- Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
- CLR [rating:4]
Release Date: October 5th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version Reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: Mercury Steam Entertainment
Genre: Gothic Action-Adventure
ESRB: M for Mature
Remixing the Symphony into an Epic Epiphany
Over the last decade the word “epic” has been pulled quite forcibly into two opposite directions. Often it’s so recklessly applied to anything considered “cool” that I often wonder if someone really wants to hear a 12,000 line poem about someone’s beard or a witty comeback to a forum post. On the other hand, it’s also been exemplified with some notable stories that have defined a modern epic tale; Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy certainly brought the idea to life on the screen, and David Jaffe’s God of War did just the same on the video game console. They proved truly worthy of the word, in their scope, in their formation, in their very essence they are worthy as epics.
These tales also generated quite a lot of money. Konami’s Castlevania series by contrast, hasn’t. The myth busting, vampire killing series loosely based on Dracula has been in an eternal resurrection cycle over the last decade; essentially making several variants of its high watermark, 1998’s Symphony of the Night, while attempts to break into more modern conventions were released to middling success (or is it suck-cess when dealing with vampires?). What’s a company to do with a storied franchise that is perfectly suited to current trends embracing sparkle-magic bloodsuckers, but has been cursed to the darkness of the popular imagination? Why reboot it of course!
To this end they’ve turned to Spanish developers Mercury Steam, who borrow heavily from the aforementioned film and game epics, and the series’ roots, to give the world Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. As it’s now October and soon ghouls and ghosts will be walking among us like costumed candy-hobos, it’s the perfect time for such a quest. Of course the question remains: does this modernized monster mash prove to be the savior of the series?
It is the year 1047 and as the knight Zobek (Patrick Stewart) intones, these are dark times. Apparently medieval historians don’t like them to be called the dark ages anymore, so we’ll stick with “times.” A lone warrior for a sect of religious crusaders called the Brotherhood of Light enters into an unnamed, but clearly European land in full disarray, as three clans of sentient evil are expanding into the territories of men. Making matters worse, earth is in the middle of a spiritual crisis, and not the kind you might go through if you take Philosophy 101 in college, but a far more pressing and legitimate problem. It seems all communications with the-man-upstairs have ceased, and the souls of the newly dead remain trapped on the mortal plane. Brotherhood member Gabriel Belmont (Robert Carlyle), has been sent to rectify these blights and speak with a natural deity of a more primitive time; the goat-god Pan, who has in his elder days retired by a scenic lake . . . of oblivion! Through Pan’s guidance Gabriel learns he must defeat the eponymous Lords of Shadow in order to restore the world’s connection to the heavens, and he may even find a way to bring back his recently slain wife, Marie (Natasha McElhone), though such a journey may steal lesser men’s souls.
Now let’s get this out of the way; this is a game that has no originality when it comes to either how the story is delivered, or how you are going to go about staking vampires in the middle of a bevy of linked, combination, attack chains . . . with the chains you use for attacking. Primarily the narrative is conveyed through monologues by Zobek, and cinematics interspersed with the occasional QTE (or Quick Time Event), while gameplay is derived quite liberally from God of War. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any new ideas here and there, but it doesn’t or at least shouldn’t matter.
Because this is what Castlevania as a series has always done: drain other properties of ideas and turn them into beautiful, gothic versions of their former selves. Exactly as Dracula himself would, so it’s actually quite fitting. Some may lament, and protest innocence for the saga of the Belmont clan, but this really has always been part of it. The 8-bit original was a fairly standard 2D action-platformer that had few new gameplay features until the sequel, while raiding the Universal lot for bosses (and phony end credits).
Until Symphony of the Night the best game was probably Castlevania 4, a remake of the first game, and even though some considered Symphony to be fresh and new, it was fundamentally Metroid, and went even further in grabbing ideas from other sources; from Judeo-Christian apocrypha, Greek and Norse myth, and down to Cthulu him/her/itself! God of War and Devil May Cry gave gamers solid foundations on how to bring focused combat and exploration into the modern age stylishly, and so now Castlevania is taking that foundation and attempting to build upon it.
