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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – PS3

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – PS3

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3Platform:  PS3

Release Date (NA):  October 5th, 2010

Developers:  MercurySteam, Kojima Productions

Publisher:  Konami

Genre:  Action / Adventure, Hack and Slash

Nerd Rating:  9 out of 10

Note:  Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has two supplemental downloadable chapters, Reverie and Resurrection which will be covered shortly and in separate articles.

If you’ve been keeping up with my slow trek through nearly two dozen Castlevania games, you may have realized that, for the the most part, I’ve been sticking to the release order…until now.  While I may not yet be extremely familiar with some of the aspects of the “original” mythology uncovered in the PS2 games, it’s not really a big deal since the entire Lords of Shadow trilogy is a complete reimagining of the “Belmonts vs. Dracula” premise.  As our culture becomes more and more inundated with reboots and remakes (as if to suggest no one any longer has the mental capacity to keep up with an evolving storyline) I was a little hesitant, but for some reason, the first Lords of Shadow installment was calling my name, and I’m glad I listened.

The experience is immersive, the story well developed, and the game is expansive.  Attempting to encompass more than a mysterious castle materializing every 100 years, Lords of Shadow widens its scope to include God, Satan, and damn near everything in between.  In fact, the story focuses primarily on Gabriel Belmont and his quest to rescue his world from darkness in the year 1047 and follows his journey through the lands of the Lycans, Vampires, and Necromancers.  There’s a lot going on, and even just a plot summary would make for an interesting read, but there’s enough development and more than a few DAMN moments that I won’t spoil.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

Brauner getting put out of his misery.

Though the departure from past Castlevanias is stark, there are numerous nods to the rich mythology of so many previous titles. Astute fans will recognize the stage names Veros Woods and Wygol Village as locations from other games.  Character names are reused in clever ways, such as Brauner (a vampire from Portrait of Ruin) and Olrox (a boss from Symphony of the Night (and a corruption of Count Orlok from the film Nosferatu)) becoming high ranking vampire officials.  Several others are apparent to varying degrees, my personal favorite being the Lycan Lord of Shadow named Cornell after the starring werewolf character from Legacy of Darkness.  If you pay attention to the scenery in the post-credits scene, you can also see what appears to be a Slogra skeleton worked into the background.  By reimagining so many small elements and not just “the big picture” in general, even fans tepidly stepping into this “alternate Castlevania” will find reward for their nerdiness. Lords of Shadow has also reached into previously uncharted folk tales for inspiration, going so far as to include their take on the witch Baba Yaga.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

What the fabled “Vampire Killer” now looks like…I think it’s awesome.

Gameplay mechanics have also been given a new treatment; one will find familiar sights like the whip and holy water vials (called “flasks”) presented in updated ways.  Yes, everything is different, but in the best ways possible.  Castlevania games have always been heavy on atmosphere, and finally we have an amazing, contained story to go along with it not to mention various challenges and modes of play to reflect the evolving plot.  At its core, Lord of Shadows employs basic hack-and-slash combat mechanics for the duration.  Lots of whipping, dodging, and more whipping are the norm, though heavy amounts of puzzle solving and platforming are present as well.

Combat is pretty simple.  There are only a couple of attack buttons, but the game gradually eases the player into unlocking Gabriel’s full potential.  Experience points are awarded, but they don’t contribute to any sort of character stats like in RPGs.  Instead, they act as a currency with which to purchase new combos and other fancy whip tricks.  Eventually these add up to a diverse array of attacks to keep combat interesting.  Additionally, the concept of the sub-weapon is revisited, with Gabriel adding 4 auxiliary weapons to his arsenal including daggers, holy water, fairies, and dark crystals.  Gabriel also learns the ways of both Light and Shadow magic, finite, activated abilities with various uses.  Perhaps the most notable is using Light Magic to transfer to the damage done to enemies to Gabriel’s own health bar.  Finally, Gabriel will also stumble across armor-like upgrades dropped by some of his most powerful foes allowing him another set of special moves related to a gauntlet, a pair of quick moving boots, and his very own set of angel wings used in order to double jump.  Worth mentioning is that magic, combos, upgraded equipment, and these new sub-weapons can be combined in various ways for all sorts of novel attacks.  To top it off, some larger creatures can be subdued and then mounted and used like a medieval tank!

