It’s the first 3-D ‘Castlevania’ game in a good long while and the first handled by the folks at Kojima Productions. ‘Lords of Shadow’ is a huge production, but is it any good?
I was never a huge ‘Castlevania’ fan as a kid. I have no idea why it didn’t grab me, but I guess I wasn’t into MetroidVania style games. That all changed a few years ago when I decided to give the series another go with ‘Symphony of the Night,’ which is almost unanimously hailed as the best of the bunch.
‘Lords of Shadow’ is a very different game. It takes from the ‘God of War’ handbook and abandons the classic roots. So if you’re looking for that old-school side scrolling action, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Of course, I should mention that the “Story” section of this review may contain information that could be considered spoilers. If you’re sensitive about that sort of thing, you’ll want to avoid that section. Don’t worry, I won’t be talking about the exciting post-credits reveal. I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.
It’s a simple enough story. You play as Gabriel Belmont, and you have one goal in mind that will achieve two purposes. You need to kill the three Lords of Shadow and unite a mask that they each hold a piece of. Doing so will not only defeat Satan and purge the land of darkness, but also bring your recently murdered wife back to life.
‘Castlevania: Lords of Shadow’ starts things out right. There’s a brief introductory movie that gives you a feel for the setting and the character, and then you’re thrust headfirst into a fight with a pack of werewolves, led by one enormous werewolf. There’s no screwing around with a long introduction, just action right off the bat.
In the end, the story is unnecessarily lengthy, as is the game. There’s a lot that could be told in simpler ways, and some story points feel like they’re just there to justify an extra level or two. It’s also incredibly convoluted, but that’s to be expected of a story that’s spread over 20 hours.
One of the big problems with ‘Lords of Shadow’ is that the creators can’t seem to decide what story they want to tell. It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in what’s going on right now; for some reason the game keeps on giving history lessons that aren’t really related to the central plot.
The story won’t hold any surprises, aside from the lack of the one character that’s a must-have for ‘Castlevania’ games. Rather than fighting Dracula at the end, or anywhere in the game, you fight Satan, who is naked and has black mist floating around his crotch. He’s far less impressive than just about every boss before him.
There are a few twists right near the end, most of which you could probably figure out just a half hour into the game. They’re obvious and overemphasized, but they don’t detract from the experience.
Each level of the game starts with a short introduction read by Patrick Stewart, who also voices the character Zobek. The intro narration occurs during the loading screens – which means there’s less down time between levels – and is skippable once the level has loaded.
The acting is on and off throughout, but Robert Carlyle handles the lead character very well and Stewart handles his role wonderfully. Ève Karpf should also be called out for voicing Baba Yaga, who ends up being the most interesting character in the most interesting part of the game, even if her time in it is short lived.
There’s a psychic girl named Claudia that absolutely drives me insane when she communicates. Since she doesn’t move her mouth, the animators compensate by making her overact physically. It just comes off looking really bad. She also – along with a few other characters in the game – talks to you at one minute intervals during the quests that she’s on with you. When collecting crystal shards, a task that takes around a half hour to complete, you’re reminded every minute that “We still need two more crystal shards!” It grates on the nerves.
The game feels a bit silly at times, too. At the end of one fight, after I had already done a severe amount of damage to the boss, I watched a cutscene where I impaled said boss eight different times before it would finally die. It feels a little juvenile. “Okay, so he stabs the boss through the heart with a spear, and then with a sword, and then he picks it up and spikes it on the spire of a building!”
For the most part, the cinematics aren’t too intrusive and don’t hinder the gameplay. The final one before the end boss fight is a bit indulgent. It goes on for at least ten minutes before finally relenting. But the rest are incredibly reasonable for a Kojima production.
The Game Itself
I have pages of notes detailing my feelings on the different gameplay mechanics. Some of it works quite well and other parts just fail horribly, but in the end ‘Lords of Shadow’ is a solid experience.
The fighting in the new ‘Castlevania’ game is fantastic, fluid and everything a good action game should be. Block timing is a bit tricky, and some of the coolest combos don’t work on bosses, but that’s really nit-picking. The cross chain is essentially the same as the classic whip, and there are plenty of exciting combos and interesting play mechanics to work worth.
The puzzles in the game are great too, aside from a few instances of repetition or unclear goals. There’s a point where you’re sent into a music box to retrieve a rose that’s my absolute favorite puzzle in the game, and not just because the music box plays the classic ‘Castlevania’ theme.
What’s significantly less great is the camera. It seems designed to show off the amazing scenery, rather than to help the player. Oftentimes in the game, I felt like I was fighting against the camera, which would change angles as I traversed a cliff or fought an enemy. It seems like the game might actually be more fun to watch than to play.
The platforming elements of the game are a pain to deal with too. ‘Castlevania’ goes a little bit ‘Tomb Raider’ between fights, which would be a whole lot more exciting if it wasn’t so difficult to figure out where to go. Part of the issue is that the designs of the walls you can scale don’t differ enough from those you can’t. The other part goes back to that awful camera.
Speaking of which, there are barriers in the game that you need to break down. You can do so by harnessing a beast of some sort, punching through the wall, or dashing though the wall. Without trying all three, it’s unclear which one will work. And come on, if you can dash through a wall, why wouldn’t you be able to punch through it?
There’s also one level in particular, 11-1, where the path you’re supposed to walk down is unclear. It’s unclear because you’re supposed to turn right while you’re inside a small cave and there’s no indication that the path continues on. Things like this really get frustrating fast.
The beasts that you can mount in the game are solely there for puzzle solving purposes. If they’re around, they’re always the answer to the puzzle. Once you get through the barrier or cross the ravine, it’s time to kill the creature. You never get to hold on to them for longer than needed, which is a real shame.
There are a few ‘Shadow of the Colossus’-style fights against extremely large enemies that are really interesting to take part in, though they do grow tiresome after the third time you’ve fallen off. The fights are spread out over the course of the game, though, so that adds a little bit of variety to spice things up.
I really hate to say it, but ‘Lords of Shadow’ also suffers from one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever experienced in a game. There are quick time events following boss fights, intermingled into the cinematic that you’re supposed to be watching. They pop up unexpectedly, you fail, you die, and then you get to start again.
I railed pretty hard on the platforming and level design, and I stand by those complaints, but they don’t take away from the fact that this game is fundamentally very good. I loved the combat. And when the platforming works, it does so wonderfully.
There are a few levels, such as the music box puzzle, the titan fights, and the clockwork tower, that absolutely shine. They’re beautiful, well designed, and they take advantage of everything the game has to offer.
If the folks at Kojima Productions had cut forty or fifty percent of the levels, getting rid of those that just exist to justify other levels, they would have had a far better game on their hands. In the end, there’s a lot of great content that’s padded out by other mediocre content.
In the end, the game is definitely worth playing, but it does have a few significant flaws that might detract from your enjoyment.