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Review: Castlevania, Lords of Shadow

Saturday, February 5th, 2011 by

The newest Castlevania is here and it’s like nothing you’ve ever played before! Well, that’s not entirely true. I guess it’s not even remotely true since it’s actually a lot like another venerable series you may have played, a little-known romp called “God of War”. But for the series’ devout, Lords of Shadow marks a total departure from everything you know and love.

Let’s just get it out of the way now: Lords of Shadow is Castlevania in name only. With a few loose exceptions, none of the staples that define the series are to be found here. There are werewolves and vampires and yes, you get to throw daggers and holy water but it’s all implemented in an alien way that the seasoned Castlevania player may find hard to swallow.

Forsake any attachment you have to the Castlevania series as you know it, though, and Lords of Shadow is a great game, even if it struggles to maintain its identity after having borrowed so heavily from other blockbuster titles. It might not be very innovative, but Lords of Shadow still stands out as a worthy contender in the action genre, and the game itself, as a whole, is just a beautiful thing to take in.

There are some loving touches placed throughout the game that give Lords of Shadow an immersive lore, like the detailed bestiary that updates when you encounter a new creature, and the stunningly beautiful backdrops you travel through in your quest to free the land from its evil usurpers. The music is also moving, weaving in and out of notice like the score to a movie.

Lords of Shadow has you taking on the role of Gabriel Belmont, a knight in service of the Brotherhood of Light. Sworn to protect mankind from the supernatural evils that push humanity to the brink of extinction, Gabriel embarks on this noble quest for ulterior and selfish reasons; he seeks a way to bring back his murdered lover. The story is quite compelling and has frequent bursts of originality, but suffers somewhat from becoming more and more bizarre as it approaches the finale.

There is little exploration in Lords of Shadow; it’s about as linear as a game can get, driven ever forward by the narrative and affording you barely any room to spread your wings. There is no castle to explore, or any of the other lovable elements that make up the Metroidvania appeal of earlier Castlevanias. You can get some optional upgrades from replaying old stages, but that’s about it.

Combat is at the very heart of Lords of Shadow, and there’s no shortage of it. Gabriel is armed with the combat cross (a highly dramatized whip) and there are lots of combos to unlock as he gains in experience and acquires new armaments. It can be fun to experiment with Gabriel’s moves but you’ll find many combos are too impractical since you’ll spend a lot of time dodging. Despite the arsenal of techniques available, you’ll probably just pick a few favorites and stick with those.

In addition to the combat cross you can also employ secondary weapons whose usefulness varies depending on your situation. For example, throwing daggers are quick and always find their mark, but aren’t very useful against bigger enemies. Holy water decimates the undead, and fairies don’t actually deal damage at all, but spellbind your enemies into a state of paralysis. It’s an odd assembly of sub-weapons but they can be very useful at times.

Gabriel also has access to light and shadow magic, which when active give him special abilities and augment some of his regular moves. Naturally, these powers come in limited supply but can be recharged at certain areas or if Gabriel deals enough consecutive damage without getting hit. Light magic is indispensible thanks to its healing properties and shadow magic is no slouch either, allowing you to deal colossal damage. You’ll need to make use of both when handling the game’s challenging bosses.

Lords of Shadow suffers from the dreaded fixed camera angle, which can make for some aggravating encounters when your enemies are hitting you from offscreen. It can also be disorientating when the camera shifts as you travel from zone to zone. But it’s also because of this fixed camera that you are treated to some of the most dynamic landscapes ever seen in a game, so it’s not all bad.

On the non-combat side of things, Lords of Shadow features “Uncharted” style platforming and an abundance of environmental puzzles, some of which take a good deal of thought to figure out. Gabriel receives a nice sum of experience to spend on abilities when you solve them, but if any of the puzzles prove to be too much, you can forego the reward in exchange for the solution. It can be tempting, at times, to do just that.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is ultimately a pretty fantastic game. It’s surprisingly long for an adventure of this type, and it’s hard for me to recommend against it since it has so many redeeming qualities. However, because it’s been dubbed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and not simply Lords of Shadow, I have to caution fans of the series once more: This isn’t a Castlevania game. It’s something totally different, but great nonetheless.

