Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Cover
Platforms PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre Kratos-vania
MtAMinutes to Action 4
Keep Playing? Probably
Buy from Amazon

It's not uncommon for a game's narrative concept to change mid-way through development. Story is just one of many factors that go into a title's creation, after all, and is probably the most malleable. Alterations to the game mechanics from the original plan often crop up during the creation process, and the story is adapted to reflect them. Other times, a new intellectual property will be merged into a proven franchise in order to create instant brand recognition. Before it was a celebration of all things Nintendo, Super Smash Bros. was "Dragon King: The Fighting Game." Star Fox Adventures started out simply as "Dinosaur Planet."

Such is the case for the newest installment in the Castlevania series. Lords of Shadow was originally the title, not the subtitle, and had no real connection to Konami's classic series. It also went through a few of those oh-so-common story adaptations. It was originally pitched as a remake of the original Castlevania's tale of Simon Belmont, but eventually became the series reboot released last week. And a reboot is something many would say Castlevania sorely needed: five attempts at a 3D installment of the series ended with five instances of mediocrity, and it's obvious that some fresh perspective would help, here provided by relatively unknown developer MercurySteam.

The game found its way into my mailbox last week, courtesy of GameFly. I'm a noted Metroid-vania fanatic, though my time with Lament of Innocence a short while ago was passable but underwhelming. Does the reboot take the polygonal half of the series a step in the right direction?

Minute by Minute

(minutes are in bold)

00 - New game, Warrior difficulty (medium). The year is 1047. Patrick Stewart narrates about a coming evil that mankind is oblivious to, and a man whose amulet has led him into its path.

01 - He speaks of the balance between light and darkness, of how it stems from every creature's struggle for survival.

02 - Some believe these dark times are a test from God. Others believe it is the coming end of mankind. A man in red armor rides into a small village. The villagers are evacuating. The rain hitting the cobblestone looks great.

03 - The man has a metallic cross, and approaches a village wall. Lycanthropes (small werewolf-type creatures) climb up the wall, and jump in.

04 - "Press X for direct attacks, and triangle for area attacks." Time to fight! The "combat cross" has an extendable chain on the end that works like a whip and can deliver quick, direct strikes or slower, sweeping attacks. The villagers, with their torches, even keep some of the skinny, furry attackers at bay.

05 - "Some enemies drop items. Get these daggers before they vanish." Pressing circle throws a dagger into the enemy, and these Lycanthropes explode into a burst of blood when a single dagger meets them.

06 - To grab the enemy, press R2. A timing-based quick-time event triggers, and I punch the Lycanthrope in the gut. A tutorial beckons me to buy an upgrade from the pause menu. This "Guillotine" attack is an air-combo finisher, and slams the whip into the ground.

07 - I got a trophy for buying it: "Welcome to the Club." To launch an enemy into the air during a combo, just press the jump button. These Lycanthropes just keep coming...

08 - Cutscene: Something big is on the other side of the gate. The villagers back away, but the red knight stays calm. It's a much larger, quadripedal wolf-monster. It's a Warg! The giant lupine beast chomps down on a man and tosses him aside.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Rain

09 - I can block its claw attack by pressing L2, and dodge its unblockable pounce by pressing the control stick while blocking. I'm hit, but I can recover from the ground quicker by pressing X.

10 - A short cutscene shows the Warg jump on top of a rock, and a pole glows by my feet. I'm prompted to hold R2, and I grab the pole and hold it up as a spear as the Warg poundes. It gets impaled. That's so embarassing for you, Mr. Warg!

11 - A villager asks who the red knight is. "I am Gabriel." Gabriel is from the Order of Light. He is searching for the guardian of the lake. The villager says the guardian will find Gabriel, in the forest. His horse seems to have been killed in the battle, so he walks into the forest alone.

12 - Level complete. I can Continue Quest or buy abilities at the Skills Page. I don't have enough experience points to buy anything, so I'll just move on. I can apparently visit previous stages any time between levels.

13 - Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise narrates again. Apparently he is watching Gabriel from the shadows. He references both God and "the old gods," and the two parties seem to hold sway in certain ways. Gabriel dreams...

