One Castlevania with everything but anchovies and olives
The world of man has been cut off from God and dead souls cannot ascend into the afterlife. The Brotherhood of Light sends its prodigy, Gabriel Belmont, to smite the three Lords of Shadow – the grey eminence behind these trying times. As he gets further and further entangled in this web of darkness, Gabriel encounters mythical creatures and demons alike, but also finds himself battling against mighty colossi until he finally reaches the evil sovereigns. Because sales declined with every new Castlevania entry to the series, its publisher Konami decided to reboot and revitalize the franchise, and boy, is the outcome amazing. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (2010, 2013) is not only a very scenic game, it is incredibly fun to play, although it’s not always perfect. Despite best efforts by voice actors like Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987 – 1994], X-Men ) and the help of Hideo Kojima [Metal Gear franchise from 1987 – 2015]), the game intermittently drops a clanger.
Over all, Konami’s rejuvenation plan paid off and the game was quite popular with players as soon as it came out; its gameplay offers loads of variety. Players can never be certain what to expect next. Even still, upon reflection, one might be forgiven to think that the developers at Mercury Steam and Kojima Productions may have just thrown stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Aside from a brawler like fight system, there are puzzles, mounts, challenges, climbing sections, collectibles, and so much more. None of it is dragged out too much, so that it definitely won’t get on your nerves, but it also means that many of the mechanics, like riding on the backs of spiders, or some story elements aren’t explored to their fullest. If you’re playing the PC port, a gamepad is highly recommended and provided that you’re a midcore player going through it on Easy or Normal difficulty, it will take you roughly around 18 to 22 hours to get through the game the first time around. Most fights in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow are truly enjoyable, except for where players have to fight the black knight or, in the story DLC, the final boss – both of them were just awful.
Nevertheless, fans of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) or Metroid (1986 ongoing) get the short end of the stick here. Lords of Shadow is not an action platformer with backtracking, but, is its own thing. If it had to be compared to other entries of the franchise, it might be a drastically improved version of linear experiences with such creative titles like:
- Castlevania (1986),
- Castlevania (1999, unofficially known as Castlevania 64), or
- Castlevania (2005, also known as Castlevania: Curse of Darkness)
Furthermore, Lords of Shadow is sort of a patchwork game that likes to borrow ideas from other franchises left and right. Even though I haven’t played the following two titles myself, I was told that the fight mechanic in this game is reminiscent of God of War (2005) and that the huge titans that players face are evocative of Shadow of the Colossus (2005). But, this isn’t a bad thing. This title adds its own twist to things, which keep things interesting and unique. Lords of Shadow‘s many quips, like the one about the “Dekuh Tree” or the “cake not being a lie” on the other hand, are references to games the developing team liked. They are nice ideas, and they definitely brought a smile on my face, but when I’m up against medieval monsters in ancient ruins, references to other video games simply break my immersion and throw me straight out of this fantasy world. But that aside, there was only one thing that truly annoyed me during the game: unskippable, unavoidable, obligatory, boss fight Quick Time Events (QTEs). The optional QTE finishing moves against regular enemies are loads of fun, but the mandatory QTEs against bosses needlessly drag battles out as these enemies replenish part of their health whenever the player fails.
Even so, there is something that I honestly appreciate about the game despite many other players stating that they were too difficult: Puzzles. If you are familiar with old puzzle games like Myst (1993), The 7th Guest (1993), the Tex Murphy series (1989 – 2014 so far), or Lucas Arts style adventures, you’ll definitely have a good handle on every brain teaser Lords of Shadow throws at you. Just like in many of the games from the yonder years, puzzles here are occasionally disconnected and isolated from the rest of the game. On the one hand, the puzzle design is a good thing as players don’t need to first find some items before attempting a solution; on the other hand, it is also a bad thing, as they rip players out of an action game into a thinking one. Just like the references to other video games from earlier, they are fun, but the puzzles too might break immersion.
