"Castlevania: Lords of Shadow" represents a titanic shift for the veteran video game franchise. Attempts have been made in the past to bring the long-standing feud between the Belmont family and Universal's entire catalog of classic movie monsters into the 3-D gaming landscape. Those attempts have all failed to some degree. "Lords of Shadows" is without a doubt the most successful, an undeniably entertaining game that finds inspiration in some welcome, if unlikely, places. It is also the entry that departs most dramatically from the franchise's established conventions. So the question is, is there enough "Castlevania" left here to satisfy long-time fans of the series or is "Lords of Shadow" nodding too much to its contemporaries while abandoning its roots?
The story in "Lords of Shadow" exists outside of the established series canon, functioning as a full-on reboot. You play as holy knight Gabriel Belmont, grief-stricken after the brutal murder of his wife -- and the subsequent trapping of her soul in limbo -- at the hands of supernatural forces. So Gabriel sets out to save his wife's soul -- and the rest of the world while he's at it -- by taking on the Lords of Shadow, the league of malevolent beings who are preventing the souls of the deceased from moving on into the afterlife.
Whip It Good
While many will note similarities between the form and function Gabriel's cross-whip weapon and the Blades of Chaos wielded by "God of War" hero Kratos, it nonetheless makes for a good time. Basic combat actions find a lot of common ground with the Sony-exclusive series, and it is to the game's benefit here.
Embrace The Light AND The Dark
Adding further complexity to the combat system in "Lords of Shadow" is Gabriel's light/dark magic. Basically, players must manage two magic meters. When light magic is activated, all attacks heal Gabriel. Alternatively, dark magic attacks do greater damage. Enemies defeated when no magic is activated drop neutral orbs. Players must choose which meter to absorb the orbs into, light or dark. It's a simple mechanic that adds a great deal of complexity and strategy to each battle, particularly the mini-boss and boss fights.
Play It Again, Belmont
"Lords of Shadows" unfolds across a linear collection of chapters and sub-chapters set in a variety of locations as opposed to a single, enormous, gradually unlocking castle. The replay value lies in in finding each levels hidden gems, weapon upgrades and scrolls, as well as trials, which unlock after a stage has been completed once. Trials ask that players complete a specific task or set of objectives within a level, in exchange for bonus XP (which can then be spent on additional attacks and magical abilities).
"Lords of Shadow" serves up some fiendishly challenging puzzles as it unfolds. Many of these puzzles tie back to each chapter's various trials, so dedicated players will be pondering over them more than once. The game's puzzles are also well-spaced, which breaks up the action very well.
The Gang's All Here... And Then Some
Franchise fans will recognize many of the enemies and vistas they encounter, particularly in the later stages of the game. The "Castlevania" series has always done some cool things with scale, confronting various Belmonts with enemies of all sizes. That is very much the case in "Lords of Shadows." Most impressive are Gabriel's few encounters with Titan bosses; these battles draw easy comparisons with "Shadow of the Colossus," both in the size of the enemy and the manner in which it is defeated.
I'm NOT Ready For My Close-Up
The camera in "Lords of Shadow," in a word, sucks. The mostly forced perspective view of the game does what it needs to for the most part in guiding Gabriel to his next destination, but far too often attacks will come from an off-screen source or trial and error will be required to finish a platforming sequence simply because the field of view is too narrow. The forced perspective also doesn't always play well with the directional controls; abrupt camera changes will frequently end in Gabriel's death if players aren't careful.
What's The Story?
While the story in "Lords of Shadow" isn't bad so much as it is underwhelming. The game was co-developed by MercurySteam and Kojima Productions, with series mastermind Koji Igarashi having no involvement for the first time. With Hideo Kojima's (admittedly limited) input, it's reasonable to expect an abundance of cutscenes. Those are indeed present and accounted for, though not to the degree that they are in Kojima's "Metal Gear" series. Unfortunately, the story just isn't that compelling. Even Patrick Stewart, who serves as both the narrator and one of Gabriel's fellow holy warriors, feels underused. The elements of a strong narrative are there, but there's just no emotional depth to it.
Not Your Daddy's "Castlevania"
Some will think that the departures from franchise conventions are to this game's benefit. However, die-hard fans are undoubtedly going to be disappointed in the linear structure as compared to the gradually unlocking free-roaming space of the series' previous games. Is this a bad thing? That's for you to decide. But if you're hoping for a "Castlevania" experience that delivers more of the same, you're in for a disappointment.
"Castlevania: Lords of Shadows" borrows heavily from other popular games in building an all-new gothic adventure for the Belmont family. While some long-time fans will feel alienated by the changes, the overall effect is to the game's benefit. Hopefully MercurySteam looks back and applies some of the lessons learned from this game's shortfalls to the inevitable sequel. As it stands however, "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow" delivers a fun 15-20 hours worth of escapism that favors expert iteration over questionable innovation.