We were just having a conversation about reboots the other day, and how it’s possible that Joel Schumacher is single-handedly responsible for the reboot phenomenon that has taken hold of both Hollywood and the games industry. It started with Schumacher making Batman “more colorful” with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin – leading to Batman Begins, the success of which led to Casino Royale, and trickling down to a million other film reboots. Videogames, always wanting to be interactive movies, jumped on the bandwagon. And now we have Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Is it a reboot? Yeah, we think so.
Did Castlevania need a reboot? Surely it has done the whole “go after Dracula in his huge castle for the millionth time” thing to death. But the series hasn’t exactly done the Batman and Robin, has it? Its forays into 3D gameplay haven’t set the world on fire (via flame whip, of course), but they didn’t really jump the shark, did they? It does feel, though, that the ol’ ‘vania could do with some freshening of its almost odiously familiar undead corpse.
Above: Get ready, because this shit is about to get real... epic
Lords of Shadow does feel fresh for a Castlevania game, but much of it will be familiar to anyone who’s played God of War, Bayonetta, Tomb Raider, and/or Uncharted. Oh, and Shadow of the Colossus. If ever a game could fit the term pastiche, LoS jumps in and wears it like a glove. It does bring some new ideas to the table, and it does everything – from the graphical details, to the music, to the ludicrously epic boss fights – with passion and finesse. One bandwagon it hasn’t jumped on is the trend for games to be easy these days.
Castlevania was always hardcore
We’re reminded of Demon’s Souls when playing LoS – but wait, don’t worry, it’s not that difficult. It’s not an easy game, but like Demon’s Souls, its difficulty is always fair. It punishes sloppiness and greed, which importantly distinguishes it from God of War by having a different pace to the combat. Gabriel Belmont, the star of the monster-slaughtering show, has an arsenal of fancy combos, but good luck pulling them off. We’re sure super hardcore gamers will find a way to bust out the ten-hit flurries, but we were too busy dodging. LoS divides its combat into several beautiful, optional playstyles. We were a stick-and-mover, lashing out a couple of quick jabs with the combat cross (Gabriel’s version of the whip), rolling away from danger, and repeating. We did so many somersaults through the game’s 15-20 hour play time (yes, it’s epic) that Gabriel must have needed the world’s best chiropractor by the end.
Above: This boss was so difficult and long we were sure he was the last boss. Nope - try the first of three mega bosses, and this isn't counting all the "normal" bosses and the skyscraper-sized titans
We didn’t have time to be escalating God of War-style combos because enemies are fast, aggressive, agile, and they do atrocious amounts of damage. Get too greedy with your button mashing and say night-night. However, the other style of fighting that we didn’t get any good at until very late in the game is block-centric instead of dodge-centric. Time a block perfectly and Gabriel can counter-attack. The wonderful thing is that you can pretty much interrupt one of your combos at any time to block, so if you’re good, you can really lash away at an enemy continuously, punctuating your assault with blocks. Getting good at LoS’s combat is a satisfying, if daunting endeavor. You’ll feel like a goddamn vampire hunting king once you figure out your groove (or knock the difficulty down to easy, although we don’t recommend it if you want a truly satisfying experience).
Is it even Castlevania?
Despite borrowing so many gameplay ideas from other games, LoS feels like its own thing. Something about its internal logic, its visual and aural aesthetic, and its bizarre story make for an experience that is cohesive and stands on its own two feet, instead of just being a Frankenstein monster of pasted-together disparate parts. Weirdly enough, this also means that most of the time, for us, it doesn’t feel like a Castlevania game. Sure, Gabriel is a Belmont, he fights with a “whip” and he fights gothic monsters like werewolves and vampires in gothic settings like dark forests and flying-buttress-adorned castles, but on the other hand, he tromps through sparkly sun-soaked glades and fights trolls along dusty mountain tops, and never once mentions going after series figurehead, Dracula.
Above: There sure are vampires, though. We enjoyed their demonic, batlike makeover
Ardent fans of the Castlevania series will have a range of reactions to LoS. Some will gobble it up and say, “Yes, this feels like Castlevania,” while others will scratch their heads and say, “Where the hell is the castle and where the hell is my cross-shaped boomerang?” For us, we had so much fun along the way, we only occasionally muttered, “Oh yeah, isn’t this supposed to be Castlevania? Why doesn’t it feel like it?” And yet, there were moments of, “Oh yeah, now THAT’S some freakin’ Castlevania!”
Gamers especially bewildered by the first few hours of LoS should be aware that part of the confusion is intentional. The game wants the player to ask “So how does this fit into the canon?” It does answer that question, but we won’t spoil it here. Whether that answer will satisfy fans will have to wait until after the game releases.
