reviews\ Mar 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Incredible Reimagining turns an Epic Adventure into All-time Favorite

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the game that bleeds fresh blood into the 20 plus year history of the Castlevania franchise. Like many other classic titles made famous on the Nintendo console back in the 80's, Castlevania has suffered from not following a timeline or staying true to one. The Legend of Zelda probably leads the pack, nobody knows which Link they are playing with or if it's a different version even though they all have the same name and more or less look alike. Almost all Final Fantasy games are not connected one to the other and that has somehow become one of the main draws of the series because each game can hold its own without a sequential storytelling and are really fantastic to play. The games usually are benchmarks of all role playing games. I can't think of another series that defines a genre better than Final Fantasy. In First Person Shooters I can pull 3 series out of a hat that are brands to measure up to: Call of Duty, Halo and BioShock. Castlevania has not defined its genre. The series has never revolutionized the industry.

The games, however, have been entertaining for the most part. The story, at first, was clear. Main character comes from a lineage of vampire killers and goes after the biggest threat to the land, vampire king Dracula. Every century or so Dracula comes back to life and a descendant of the Belmont family has the duty of ridding the world of Dracula's presence again. Simple plot, maybe handcuffed to the game cartridges they came in, but definitely entertaining to play. Now other series ( most notably Ninja Gaiden and Metal Gear ) held substantially more plot in their games in the same media size, so you can't blame the simple storyline on a lack of kilobytes. One of the main knocks I've had on the Castlevania series is the fact that in most of the games, some way or another you ended up battling the same end boss: Dracula.

I have beaten almost every game they threw out there, even the incredibly awful Castlevania64. Now it's not like Konami Xeroxed the game like CAPCOM did with MegaMan, but I thought that they would have come up with better creative results for the end of their games than to battle a different version of the same character, through the years, across different platforms, and definitely not in a higher advanced era of gaming. To my knowledge only The Legend of Zelda has been able to pull that off successfully on a commercial and critically acclaimed level. What becomes even more unforgiving how the series bore after a while is when you consider the source material, the inspiration from which the Castlevania series was born. It came out of the fantasy novels that started in 1984 called Vampire Hunter D. It borrowed key elements from the novel ( and later films ) including the vampire theme, the use of the whip, more importantly Dracula as a main adversary to humans ( although in the novels he is known as the Vampire King and was long gone when the story starts ). Having read 4 of the novels now available in a language you and I can understand it is bewildering how the Castlevania series has had a thin plot line in most of the games and too many turns in the wrong direction. Those novels are fantastic, and I encourage everyone to rent and see the 2000 anime film of Vampire Hunter D so you can get a taste of what I am talking about.

Being a long time fan of the series, I was rather frustrated on how other series made successful leaps into the 3D realm but my favorite series wavered. It began to dominate the hand-held universe however, using the same formula they applied to their most critically acclaimed game, Symphony of the Night, released in 1997 for the original Playstation. Year after year good ( or decent ) games were released for the Gameboy Advance and later Nintendo DS. The year 2003 saw a very good 3D Castlevania game for the Playstation 2, but it arrived 2 years late after a certain CAPCOM created a series called Devil May Cry. This game gave me the illusion of what a great 3D Castlevania could be, so I thought why did Konami get beat to it?

The lead character, Dante, is one of the deepest characters created for a video game that I have ever seen. The world it is set in/against are demons not vampires but the landscapes and structures feel Gothic giving it somewhat of a Castlevania feel. So I understand when Lament of Innocence which was released 2 years after that most people would feel like it was sort of a Devil May Cry rip-off. Main character looked similar, pre-set cameras throughout the game, life bars were identical aside from the color scheme, to name a few. In my point of view CAPCOM just defined the third person action/adventure genre with that game so everybody else would have to try and 'catch up' to them...and in this case rather copy. Lament of Innocence is a very good game.

It suffers from poor level design however and that is essentially what sets the game back. The gameplay is fantastic, the boss battles are mostly great and the graphics are quite good. The story is OK, tries to set a platform for the series to go on. The other entry in the 3D realm came in 2005 with Curse of Darkness, which was less of a game because it still suffered from poor level design, although it had a better story to go on, same graphics, forgettable boss battles ( aside from the fight with Isaac and his Innocent Devil ) and the main character, a former bad guy, looked MORE like Dante from Devil May Cry. I remember pledging to never buy a new video game retail after Curse of Darkness ( $50 for the PS2 ) until I knew for sure a game was great. It took 2 more years for that to happen, God of War 2. I kept on playing the 2D hand-held versions of Castlevania ( Portrait of Ruin being my favorite of those ) wondering when a day would come that Konami could make a great 3D Castlevania game.

That day has finally come. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is my favorite video game of all-time. Where other games failed this one surpassed, expectations were met then blown away and when I thought this is where it is going to fail, it kept on going seamlessly. I had never played a game where I was looking for it to fail someplace and I finish the game and it left me searching for something that wasn't there. The previous game to hold the honor was Resident Evil 4. My only requirement for this award is the answer to this question: if you were stranded on a deserted island, and you were only allowed to take one game with you, which game would that be? The answer cannot take more than 2 seconds. It must be clear cut or unanimous. Lords of Shadow is now the hands down winner.

