The first chapter of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is broken into five parts, parts that tour through reinventions of some of PlayStation's best exclusive games, from God of War to Uncharted to Shadow of the Colossus. Gradually, it's also a fine Castlevania.
You're reading the second set of glowing impressions of the latest three-dimensional Castlevania game. The first was penned by our Mike McWhertor after he played an E3 version of the game a couple of months ago. He was impressed, as was I yesterday when a couple of hours with the first levels of a nearly-complete Lords of Shadow got the game added to me need-to-play list. I was shocked. I expected mediocre or bad; I got good.
The adventures of Gabriel Belmont in Lords of Shadow are set outside of the Castlevania fiction, a narrative of heroes vs. vampires in gothic castles to which I've never been strongly drawn. The new game, a rare Castlevania not set in 2D, feels in its opening chapter less like another storming of a castle in a stormy night and more like a medieval adventure in the sometimes daylit British countryside. My Castlevania hero, Gabriel Belmont, explored forests, fought on horseback, climbed ruins, fought a titan at an icy lake and learned magic.
The game's organizing motif is a book. In it is an ink-drawn map that has 12 locations marked to represent 12 story chapters. Within each are linear sections, five for the first chapter, nine for the second and 50 in all, according to the developers. You play each chapter as Gabriel, sometimes allied with a partner character. Through chapter one, I was solo, unless you count the horse-god I rode in one as a pal.
From the start you have a whip, which bring about the God of War comparison or any comparison you'd like to make to a combo-based action game that arms the hero with a long-range melee weapon. You've got a rolling dodge and a timing-based block move that can activate special moves. Enemy kills earn you points, which can be spent learning new combos and, later, extra magic. Also, right away, you are fighting Lycanthropes (werewolf-looking guys) and then Wargs (sort of giant boars). All of these beasts are cataloged in that big book, each entry matched marked with indications about which of your found weapons will work well or poorly against them. Enemies drop items, like daggers, which will blast Lycanthropes into red mist.
The game's missions are short (10-15 minutes, maybe?) and gorgeous. Early on, you start climbing and leaping in settings that are as lovely as Uncharted though magical in their scale. Giant forests. Glowing lakes. That sort of thing. There are ruins to climb too, aided with a whip that can double as a grappling hook. I did not encounter any grand castle in the opening chapter (over my shoulder at the press event where I played the game I saw others inside what seemed to be a castle).
Within the levels you can collect gems to raise your health or improve your abilities. Completing a level unlocks a challenge that encourage you to re-play the level differently, like with a quota for killing a certain kind of enemy. There are hidden weapon upgrades and other mysteries, enough that that book showed me that one level which I finished still had 84% of its its items undiscovered by me.
In one memorable part of chapter one that I don't want to spoil too much, you may think you are playing a good lost level of Shadow of the Colossus.
But as you progress, yes this feels like Castlevania. It's not just the matter of hidden items, a purchasable inventory and branching paths, nor the presence of more dastardly beasts and the whip and the daggers. You also have smart but simple environmental puzzles and, right at the beginning of chapter two, magic. I found the Light Magic, which, when activated, restores Gabriel's health with each strike. Using the magic drains a meter. It can only be refilled by collecting neutral magic orbs. Those are dropped by enemies only when you have magic turned off. Killing lots of enemies without getting hit raises a combo meter which, when maxed, causes more neutral magic to be dropped. I didn't find the Dark Magic yet, but I'm told that both Light and Dark also allow you to learn new moves and modify your weapon abilities.
The game's beauty and solid controls are the product of development studio Mercury Steam with oversight from Kojima Productions. The best of all those teams seems evidence and none of the bad habits. Level design is smooth and smart. The scenery is beautiful and varied. The story, about Gabriel on a heroic quest and struggling to deal with a lost love, is told efficiently with cutscenes of not-too-long length. (Producer David Cox tells me the only long cutscene is the game's final one, a just reward.)
I was expecting Lords of Shadow to be a disappointment. Instead it seems like a promising game. Look for it in October on the PS3 and Xbox 360.