The meat on the bones
So we’ve talked about how LoS is a reboot, how it’s hardcore, and how it shakily fits into the series. Let’s get into the details of how it plays, which makes other questions fade into the background since it’s so damn solid at its core. First matter of importance is the perspective. Castlevania has done three-dimensional movement before, but LoS does it with confidence. There is no camera control – the right stick sits inert and unused, and it takes getting used to, but we were amazed at how well the fixed camera has been designed. It’s obvious that every single camera angle through the entire game has been placed carefully and tested. There were a few moments where it annoyed us, like when we entered an intersection of pathways and the camera angle switched so that it was hard to tell what direction we came from, but for the most part it’s possibly the most intelligent uncontrolled camera we’ve ever seen. See an area that looks juicy for exploration, but it’s obscured by a pillar? Just walk over there and almost invariably the camera will cut to a new angle letting you know that no, there’s no hidden treasure there to nag your collection-hungry unconscious.
Above: The camera adjusts for all kinds of breathtaking angles. It trades a small amount of useability for striking visual compositions, and we think the tradeoff is worth it
Gabriel himself controls with tight responsiveness. Jumps, swings, and dodges all provide nimble precision. The main weapon, the combat cross, is a cross (duh) that somehow hides a fifty-foot chain inside of it. Most attacks feel straight out of God of War, although with attack buttons divided between direct and area attacks instead of light and heavy, attack choices feel even more under your control – you know that at any given time you can pepper a combo with alternate directional focus. So for instance, you can be pummeling a single foe for a few blows, but when other enemies close in around you, throw in some area attacks to suddenly shift from laser-precise slashes to big overhead helicopter swings. A particularly interesting design flow is that for us, the first half of the game rarely required area attacks. At first we were disappointed that an entire attack button felt redundant, but then in the later game the enemies really swarm in and suddenly combat seemed to open up and expand in its variety.
Above: We prefer to deal with werewolves by grabbing the motherf---ers by the throats. Also, throwing naked fairies at them (the green sparkly thing)
The combat cross gets upgrades, but these are almost exclusively for non-combat moments, allowing you to access areas by using the cross as a lever or grappling hook. Gabriel’s other weapons, of which there are only four, offer combat options which will make or break the difficulty of the game for players. Not learning how to use them, when to use them, or forgetting to use them all will make the game far more difficult. First Gabriel gets the daggers. More than simply a ranged attack, they’re a counter to specific enemies. Being made of silver, they have a lovely property of making lesser werewolves explode like blood-filled balloons with a single hit. Then there are fairies (yes, fairies). A fairy will home in on an enemy and harass it, effectively stunning it.
There’s a crystal secondary weapon which when broken summons a demon displaying some of the least sexy nudity in gaming, and is your typical room-clearing bomb, designed to save your ass in a bad situation or to severely damage a boss. And finally there’s holy water, Castlevania’s version of the grenade. Each of the four weapons is strong against certain enemies and weak against others, and unfortunately the game does a very poor job of explaining this. Every enemy has a description in the pause menu that lays out a grid explaining what weapons work best against them – we had to deduce the meaning of this, but next to each weapon will be one to three skulls indicating how weak they are to that weapon, or one to three shields, denoting resistance. Pausing to check these statistics will greatly reduce frustration.
Above: The titans require their own special approach. This one is tough until you learn the patterns
While the secondary weapons may seem basic, they can also be enhanced by magic. It’s the magic system that really sets LoS apart, making its combat a fresh experience.
It’s all about resource management
This may sound weird in an action game, or even unappealing, but let us explain what we mean. Where most games these days provide health packs or the overused regenerating health, Gabriel has almost no means to heal himself other than attacking with Light Magic (exception: sparsely-placed health fountains). But before we get into exactly what Light Magic does, let’s talk about the magic system in general.
Partway into the game, Gabriel attains the ability to use magic. First, it’s just Light Magic, and then a bit later, Shadow Magic. This is not magic in the typical sense of casting spells. The magic is used purely to enhance or alter the way Gabriel’s attacks work. Hitting one of the shoulder buttons activates magic, swathing Gabriel in blue flames (Light Magic) or red flames (Shadow Magic). Once magic is active, it adds properties to combat cross attacks and secondary weapons. Light Magic heals a small amount of life for every whip strike. Shadow Magic increases the damage that the combat cross does. Only one type of magic can be active.
Above: Yawn, another beatutiful vista. We're busy monitoring our health (upper left), Light Magic (lower left), Shadow Magic (lower right) and Focus meter (lower center)
So using magic properly is a minigame of resource management. An example of combat would be starting off with some Shadow Magic to deal extra damage initially, but after Gabriel takes some damage, switching to Light Magic to replenish health (and watching the health bar to make sure to switch off Light Magic as soon as health is full, since the healing properties are wasted then). Healing yourself becomes an interesting mechanic – topping off health now and then with a few cracks of the whip. In addition to the enhanced normal attacks, magic also changes how secondary weapons work. Daggers become more powerful with Shadow Magic – and sometimes extra powerful against certain enemies. Fairies become homing bombs with Light Magic, first distracting an enemy and then exploding. Holy water, when enhanced with Light Magic, gets tossed at Gabriel’s feet and activates a temporary shield around him.
