Review by discoinferno84

"You've got a way to fall..."

The world is dying. Civilization has descended into chaos. Cities are burning and crumbling into ruin. Technology and knowledge has been lost, possibly forever. Monsters roam the countryside, devouring and corrupting anything that gets in their way. Those that manage to escape face a slow, sickening death of starvation and plague. The souls of the dead are left to wander, unable to find the peace they need to cross over into the afterlife. The weary survivors look to the church and God for help…but it isn't coming. God isn't answering prayers anymore, let alone interacting with his followers. Has he abandoned his creations? Maybe. Or maybe it's something even more disturbing: he can't answer. Something's preventing humanity from getting the protection it so desperately needs. With the forces of darkness on the verge of conquering the planet, the holy order of the Brotherhood of Light has sent Gabriel Belmont to investigate the problem and vanquish its evil source.

But for Gabriel, it's personal. Revenge, not salvation, is what drives him. It's only been a couple of days since his wife was brutally murdered. His goal isn't just to rebalance the forces of good and evil, but to use their powers to resurrect his loved one. Such selfishness is one of his many flaws examined throughout the story; themes of corruption, temptation, and faith are all central points of the plot. The game makes you wonder just how far one man will go for the sake of love, and it shows you in all of its heartbreaking, bitter splendor. The writing is hardly mindblowing, but Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle give some superb (if not underutilized) voice acting performances. While you'll probably be able to figure out most of the plot twists hours before they happen - Gabriel's final fate and the true purpose of his mission especially - diehard Castlevania followers will appreciate the little shout-outs and references mixed in. Though Lords of Shadow is a reboot of the franchise (thus making it separate from the previous continuity), it includes nods to Legacy of Darkness, Lament of Innocence, Symphony of the Night, Order of Ecclesia, and a few others. The story is new, but longtime series veterans are going to see plenty of familiar things.

Newer fans, on the other hand, might be confused. Most associate Castlevania with exploring a massive labyrinth of a castle, farming experience points, nabbing the most powerful equipment, and trying to get a hundred percent completion on the map. While that's all well and good for Symphony of the Night and its subsequent clones, older gamers might remember when the series was about beating individual stages with insanely hard platforming, obscenely difficult bosses and clever enemy placements, and the occasional branching paths that lead to different levels. Lords of Shadow takes these aspects and translates them into a 3D setting. Gabriel will have to wander down fairly linear stages (with the occasional alternate route to uncover a handy item or pickup), while jumping onto platforms and grabbing and shuffling across ledges. It's reminiscent of the climbing mechanics of Shadow of the Colossus, but without the tension of an ever-dwindling handgrip. It's also better focused; platforming is so straightforward that you'll rarely be unsure of the location of your next jump. Such simplicity is made more entertaining with Gabriel's whip; it lets you latch onto railings, rappel and climb walls, and grapple across otherwise impossible distances. It's basically the same concept established in Super Castlevania IV, but much more accessible and versatile.

While it's easy to just swing and leap around to get through the most direct route, you'll want to take a look around. The levels might seem linear and straightforward, but there are several additional rooms and hallways just out of the camera's limited range. It's entirely possible to skip over a section because you either blindly walk past an area or lack the necessary ability to get over an obstacle. Many of these secrets have hints hidden in plain sight, practically begging you to come back and explore. The incentive to replay a level is huge; you'll uncover upgrades for your magic and health meters, supplementary materials to the story, and optional level challenges. Not to mention all of the extra bonus points you'll rack up, which can be used to unlock the massive amount of concept artwork. If you're not obsessed with getting a full completion, don't assume you'll be left out; the main campaign will last you nearly twenty hours, regardless if you decide to go back for the extra stuff.