14 - Professor X ponders what would make Gabriel take on such challenges. The answer is love. Aww. A spiritual vision of Gabriel's wife appears, and bows before Gabriel. A phantom executioner appears and gives her the axe (in the decapitation sense, not the gift sense). Gabriel wakes up.

15 - A magical glowing horse appears from a portal! It says to get on. How could I refuse that? Two wargs with lycanthrope riders appear as well. Looks like this is a horseback battle. I can attack the wargs, their lycanthrope riders, or dodge their attacks.

16 - I don't have the hang of this dodging on horseback thing. The wargs keep ramming my magical glowing horse, and I have to pass a quick-time event to get back on. Cutscene: Gabriel gets hit by a branch and falls off the horse. Time to fight on foot.

17 - A tutorial shows that I can block an enemy attack right as it connects to trigger a counterattack combo. It would be easier to see the attack coming if the camera had a higher vantage point, as enemies get lost often.

18 - Cutscene: the horse comes back, and Gabriel hops on. More horseback fighting. "Press R2 to jump onto the warg." I do so, and Gabriel stabs the warg before jumping back on the horse. Cutscene: Gabriel is assaulted by multiple lycanthropes and falls to the ground. More on-foot combat...

19 - The lycanthropes attack pretty quickly, and my more careless moves are punished. Luckily, a health font sits nearby, so I can heal at any time by approaching it and holding R2.

20 - Cutscene: The horse returns...again. Rain is running down the screen, making it look as though this is filmed. "I can travel no further. You will find what you seek ahead." Says the talking glowing magical horse. It jumps off a cliff, wargs leaping after it, and it disappears in mid-air, hurling Gabriel to the other side.

21 - Gabriel walks, with a map behind him showing the path of his journey. If nothing else, this game has fantastic production values and the feel of a big-budget fantasy adventure movie.

22 - Level complete. Patrick Stewart continues to narrate, this time about the power of this place, and the guardian of the lake. Ahead is the Dead Bog, an appropriatley-named place where many of Gabriel's brothers in arms have met their end.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Lush

23 - I'm in a small canyon, with tons of dead branches and vines scattered around. Frankly, it looks great. I examine a warrior's corpse and find a light medallion. Apparently filling it with green gems will expand Gabriel's life bar.

24 - Another dead guy has a scroll: it says that there is some terrible creature in the swamp that pulls men under. Avoid the bubbles, ripples, and deadly fog in the water. Glad he felt that was important enough to write in his journal.

25 - I come to a dead end, and am tutored into climbing around a ledge a la Uncharted or God of War.

26 - Cutscene: Gabriel walks toward the bog, but a small, lit bomb rolls his way. He slowly approaches it, and goblins emerge from the shrubbery. He coolly tosses the bomb their way, and they freak out before exploding. Okay, that was kind of funny.

27 - Time to fight some goblins. As was just seen, I can press R2 to pick up the grenades they throw and toss them right back. They're very small, about half Gabriel's size, but carry deadly little knives and are a bit tougher to hit than the Lycanthropes.

28 - Cutscene: A goblin falls into the bog, and is pulled under by a group of viny hands. Guess that's why I need to avoid the bubbles and ripples. Gabriel moves very slowly through the swamp once he's waist-deep, but there's still enough time to pass through before the ripples show up.

29 - A branching path...which one to choose? There's no map to see which is the "right" path and which is the "extra" one. I check out a bit of one, but it seems to lead to the next portion of the stage. I'll check out the other one...

30 - Found a health font in this path. Goblins attack as well. I can grab them and punch them in the stomach to make them surrender a grenade.

31 - And here are more branching paths...maybe they all lead to the same place? Little frogs are hopping around. I drop into the swamp to slowly make my way across, past the bubbles and ripples.

32 - Another branching path. So it would seem there's some incentive to explore. This one leads to a path where the camera has me going backwards, though...maybe this is where the previous path led?

33 - Still wandering around. At least it's pretty. Reminds me of Pan's Labyrinth, as it has that forest/fantasy sort of setting.

34 - Oh no, I'm caught in the ripples! The hands creep up to grab me, but a quick-time event shakes them off. Knowing I can escape with no trouble sort of kills the tension.

35 - I've come to a longer drop, won't be able to come back from here...Goblins emerge from little tents, and I'm told to grab the grenade away from him. Gabriel throws the bomb at a tree, which is uprooted. Another grenade knocks it down, creating a new path.