Killing enemies produces Neutral Orbs – Gabriel’s magic source. Neutral is the important word there, because these orbs can refill either the Light or Shadow meters – it’s your choice with a click of either the left or right sticks. You can even click both sticks and absorb equal amounts of Light and Shadow. Yet it gets crazier: landing a killing blow on an enemy while either magic is active means you get no orbs. You have to use magic in bursts, cutting it off before the killing blow to maximize orb production.
Wait, wait – we’re not done with the awesome meta-combat system. Later on in the game Gabriel gets the Focus meter. Now, landing hits on enemies builds this meter, but the meter drains out if you don’t attack constantly. Yet, to increase tactical play, button mashing is the least effective method – varying attacks, blocking and dodging all increase the meter faster. Once the meter gets full, EVERY hit you land on enemies produces Neutral Orbs. Yet activating magic “pauses” the meter, again forcing smart usage of magic. We were not so great at building the Focus meter, but for hardcore players it will be a smooth engine of badassery – activating magic as needed, turning it off to build the focus meter, raking in the orbs when the meter is full, and then abusing magic like crazy.
Above: Sometimes magic is needed for a special circumstance. These giant spiders will poison you, so to cure yourself you have to activate Light Magic and get a hit in. The nice thing? Eventually you get to ride these spiders
It’s quite a few hours into the game before Gabriel gets the Focus meter, so the depth of the combat doesn’t reveal itself right away. Dismissive players will just play the beginning and say, “Oh this is just God of War,” and they’d be right for the most part initially. Managing the two magic meters and the Focus meter makes LoS’s otherwise uninspired combat into something original and truly sublime. Even the lowliest of enemies in LoS are goddamned powerful, but the game lets you use your brain to overpower them if your blocking and dodging aren’t perfect.
A bountiful feast
We don’t want to give away every gift the game bestows on the player, but let us say that there are a whole lot more goodies to play with. To give a taste, we’ll mention but a few: Gabriel can tame and ride various beasts; there are hidden weapon upgrades and health/magic meter extending gems that can be found on initial playthroughs, but some can only be attained by going back through levels; there’s a power gauntlet for doing super uppercuts, ground slams, and for solving puzzles; speed boots allow for sprints, long-jumps, and shoulder charges that plunge straight through walls; exploration involves lots of climbing and rappelling; and there are many, many puzzles to solve – some of them clever fun and some of them annoyingly obtuse.
Above: This is one of the more fun puzzles, even if it's incredibly easy (although it has a surprise in store)
The world of LoS is unrestrained beauty: the architecture of alien spires, twisting tree roots, bubbling swamps, and opulent dining halls all evoke pure epicness. In fact, the game as a whole escalates to the point where it becomes ridiculously epic. The boss fights achieve multi-stage transformations long before the final battle. The scale of the titans – copied from Shadow of the Colossus and then polished with a detailed sheen – become increasingly huge until at times Gabriel is like an ant on a tree trunk. The settings of each level become ever more awe-inspiring. Everything in LoS screams bigger, more intricate, more layered. It’s almost exhausting.
Above: Dev recipe - for extra epicness, zoom out the camera until the player is a speck and let the amazing art design speak for itself
Is it better than…?
God of War III? No – although that determination was a lot tougher to make than you might think. Parts of Lords of Shadow are actually big improvements over God of War III; the platforming is much more enjoyable, for starters, and the Shadow of the Colossus-inspired Titan battles in LoS feel more engaging, dangerous and puzzle-like than GoW III’s much-hyped “Titan gameplay” sequences. There’s also much more of LoS to plow through, seeing as it lasts around 15-20 hours (compared to GoW III’s 10) and packs in bigger, tougher levels filled with alternate pathways and unlockable trials that make them worth revisiting. Even with all that in Castlevania’s favor, though, GoW III’s parts come together to form something that’s overall more compelling. That it caps off an epic, god-slaying story arc (while LoS creates a new, patchwork canon from previous Castlevania lore) doesn’t hurt, either.
Dante’s Inferno? Yes. EA’s God of War clone wasn’t bad, but it was still a clone; where LoS innovates (or at least copies from various genres) to distinguish itself from God of War, Inferno was a straight-up hack-and-slasher that never seemed happier than when it was biting on Kratos’s style. LoS is more elegant, more varied and more involving than Inferno was, with better puzzles, better combat, more even difficulty and bosses that don’t need monster-spewing tits to make them interesting.
Bayonetta? In this reviewer’s opinion, yes. Bayonetta scored a 10 according to another of our reviewers, so it says something about taste. Not everyone enjoys tongue-in-cheek campiness, so for the more serious minded, Castlevania wins. Bayonetta is also punishingly difficult and insults you for performing poorly, whereas LoS isn’t quite as tough and doesn’t make killing a single enemy feel like a chore the way Bayonetta does. We despised Bayonetta's corny, repetitive music, whereas LoS's orchestral score is beautiful, haunting, and melancholy. Also, LoS’s PS3 version isn’t crap.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow reinvigorates the franchise by borrowing from other games, adding its own wonderful magic system, and ratcheting up the epic factor to ludicrous degrees. It’s huge in scope, length, and depth, and it’s polished with obvious love and passion.
Sep 28, 2010