So if Lords of Shadow doesn’t have much originality, what does it have to offer? Excellent execution on nearly every aspect of the game! Numerous, gorgeous vistas that are truly a sight to behold come hand in hand with stunning animations that both convey grandiose actions and small emotions. The vocal performances are by and large superb, and though Mr. Stewart’s voluminous narrations feel meandering in a few points, his classically trained (dare I say regal) voice makes it work. Despite remaining mostly silent and possessing impossible physical qualities, Gabriel comes off as a rather real person trapped by love, piety and desperation. Much of your enjoyment and ability to progress through the fairly standard narrative (you’ll guess at least one or two reveals, but there are a few twists you might not) rests on whether or not you can get behind him, and it proves easy to do so.
Using GoW’s mid-range melee combat system makes sense considering the game brings back its trademark weapon: the whip, even if it’s called the “Combat Cross” this time around. Whipping it proves similar to chain-blade fighting, though a helping of Soul Caliber’s direct and area attacks (rather than light or heavy), a rather interesting magic component that keeps you switching between three styles, and alternate weapons that you’ll actually use, all combine to make it a better system than Krato’s first foray into deicide. Combined with several excellent confrontations with foes both great and small, it’s easy to have a thrilling time as you prove that for Gabriel’s enemies, it is indeed a horrible night to have a curse.
Not everything is all garlic hearts and holy water though. Static, though dramatic, camera angles can hamper and kill in both combat and jumping. Cliff scaling and swinging mechanics used to navigate more terrestrial obstacles seem meant to replace most of the series’ traditional platforming, but turn out to follow current trends of obviously marked paths that don’t offer much danger or thought, and generally become rather boring (until a few segments in the last act). A way to fix this becomes apparent as you fight “Titans” and the game apes Shadow of the Colossus to a T, but forgets that game’s grip mechanic made otherwise straightforward climbing interesting. Something similar, or simply more freedom and danger present while traversing would have made these portions of the game far more engaging than they are. This is also especially frustrating as the developers obviously improved on the battling the Belmont bathes in, but seem to have done nothing to improve a feature that should be just as important.
New initiates will probably be more than sated with the excellent combat to worry too much about the stripped down platforming, but there may be some issues for longtime vampire killers to worry about. Of course, as a reboot there may come some outcry due to reinterpretations of characters, places, and concepts from the 20+ year history of the saga. If the fangbangers worry too much about this though, they can take consolation that the game is technically set before any other in the series, and could merely serve as a prequel should it not prove popular. Of course, it will be impossible to please everybody.
More importantly though is the game’s tone, which simply does not feel like a “Castlevania” game until a few hours in. This is primarily due to the Pan’s Labyrinth and Conan-with-werewolves setting of the first portions, but it’s also due to the music. Save for one notable reinterpretation, none of the series’ fine tradition of now legendary video game music makes an appearance. What replaces it isn’t bad by any means, but it’s far too sweeping and majestic to fit into the spooktacularly classic tunes the series is known for and cements a generic “high fantasy” feel early on. Thankfully though, once you journey to an actual castle filled with vampires intent on draining you to the last drop, both the setting and score settle into everything a whip-swinger could want.
But it won’t stay at this castle, but rather keep moving on to newer, deadlier lands. In fact, the sheer scope and length of Gabriel’s quest evens out many of its flaws. The game just keeps going and going, yet it never feels padded or in need of an editor. Well into the final portions, new locations, puzzles, and monsters keep rearing their hideous visages at you, and nothing gets dull (except perhaps for the climbing again). At various points you’ll be facing off against Ogres, trolls, and goblins that seem as if they’ve wandered out of the Hobbit looking for mead, befriending half the cast of Ridley Scott’s Legend, slaying more vampires than Buffy Summers could shake a stake at, dodging tesla coils in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, playing a twisted version of Wizard’s Chess, and getting involved in a witch’s cold war on a journey that spans 12 chapters, 50 levels and probably 20-30 hours in order to see this sort of crazed blend to it’s conclusion. So much happens in this course of events, it becomes easier and easier to compare this to The Odyssey rather than any game that’s come before.
Or in other word’s: it’s epic.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow stands toe to toe with the big boys of the genre. Though rather bereft of originality, it’s a beautiful remix of ideas and concepts that crafts an adventure worthy of experiencing for yourself. Hopefully it shall match Gabriel’s purpose, and bring an almost forgotten series from the brink of death and into brighter lands, vanquishing the night of neglect it’s been in.
After that though, maybe he should take some time away from Europe and come to America. We’re currently besieged.