I bought the Limited Edition PS3 version of the game, which comes on a single disc and only has the box art, soundtrack and book case presentation to differ from the regular version. It is good to note that the Xbox 360 version of the game comes on TWO discs ( which was used on the IGN review ) because PS3s use Blu-ray discs which hold more memory than the HD-DVDs that the Xbox 360 uses...yes the game is that long. Lords of Shadow starts when Gabriel Belmont, a knight from the Brotherhood of Light, sets out on a mission to find the evil that murdered his wife and has apparently distanced the earth from the heavens; cutting off communication with God allowing evil to flourish on the land. You arrive in a town looking for the god Pan, after a brief fight with some werewolves you are shown the way and the adventure begins.

PRESENTATION: Very good. The story is told through in-game cutscenes mostly, narrated through your 'log book' by the secondary character Zobek. Pause menu is a small screen capture of the moment you actually paused the game. This 'log book' holds the beastiary, weapons and items you have, explains the combo systems you can acquire and also shows what they look like once you perform them in a rather storyboard film or black & white cartoon way. Very cool. There is no map per se, but there is a progress map that logs your completion through the areas you have gone through, shows you how much of that level or chapter you have completed, and what items are to be found there. This is key in the way that you don't have to wander aimlessly through the WHOLE game looking for example for those 3 red gems you are missing. This progress map shows you what is to be found in each level and if you have found all the items in that specific level.

GRAPHICS: Spectacular. After playing God of War 3 early last year I thought that it would take some time before I saw a game that came close to the graphical prowess of that game, but I was wrong. Lords of Shadow looks incredible. The environments are vivid, fluid colors, the framerate is fierce, no visible slowdowns and the action in this game sometimes never stops. Quicktime events are seamless, the markers are better placed than in previous games in the same genre and do not interfere with the action performed in the least. Enemies and bosses are detailed and modeled well, main character model is very good although not as polished as Kratos in God of War 3, and the female characters look good but not great like the ones in Dante's Inferno. There is a noticeable difference between the two models in this game ( male vs female ) yet at the same time looks intentional, not unfinished. The scale of the game makes the graphical aspects of this game seem more impressive. ( You will remember that chain walk in the snow - trust me - among others )

SOUND: Excellent. The voice acting in the game is very good. Patrick Stewart lends a hand as the narrator and does a great job with it. Sometimes the narrative itself is too long and that diminishes the effort as you kind of get tired of hearing his voice in that specific segment. Robert Carlyle does the voicework for Gabriel Belmont which result in several memorable quotes throughout the entire story and lends to the intensity and the resolve of the main character. The music is very well composed and plays an intricate part in the game and fits the mood of the game perfectly. Initially you think it might be the same song over and over again, but the reality is far from that truth. There are 20 unique songs in the game, some are similar and used in specific situations but carry the 'charge on' theme to them that makes the game feel more 'epic'. At the same time sounds pertaining to walking or moving through different surfaces are crisp, whether you are walking through leaves, snow or a brick floor. Weapons clash are clear, blocking effectively is magnified and heard without compromising framerates and critical hits cries encourage the player to pile on some more damage to your foe. Some would advocate why no classic tunes were remastered in any way, but I think it's fine, it is time to create new ones. Fact is the music made me feel like I was playing a movie. Yes the musical score is that good.

GAMEPLAY: Fantastic. This section carries the heaviest weight for me when analyzing a video game. Normally I really don't care how good the game looks, I mean there are more games with great graphics that are terrible that you and I know about. However, there are few games with great gameplay, and this is one of them. High on the fun factor, spectacular combos to pull off and a long variance of simple attacks that are too long to list. Eventually you will pick a good set of moves to master and you carry on from there. There is no way to bulldoze through the game so using the same combos against different enemies will only get you annihilated. What has certainly separated Castlevania from other games initially was the use of a whip as your main weapon. Konami went full force on it here and stuck to its guns. You can eventually whip, saw, climb, swing, and stab with the thing. You also gain access to a gauntlet that can move objects, block, and make earth shattering attacks with. A couple of simple sub weapons include daggers, holy water and some fairies that stall smaller enemies from attacking you. There is a dark crystal that once you collect all the pieces can unleash some serious hell on whichever foes you desire to wrath the beast to. Several moves you can perform in this game are perfected versions of ones from the Leon Belmont character in Lament of Innocence, which were very cool to pull off. The dynamic of Light magic to replenish health and the Dark magic to inflict more damage which you decide to apply to as you kill enemies away brings a nice pace to the game. Although health fountains do exist in the game, there are actually few and exist more at the start of the journey. Inflicting damage without getting hit fills up your focus meter which at full capacity makes EVERY hit turn into a magic orb to which you can decide, on the fly, to apply to either the Light or Magic bars by pressing down on L3 or R3. Gabriel is fast ( Then again the bosses are no slow Joes either). He moves around quickly and the response time of the game is impressive. Dodge, block, jump, attack while all the enemies move around can be pulled off easily. There are no 'BS I hit block and I got hit anyway' moments. I played it on hard, trust me.

