17 January 2011

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Review

Reboot, rebirth, reimagining; all common terms used in the entertainment industry to, more often than not, bring about interest in a stagnating franchise. With the video game industry supported by sequels it often appears safer to reinvent an old series rather than develop an original intellectual property. Mercury Steam is certainly brave for taking on the task of creating a 3D Castlevania after the significant failings of previous attempts. Especially considering the Spanish developer’s last release was the considerably drab Clive Barker’s: Jericho. Nevertheless, with the support of Kojima Productions, this franchise revival should not be so easily dismissed, and doing so would be an awful shame as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is one of the most enjoyable and well-rounded action/adventure games of this generation.
In a world slowing being enveloped by darkness, the player assumes the role of Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group of holy knights, sworn to protect the innocent from evil creatures and the like. Acting upon a dream, relayed by other members of the Brotherhood, Gabriel seeks Pan at the Lake of Oblivion where he hopes to receive a message from his deceased wife that will help him bring about the world’s salvation. Thankfully, Gabriel is able to communicate with his wife and is informed that the powers of the Lords of Shadow are required to expel the world’s evil. Therefore, the game is structured around reaching each Lord, defeating each one and taking their respective powers.

This structure reflects one of the many changes made to the established Castlevania formula, in that instead of one vast location to explore, the game is divided into smaller stages. It’s a technique that supports the narrative by continuing to urge the player forward whilst providing the option to return to previous areas at will to collect item upgrades. Some of these upgrades are initially unobtainable and require the player to return once Gabriel has the appropriate ability to reach it, ensuring those who enjoy the collection aspects of previous instalments feel right at home.

With regards to Gabriel’s abilities, it’s clear that he has taken a few pointers from a certain ‘God of War’ in the combat department. Nevertheless, what’s borrowed works incredibly well and combined with the game’s unique additions; combat is tight and exhilarating. Gabriel’s chain whip comes with a basic, single target attack and area attack with mid-air variants, and combo attacks can be stringed together by mixing both. Button mashing is not a viable strategy, even at the lower difficulties, especially when an enemy is blocking as they will simply counter with an unblockable attack. Carefully reading enemy attack patterns and knowing when to block or evade yourself presents countering opportunities, opening up massive attack windows. A standard affair, perhaps. Yet, the new elements Castlevania: Lords of Shadow introduces, in the form of magic and relics, bolster these core concepts and separate the combat from a mere copy-and-paste job.

Magic is certainly the game’s most interesting addition; allowing Gabriel to utilise light or shadow magic to expand his move set. Furthermore, both magic types have different properties when activated: enhancing Gabriel’s attacks with healing power as he damages foes and increasing his damage output respectively. Replenishing magic requires the player to consistently damage opponents whilst completely avoiding enemy attacks to fill a focus bar. When full, additional attacks force enemies to release neutral magic energy with every hit, allowing the player to choose which magic meter to assign it to and ensuring magic supplies are maintained. However, once magic is activated again the focus bar freezes, preventing enemies from dropping additional energy. This system promotes intelligent play, requiring the player balances the use of magic to empower Gabriel’s attacks, with the meticulous picking apart of the creatures of the night to ensure magic supplies do not run low.

One aspect the game will certainly never run low on is cutscenes, and with the involvement of Kojima Productions, who expected any less? However, let me settle your fears by assuring you that the cinematics never feel too intrusive and actually supplement the gameplay rather than create an awkward disconnect. It’s hard to explain without overtly revealing the game’s surprisingly, fantastic narrative; so I’ll keep quiet. Yes, quick-time events have a habit of popping up at some inconsiderate moments, which is a shame, but are a relatively minor annoyance that cannot dampen the impressive choices made elsewhere.

Overall, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sports truly incredible presentation, with locations that scream atmosphere and scope although frequent invisible walls can break the effect. One aspect that really stands out is the impressive soundtrack, full of epic orchestral pieces, especially in the game’s closing chapters which emphasise the scale of Gabriel’s journey. To further reinforce the sense of scale, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow comes in at around 20 hours without ever feeling padded out or dull. The staged structure allows locations to vary frequently and levels mix combat, platforming and puzzle-solving perfectly with many moments of genius. Regular boss battles and unique gameplay sections add to this variety, including well crafted encounters that pay homage to the titans from God of War 3 and successfully recreate the sense of scale. However, the controls suffer in the more intricate platforming sections where inaccuracies and camera changes at inopportune moments lead Gabriel to switch direction and plummet towards death.

Although, such minor oversights cannot overshadow everything else the game nails perfectly. I cannot understand from where Mercury Steam has found their form, especially with regard to the level of imagination seen throughout the game. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is more than just a reinvention of an old franchise; it manages to truly establish itself as a product of the current generation. Forging a whole new identity, certain to bring more in the future, a future that may be closer than you think.

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