It is also understandable why many players found these brain teasers to be annoyingly difficult as AAA games from the early 2000s onwards, moved away from them and usually don’t include them in games at all. Those that have puzzles, normally greet players with insultingly easy ones. For the developers at Mercury Steam and Kojima Productions and the publisher Konami to include such puzzles takes guts and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow definitely sticks out positively from the rest of the big budget crowd because of that. And in case players are not in the mood for puzzles, but also don’t want to / can’t look stuff up on the internet they needn’t be concerned. At the beginning of each puzzle is a guide that contains the solution. The only downside to using it is that players won’t get any experience points or the achievement for that puzzle, unless they replay the stage.
Of dizzy decisions and curious charm
Lords of Shadow features some exceptional design choices, but occasionally also falls prey to them. To begin, the narrative style is unintentionally comedic. Most of the stages don’t have any plot elements at all; instead, Patrick Stewart explains the back story during loading screens. Don’t get me wrong, his narration is mesmerizing, yet it’s as if the developers were so engulfed in creating the game that they sometimes forgot to incorporate the storyline. Nonetheless, every now and then there are wonderfully crafted cutscenes that introduce side characters who seem interesting … only to then be axed off just a couple of minutes later. And this happens several times, which made it very hard to get invested in any of the cast. Though the story was rushed and inadvertently comedic, it is maybe exactly because of this “B-movie” flair that I couldn’t help but stay on the edge of my seat.
In contrast to the bad narrative choices stand the visuals. While the story is just badly told and the gameplay may or may not nick everything from everywhere, one cannot help but be captivated by the game’s graphic design. Every area looks like a painting and every character as well as every enemy is enchanting. One can pretty much take a screenshot at any given point during the game and get a beautiful picture. The game achieves this by locking the camera to a set position for every screen, a throwback to the early PlayStation 1 days. This certainly isn’t a problem to anyone familiar with the 32-bit and 64-bit era, but takes some getting used to for other players.
Despite the fact that the game is seemingly a collage of the developers’ video game preferences, it certainly also contains some elements that are probably blatant blunders. Players have, for example, only have one save state and the game contains no option to erase the save game. Instead, if anyone wanted to start anew, they would have to go find the game’s folder and manually erase the save there. Simultaneously, if you’re playing the PC port of this game, achievements can only be unlocked if the game is hooked up to Steam and to the internet; completionists should definitely not play in an offline mode.
The strangest thing about the game, however, is that the crux of the story is stowed away in the story-DLC. If one only has the base game and proceeds to play the sequels (if you’re playing the Ultimate Edition, don’t worry, the DLC are included in the game), the central element will simply remain unknown. It seems as if the developers originally intended for this key plot point to be explained in the sequel, but for one reason or another decided to just cram it into a DLC. One problem with that is that the cutscenes in the DLC are drawings and don’t use the 3D models like the ones in the base game. They immediately look out of place with their different art direction. The final boss of the DLC is also just annoying. I honestly enjoyed the ride up until the final fight against him. If you’re a midcore player or beginner, you’ll surely get stuck there for quite some time.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 1offers a lot of content without feeling bloated. The 18-22 hours it takes to get through this are very enjoyable. I found the variety and the fights refreshing and appreciate how the developers took inspiration from other games and reinterpreted them to match their formula. Symphony of the Nights fans complained that the game is not a true Castlevania title, but I disagree, and not just because several Castlevania games do not have a backtracking focus. If you’re expecting a deep and touching story to go with this game, it’s definitely there, but feels as if Edgar Wallace wrote the script. In the end, this game gets a thumbs up and a big recommendation for being fun to play from start to finish (excluding the DLC boss) and beautiful to look at.
The game is a very solid 9 vampire teeth out of 10
Where to get
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, while the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Ultimate Edition is available at a retailer near you for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. They are also purchaseable through online stores like amazon, directly available from Konami’s homepage, as well as obtainable as digital downloads on various online platforms like the PlayStation Store, Xbox Marketplace, or Steam for $29.99 USD or your local equivalent. Additionally, there is a Castlevania Lords of Shadow Collection, available for for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, which contains the first two titles plus a demo of Lords of Shadow 2.
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All screenshots taken by me during my playthrough and recorded using the Steam Overlay feature.