Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – the PS3 Attitude Review
Konami’s Castlevania began life in Japan in 1986, and since then the series has had a long line of sequels. Today, it’s a well established and revered franchise for critics and gamers alike, with Symphony of the Night regularly cited as being the best the series has to offer. Upon its release on PSOne in 1997, Konami stood steadfast against all the trends of the time; unashamedly flying the flag for 2D, while the rest were being seduced by 3D. New developers MercurySteam are taking a different approach with Lords of Shadow; it’s most á la mode.
Aside from the Gothic presentation, the return of the Belmonts and other series characters, Lords of Shadow shares few similarities with Symphony of the Night, or any other Castlevania game for that matter. The developers are laying down their own markers, and they haven’t blinked at ditching some of the old staples of the series. The storyline has been ripped up and started afresh, and 3D gaming has now been embraced.
Castlevania’s most committed fans will be outraged at MercurySteam for abandoning the game’s 2D roots, and it is unlikely that they will be reassured by the small Madrid-based studio’s CV (Clive Barker’s Jericho, anyone?). This is certainly not the Castlevania they’re looking for, and it’s probably best they avoid it. However, if they’re willing to approach this with an open mind, they could be pleasantly surprised by what they experience.
Simply put, Lords of Shadow is a soaring epic which sits comfortably amongst the biggest and best adventures the PlayStation 3 has to offer.
This result is not something we foresaw when we were playing through the early stages of the game. The jumps from combat to travel sections were painfully obvious, leaving us concerned that Lords of Shadow would be excessively formulaic. The early forest levels were especially linear; forcing us along one repetitive location after another, and from one fight to the next. It was fine, but it lacked the frills that other AAA titles have given us; for example, Uncharted 2 began with us dangling from a train wreck high up a snowy mountain. There’s no comparison.
The combat, despite being technically sound, lacked spark as well. We’re sure you’ve heard the God of War comparisons already, so sorry for regurgitating them, but they really do stand out. Lead character, Gabriel Belmont stands poised like Kratos, he links combos like him, and even his combat cross gives off the same wide-slashing effect that Kratos’s Blades of Chaos have. The blocking and dodging feels eerily familiar too.
Imitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when Gabriel is taking pointers from one of the best in the business (for brutal combat), but we had expected Lords of Shadow to be able to define itself. Thankfully, despite our early concerns, it really does grow into something remarkable.
As the game starts to take off it becomes clear that our apprehensions were a reaction to MercurySteam holding our hands. You see, Lords of Shadow has tons of depth, in both level design and combat, to an extent that it could easily leave you feeling bewildered. To make things more manageable, the team decided to gradually feed you new tricks and equipment in every new area that you enter.
For every enemy Gabriel defeats he gains skill points. These are used to unlock new attacks and combos, and by the end of the game the number of options to select from is big. The selection includes armour breaking combos to fast nimble assaults.
Gabriel cannot link up 50+ chain attacks in the fluent and brutal way as Kratos can, but it was never MercurySteam’s aim to have Gabriel become a stripped down Kratos. The Kratos template may be used as the foundation for Gabriel’s combat, but the aim was always to make it very tactical. This is not a word synonymous with God of War.
You will only get so far trying to take out enemies with full on attacks; any enemy of note in the game will lap up your attacks before lapping you up as well. Instead you’re better off dodging attacks and sneaking in blows while they are off guard; a perfectly timed block will leave them vulnerable to your assault. It’s not easy to pull off, but it’s hugely satisfying when you do.
The combat gains a new layer of depth on top of this with the addition of items. You have daggers for basic assault, and fairies to distract enemies. There is also holy water for use on the undead (they’re allergic to it). However, the best item is the dark crystals; one of these rare crystals will summon a breast-exposed, chained beast to engulf your enemies in flames. It’s a satisfying way to clear a field of undead bodies. Often, in a game of this style, we don’t find much incentive to use items, but the ones in Lords of Shadow, if utilised properly, are extremely useful.