LEVEL DESIGN: Superb. No more wandering endless hallways like in previous 3d entries. You actually feel immersed in this world of fantasy. The atmosphere in the game is one of its strongest points and captures the theme it wants to portray with incredible accuracy. You will feel the world your character is fighting through and wonder if he will be able to pull off this feat to save the land from eternal darkness. The transition from one area to the next is coherent, and you can actually envision the areas you traverse through translated onto a 2D map. Portals are used occasionally when there is an abrupt change of scenery but for the most part the levels stay true to the chapter and environments. The level design influences the pace of the game greatly, and what also stands out is that none of the platforming gets overwhelming in the veins say of Uncharted. It is balanced enough that there will be hordes waiting to attack you once you get comfortable thinking 'oh this is the jumping around stage' or something like that. I had no problems uncovering which ledges were to be jumped onto nor did I die aimlessly trying to get to a ledge that was not meant to be jumped on. If you try to sweep through the game though I think you might get that effect, taking an extra second or so to move around would erase this mishap. You will see that the ledges to access are visible and easy to reach. The puzzles in this game are very clever. They are not frustratingly difficult like in some of the painting puzzles found in Assassin's Creed 2 ( thanks to History of Art & Architecture classes 1, 2 and 3 that I took in college was the only way I was able to get around those ) they make you think, offer a hint to its solution, and give you some sense of accomplishment when you discover the answer. I mean the level inside the music box is a fairy tale moment...Only knock I can give to the level design is that most of the boss battles occur in some type of circular platform, although they were able to camouflage it well for the most part, and I was only able to pick this up my second time through the game on the Paladin difficulty.

BEASTIARY: Fantastic. Castlevania Lords of Shadow throws an extensive onslaught of enemies at you and holds a large number of bosses to defeat. Anything from Goblins, Werewolves, Lycans, Skeleton Warriors, Chupacabras, Knights, Giant Spiders, Vampires and everything else they forgot to put into the previous installments they are found here. You would think with such a large number of enemies that the quantity and quality of the bosses would suffer. That is not the case at all. They're are 20 unique boss battles to be found in the game, which are quite epic for the most part. Three of them are larger than your TV can handle size, dwarfing the boss battle experience I had in Tartarus on God of War III. True to Castlevania form, some bosses do not let you wink until you defeat them or Quicktime event them to death or it will end up costing you your life. The battles are usually long and have in-battle checkpoints due to the length of them, but if you made it there with only one more blow to endure, you will end up having to finish the battle as is if you do not have any Light Magic to replenish your health. ( I went through this mishap on my battle with Cornell, although it made it more interesting, it was difficult to finish him off, albeit on hard ) The boss health bar has two distinct colors, a reddish/orange tone which depicts its normal state and a silver gray one which calls for a special move to be executed in order to proceed damage. This could be either a Quicktime event, a puzzle to be solved, or a simple press of the action button ( R2 on PS3 ) There are several memorable battles, The Gravedigger, Carmilla, all 3 Titans, the Giant Ogre, to name a few. You are not going to feel like any boss is a cheap one, although the first one pales to all the rest in every way but it does a good job of pacing you well towards the rest of the game. My only complaint would be that you do not battle the Grim Reaper per se...but that is later explained in the story.

DIFFICULTY: Above average. Most videogames these days are rather easy or have no difficulty setting at all ( Assassin's Creed 2 ) which can take away from the overall feeling of accomplishment once you go through them. This game stays true to the difficulty settings found in former and old school games as it is not an easy one to finish. The game itself lingers around the 20 hours play through on any setting because of its length so real time would be somewhere north of the 30 to 40 hour range. This means that you will die...a lot. There is no 'wall' in the game, a place where you will die twenty thousand times trying to get through it like in Dante's Inferno or God of War III, but figuring out the patterns of the bosses and miscalculating a jump or two will set you back a couple of hours as you face the red screen of death. I must have died at least once facing the 20 bosses in the game, so be prepared. This is not a game to bulldoze through. But don't worry, it's nowhere near the sadistic levels of difficulty of Ninja Gaiden II on Xbox360. There is a difficulty setting, and it apparently only affects the damage you can endure and the damage you inflict on the enemies & bosses, hence the easier the setting the faster they die, and vice versa. I saw no difference in the number of enemies thrown at you from hard to very hard, something quite prevalent in Dante's Inferno, but there is a trophy or achievement to be gained this time around from actually beating the game in a higher difficulty setting. Awesome.

LASTING APPEAL: With incredible boss battles, a terrific atmosphere and an incredible storyline, Lords of Shadow is a must play for any action/adventure fan. It executes tried formulas effectively and has a clear theme to the game weaved into the music, its look, plot and pace that when you look at the game as a whole after you've finished it you will realize how well done the game is. Two Downloadable Contents will be released early this year that will further enhance the experience, something unthinkable as there is so much already packed in the main game.

LAST THOUGHTS: This is the best action/adventure game of 2010 and probably one that many people stay on the fence over because of the failures of its predecessors but make no mistake, if you have not played this game yet you are missing out on one of the most epic games you will ever play. I rate it a 9.2 / 10.0


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