October 18, 2010
It's a violently stormy night as a lone, hooded figure on horseback gallops through the forest, coming to a muddy clearing in a remote village. He steps down off his steed and lowers his hood as lightning illuminates his robed form. Say hello to the enigmatic Gabriel Belmont (Robert Carlyle), Castlevania: Lords of Shadow's chain-whip wielding hero, who is little more than a mysterious cipher when first embarking upon his adventure, but he soon develops into a complicated and tortured soul, grappling with a dark past.
Transforming Castlevania from a 2D side-scrolling platformer into a fully-realised third-person action game, new hero Gabriel is on a quest to track down and unite the three pieces of the shattered 'God Mask', which brings almighty power to whoever wears it and could enable him to resurrect his lost love. Who killed her and why though, is just one of many truths that you'll uncover along the way, as you'll quickly learn that all is not what it seems in Lords of Shadow's murky universe, which part of the plot’s lure.
Punctuated by sumptuously drawn sketches in a yellowing tome with text read by the rich, sexy voice of Patrick Stewart, Lords of Shadow's story is set in a remarkable fantasy setting where everything is dripping with intricate Gothic detail. And we mean everything. Castlevania's varied world is immediately absorbing and envelops you in its richly textured and cohesive Middle Ages Europe backdrop, which breathlessly leaps from treacherous mountain passes, to crumbling temples, bubbling swamps, sun-dappled forest canopies and to the eponymous castle itself later on.
Yes, that's right. It might be called Castlevania, but so vast and sweeping is the game that you won't see hide nor hair of the far-off castle itself until the game's mid-section. But then, the lead up to that moment is so masterfully put together and so lavishly produced, that you'll relish every step of the journey. Like every good hack-and-slash game worth its salt, Castlevania can be tough and exacting, but never overwhelmingly so, unless you plump for the higher levels, the most testing of which is unlocked upon completing the game.
Fights become increasingly enjoyable as your combat options increase and new mechanics are steadily introduced into Belmont's repertoire. Light and dark magic enables you to juggle between defensive, health restoring attacks and the more offensive, powerful strikes, imbuing Castlevania's combat with a welcome vein of strategy. Of course, there are parts of the game accessible only after you've acquired certain abilities, like the Seraph wings that (inevitably) enable you to double jump or the dark gauntlet, which lets Gabriel smash through weakened walls.
There's ample incentive to poke around in the many nooks and crannies in Lords of Shadow's massive, evocative environments too, as you'll find upgrades for your health and magic, as well as clues to puzzles and other story-related exposition from scrolls found on the bodies of vanquished knights. Castlevania has some fantastic puzzles too, which can take a great deal of time and effort to solve, but the sense of exuberant satisfaction you get from beating them and the large influx of experience you gain, makes it all worthwhile. And if you grow impatient, you can unlock the solution using the hint scroll, but you'll lose the reward.
Throughout your journey to the castle steps and beyond, you'll need all the experience points you can muster, as Gabriel starts with a relatively basic array of moves mapped to X and Y, but steadily accumulating XP points gives you access to a massive list of new moves to purchase. Combat becomes a lot more enjoyable as you become increasingly well-versed in using Gabriel's Combat Cross chain-whip, which is supplemented by a dark gauntlet, speed-enhancing grieves and more as the story unfolds. Again, it's mastering the balance between deploying your light and dark magic that proves pivotal, and in the game's boss battles – especially the final epic fight – switching between defensive and offensive magic becomes second nature.
Having a fixed camera can sometimes be a problem, occasionally obscuring your view, leaving you susceptible to attacks by off-screen enemies, but it's an issue that we rarely encountered. Usually, the camera does a pretty good job in giving you a decent view of the action, although the camera is slightly less successful during some of the platform-jumping sections – of which there are many – with the game preferring to create an epic sense of scale and show off some of its sweeping vistas, rather than give you the optimum angle on where to jump next. Again, this is a fairly rare occurrence, but when it does happen, it can be a teeth-grinding annoyance. There's also some illogical directions when you're jumping between vertical ascending platforms, so when you think that you should be pushing the left stick up, you should be pushing down and sometimes the direction switches, causing you to fall and lose a chunk of health. Still, at least you're not killed outright when you drop.