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

Hot
or
Not?

It’s great to have all these options when it comes to the varieties of monsters you’ll be up against, but many of the boss fights require less straightforward tactics to overcome.  On screen prompts will help in many cases, but the specifics are often vague.  Figuring out how to bring down some of these behemoths is oftentimes more difficult and time consuming than the actual process of defeating them.

Though these battles are puzzling enough, Lords of Shadow contains more obvious puzzles as well that partially or completely remove Gabriel from typical gameplay.  Some are quite simple while others are fairly elaborate, but a wonderful feature of the game is that it’ll let the player skip said puzzles at no cost; it only means that the player is unable to walk away with the experience points that would’ve been gained, but that seems fair enough.  I found it refreshing for the game to ensure that no player gets stuck due to a random puzzle.  The puzzles themselves are slight abstractions though they still manage to blend into the game’s context well.  Of note is the simplified chess-like “Wargames” that Gabriel must win against the vampire Laura to progress.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

You’ll be doing this often…

A number of areas are peppered with platforming elements, though they mostly consist of simple button presses and only a few sections require precision timing.  However, these parts are kept interesting through a variety of means.  Gabriel uses his whip to swing across gaps, climb up walls, and repel back down.  He’s also able to shimmy around ledges to get around hostile environments, and many areas of structural decay and ruin make ample use of this mode of travel.  The climbing around can get a little tiresome and confusing at times, but I tend to overlook the fact simply because it adds a degree of realism to the game.  After all, there aren’t neat little paths connecting everything together in the real world.  Indeed one of Lords of Shadow’s most impressive feats is its deft handling of real world physics.  Basic physical laws like gravity and momentum have been given some serious thought, and although Gabriel does pull of some superhuman moves from time to time, it’s not hard lend some plausibility to what’s happening.

Lords of Shadow makes use of quick time events for almost every imaginable task, though most involve manipulating the surroundings in some way or another.  Ultimately I find these events a bit trivial and unnecessary.  They’re all easy enough to perform without trouble and should probably be either worked into cut scenes or replaced with more traditional controls.  Luckily they aren’t generally time consuming or distracting; at least the inclusion of quick time events doesn’t take anything away from the experience.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

One of the game’s most impressive entities. Enormous.

Believe me when I say this game is huge.  Divided into 12 chapters, each chapter has varying lengths of 2 to 8 stages.  There’s a good bit of exploring to be done by those willing, but it’s not nearly as open ended as some of the environments would suggest.  Depending on how you like your games, this could be a good thing or a bad thing.  Levels are structured (for the most part) around accessible paths, so it’s not typically possible to flat out roam anywhere.  There are plenty of forks in the road, alternate routes, and secret areas out there, but the exploration aspect is finite. Camera angles will obscure “hidden in plain sight” areas and a keen eye is needed to spot every nook and cranny.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

Who knew a scarecrow could look this badass?

Some sections remain inaccessible when first played, requiring enhanced abilities gained in later levels to traverse.  As sprawling as the stages are, however, getting around can be confusing at times.  Sometimes there’s a puzzle at work; other times moving onward necessitates interaction with the environment in some way that might not be immediately obvious.  On screen prompts will help at times, but there are a few places where I absolutely could not figure out what to do next and had to look it up.  Ambiguity within stages is really the only complaint I have; it’s not that it’s difficult to progress, it’s just that it’s difficult to tell what exactly the game wants you to do next in some spots.

