Castlevania: Lords of Shadow ReviewGreg Knoll
It's been a long time since I've played a Castlevania game. A combination of not having the required system or simply a lack of interest. Lords Of Shadow changed all that. Instead of a sequel this was to be a re-imagining of the entire series, starting back at its roots. A reboot that would shed a different light on how the Belmont bloodline began, and how the epic struggle between slayer and vampire began.
Castlevania has always been a very consistent, well-thought out series so a restructure at any point is a gamble even though I think it was long overdue. And that left me with one lingering question: would it work?
They certainly gave it a valid attempt. Shadow is without question the best looking, most well-designed of any in the Castlevania series. Typically I never mention voice-overs, because it almost seems trivial unless they're absolutely horrible. If they're good, I generally gloss over them. However, Shadow is beyond good. In all honesty, how could you fail with Robert Carlyle (Stargate Universe, The Full Monty) voicing the main character Gabriel and Patrick Stewart (if you don't know who he is by now, go back to your cave) playing Zobek - Gabriel's mentor and the narrator of the story? Alone, they provide an emotional, dramatic experience that's only matched by phenomenal graphics eloquently displaying the range of depth these character's voices have but every other part - be it pivotal or cameos matched with equal talent. From start to finish, Shadow in both cut-scenes and level design, is a visual, vocal masterpiece.
Mechanically, it's just as incredible. Rather than a roving camera that can be moved by the player, Shadow has a set shot that usually points at Gabriel's back (much like R.E. 4) that leads itself, instinctively panning in and out, shifting focus and expanding depending on the situation. If an enemy crawls up from a pit, or sneaks out of a cave, the screen widens to show you the threat, then zeroes back in on Gabrial so you never lose sight of him. Rarely is it obscured, leaving you frustrated that the camera is stationary. Even in situations that cause problems in other action games, like dodging and jumping, Shadow was seamless. With tight controls that are fiercely responsive on every action, it creates a free-flowing experience that is almost flawless during the many intense battles, or level exploring.
Like Symphony Of The Night, Gabriel starts out with very limited abilities - only able to attack and hurl knives. As the game progresses, he finds certain relics that unlock different powers. Sometimes it's barbs for his chain whip so he can saw through roadblocks, upgraded boots to dash and jump higher, or magical relics that allow Gabriel to enter powered-up state that increases his attack, or rebuilds his health with every successful hit.
Shadow has a few chapters that seem drawn out, or even redundant but it's easily dismissible when you know or at least hope there's another cool relic waiting for you at the end, one that unlocks an ingenious excited new power that you'll get to play with. Most of the levels are designed with this in mind, with several hidden areas that require a certain item (Curse Of Darkness without the limit on inventory), so the replay factor is high, and Shadow becomes more than just a hack-and-slash action game.
It requires you to think, from its abundance of environment scaling and ledge jumping, switch puzzles and grappling. Such things have been done before, yes, but not to this magnitude. Even riding monsters is present, but there is far more variety to be found, and you're not just using them to smash doors. If there's a gap far too wide for even the talented Gabriel to jump, subduing a massive, man-eating spider through force will allow you to control him and spin a web to make an impromptu bridge. Several areas require you to climb, but with no footholds another route is required, so you can strangle a Lycan into submission, then charge him up the wall.
It builds variety, which is one thing I've always missed in most action games... okay, some action games... okay, okay Dante's Inferno. I hate to make the reference, but in a lot of ways Lords Of Shadow reminds me of that horrible, shallow attempt at a franchise. It has a lot of aspects and styles taken from different games, it's dark and somewhat gothic, and artistically it's incredible. It even starts somewhat the same - through tragedy - where Gabriel loses his wife to an unknown entity. As his quest for vengeance grows, he discovers a far greater threat but that there may be hope for him after so long a journey.
It's almost exact, but not quite. For one, I didn't hate Gabriel from the first moment. He didn't kill his wife in a whiny rage, then try to repent. Something else killed her, and a game that derives from vengeance as opposed to guilt makes a far more likable main character. Lords Of Shadow had variety. It wasn't the same battles over and over, to open a door, then on to the same battles. It had you climbing, riding monsters and battling them as well. It gave you better items and cooler skills, things that were actually useful and entertaining. Granted, in places it does kind of drag and it may be a bit too long - causing you to unintentionally lose sight of the ultimate goal - and there are two boss battles in the beginning chapters that are nothing but frustrating and annoying, but it smooths out and finds itself.
Lords Of Shadow is not perfect, and is quite possibly the furthest thing from a typical Castlevania game, but that shouldn't sway you in the least. Rebooted or not, it is phenomenal and the one title I would say is perfect for filling the God Of War gap I know has been created with the end of the series.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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