot of incidental detail in the game, that makes you want to keep playing despite the length. For every boring cave and snow level, there is an equally wonderful waterfall or forest just around the corner. Lighting is incredible with large amount of volumetric shadows, rainbows and fires. Character animations are good and the enemy AI more intelligent than it should be, with a noticeable difference between difficulties.
Pro Tip: Learn to block early in the game. Blocking leads to countering which can lead to many bonuses including higher orb drops and damage.
For every good looking game, something always has to go wrong, to sully the enjoyment of so much eye candy. It may be frame rates or tearing, or super long load times, or it might just be, the camera. Bearing a striking similarity to Devil May Cry, while the game is glorious the camera is frustrating at times. Fixed, it wouldn't have been that hard for the devs to allow the right stick to move it around. As it is, you will sometimes have no idea where to go which way is forward, and miss critical things like health and unlocks because they are off to the side of the screen or out of the cameras view. Sometimes you may even be forced to jump 'off camera'. Generally it works, shots trying to pan out or rotate accordingly, but unlike Darksiders which always made the combat up close and personal, Castlevania sometimes pans too far out losing some connection with the action below.
For these minor mistakes though, MercurySteam redeems themselves, with some very involved features and nerd satisfaction. Lords of Shadow comes with a ridiculous amount of artwork, but also a complete Beastiary of every single character and enemy and ally with more art and in a lovingly created book form. The Beastiary doubles though as codex, showing enemy stats and what weapons works best against them including any loot drops. It is a nice touch adding almost as much reading in the game as there is video. For this reason the game does ship on 2 disks, and is well worth it with a slew of extra challenges and macro achievements per chapter.
All anyone needs to know is three words: Sir Patrick Stuart. If that doesn't do it for you, then Robert Carlyle portrays Gabriel in all his Scottish overtones (while filming Stargate Universe at the same time). Again this level of personal attention and A list credentials is pleasantly surprising and makes it worth the journey to listen to and read the story over all 50 odd levels. Mind you, Kojima and MercurySteam, have really broken up the story with voice acting, and as wonderful as Sir Patrick Stuart is, starting every single level (all 50 of them) with a rather long speech may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Sir Patrick Stuart (because it never get's old saying 'sir' ) does portray his own character in the game as well, who aids Gabriel on his quest. Otherwise the Castlevania theme returns with music composed in Spanish making a suitably epic soundtrack.
Pro Tip: Gerard Butler was originally cast as Gabriel but was unavailable.
It is hard to miss an opportunity to play a game that is both so long and enjoyable through all 50 levels. It is also rare these days to receive two excellent and epic action adventure games at the same time (Enslaved). It is becoming increasingly old-school to have a long game like this, which relies on platforming but is wholly single player and not an RPG. DLC is promised already but as it stands, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is worth the buy. Perhaps more so, over Enslaved because of the length, but either way, despite God of War 3, Darksiders and Dantes Inferno before that, too much Action Adventure is never enough.
For those who never played the likes of Shadow of the Colossus or Ico, the Titans make for some of the largest and elaborate boss battles and while the difficulty can be a problem for no particular reason, pushing through to the end is a reward unto itself. LoS is certainly a departure from what is traditional about Castlevania, but in spirit there is still just as much platforming, magic, big boss battles and whips as before.
What's not to like about a game where East meets West around some excellent voice actors and stunning set pieces. The camera can be confusing if not downright annoying at times and really should have been fixed before going Gold, but it hardly hinders what is one of the best surprise games of 2010. Next to Enslaved and possibly Metro 2033, keep an eye on Castlevania as the next big series.
AAG SCORE: 8.75/10
+ Lovingly created game
+ Celebrity voice overs
+ Solid gameplay with a long length
- Even more variety in enemy or puzzle would be nice
- Issues with the cameras at times
- Difficulty curve is either too easy or too hard.
Written and Reviewed by Ian Crane