Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Xbox 360 Review

Publisher – Konami – Developer – MercurySteam – Genre –  Action – Players – 1 – Age Rating – 15+ – Other console/handheld formats – PS3

Behold!  A lurching, ancient creature, limping, stumbling through the undergrowth towards you.  Grave dirt slides off its flanks, metal bolts stick from its neck.  Built from an ramshackle collection of other games and brought to life by the combined power of MercurySteam, thunder and a Kojima Productions lightning bolt, this Frankenstein’s monster of a game is no doubt alive, but is it fun?  Let’s find out…

…kinda.  Well, that was easy.  See you all next time.

[editor: do more work, you lazy bum]

Fine.  Well, as I said Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a bit of a hodgepodge.  There’s a big chunk of God of War in there, along with bits of Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus, stirred up with Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth for good measure.  In fact, there’s so much of other games in the recipe that I don’t feel left out that I haven’t played a Castlevania game before.  I literally know that everything there is to know about the game aside from a general idea of the plot, and even that doesn’t matter because it’s a series reboot.

There's a satisfying amount of enemy types during the course of the game.

The odds and ends, purloined from other games they may well be, are fairly polished and integrated nicely.  You almost can’t see the seams where they were welded together.  The combat is the meat-and-potatoes of the game, having you going toe to toe with the likes of wolfmen, giant spiders and goblins just within the first two levels.  Killing gives experience, which gives access to new special moves and combo attacks. Doing away with monsters causes energy to drop, which powers your magical abilities.  Magic is split into two schools: light magic of which will heal you for every attack you land while it is active and dark magic which has more of an offensive focus. This makes a clever balancing act from healing and higher damage attacks.  (also, if you hit things without being hit yourself, you can enter a mode where enemies begin spewing out orbs like great big pinatas).

When everything is dead, it’s time to get to the next area (to hit things until they die also).  Handily, the game has taken heavy influences from the Uncharted games, with climbing and balancing and shimmying from one ledge to the other, allowing progression from one arena to another in an interesting fashion.  Your main weapon, a ludicrous metal cross with built in grappling hook chain, allows you to hook onto certain points of the scenery, Batman: Arkham Asylum style, and rappel your way up and down cliffs.  It’s pretty fun, just like in Uncharted, though it would have benefited from the illusion of freedom as in Batman.  On the other hand, the levels are fairly sprawling and contain some beautiful scenery, so moving through them rarely feels like a chore.  Some of the levels in particular, especially the jungle based zones, are gorgeous and a real pleasure to run through, with good music and cinematography from the static camera that shows it all off to perfection.

The way in which the gameplay elements are introduced to you is masterful, and works nicely with the plot (which I will touch upon in a moment).  I can’t think of the last game I played that took quite so long to get around to including the player in the story.  The story is actually interesting as well, though contains some of the most hilariously inappropriate dialogue about a dead wife that I have ever heard.  Voiced by the likes of Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle, the quality of the voice acting is very high, but let down by the occasional awkward line.  The plot itself revolves around Gabriel Belmont (strong and silent), his wife (dead), vampires (non-sparkly) and other assorted silliness.  However, it works, it kept my attention and kept me playing way longer than other action-adventure games would (I’m looking at you, God of War).  Gabriel Belmont is a curious character for a video game of this ilk – he remains stoic in the face of assorted horrible monsters, calm and collected, and only really shows emotion over the death of his wife.  Perhaps it’s the expectation of a character like Kratos, all anger and shouting, that threw me off, but I warmed to Gabriel from the outset.  Indeed, the original concept of the main character was reputedly more of a bestial barbarian type, which woudn’t have had the same emotive quality.

Lords of Shadow isn’t without its flaws, however.  The blatant cloning of gameplay mechanics from other titles would be the most obvious, which would seem to strip out a lot of what made the series popular with its original fanbase, and frankly for a core gaming franchise undergoing a series reboot, you would have expected a bit more original thought.  When I said earlier about the game borrowing from Shadow of the Colossus I wasn’t kidding – clambering over a giant monster to hit it on weak spots while managing to keep a grip while it struggles to throw you off?  I wonder where the development team got that idea from?  Quick Time Events also rear their ugly heads, though this may affect your enjoyment depending on how much you enjoy mashing arbitrary buttons to trigger a ‘success’ cutscene (I don’t).

It's an often beautiful game and even a struggling framerate does little to take away from this.

Early on in the game, an enemy type appears which when killed quickly drops a lit grenade which you throw at a glowing door to proceed.  Twice, I had the game fail to spawn the enemies in the area, leaving me high and dry and unable to carry on.  The first time, I had no idea what had happened and ran about the rest of the level for a very frustrating half hour until stumbling back into the area and seeing the little monsters running around properly.  It might just have been an isolated glitch, but I doubt it.  Problems like this, which put a massive roadblock in a player’s progress, are infuriating when they hit, and can test even the most forgiving of temperaments.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a solid relaunch of a very old franchise.  Despite the misgivings I had when beginning this review process, worried that a remake would go down the angsty Prince of Persia route, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at what I found.  At the very least, recognition should be given to the art team responsible for the level design and to the voice talent for managing to appear in a video game and not have it sound phoned in.  A little more polish, a touch more testing and a little less plagarism, and it would have been near perfect – the inevitable sequel should put these quibbles right.  If you are looking for a sprawling, enjoyable game to play over a couple of weekends, you could do worse.

And guys?  Thanks for not making the vampires sparkly.  That meant a lot.