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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Posted by Earnest "Nex" Cavalli on Sun, Oct 31, 2010 at 10:03 AM

Hang on a second. I, uh, I think I have something in my eye.

No! No, I'm not crying. I just … I'm just so happy! I never thought I'd live to see this day!

After Castlevania 64 proved itself almost a digital incarnation of the dark times to come, I stood by with fingers crossed and hope in my heart. Then Konami gave us Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, and even a playable werewolf couldn't salvage that one.

Through Lament of Innocence, Curse of Darkness, the anticipatory dread of the canceled Castlevania Resurrection, and the baffling Wii fighter Castlevania Judgment, I remained by Konami's side. Bolstered by the still-phenomenal 2-D efforts and ingenious outliers (see: Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles), I never lost hope that one day I'd be gleefully immersed in three hundred and sixty degrees of vampire whipping action.

… And as I tower over Dracula's crumpled form on that fateful day, Konami wouldst be redeemed. So it was written, etcetera, etcetera.

Boys and girls, it's been more than a decade since the feat was first attempted, but Konami has finally delivered: We have an undeniably awesome 3-D Castlevania.

Hit the jump for a miserable little pile of secrets.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Developed by MercurySteam/Kojima Productions
Published by Konami
Available Now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3

I wanna be straight about this one with you guys from the beginning. The 3-D Castlevania games have done nothing to earn my delicious hyperbole, so until given a reason, I think a focus on the negative would be expedient, at the very least.

If you've seen any media of this game, played the demo or heard a friend mention it during a drunken night of stealing road signs, odds are solid that you imagine Lords of Shadow as "God of War, if Clash of the Titans had been produced by Hammer Films," and I can't very well argue against that. From the very first moment you control protagonist Gabriel Belmont all those residual combat skills you learned in the God of War series will come right back to the surface. Yes, it's obvious theft, but Spanish developer MercurySteam and Metal Gear Solid house Kojima Productions were at least wise enough to lift from the best.

By lifting from Kratos, the Lords of Shadow creators gave themselves a free time extension that does pay off in other areas. Right about the time that you realize you've seen this combat before, you'll likely run into an enemy or a graphical effect that will stop you dead, mouth agape at the aesthetic quality on display. I've never played an action game of this speed and pedigree in which I wanted to slow down and take in the scenery so badly (only to be interrupted by angry werewolves — this game loves its werewolves).

Unintuitively, this graphical splendor isn't standard across the board. All the monsters were obviously filled with love and effort, but the models for human beings — and even occasionally our main character Gabriel — come off looking like a duck that survived a stroke. It's quite obviously a side effect of a stylistic art design being applied equally to an uncommon form (read: Castlevania's monsters) and a common one (read: humans) and the familiarity we have with the common form stepping in to say that something isn't right.

If we had more werewolves roaming the streets, things might be a bit different.

In the end, the moments of your brain questioning visual quality are so completely overshadowed by the hours you'll spend stunned by the graphical splendor on display here, that the former are barely worth mentioning. The game is gorgeous, as you can see from the screenshots, and that's the only conclusion I expect the vast majority of players will draw.

Back to the gameplay for a moment, though: As I said above, Lords of Shadow does much to ape the God of War approach to action games. From the constantly swinging weaponry to the way counters and blocking are handled, everything is familiar. Despite this — and it may be personal preference — I think that Lords of Shadow is the best 3-D action game of its kind yet.

Yeah, that's right; It's better than God of War.

I can almost hear pitchforks clanking and torches being lit, so let me explain before the vigilante swarm.

First, the game's setting — and this is the key point on which I expect arguments against me will swing toward "personal preference" — is simply much more engaging than Sony's Grecian digs and its inherent dramatis personæ (dramatis dei?). That may have been a more difficult claim to make had Sony not squeezed out two God of War sequels seemingly entirely for profit — both God of War 2 and 3 are quite good, no doubt, but inarguably, profit was Sony's key motivator in the development of each — but as it stands now, Lords of Shadow is more novel.