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See Castlevania: Lords of Shadow in action:

About the Author

Mark A. Brooks uses the A. initial in his name so as to seperate himself from the teeming legions of other Mark Brookses (there are at least 65,000 in the state of Michigan alone). Keep up with him on twitter, because why not. @unoriginalG

Mark A. Brooks has written 614 posts on Delta Attack
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  • Markham Asylum

    I had high hopes for this game. I remember when I played the first Devil May Cry, I thought, “Wow, this is what Castlevania could be like.” I missed DMC2, thankfully, but played and loved 3, despite its retarded difficulty.

    God of War came along and swept me off my feet as much as DMC1 and 3. It was totally immersive, with great combat, puzzles, bad-assery, and the occasional boobs.

    God of War 2, sadly, felt like just more of the same. I didn’t finish it. The same was true of Devil May Cry 4.

    By the time I played the demo for Lords of Shadow, I had pretty much had my fill of the Kratos May Cry-type game. Therefore, I was forlorn when I found that Lords of Shadow was, as you said, Castlevania in name only. I think the visuals are stunning, but I can’t stomach another adventure that spans many hours and is mostly populated with DMC/GoW-style combat.

    Here’s to hoping that Konami makes a Castlevania that takes full advantage of current-gen polygonal rendering but keeps the perspective locked to side-scrolling. History has shown that 3D (full movement) Castlevanias are simply inferior to their 2D (side-scrolling) counterparts.

    • mulletsaurus

      I wouldn’t say that this particular 3D Castlevania is inferior to the 2D versions but just a wholly different game. It emphasizes different things than we expect from Castlevania, and in some respects it really excels.

      But not very far into playing Lords of Shadow, you just give up on rationalizing its relation to the series. It’s just so completely different than those before it. But I will say that I enjoyed it a lot more than Lament of Innocence.

      • Markham Asylum

        Yeah, I mean it obviously isn’t inferior as a game in general, but I think it is as a Castlevania game. It just totally breaks the CV mold instead of pleasantly reshaping it.

        I wish they had, as you mentioned, just dropped “Castlevania” from the title. Marketing sure as hell wouldn’t have let them do that, though.

        • mulletsaurus

          They did announce the game as only “Lords of Shadow” the year before they tacked on the Castlevania name, though the developers claim they had always intended for it to be Castlevania.

          Suspicion.

  • http://about.me/isaacwyatt ikecube

    I’d play it; but as MA indicates: it doesn’t look ground breaking.

    • mulletsaurus

      It doesn’t break any ground. But it will break your heart.

      After it breaks your balls.

  • gaminglord

    I disagree that this game is not Castlevania. I have been playing games since before the atari 2600 came out–i had a little wooden box that only played several different variations of pong. Lords of Shadow actually goes back all the way to the early days of the series Castlevania 1-4. Those games were also linear, but were extremely fun to play, innovative, and they were the first to open out eyes to the world of the Belmonts. It wasn’t until Symphony of the Night that Castlevania morphed into a horror atmosphere version of Metroid. I for one am glad that Castlevania has gone back to its roots, as i find subdividing a section into many small boards with one huge boss at the end much more satisfying than a huge game layout that demands you map it out to keep track of what’s happening.

    The hack and slash gameplay is enough to get you involved in the game but never quite gets so repetitive that it gets dull. It is exactly what i would have thought Castlevania 1 combat would be like if brought up to date. The combat system demands that you know the different combos. Just mindlessly button mashing will guarantee a quick death especially at the more advanced levels and at the higher difficulty settings. The graphics are some of the most beautiful you will ever see in a game, and the orchestral musical score completes the experience for a true epic experience.

    In sum this is a really good game that you should at least rent out before you decide to pass up on it. I hope we get to see more games set in this version of the Castlevania universe. They can always make more 2d ones to appeal to the fans of Castlevania that like the metroid style gameplay better.

    • mulletsaurus

      That’s an interesting perspective. And judging from the Lords of Shadow’s respectable sales, I think it likely that we will see another Castlevania game done in this vein. It’s a cool new direction for the series to go in.

      Still, I can’t buy into the idea that this game fits the Castlevania mold. Lords of Shadow’s similarities, even to the earliest in the series, are sparse and feel mostly forced. There’s plenty of fan service but I think it would go mostly unappreciated for those Castlevania fans who love the series explicitly for it’s stubbornness towards becoming modern.

      But yeah, it would be a shame for the 2D crowd to pass on this one without at least giving a rent. The narrative is awesome and it’s just plain beautiful on every level.