The mix of combos, items, dodging and blocking, already adds many interesting layers to Lords of Shadow’s combat, but it’s taken to another level with the introduction of magic. The magic comes in the form of light and shadow. Light magic is activated by pressing L1, you will be healed when you connect with a skilful blow, and by pressing R1, you will activate shadow magic, which will make your blows more powerful and more likely to stagger your enemy.
This makes you re-evaluate each fighting situation: should you replenish your health or should you go for the kill? You’ll find yourself asking this all the time. The right answer depends on the situation. It’s not always an easy decision to make.
Certain moves can only be made while light or shadow magic is activated. Even your items will be modified by the magic you equip: for example, if you have your light magic turned on, holy water will not only harm your enemies it will also give you a temporary shield. Also, some enemies will be weak to either light or shadow magic. You’ll find yourself regularly looking up the beastery; it contains notes on the weaknesses of vampires, lycans and every other Gothic creatures that inhabits Castlevania’s world.
Importantly, your magic gauge is not unlimited. You must fill it by collecting magic orbs, which are spilled from enemies. There is a gauge which fills up when you connect with a good attack – not just any attack, hacking ’n’ slashing barely affects the gauge. If you connect with an awesome counter you’ll quickly see the gauge fill up. There is a catch though: take a blow and the gauge will return to zero. This just made us more determined not to get hit.
Also, you choose whether you want these orbs to fill up in your light or shadow gauges. Press L3 for light and R3 for shadow. You don’t always know when your next set of orbs will come your way so you really have to choose wisely.
MercurySteam have created a fantastic balance between skill and tactics. You’re encouraged to live dangerously, to dodge attacks at the last minute, but you’re also faced with a dilemma: should you heal or should you go gung-ho? So much for Gabriel being a Kratos wannabe, eh?
Gabriel’s main weapon is his trusted combat cross. The combat cross is the creation of Rinaldo Gandolfi, an old alchemist and member of the Brotherhood – he has appeared in previous Castlevania games. Gandolfi made several attachments to go with the cross including a retractable spiked chain, stake and hook. The Brotherhood rejected them because they were too barbaric. Gandolfi created them anyway, and hid them away, for the chosen one to find them one day. Gabriel picks them up during his quest. The hook and chain are especially important because it turns the combat cross into a handy grappling hook which can get to you high areas. It becomes an integral tool for the platforming sections.
The platforming parts aren’t really tests of skill, as such. MercurySteam litter the game with clear hints that guide you to the appropriate ledges and grapple points. These come in the form of glowing ledges and sparkling grapple objects. There is normally only one route to travel ,and it’s actually pretty hard to miss a ledge.
Does this make it a pointless exercise? Well, surprisingly no. As you progress through the game, the level design becomes increasingly more complex and mind-boggling. You may always know where your next ledge is but you don’t know where the one after that will be, and this uncertainty is actually quite exciting.
It works in the same way as Uncharted 2’s platforming sections do. They weren’t particularly taxing either, but that didn’t stop them from being hugely memorable. More often than not they were a way of making you appreciate the environments, and you get that same feeling from Lords of Shadows. To say that the vistas are stunning would be an understatement. You’ll find yourself scaling medieval castle walls, positioned on top of mountains, marvelling at the views. They really are stunning, and to think we worried about repetitive forest locations at the beginning of the game.
One surprising design choice was the decision to use fixed cameras. They are something few developers do well, but MercurySteam have got them working for this game. The camera is always positioned in a way that shows the world in its best light. As is the case with all fixed cameras, you occasionally find yourself getting confused and unable to see the right path, but this only happens on rare occasions.
Castlevania also has a wonderful selection of boss battles. The first of note is an epic fight in the snow with the gargantuan Ice Titan. These days we often see developers try to out-do each other with bigger bosses, but not every developer is capable of giving you that sense of scale. When this titan stands in the distance, towering over you, it feels big. It feels like it is dwarfing you, and you feel like you’re in for a real fight.