Likewise — and again, cite me for personal preference if you must — the setting and tale are just more fun. The underlying "a boy and his whip take on Dracula and pals" theme that has served Konami's anti-vampire action titles since the 80s is perfectly designed to provide backstory for a few hours of running through East European countryside and slaying the undead. Kratos' ancient Greece works too, what with its host of supernatural baddies, but vampires and werewolves are simply cooler than anything Aristotle stayed up nights fretting about.

Don't cry for our forebears though. At least they never had to see their beloved horror icons turned into sparkly Mormon celibacy metaphors.

Somehow I don't think I've offered a solid reason for why I claim Lords of Shadow is actually better than its obvious inspiration. I've offered opinions, and a Twilight reference, but maybe you grew up in Greece, running from minotaurs and sacrificing goats to Lachesis. Let's see if we can't dig up something more ... concrete to elevate Lords of Shadow above God of War.

Let's start with the basics: Combat. The genre is built on attacking and repelling scores of enemies, and LoS and GoW both share the basics. Weak and strong attacks, linking together combinations, blocking and rolling — it's all common to both, but the iteration seen in LoS makes more sense. The Left Trigger blocks, adding directions to it causes you to roll, and timing blocks correctly allows you to counterattack your enemies. The opposite trigger allows Gabriel to grab enemies, pick up objects and initiate certain Quick Time Events.

The God of War system is damn similar, but playing both back to back reveals the LoS system to be a bit more intuitive. Point, Castlevania.

Those Quick Time Events (QTEs) are another commonality the two series' share. God of War became famous for integrating QTEs with its boss battles, allowing players to strike down huge opponents in spectacular ways by whittling down their health, moving into position and tapping a set button combination. Lords of Shadow does the same, but instead of just flashing random buttons at you, it requires you to move to certain intuitively useful positions.

For instance, in the very first QTE of Lords of Shadow, you're facing down a leaping werewolf. In God of War he would jump, and you would tap three or four buttons while watching a gory attack animation. In Lords of Shadow, you have to stand near a large chunk of wood that splintered onto the ground while you were fighting him, then tap the Right Trigger to lift the huge makeshift spear just as the beast jumps at you, impaling him. It's a very small difference, but if we must compare the two series, Lords of Shadow comes out on top.

The word "intuitive" seems to be the key to LoS' gameplay success. Things can only be so "real" in a world populated by demonic masses and whip-wielding Eastern European psuedo-ninjas, but by making everything in LoS plausible, developer MercurySteam has added a certain "weight" to the game that enhances the proceedings immensely.

Also adding to this more "realistic" feel is the game's aural landscape. From the hauntingly inaudible whispers of the Dead Bog, to the majestic orchestral swells during combat — the score was created via 120 piece orchestra and 80 person choir — the audio in this game stands alongside the best I've ever heard in any game. Personally, I would have preferred more frequent call backs to classic Castlevania tunes like "Vampire Killer" or "Bloody Tears," but given that this game is a decided departure from the classic style, I can understand why its creators would want to carve their own legacy in the series' vast lineage.

Between the soundscape and the graphical flourishes, LoS definitely wins the title for most advanced Castlevania yet created, but that doesn't mean it is without flaws. Its three-dimensional nature occasionally offers the player a wonky camera angle during a fight, and while the game is vast — and it really is gigantic, considering its genre — it will fail to capture the hearts of those who look to Castlevania for its Metroid-style exploratory gameplay.

The series didn't start out as a gigantic action-filled dungeon crawl, but thanks to the success of numerous 2-D Castlevania's and the failure of all those 3-D ones I mentioned at the top, the series' highlights have become synonymous with plumbing the depths of a cave while fighting off bats and leaping Mermen.

Lords of Shadow, on the other hand, is an action title with small hints of an expansive world. You are meant to whip first, ask questions later (or never at all), and only use the squishy parts of your brain when the parts filled with lust for the blood of the undead fail completely.

I can certainly see this turning off players whose first exposure to the series were its roleplaying game-esque entries, but those who've been with the game since its earliest days as a side-scrolling actioner will revel in the translation of those initial ideals into something undeniably modern.

That, in essence, is the crux of this game: Lords of Shadow is as close to a perfect reimagining of the series' 8-bit roots as you can get. That won't please every Castlevania devotee, but anyone who loves action (or just really hates Dracula) will dig Konami's latest tour of the supernatural.

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