Gabriel Belmont will have his revenge upon the Lords of Shadow, venturing to the very depths of hell to find retribution against those who have corrupted the ideals of the Brotherhood of Light and murdered his wife.
While this Belmont's fight against the forces of evil may sound somehow familiar, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow bears little resemblance to the other games in the 24-year-old series. Developer Mercury Steam's take on the Castlevania franchise, famous for its whips and vampire slaying, uses a different approach. Call it a reboot, if you want, because Lords of Shadow looks more like a Ninja Gaiden or God of War action game, full of violent battles and gruesome boss monsters that require great dexterity, patience and skill to defeat. Expect vampires aplenty, just don't count on Lord Dracula himself showing up for the zillionth time.
The player who views Super Castlevania IV, not Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, as the series' high point. The God of War super-fan hungry for something new to play after finishing Dante's Inferno, who may not like the quirky attitude of a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.
Lords of Shadow is Konami's most serious attempt at making the Castlevania series—which has played best in two dimensions—work elegantly in 3D. This ambitious action adventure game charts its own course, opting for combat and storytelling instead of extended exploration, bearing little resemblance to the "Metroidvania" template of past games. Also, Patrick Stewart's in it.
How is this a Castlevania game? Largely in name, really, as players are introduced to a (mostly) new cast of characters and wildly different gameplay mechanics—for a Castlevania entry, anyway. There are fan service nods and winks, but things have changed substantially. You still have a whip-like weapon; you can upgrade your character with new weapons, attacks and spells; and you're vanquishing evil in various spooky settings while fighting vaguely familiar foes, but Lords of Shadows is heavily inspired by God of War and action games of its ilk. Heavily.
Patrick Stewart voices your sometimes helpful comrade Zobek, doing his best with Lords of Shadow's oft pleonastic dialogue.
Is it fair to call this a God of War clone? Not really, because the borrowing doesn't stop there. Lords of Shadow blatantly lifts some of its boss battles from games like Shadow of the Colossus, its wall-climbing and platforming from Uncharted. That makes this Castlevania feel incredibly derivative, but, hey, some of the best games in the series lifted their mechanics directly from Nintendo's Metroid. Longtime Castlevania fans shouldn't act too surprised. Fortunately, Lords of Shadows is borrowing from some of the best.
How's the combat? Perhaps the game's strongest suit, actually. Early on, it feels like something we've played many times before, a mix of light and heavy attacks amid quick dodging and blocking. But Lords of Shadow's fighting system opens up when the player unlocks Light and Shadow Magic powers. Battles become more fun and less repetitive when the player is forced to balance health-granting Light Magic attacks with the attack power-boosting Dark Magic against the game's impressively challenging foes. Combat eventually shows its depth and pleasures, so stick it out for a while if you initially find it dull.
What could be dull about a game that looks this amazing? Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is visually spectacular. Players will explore wintry castles, fight lycanthropes in the rain, creep through overgrown poisoned bogs and visit wondrous, hellish lands. You'll be drenched in rain, sunlight and color. The diversity and attention to detail in this game is simply astounding. Unfortunately, some of that graphical splendor comes at a cost. Levels are tightly linear, strict about where you can and cannot explore. Furthermore, Lords of Shadow's frame rate takes many hits, something action game aficionados will rightly take issue with.
Any other problems? Unfortunately, yes, Lords of Shadow has a handful of technical shortcomings. During my playthrough, which lasted more than 15 hours, I experienced the odd graphical bug and was confounded by one late-game moment in which the game played in slow motion for a few minutes. The game's fixed camera is also a source of frustration. It's confusing during labyrinthine exploration levels (there is no map system), which makes it a hindrance during platform jumping. It occasionally obscures important things—like enemies, projectiles and your character during some fights.
That sounds like it could be aggravating. It is. So are some of the game's puzzles, which are occasionally quite clever, but more often obtuse, and sometimes simply dumb. Also bothersome are these little Chupacabras that steal your powers—the fun part!—at certain intervals. Their only purpose, it seems, is to annoy and lengthen the game by another hour.
Last question. And this is very important. Does it suck? Absolutely not. Lords of Shadow is quite good. And not in a "quite good for a 3D Castlevania game," it's just good. The combat mechanics are fun, the visuals gorgeous, the music appropriately epic and the other stuff a mix of tried and true. If you don't mind playing through lesser versions of Colossus battles like this, you'll have a blast.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is an impressive, if derivative, effort from young developer Mercury Steam. While this Castlevania game may not deliver depth in its upgrades or weapons or bestiary, sometimes venturing into tedium, there's plenty to plumb from the game's rock-solid combat, diverse environments and lengthy, well-told story. There's plenty of challenge and content here for even the seasoned action game fan. If you've never been too fond of the platform-based exploration of more recent Castlevania games, Lords of Shadow may make you an admirer of the Belmont clan.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was developed by Mercury Steam and Kojima Productions and published by Konami, released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on October 5. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played game to completion over the course of about 16 hours on Warrior (Normal) difficulty on Xbox 360. Attempted a dozen Trials.