Lords of Shadow pumps out its video at 720p and looks great.  Gabriel covers a lot of ground, and the player is treated to all sorts of diverse environments: a bog, several mountains, a castle, and a bizarre world full of floating rocks among others.  The game shines best when working with lots of colors (there’s a beautiful yet subtle rainbow in the mist from a waterfall near the beginning) but as per the subject matter, the levels tend to get darker.  Snow, rain, fire, and running water are all rendered quite naturally.  Although unnecessary, little flourishes like these keep Lords of Shadow rooted in something resembling reality as we know it.  The settings are incredible, and it’s easy to see that everyone involved gave it their best.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

When I first saw this, I thought to myself, “Hey, that could be Baba Yaga’s hut if it had chicken legs.” A few seconds later, I found myself inside, and met Baba Yaga herself. How cool is that? I never get to put my useless knowledge of monsters, myth, and folklore to use!

Characters and creatures have a tendency to appear somewhat small and indistinct during combat, but I’ll venture to say that this is due to the wide camera angles more than anything.  The cutscenes, while clearly animated, are an absolute pleasure to watch, especially when some of the big baddies start showing up.  Humans are correctly proportioned, faces have distinct qualities, hair and clothes sway with hidden breezes…it’s all handled in a very cinematic fashion and blends in quite well with the graphics from actual gameplay.

Castlevania games are known as much for their music as they are for their vast bestiaries, and Lords of Shadow takes full advantage of orchestral arrangements.  Most of the game sees the music acting subtly in the background similar to a film score, with appropriate shifts for tense moments and other changes in action.  An abundance of sound effects further contributes to realism; Gabriel grunts and moans as he jumps and climbs, knives jingle and jangle as he walks, puddles splash, rocks crumble, and there’s always a sound wherever there should be.

Posters

That Trainspotting poster has been on my wall for over 10 years. Carlyle circled in red.

The real treat comes from the voice acting.  There’s a fair bit of dialog between Gabriel and other characters as the plot unfolds, and his pal Zobek reads the intro text before each stage.  Gabriel is voiced by Robert Carlyle, who you may or may not remember as the fast-talking Scottish brawler from the film Trainspotting – he was the guy in the group who wouldn’t do heroin.  (He’s been in other stuff too; he was one of the main survivors introduced in 28 Weeks Later.)  To hear him in Trainspotting is barely comprehensible due to his thick accent, but by toning it down he gives Gabriel an indistinct European flavor without having to rely on the typical British accent.  Robert lends Gabriel a solemn gravitas, reinforcing the character’s role as a tormented hero.  In the event that you haven’t watched Trainspotting enough to fully appreciate Carlyle’s involvement, perhaps Zobek’s (whose speech we hear the most throughout the game) voice actor will ring a bell – Patrick Stewart!  Yep, Capt. Jean Luc Picard himself relates much of the Lords of Shadow tale.  The confident and commanding contribution of Stewart is an exceptional foil for Gabriel/Carlyle’s reluctant, reserved, and subdued intonation.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - PS3

Carlyle post-Lords of Shadow…no I don’t know what the hell this is about.

I probably don’t give newer games enough credit (or attention for that matter), but Lords of Shadow was able to suck me in in no time.  It’s the kind of game that’s difficult to put down, the “one more level!” sort of game, the game that’s actually interesting enough to leave one eager for the next piece of the story.  Beyond a simple “X causes Y” plot, Gabriel is fleshed out with realistic motivations and emotions. Lords of Shadow may even be making some interesting statements when it comes to faith and fate.  Beyond all of that is an awesome game that’ll be difficult to top.  It’s fun, engaging, and best of all full of depth.  There’s plenty to do the first time around and plenty more to revisit.

Yes, I had my reservations about moving into this “reboot,” but I was comforted by the fact that this story was to be contained within 3 games.  Having knowledge of definitive closure seems to give the trilogy a little more purpose, and you know what?  It worked.  Clearly both Konami and the developers were interested in reinvigorating the series for today’s more modern gamers and took the project seriously without alienating fans of the older titles.  The gambit paid off, and knowing that the rest of the story is at my fingertips makes it all the more exciting.  It’s also gotten me really interested in what’s in store for the franchise next…

Note:  Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has two supplemental downloadable chapters, Reverie and Resurrection which will be covered shortly and in separate articles.

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist


Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

Email me anytime, about anything: thecubist@nerdbacon.com

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