Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

First things first: Castlevania is one of our most cherished videogame series ever. From Simon’s Quest through to Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, it’s single-handedly been responsible for many joyous evenings in our homes. Not that it hasn’t also heralded some of the most calamitous, mind; we still shudder when we recall the awful ’Vania 64 and its motorcycle-riding skeletons. (It was set in 1852.)

So, even though the franchise continues to kick serious vampire ass-age on DS to this day, all of Konami’s attempts to drag the saga into the third dimension have so far met with dismal failure. That’s one of the reasons we’re unusually wary about this new addition to the ‘Vania family, described as a “new and bold take on the mythology,” but by no means the sole (soul?) one…

But we digress. After all, at this point you’re no doubt thinking we’re bonkers. True, it’s hard to argue that Lords of Shadow looks anything but achingly beautiful from the trailers – broody whip-wielding hero Gabriel (“A hero looking for retribution and salvation, on a quest that will take him to the edge of darkness – and beyond!”) grunts as he leaps and dashes around snowy mountain ranges, gothic castles and undead-strewn wastelands in blur-o-vision.

And, yup, there’s the formidable presence of Konami legend Hideo Kojima lurking in the background, keeping a careful bespectacled eye upon the proceedings. There’s even the most heavyweight cast since Wing Commander IV, with the talents of such acclaimed thesps as Patrick Stewart, Robert Carlyle and Jason Isaacs hinting at a serious budget.

So why the cynicism? Well for one, we’re more than a little suspicious of the tacking-on of the ‘Vania brand; this smacks of the old Silent Hill: The Room treatment of whacking a big IP onto a hitherto small-scale project for a cheeky PR boost. And don’t hit us with the Kojima stick – just look what happened when Capcom genius Motohide Eshiro oversaw Grin’sBionic Commando remake. Developer Mercury Steam has so far only presided over okay-ish nonsense like Jericho and – worse – American McGee’s Scrapland, which makes us tremble slightly. Still, Konami reckons the Spanish programmers “haven’t shown the world their true potential yet,” so... Er, yes.

Most importantly, the gameplay itself– reckoned by Capcom to be “groundbreaking” – looks decidedly suspect. Not suspect as in ‘rubbish;’ we’d be fools to doubt the grandiose scale of some of those boss encounters or the Kratos-esque chaining potential of Gabriel’s whip-cracking. It’s just that Lords of Shadow appears so derivative, blindly taking its cues from the likes of God of War and Bayonetta without firmly establishing an identity of its own. Castlevania has always been an alpha-male Prince of the Undead, not just another braindead zombie follower – we want Konami to get Kojima racking his creative grey matter and proving it.

It’s hard to ignore the Gothic beauty of those visuals, and the ‘Vania fanboy inside us is purring at the chance to face off against werewolves while the rain lashes down and forks of lightning rend the night sky asunder. Still, recent history has filled us with a sense of foreboding; after all, if Konami themselves can’t push the saga forward, how can Mercury Steam possibly hope to succeed...? We await with interest. And fear.

Jul 15, 2009