The fight itself is taken straight out of Shadow of the Colossus. You have to use your grappling hook to rebound rocks back to the titan to stun it. You then grapple your way up onto its limbs, and hack away at the glowing weakspots as you work your way up the body. The titan tries to shake you off, so you have to hold R2 to cling on. You work your way up to the head before finishing the titan off with a dramatic QTE (quick time event) sequence. Your reward is the satisfying sight and sound of the titan coming crashing down to the snow.
QTEs are often frowned upon but MercurySteam use them intelligently. Most are timing exercises where a large circle and a small circle appear on the screen. The large circle shrinks and you have to press a button when that circle fits into the smaller one. Wait too long and you miss your opportunity; go too early and Gabriel will fail. It feels more skill-based than the button prompts we’re used to; Castlevania has these also.
The reason why QTEs are used is because it’s a way for developers to create a heavily scripted and flashy scene without leaving you as a spectator. Many players complain that they still take you out of the action, and this would also be true of Lords of Shadow. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re hugely enjoyable to watch and make for the perfect climax.
The Ice Titan arrives early in the game, and you can’t help but wonder where MercurySteam could go from there. There are more titan battles, but the later fights are not about size and scale, instead they are about skill. Some will see you swamped by enemies while others will test your dodging and blocking skills. The fight against the vampire commander Orlox was especially satisfying; full of blocks, rebounds and puzzle solving. Make sure your twitch muscles are loosened up for that fight.
We’ve gone into so much detail discussing the gameplay mechanics of Lords of Shadow, but we have yet to touch upon the story. This aspect can’t be missed because it’s Lords of Shadow’s key strength.
Set in 1022, the story sees Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, travel into oblivion in a bid to resurrect Marie Belmont, his murdered wife. The world has descended into darkness and has been overrun by the undead, lycans, vampires and all other creatures from Gothic mythology. Overseeing the darkness are three powerful lords called the Lords of Darkness. They each possess a portion of a mask which Gabriel seeks. The mask could hold the power to resurrect his wife and rid the world of evil.
Gabriel must venture into different territories (lycan, vampire, undead etc) on his quest. Each areas comes with new enemies and new horrors for him to endure. He’s helped along the way by a number of allies from the magical Pan, to the tragic Claudia, and your trusted ally Zobek. Zobek is another member of the Brotherhood of Light, he follows Gabriel throughout his journey from afar narrating his story before each level.
The narration drives the story on. It’s performed by the ever wonderful Patrick Stewart (Star Trek, X-Men), whose dulcet tones and solemn enunciation add an air of reverence to the story. He describes Gabriel’s growing anger and despair as he ventures further into the darkness.
Zobek’s role is crucial because Gabriel actually says very little for most of the game. We know he’s suffering because Zobek tells us he is. The few times we hear Gabriel speak, we can tell he’s a man in genuine suffering, Yet, it’s never overplayed, Robert Carlyle does an outstanding job presenting Gabriel as a stoic figure. It’s a powerful performance.
The story is littered with twists and genuine shocks, and you become truly absorbed in Gabriel’s plight. The bodies of Gabriel’s fellow Brotherhood warriors, which are scattered throughout the maps, only add to the sense of lamentation. They leave scrolls behind speaking of the horrors that they have been through, often showing signs of internal conflict. Yes, the story is cliché ridden, and full of silly stereotypes, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. The power of the delivery sees us past all that.
Once you finish Lords of Shadow make sure that you stick around until after the credits because there are more twists to unfurl – there are a lot of revelations in this game. You’ve already played for over 20 hours, so you may as well wait a few minutes more. It’s worth it.
A job well done
This successful reboot of the Castlevania franchise has launched MercurySteam into the public eye. Once an unknown studio, now they’re a team who we’ll be watching with close attention. Their next job we suspect is another Castlevania game; some of the plotlines were clearly left open for a sequel. Plus, Konami would be foolish not to take full advantage of this franchise because it really does ooze potential.
Lords of Shadow may not please some of the older Castlevania fans who long for a return to the 2D roots of the series, but it will certainly satisfy the majority of gamers on the lookout for a grand adventure. It’s not necessarily original; but it’s a meticulously crafted title which draws inspiration from all the great games of the past decade and perfectly executes them. MercurySteam have created something really special.