I was ground zero for the Lords of Shadow reveal earlier this year at a Konami press event, and although it would be easy for any game to stand out amongst downright embarrassing competition such as Ninety-Nine Nights 2, Ben 10, and Def Jam Rapstar, an unusually high level of quality exuded from the Castlevania presentation. Whereas the other developers had tried to excite us with Luchadors and all manner of “we’ve been locked in a dark room working for too long!” shenanigans, MercurySteam producer David Cox meticulously detailed his team’s game almost like a curator of a museum would unveil the newest exhibit.
I now find that metaphor very fitting, as rarely–in video games or film–has such lavish concept art been so successfully recreated with pixels and polygons. Lords of Shadow is a living, breathing fantasy art book which easily outshines the greatest set pieces of God of War, Darksiders, or anywhere Nathan Drake has ever set foot. The superb character and creature design rival the greatest offerings championed by Hollywood or Wizards of the Coast. In this regard, Lords of Shadow wears the Castlevania moniker almost as a burden; lifelong fans of the original series, of which this is technically a reboot, will find that this new entry is more akin to The Lord of the Rings than fleamen and Dracula. The masterful orchestral score even touches upon sounds that would be familiar to the Fellowship, not NES faithfuls.
While idiotic PlayStation fanboys eagerly point to this as a God of War clone, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence preceded Sony’s mythological juggernaut by two whole years. If we wanted to get very technical, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver has them all beat by half a decade. So yes, Lords of Shadow feels, at times, like many other franchises in the genre–God of War, Ninja Gaiden and Darksiders being the most recent–but it manages to weave together mechanics such as the now-requisite power gauntlet, angelic wings, and speed-boosting boots in a more meaningful way, while smoothly layering in Uncharted-esque platforming and Shadow of the Colossus-esque Titan battles. The game actually goes to great lengths to validate the existence of these artifacts, and scrolls from fallen knights often mention their search for these relics or how the collectibles strewn about the levels actually helped them survive. It’s a small but very nice and all-too-rare touch that most developers can’t seem to be bothered with.
The adaptable Combat Cross weapon (aka “Vampire Killer”) shares the screen-clearing range and even specific moves straight from Kratos’ repertoire, but it’s the duality and utility of the Dark and Light powers that add ingenuity to Gabriel’s wide array of combos, sub-items, and advanced super attacks: By activating the Light power, Gabriel will regain some of his health by inflicting damage upon others; with the Dark power, Gabriel’s attacks will increase in potency. There are also a handful of devastating abilities unique to each power, and either can be turned on and off at will but drain rapidly, giving purpose to a third power: Focus. Focus is best described as tunnel vision during combat. It is built up by performing a variety of attacks consecutively while avoiding damage or performing a perfectly timed guard. Once the Focus bar is maxed, every hit will cause enemies to drop Neutral Orbs which Gabriel can then absorb, filling his Light or Dark gauges as he sees fit. Since there is no other real means of refilling health in the game, always having a steady supply of Light power can make Gabriel nearly invincible, or at least give him a chance to survive at the higher difficulty levels.
There are 12 chapters in the game, each with up to 10 or as few as one or two stages, but usually an average of four. Most naysayers see Kojima’s attachment as meaning Gabriel and Captain Picard (the voice of fellow Knight of the Order Kobek and narrator of the between-level storybook loading screens) will converse endlessly about everything and nothing. This is not so, as while there is a good bit of dialogue in some of the stages, the story is aimed perpetually forward at all times, the gameplay and cinematics are seamlessly interwoven, and there were actually a few times where I felt like I had been playing for too long without any character development or cutscenes. Even the post-credits ending is more intricate and has been shown more care than most games grant upon their entire plot. Truly, no expense has been spared and no corners cut while bringing this epic, cinematic video game to life. I look at the awe-inspiring marvel that is Lords of Shadow and wonder why it’s so hard for other developers to produce results of this calibre. Why disappointments like Dead Rising 2 don’t seem to realize that presentation and attention to detail make or break a game.
As for replayability, there are four difficulty settings and each stage has a number of collectibles (many which require backtracking after unlocking a new ability later in the game), as well as a Trial. Trial objectives range from not getting hit to timed boss rushes and so on, and combined with the mountain of achievements associated with them should give players plenty of reason to come back for at least a second playthrough, if for no other reason than to experience it all again.
Despite everything MercurySteam has accomplished, which I cannot emphasize enough is no small task, there are a few nagging flaws which poke and prod the player from time to time, as if their sole purpose were to prove that a “perfect” game truly cannot exist. First and foremost would be the cinematic camera which usually cooperates, but can be notoriously obnoxious when the angles change and the controls are abruptly inversed. There are also a few curiously placed viewpoints which obscure the frenetic action, but more so I hate getting stuck being bounced back and forth between one camera angle and another because I no longer know which direction moves me where anymore. This is something that should have been remedied during the N64 era.
Likewise, the platforming sequences, which are plentiful, can often have vague paths for which the developers intend for you to follow. Maybe a ledge you need to jump to is obscured, once again, by an awkward camera angle, or maybe you just thought you could go somewhere that you couldn’t, and Gabriel suddenly falls to his death without warning. Lords of Shadow is also quite heavy on the puzzles, with some stages consisting entirely of them. They’re not terribly cliched or particularly challenging in most cases, it’s simply a strange change of pace when you’ve just unlocked a cool new ultra combo you want to try out and instead spend an hour trying to align the sun and the moon or move water through a rat maze.
However, the one that most bothered me (aside from how easy it is to get knocked out of an aerial combo by grounded opponents) was actually an inconsistency in the plot. The game, narrated at every turn by Professor X, describes Gabriel as an increasingly lost and violent soul who is continuously torn between saving the world and reaping vengeance upon those responsible for his wife’s brutal murder. It sounds deep and poetic, but Gabriel, as portrayed by the cutscenes, never really shows any sort of character arc or progression whatsoever. He is the extremely strong, extremely silent type who looks and feels at the very end like the same person I started the tutorial with. His alleged transformation is explained but never shown, which makes the ending of the game ring somewhat hollow.
When it comes to the matter of which console Lords of Shadow is best on, the PlayStation 3 wins a rare victory. Not only does the 360 version annoyingly come on two discs instead of one Blu-ray (and installing one disc so that you can play off the other does NOT work), but a growing number of players, including myself, are experiencing severe slowdown. The freezing, documented in this video by yours truly, occurs anytime an enemy is defeated. As you can imagine, this one-second freeze begins to add up, discombobulating time and disrupting combos/platforming. In stages where on-screen enemies number in the dozen, dropping a Holy Water flask can bring the game to a screeching halt for upwards of 10 seconds or more. This is not done for dramatic effect, as it did not occur early on in the game. Replacing the disc, installing to the HDD, clearing my cache, and a number of other potential solutions had no impact on this near game-breaking technical issue. Currently, no PlayStation 3 owners have reported this issue, while the number of 360 owners hit by this frustrating anomaly continues to grow.
Lords of Shadow is not without a handful of unfortunate imperfections, but that does not invalidate the fact that there is no more painstakingly-crafted action adventure currently available for this generation of consoles. MercurySteam has raised the bar especially in both art design and overall presentation, and should be extremely proud of their creation.