36 - A dead guy nearby has a journal: it says an artisan named Rinaldo Gandolfi constructed a powerful relic nearby. I recognize that name from the first hour of Castlevania: Lament of Innocence.

37 - More ripples and bubbles to avoid, boo.

38 - This path looks like something I could go through, but an invisible wall prevents me from going that way. Instead I have to take the route full of goblins.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Swing

39 - More branching paths...the one I take leads to more goblins. I bet the other path was ripple monsters. I'm not thrilled with goblins, but it beats wading through the bog.

40 - This path ends here, with a health font...guess I'll find out if I was right about that other path. Nope, there's a stone structure, and a door. I try cracking it open with the whip, but instead find the entrance around back. It's a ledge to climb up, and in through a hole in the wall.

41 - There's an impression of a cross sitting above a tomb. "Forgive me brother, but my need is far greater than yours." Gabriel puts his cross weapon into the impression, and the magical, stony machine energizes the cross with a glow.

42 - New skills unlocked! The whip gets a hook-tip (also designed by Rinaldo Gandolfi) which allows me to use it like a grappling hook. I have to do so in order to get out of this building.

43 - Cutscene: Gabriel breaks through the stone window and a viny beast attacks! I have to jump over its ground-pound shockwave attacks and dodge its swipes. It also grabs gravestones and uses them as weapons. Its attacks pretty easy to avoid, though. I even get in a few counter-attack combos.

44 - I press the R2 button to finish it off. I do quick-time events while Gabriel brutalizes the earthy beast with his fists and the pointy end of the combat cross. I've acquired an upgrade as well, and can carry more daggers (up from 5 to 10).

45 - A grapple point swings Gabriel onto a new path. A cutscene shows a treacherous path ahead, where narrow spires are the only path to the next section of forest.

46 - More Uncharted style ledge-hopping. Gabriel can also rappel down and climb up walls with grapple points using his whip/cross.

47 - Still platforming, and the camera swings around for a pseudo-2D view. I've made it across to some sort of temple. Dead Bog stage complete, though apparently I only collected one magic gem of four in the stage.

48 - I peruse the upgrades menu and see some tempting abilities, but don't have enough for any significant addition.

49 - Patrick Stewart's back. He describes the beautiful natural paradise ahead. Gabriel is close to the old gods, and the old ways. Apparently this place will disappear soon, as it is all but forgotten. Gabriel must use all his strength to convince the old god to help him.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Troll

50 - "The magical amulet glows with an arcane magic. What is its purpose?" Looks like I have to light some stone tablets ahead. As I do, their symbols appear on the right side of the screen. There are five spaces for symbols.

51 - A dead guy scroll: He feels guilty looting his friends' corpses in order to stay alive. Fat lot of good that did him, huh?

52 - The lush, green path is split by a small creek, and no enemies are around to ruin the splendor. The dead knights scattered about picked a pretty patch to keel over in, that's for sure.

53 - Hmm, I've found four of the five symbols, but I missed the middle one. Guess I'll wander back a bit and look for it...

54 - Can't find it for the life of me...oh well, I'll move on and back-track if I need to. There's a ledge nearby, and the tutorial tells me to come back here later with upgraded abilities.

55 - There's a portal of some kind ahead...I'm prompted to enter in the symbols into five slots. I enter them in the order I found them, except for the middle one that I didn't find. I just pick random symbols until I get it right...

56 - ...and the portal opens. Gabriel goes in and finds a spiral staircase of vines, with a waterfall in the middle. There's a rainbow. A pretty rainbow.

57 - Remember how I said this reminds me of Pan's Labyrinth? Well, in this serene sanctuary, I've just met Pan, the hunchbacked, goat-headed guardian of the Lake of Oblivion, where the living can communicate with the dead. Gabriel believes the evil invading the world of man is due to God deserting humanity, allowing the shadows to rise up and claim the souls of the living. The Order believes otherwise, though.

58 - Gabriel has come to the Lake of Oblivion by the Order's command, believing he will receive a message from his recently-murdered wife here, where the souls of the recently-departed are trapped.

