The original Castlevania debuted on the NES 24 years ago and there have been numerous sequels, prequels and other entries in the franchise on nearly every game console since then. The latest installment, Lords of Shadow, hits the reset button, starting the franchise from scratch.
Like many of its predecessors, Lords of Shadow tells the tale of a member of the Belmont clan, Gabriel Belmont, armed with a trusty whip and out to lay a holy beatdown on zombies, vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night. In an ironic twist, however, Lords of Shadow borrows heavily from newer franchises that were clearly inspired by the original Castlevania titles, such as Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden and God of War. Not that that’s a bad thing – if you’re going to borrow from something, borrow from something great.
Lords of Shadow follows Gabriel’s holy quest to destroy the Lords of Shadow, recover the God Mask and revive his murdered wife, Maria. To do so, Gabriel must take on each Lord, a werewolf, vampire and necromancer in their respective home territories. Along the way, Gabriel, voiced by Robert Carlyle, is aided by a number of human and spiritual allies, including Zobek, voiced by Patrick Stewart. The main villains are new to the series; however, fans of the series will recognize many of the lesser enemies. Other traditional elements are present, such as the whip and sub-weapons such as daggers and holy water, which helps create an air of familiarity. The story is compelling and well-written. The game is absolutely massive, spanning two discs and requiring around 20 hours of gameplay (not including continues) to complete. It would be hard to blame Konami if the story dropped off towards the end; however, it only gets better and better and leads to one of the best finales I’ve ever seen in a game. The end of the game is absolutely awesome and threw me for a complete loop. You may pick up on one of the surprises but I guarantee you won’t see them all coming. It’s rare that you actually feel rewarded for your hard work and effort at the end of a game, but Lords of Shadow delivers.
Gabriel’s attacks are performed using a “button-masher” combo system that is very similar to the aforementioned franchises, particularly God of War. Gabriel has a strong attack and a light attack, and you can purchase different combinations with experience earned from killing enemies and solving puzzles. As previously mentioned, Lords of Shadow retains Castlevania’s sub-weapon tradition and also features light and shadow magic that enhance primary and secondary attacks. I found the control system to work quite well, although I found certain combos to be more useful than others. I suspect each player will find three or four combos to his or her liking and use them for the majority of the game. The game also features a lot of platforming, true to its Castlevania roots. For the most part, it works well, but there are a few hiccups, particularly in the later levels.
The game is a feast for the eyes and ears. The character models in the movie sequences are good, but it’s the gameplay and environments that really shine. There are a number of different environments, including swamps, forests, ruins, castles, and each is well-detailed. The music, sound effects and voice acting are all top notch as well. In particular, Stewart’s performance stands out, which is no easy feat considering that Zobek does an introduction to each of Lords of Shadow’s many chapters. Stewart certainly earned his pay for the amount of work he put in.
There are a few flaws, though they are minor. At times I found myself getting bored with the diversity of enemies, or lack thereof, in certain areas, though the spectacular scenery helps. There’s also this weird “circle within a circle” system that you have to use to kill most bosses. At a critical moment in almost every boss fight, a sequence will initiate where you will see two circles, a small, static circle and a large, shrinking circle. You must hit one of the face buttons on the controller when the large circle shrinks inside the smaller one. If you don’t do it right, the boss’s health partially regenerates, sometimes substantially so. Some players may like the added challenge this presents, but I found it to be incredibly frustrating at times. I give Konami credit for trying something different but I wouldn’t be upset if the feature is scrapped in the next installment.
Though Lords of Shadow loses points for its lack of originality and minor flaws, don’t let those dissuade you from picking it up. There’s hours of fun to be had, there’s a compelling story to be told and the game looks and sounds great. It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got all of those elements. I strongly recommend fans of the franchise and fans of action/adventure games in general to buy Lords of Shadow. – Pedro Moreno
Score: 4.5 Little Goombas out of 5