Checkpoints are also nice and generous, so you're never screaming at your console or throwing a controller across the room if you happen to get sucker punched by a boss on its final sliver of energy. In terms of pacing, and knowing when to reward your progress with a checkpoint, Lords of Shadow is pitch-perfect. It's also an incredibly expansive game, that will take a solid twenty hours or so to finish, and even then, there's impetus to return to the game's fifty or so levels, spread across 12 massive chapters. Upon a first playthrough, it's only possible to garner 68% completion per stage, after which, you're issued with a trial with specific parameters to beat and you'll need to collect all of the hidden magic gems to gain 110% completion. In other words, typical Castlevania stuff.
Speaking of which, if you're looking to best Castlevania: Lords of Shadow's achievements, you'll need to gain 110% on every single level, which will take a long, long time indeed. We'd need vampirical immortality to be able to get the full 1000 Gamerscore, but committed hardcore players will be duly rewarded. Defeating the game grants about 300-odd points – depending on difficulty – so you'll have to play on Paladin difficulty to get the difficulty-based cheevos. Others relate to collecting gems, purchasing moves and accumulating experience points. All in all, it's a hard list with a lot of grinding and a distinct lack of creativity.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a truly astonishing action adventure. In terms of ambition and epic scale, it rivals the best the genre has to offer, and while the story is a bit of a slow-burner, once it gains momentum towards the end however, it's genuinely compelling and engaging. Its sprawling landscapes and breathtaking visuals are the very definition of epic and the boss battles are outstanding, as Shadow of the Colossus-sized Titans give way to huge knights, vampires, freakish demons and more. Rest assured too, that all of your effort is paid off with one of the finest epilogues we've seen in a game in a long time. In short, Lords of Shadow is simply stunning, with only a few minor quibbles to speak of to taint its successful return to the top.
A fantastic orchestral score fits Castlevania like a snug gauntlet and the game even finds time during a surreal music box stage, for a sly nod towards the original series' heritage with a familiar ditty. Voice-overs from three fine British actors in Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart and Natascha McElhone are also uniformly excellent and a cut above the usual phoned-in performances in most games.
From intricately Gothic-detailed spires and sheer cliff faces, to fantastical netherworlds, dungeons, catacombs, opulent castle halls, sewers and snowy mountain ranges, every single one of Lords of Shadow's locations are beautifully realised. The game's countless enemies and other characters are all brilliantly animated, and there's not a glitch or imperfection in sight. It's almost visually perfect.
Castlevania's combat is utterly brilliant, with Gabriel's weaponry growing increasingly versatile as he gains upgrades. The controls are tight and responsive, and over time, cleaving your way through waves of lycanthropes, vampires, goblins, trolls, spiders and other vicious monsters becomes a pleasurable, empowering activity. Puzzles and platforming however, is slightly hit and miss, with the latter marred by a fixed camera. Later puzzles requiring that Gabriel punches small targets on the floor are fiddly, but they're a blip in an otherwise sound selection of brain-teasers.
There's absolutely masses to wade through here, and you can even return to any completed stage and retry for a 110% completion. A single playthrough will last over 20 hours alone though, so there's no risk of anyone feeling short-changed. Finishing the game also unlocks a host of extras, including a mini-game mode for one or two players and there's swathes of insightful concept art to spend excess experience points on.
Most players will probably finish the game on Warrior (normal) difficulty, grab the chapter completion achievements and leave it at that, happily taking the 355 Gamerscore. More dedicated players will invest time in getting 110% on every level, collect every upgrade and indulge in everything Castlevania has to offer. Doing so, will easily garner a full 1000 points, as the achievement list is essentially comprised exclusively of grinding collection cheevos and completing the game. A dull list, that few will feel compelled to pursue beyond the straightforward story achievements.
Lords of Shadow is a superlative start for Castlevania on current-gen consoles and we only hope that developer MercurySteam has more in the pipeline. It might borrow from other hack-and slash-adventure titles of the same ilk, but Castlevania is entirely its own game. With an unforgettable Middle Ages fantasy setting and an epic narrative, Lords of Shadow is the complete package and Gabriel Belmont is the coolest vampire slayer since Buffy. He’s not as hot though.