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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – immense hands-on

All of the bosses are interesting to fight. Some of them are a well-balanced joy, while others are going to kill you, repeatedly. They all require split-second timing, frequent use of rolling dodges, and if you're brave, well-timed blocks. We mostly avoided trying to block attacks because you need impeccable timing and the enemies don't often have easily telegraphed attacks. We imagine that skillful players will dominate with the block ability, since perfect timing allows for a counter attack, and depending on the abilities you purchase, can add other effects like a blinding flash. We're not that skilled, so we resorted to a lot of rolling around, and with some perseverance, it did get us through the first half of the game.

By now, most readers will have probably heard of the Ice Titan boss, which is 'Vania's love song to Shadow of the Colossus. In fact, there are at least two Titans to fight, but we won't spoil the second one. We'll just say this: it's a bitch of a fight. Exciting, but balls-hard. To give you a taste, we'll talk about the Ice Titan. If you've played Shadow of the Colossus, then fighting the Ice Titan will be old hat – it's like fighting one of the earlier collosi. If you haven't played SotC, you're in for a treat, but know this: you're basically getting an HD version of an earlier game's idea. The battle takes place on an ice lake, where the Titan rises from the frozen deep and wades through the ice sheet, pounding the surface with its massive stone fists. You have to climb its body in stages, stabbing at runes dotted at different points. It made us want to go back and play SotC all over again.

Although much of the game takes place in very Castlvania-ish locales like a dark forest, a noxious bog, crumbling castles, and deserted villages, one place that stands out is Pan's Temple – a gorgeous, colorful, and enemy-free sunny glade. The art design really comes into play, with slanting dusty light beams, fireflies flitting about, and faint rainbows glinting in waterfall mist clouds. It serves as a nice, unexpected breather from the relentless swarms of slavering beasts. Also, it has a nude fairy out of nowhere. We weren't expecting nudity in our Castlevania, but there it was. The Belmonts have borrowed more than one page from Kratos.

So, back to abilities. Aside from the suspiciously whip-like combat cross and its many, many combos you can unlock, Lords of Shadow adds to your arsenal in other ways. Other than the daggers, from what we saw, traditional 'Vania weapons are out: instead, we have the aforementioned naked faires and a purple crystal that summons a... topless demon. What the hell? Yeah, more nudity, but that's as much as we saw so far. The fairies can be released to heckle enemies – a fairy will buzz around one enemy's head, distracting him for an easy kill. But wait – we also have to mention your magic. You have two kinds: Light, and Shadow.

Light magic is activated with a button tap, and while you have it on, any attacks you do add to your health. It also does nifty things like turning fairies into light-infused grenades. Shadow magic, on the other hand, increases your attack damage with each strike, and covers your daggers with fire. In both cases, attacks spend magic from their respective meter, and enemies killed in this state won't drop orbs that refill your magic. So using the spells becomes tactical: turn on Light magic, get in a few licks to replenish health, turn it off during the finishing hit to get the orb reward. In another tactical layer, you can choose to absorb orbs into a specific meter so you can manage how much magic you have available in each type. Then, on top of this you have your focus meter, which builds when you land hits, don't get hit, and vary your attacks. Once this meter is full, every hit you land produces magic orbs, so if you're totally badass, you can be using magic almost constantly (note: we weren't that badass).

We saw a whole lot more during our nine hours of play, but this preview has to end some time. We'll tantalize you with a few more highlights (while leaving out all the best spoilers). There was the little gnome demon that steals your abilities, which is straight out of Golden Axe. There was the giant ogre that searches for you through a castle, groping at you with gargantuan seeking hands. There was the crow witch boss that lobs eggs at you, which hatch into children, and which can also be caught in mid air and lobbed back in the witch's face. The game is properly packed with memorable moments – many of which we'd rather not tell you, because there are some genuine surprises. The biggest surprise of all awaits, though – will we get to see Dracula at the end? If not, we'll miss him, but we're betting that whoever the final boss is, it will be an epic, hard-as-hell fight.

Aug 26, 2010

My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.