Review by Sgt_Foley
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow; Out of the Shadows
"A storm is coming. Mankind faces ruin and despair. The world is changing, yet hope remains in the hearts of the people. We go about our daily loves never knowing the forces that can change our destinies forever; we are oblivious, ignorant like sheep to the slaughter. This night in the year of our Lord 1047, marks the beginning of our journey together; a journey into darkness, into madness. I watch him from the shadows. Is he the one? He has come far already but he will be tested; tested to the very limits of human endurance... and beyond. This night he rides looking for the old gods, armed with an amulet that has led him here; tonight, he will begin his journey into oblivion."
With those words, spoken by the great Sir Patrick Stewart, the rebirth of Castlevania's legacy is marked; a game that is in many ways familiar to those fond of the series, and yet, a unique and mystical experience vaguely similar to the legacy it belongs to.
Created by MercurySteam (Previously known for the Love it-or-Hate it Clive Barker's Jericho), Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, released in North America on October 5th, is the first 3D Castlevania since 2005's Curse of Darkness for the Xbox Classic. Unlike the rest of the 3D ones such as Castlevania 64 and 2004's Lament of Innocence for the Playstation 2, it sets itself apart by proving that a 3D Castlevania can finally hold its own against 2D classics like 1997's Symphony of the Night for Playstation 1, and 2003's Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance. It's taken the basic formula of the other 3D Castlevania games, and made improvements in essentially every aspect, while adding in enough original ideas to give it an air of originality.
The most unique addition to the series was the way in which the plot is threaded throughout the gameplay. The plot now eclipses the gameplay, unlike previous Castlevania games where the events of the story were merely a string to tie the gameplay together. It concerns the character Gabriel Belmont (Voice acted by Robert Carlyle), the progenitor of the famous clan in the Castlevania mythos and a member of the Brotherhood of Light, an order dedicated to combat the dark forces within the world. After Gabriel's wife Marie (Natascha McElhone) is murdered by one of the supernatural creatures, Gabriel seeks out the God Mask, an item that myth decrees may bring back the deceased. However, the souls of the dead are trapped in limbo, due to a spell cast by the titular Lords of Shadow, with the God Mask also being under their possession. This is all framed by a wonderful between chapters narration by the warrior Zobek (Voiced wonderfully by Sir Patrick Stewart), who accompanies Gabriel in various parts of his quest. The story has plenty of twists, and while some are predictable to the genre-savvy, a few of them are absolutely great, with the final twist in particular deserving a place among the greatest moments in videogame history.
There are also some interesting parallels to Christianity, as well as some loving references to mythology and epic poems. Gabriel himself is familiar in concept to Beowulf, as he faces innumerable odds without faltering; though he does subvert it rather heavily by being a tortured soul, not motivated by sheer hubris, but by the death of his beloved. The forces of darkness that Gabriel fights include such mythological standards as lycanthropes and vampires, as well as some unusual enemies like the steampunk inspired enemy in the Clockwork Tower level, and overall concern a large variety of creatures. A curious addition to the game is the inclusion of the witch Baba Yaga, of Slavic folklore, who assists Gabriel in turn for a favour. It's a nice arc about the counterbalance of Light and Dark, and how corruption can destroy a man's resolve.
The graphics are yet another highpoint of this magnificent game; they truly are among the best of the generation, and even rival PC games like Crysis and Cryostasis. Everything from lush, gorgeous forests to dark, foreboding castles are rendered beautifully, and show a wide range of variety in both the textures and the colour palette. The various creatures Gabriel fights are grotesque, in the most graphically gorgeous way possible. The graphical high points of the game are many, with a standout moment including a short platforming section in a cave system bathed in a lush purple glow from the energy crystals growing sporadically throughout it. The most stellar thing is that, like Gabriel himself, the framerate rarely ever falters, remaining consistent despite many of the chaotic situations that he's forced into.
Another important facet of the Castlevania series has been the excellent music, and while Lords of Shadow's musical compositions aren't quite as memorable as older games like Symphony of the Night, the fully orchestrated "Epic" style certainly fits the style of the game. It's a far cry from the Gothic metal influences of older compositions, like the series standard "Vampire Killer", and while some fans of the series may cry foul at that fact, it doesn't ever deteriorate the quality of the game. Ambient sounds are well done, too, with little things like the birds in a forest, or the growls and snarls of the many creatures, serve to add to the mood.
However, the ultimate judgment of this game is the gameplay itself. Many people have compared the combat to God of War, with Gabriel possessing a lot of the same moves from Kratos's repertoire, but that would fail to remember the fact that the first 3D Castlevania, which came out on the Nintendo 64 in 1999 did this style of combat first; a full six years before the first God of War came out in 2005. Regardless, it does the job well, but isn't quite as fluid as it should be. The game has 50 levels encompassing two CDs, and the first play through lasts about 20 hours.
The difficulty of the gameplay is a bit steep, though. It's probably the only true flaw in an otherwise amazing game, with the easy mode alone being incredibly frustrating and full of Trial-And-Error moments. However, in a game series like Castlevania, this is to be expected. It just wouldn't be the same without the difficulty, no matter how frustrating it may be at times.
Despite initially being declared non-canon, the game's focus on the Castlevania lore is astounding in its detail. The design aesthetic is among the most Gothic and dark of the series, both 2D and 3D. It pays homage to many of the games in the series, and simple things, like a wisp of a famous melody of one of the previous games, is a thoughtful easter egg that shows the care and compassion that MercurySteam has for the series.
Ultimately, a judgment of this game will differ based on your previous experience with the series. Diehard Castlevania fans aren't going to mind the difficulty much, and therefore nullify the only flaw in the game. Non Castlevania fans will find it harder to enjoy, but the amazing second half of the game makes a slightly slow first half all the more sweet in its overall brilliance.
On a more personal note, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow marks the first time that I have enjoyed the series in 3D, without having to justify it. Castlevania 64 was still great, but it didn't always feel like a Castlevania game, and had too many flaws to list it as a classic. Lords of Shadow has no major issues, and is the best 3D offering in the series. After completing the 20 hour story, my first action was to go back to the beginning and play it all over again; looking for all the little details I missed the first time through.
Lords of Shadow is a triumphant example of a series breaking the bonds that can shackle a 2D series in its transition to 3D, and earns a place among the best of the other games in the series. It's a brilliant, emotional, colourfully varied experience like few others.
So go forth, Vampire Killer. Let thy name be hallowed within the abyss.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (US, 10/05/10)
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