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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Graphics: 8.8
Gameplay: 7.7
Sound: 8.6
Control: 7.4
Replay Value: 8.5
Rating: 8.1

Castlevania is an iconic name in this industry. But as most fans are all too aware, no developer has managed to deliver a truly elite, memorable 3D CV experience. Most all those fans will tell you the best entries are all 2D, especially Symphony of the Night on the PS1 and several fantastic incarnations on the GBA (Aria of Sorrow, for instance). Therefore, we’ve been waiting a long time for the modern Castlevania we’ve all wanted for years, and to the studio’s credit, Mercury Steam makes a valiant effort. The combat is smooth, challenging and fulfilling, the visuals are picturesque and downright gorgeous in some cases, and the quality voice actors give life to a solid story. Unfortunately, we fall well short of the hype for a variety of reasons, which I will outline below. Trust me…nobody had higher hopes than this critic right here.

Really, the graphical presentation of Lords of Shadow is more than impressive in most respects. The instant you lay eyes on one of the game’s Titans, you’ll appreciate the amount of design effort involved, and many of the areas are vibrant and a pleasure to behold. Gabriel and the enemies often take a back seat to the environmental beauty, and I often found myself pausing simply to drink in my surroundings. That’s a definite highlight. However, it can be difficult to spot valuable things; too many item boxes, breakable objects, and corpses (which do glow but can still blend into the background) are too easily missed. It’s almost as if the developers tried to put too much detail into the backdrops. But the good news is that despite a few hit detection issues with Gabriel, just about everything, from the well-drawn enemies to the breathtaking vistas, shines.

The sound is another highlight, although I believe they could’ve put a bit more “oomph” into a few of the combat effects. It’s all nicely implemented and crystal clear, though, and you just can’t beat Sir Patrick Stewart as the narrator and voice of Zobek. Robert Carlyle (Gabriel Belmont), Emma Ferguson (Maria), and Aleksander Mikic (Pan) are also tremendous in their respective roles, and the classical soundtrack is both freshly modern in terms of professional orchestration and vintage Castlevania in style. I still don’t think you hear enough of it during your travels, but that doesn’t mean the music doesn’t always fit the atmosphere. On the downside, there is a small balance problem as the music can easily override the effects (especially during intense boss encounters), and we could’ve used more in the way of gut-wrenching impact effects (ala God of War).

Surprisingly, this new Castlevania doesn’t quite embrace the traits commonly found in other massive action extravaganzas of the generation, like God of War III and Dante’s Inferno. It’s more of an amalgam of sorts; the speed and depth of the combat mechanic is more reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta, while Mercury Steam essentially eliminated large, sweeping levels and instead utilized a more old-fashioned, straightforward linear approach. Although there are often multiple paths to take during a particular stage, there’s really only one place to go, and searching for hidden treasures represents only a small fraction of the overall gameplay. No, the majority of the gameplay centers squarely on combat, which is a good thing, because it’s far and away the most exquisitely developed facet of this harrowing adventure.

At the start, Gabriel only has two basic attacks: the light attack, which whips out and hits enemies directly in front of him, and the heavier attack, which rotates ‘round and smacks foes surrounding Gabriel. But that’s only a very small taste of the hero’s mammoth skill set, which eventually comes into view as you progress. There are plenty of combos to unlock – gained by earning experience in battle – and that includes flashy aerial strikes, powerful up-close-and-personal pounding, and even more elaborate combinations. One of my personal favorites was one where you hold down the Triangle button, and then use the left analog to direct chain sweeps for a short time. It definitely takes some discipline to nail down those combos, and button mashing only seems to work for the smaller enemies. It almost never works against the challenging foes, like bosses, and this, combined with the wonderful fluidity and seamlessness of the mechanic, makes fighting a joy.

Well, it’s a joy until several problems rear their ugly heads. The first is the fixed camera. It functions, but there are far too many times when enemies are hovering just off the edge of the screen, and they’re often so fast, they can zip in and hit Gabriel without ever being seen. Translation: cheap. Then there’s the fact that the block and dodge skills are basically mapped to the same button- you block by holding down L2, and while holding it down, you can also dodge by moving the left analog. This means that if you want to block and then strike from the same position, you have to remember not to touch the left analog…just try it; seriously, it really goes against your gaming nature. Too often, I found myself rolling around when I didn’t want to, and too many of the enemies – even the lower-class ones – seem to be ridiculously fast and able to take a lot of punishment.

Furthermore, I’m not a blind follower of huge, wide open environments (as if all games need to be sandbox in nature), and I don’t mind linearity in video games, as many of you know. Therefore, it means something when I say that I felt a little restricted in those uber-linear levels. Me. I almost never feel that way, especially if the main focus of the game (in this case, the combat) works so damn well. But it’s not just that the levels are linear; it’s that the path you have to follow is actually narrow in and of itself. You just can’t move around very much and despite a few branching paths, it just feels as if I’m heading to another battle, which may be frustrating due to the shortcomings listed above. On top of everything, the story that starts out interesting sort of loses its good pacing and falls apart once you’re through the first five or six chapters. Even great voice acting can’t save it entirely.

Still, I think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. First and foremost is the super appealing graphical depiction, which almost never fails to impress throughout. Secondly, and as an off-shoot of the aforementioned element, this atmosphere will undoubtedly satisfy the Castlevania fans. I mean, Gabriel is definitely a Belmont and his weapon is a cross (get it?) between two traditional weapons, and the setting, characters, and enemies are all synonymous with the series. I love it when a developer goes to great lengths to pay homage to an iconic franchise’s roots, even though they still desire to make a modern, polished interactive adventure. Thirdly, if you dedicate yourself to the combat, you will be rewarded. Fourthly and lastly, the longevity: with 12 levels separated out into anywhere between 5 and 9 stages apiece, this one could easily last you 20+ hours, especially if you wish to return to visit completed stages. There’s good reason to do the latter, too.

The game can prove challenging and if you run across something particularly frustrating, you can always return to any previously completed level and stage, and earn more Exp. Eventually, you’ll earn upgrades that will let you access even more hidden goodies, and there are even specific Trials assigned to certain stages. All this means that if you really get into it, you will absolutely get your money’s worth. The secondary weapons (daggers, holy water, etc.) and interesting Magic skills make everything that much richer. Enabling Light Magic by pressing the L1 button means you can then replenish health by beating on enemies, and you also gain access to entirely new – and very powerful – skills. This institutes more strategy and encourages you to fight well. Fighting well fills your Focus Bar and nets you more orbs, which are used to replenish magic…which is then used as a powerful ally and health restorer.

It’s hard to say anything against such a complete, well-rounded system. They clearly put a lot of time and energy into making it this way and for that, Mercury Steam should be applauded. They should be applauded for many accomplishments in Lords of Shadow, in fact. But I just can’t get past too many of the significant downfalls that other reviewers have already mentioned. A definite lack of visibility, due to both an unreliable fixed camera and the oversaturation of environmental detail, sits at the top of my disappointment list. Then there’s the camera, which has a direct impact on the combat, and although it’s more of a personal thing, the weight of Gabriel…in that he doesn’t really have any. He just sort of floats along and it almost seems as if he’s gliding through a picture at times. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just something that bugs me a little. Lastly, there’s the loss of pacing and interesting story, which happens too soon.

All in all, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a really good game. Only because the hype and anticipation was so high might the score be considered a cause for concern. Still, I had hoped for a game that flirted with a 9 in my eyes and in the end, I just don’t like it very much. But it’s absolutely worth a try, at the very least.

10/6/2010   Ben Dutka