59 - Pan says only the most deserving of the living can speak to the dead. Gabriel sees a vision of Gabriel's wife unconscious on a rock slab with a giant guillotine swinging above. Puzzle time! I have to rotate these circular rock slabs until the path leads from Gabriel to his wife, and each move drops the guillotine lower. The puzzle is rather simple, but I can give up the experience bonus for completion if I don't want to solve it or can't.

60 - Gabriel approaches his wife's body, and she awakens. They embrace, but then...! She gasps, a dagger protruding from her stomach. Gabriel turns to the camera, with his face partially distorted by a silver mask. Gabriel's shocking vision ends, and so does the first hour.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow pan

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 4

What I liked: There's absolutely no denying that this is a pretty game. In the same way God of War III perfectly rendered the splendor of Greek mythology, Lords of Shadow builds a beautiful medieval fantasy world.

What I didn't like: The similarities to God of War only begin in the game's technical and artistic achivement. Gabriel plays the part of an imperfect clone, wielding his combat cross eerily similar to the ever-livid Ghost of Sparta but without the exaggerated brutality that made Kratos' crowd-control sytle satisfying. It's not bad, but the hairline cracks of even the best knockoffs are enough to disappoint when compared to the genuine article. And unfortunately for this game, we've had plenty of Gods (and demigods) of War lately.

Video: How many games look as good as Castlevania? I can probably count them on one hand. Framerate's a bit low, but it's only noticeable during cutscenes where creatures animate very quickly.

Audio: Also quite pleasing. Choirs and orchestras coexist perfectly with the fantasy setting, and Patrick Stewart provides plenty of weight to the well-written narrator.

Story: I don't know much about the shadowy force that threatens the world, and not much more about the order of light that battles the darkness, but the crumbs of inter-religious tones I've seen so far are enough to pull me into the conflict. Gabriel's own tale is equally vague -- is he after revenge? redemption? -- but the unexpected gut shot in that last minute provided some incentive to keep watching.

Gameplay: If you're reading this, then you've probably already played Castlevania: Lords of Shadow somewhere else before. Another God of War clone to throw on the pile, but at least it's a capable one.

Challenge: Manageable, but no more forgiving than its peers.

Pacing: Each stage is bite-sized, taking about ten or fifteen minutes at most, and bookended by some enjoyable cutscenes.

Fun Factor: There's fun to be mined from Gabriel's encounters with goblins and wargs, and I'm eager to see where the yarn leads.

Would I keep playing? Probably. For all my whining of déjà vu, Lords of Shadow is still a pretty package so far. The game mechanics lack their own identity so far, but maybe things will improve as the journey continues.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Snow

Words from Beyond the First Hour: Gabriel's journey to defeat the Lords of Shadow has come to an end. There were a few bumps along the way, but the ride was pretty enjoyable overall.

I'm guilty of enjoying the rather cheesy lore of Castlevanias past, so I was a bit disappointed to find that Lords of Shadow's connections to its predecessors are limited to a few recognizable names given to unrelated people, places, and things. The titular palace is barely even hinted at, and the longtime final boss is only briefly glimpsed. Lords of Shadow instead creates a pretty unremarkable tale of love-driven redemption set to themes and concepts taken from folk myth, Christianity, and horror flicks. It has its moments and delivers a decent setup, but by the time Gabriel uncovered the truth at the end of the game, I had predicted most of the disappointing plot turns, and the few I didn't see coming were largely forgettable.

On the other hand, the game mechanics do come into their own after the first few slow-paced chapters. It never fully separates itself from God of War, but it does introduce a few interesting wrinkles of its own. There are plenty of new attacks to buy for the game's lone weapon, and an interesting dynamic plays out between light magic, dark magic, and the neutral buildup phase. The platforming won't set any new standards, but it works well enough and grows into something enjoyable out of its humble beginnings. As for puzzles, there are a few real brainbusters that will tempt you to forgo the experience point bonus to have the answer spelled out for you, which is thankfully an option. No need to run to GameFAQs every time you get stuck.

I guess the question at the end of the day is this: are you tired of God of War? If not, make some plans to visit Kratos-vania, as it managed to entertain me even though I've played three God of War titles this year already. I have to say, though, that Lords of Shadow has filled my crowd-control brawler quota for a few years. It's going to take some serious design changes for me to get excited about the recently-leaked sequel in development.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Concept