But considering how much you'll be fighting, the time will go by fast. Gabriel has access to several attacks and abilities, all of which can be used as combos or combined with his other powers. While you'll have to unlock most of his moveset - by spending the experience points you earn by defeating enemies - it makes for a great investment. There's nothing more awesome than carving up a werewolf with a makeshift buzz saw, or crushing a troll's face into paste with a flying kick. Not to mention the secondary weapons, which range from summoning an otherworldly demon and unleashing a gang of pixie familiars to the more traditional throwing knives and holy water Molotovs. That's aside from his chargeable punches and speed boosts you'll get further down the line. There's even a generic Light and Dark magic system, which recovers your health and boosts your attack power respectively. Despite the sheer variety of skills, however, the fights are rarely too easy; most enemies (bosses especially) are surprisingly capable of kicking your ass and strong enough to take a beating before keeling over. Many fights require you to use all of Gabriel's abilities with a good sense of strategy. Diving headfirst into a horde of vampires will get you killed; you've got to learn to counter, roll away from oncoming assaults, and memorize attack patterns. Your efforts will be rewarded; the more things you kill without taking any damage, and you'll gain more points and pickups. With so many ways to approach a fight, it'll take a while before the combat starts getting boring.

Such variety isn't always a good thing, though. While the game provides a healthy balance of platforming and combat, it also blends in some puzzle solving aspects as well. You'll have to swing through stained-glass windows, destroy a weakened wall, deflect beams of light off of mirrored statues, and move large obstacles to get around. You can even weaken larger enemies as use them as temporary mounts; creating platforms with giant spider webs, crushing gates with the fists of an ogre, etc. While most of this is pretty generic for most action games, the solutions can be inconsistent and nerve-wracking. There are times when the answer seems easy and obvious (the necessary pieces even shine, which is almost insulting), but doesn't work. Take the statues, for example. Most can be pushed around, while others can be destroyed by sawing through them with your whip. But occasionally, neither work. You spend half an hour repeating the same trick, wondering if the game has somehow glitched and left you stuck. You desperately try any combination and ability you can think of, until you come across some obscure skill you learned several chapters ago and have rarely used, let alone remembered. You'll end up with so many underused powers that, until the rare moment you actually need them, they'll be forgotten entirely.

The camera doesn't help much, either. It only switches angles when you enter or exit a room, which means you can't adjust it to get a better perspective of the given stage. That can be disastrous in boss fights, during which the camera is focused entirely on your opponent. You'll frequently lose sight of Gabriel, forcing you to frantically input dodge commands until the you regain your bearings. The regular battles aren't so bad, but you'll have trouble if you fight through a doorway or into a corner. The camera is not horrendously awkward, but at least partial control over it would have improved things. The fixed camera has its benefits, though; it presents nearly every moment with stunning cinematic quality. Even the simplest, most linear levels are brimming with atmosphere and little details. You'll have to leap around a library crammed with moldy books, sending old paper fluttering as you dodge a possessed suit of armor. You'll grapple your way down a decayed cistern, gripping onto crumbling ledges while streams of rainwater dribble onto your face. You'll slowly ascend the ruins of an ancient temple, surveying the broken, tilted remnants of a building in the far distance. Not to mention the breathtaking sense of scale you'll feel when you first glimpse the towering, sinister spires of a castle that the fans know all too well.

You know what the funny thing is? Everyone is going to liken this to God of War. And Shadow of the Colossus, for that matter. The comparisons are valid; Lords of Shadow is a combination of their mechanics. But it does those mechanics well, and that's what keeps it from being just another stale action tile. It borrows ideas from those games and blends it with the concepts that defined the Castlevania series. This is a game about finding the balance between platforming and combat. While the levels seem linear and straightforward, the branching paths and hidden areas give you an incentive to explore. It's not all about mindless button mashing, either; you've got to learn everything Gabriel can do in order to survive. The sheer variety of attacks and abilities keep the combat fun, but make puzzle solving needless tedious. The same goes for the awkward camera, even if it does provide some of the most gorgeous visuals in the series. It may not be perfect, but Castlevania's new beginning is a promising one.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/11/10, Updated 10/12/10

Game Release: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (Limited Edition) (US, 10/05/10)


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