Castlevania: Lords of Shadows puts you in the role of Gabriel Belmont - a man out for revenge after his wife is slain. Instead of a whip, he yields a modified crucifix called the combat cross, and while vampires and other supernatural creatures are intact, they’re presented in a more realistic manner here than the movie monster-esque incarnations in past games. Lords of Shadows is a series reboot that is sure to polarize long-time fans of the series. On one hand, you have easily the most polished and well-crafted series entries in many years, but on the other, you have the fact that many of its gameplay elements are derived from other games, and while they may be expertly-executed, the developers shouldn’t get all the credit since few changes were made, no major chances were taken, and much of what works here was proven to work before.
The core fighting mechanics are straight out of God of War - you’ve got a long-range weapon (in this case, the combat cross with added chainlink whip of sorts) with a light attack that covers a wide area, and a more powerful one that goes in a straight line. You can also roll out the way of attacks quickly using a stick (although in this case, it’s the left stick while using a trigger button), and you can also grapple and dismantle your foes in a variety of ways. You can also use timed button presses to use the environment to kill massive foes, and the entire world is shown with a fixed camera. You’ll also engage in some platforming and solve some puzzles.
While Lords of Shadows does take more than a few pages out of God of War’s playbook, it does them well and adds some twists. One involves blocking at the exact moment an attack hits to get some free hits in, and the game’s primary weapon, the Combat Cross also doubles as a grappling hook. Puzzles have an option where, if you’re struggling, you can pay to have the game solve the problem for you and eliminate the XP you earn from solving it yourself. This is another issue I can see dividing the fan base, because it certainly does make things easier IF you choose it. Like offering unlimited continues in arcade compilations, this can make the game far too easy, but I don’t have a problem with it since it is completely optional. What does irk me slightly is that like Prince of Persia’s ‘08 reboot, there’s no way to really die. You’ve got mandatory unlimited continues, and the frequent checkpoints work as both a way to prevent you from needlessly backtracking, but can also result in the game boiling down to trial and error during tricky sections - with less skill required than one might expect from a ‘Vania game.
Aside from that issue though, I really love the core gameplay. It’s a God of War clone, yes, but it’s also the best one out there. There have been some blatant GoW clones and some that ape the gameplay in a more overt way, but if you’re looking for a game like that, this is the absolute pinnacle of that action game sub-genre outside of the GoW series, and in some ways, Lords of Shadows beats it. The control layout is fantastic, and while theoretically having to press a trigger button to roll is inferior to just moving the stick, that button also acts as a block button - enabling you to protect yourself and then swoop in for the kill. Magic is easily use with one shoulder button, and stands out nicely, as dark magic allowing you to do more damage with each strike, and light magic allowing you to heal with each blow landed.
Platforming controls are also a breeze, as is using the grappling hook ala Bionic Commando to get where you need to go. One issue that greatly affects the game is the fixed camera view. Like with God of War, this setup leads to some incredible views that will stick with you, but it can also work against you by switching quickly when you enter a new scene - resulting in a bit of confusion until you figure out where you are directionally in comparison to where you were in the previous screen. There are also times where things in the foreground, like waterfalls, will obscure your view of Gabriel, resulting in blind faith to see you through.
Beyond the main gameplay taking cues from God of War, the other clear major influence is the Shadow of the Colossus-style boss battles. These don’t make up all of the boss encounters, but certainly do evoke the same kind of thrills as the ones in SotC. They also at least did justice to the source material by having you face absolutely monstrous creatures and require using a different set of skills to defeat each rival while relying on the razor-sharp controls. These sections stand out from the SotC battles due to the grappling hook, which at least does something to put Lords of Shadow’s stamp on the concept. Also, while you are able to replay the battles as many times as needed, it will take some true skill to defeat these enemies, and as an added little bonus, there’s no slowdown during these things - so SotC fans wondering what that kind of game would be like without slowdown, and who can’t wait for the PS3 Team Ico HD collection to come out, can get a taste of what that will be like only with the added benefit of all of these battles being crafted for the current generation and not just upscaled.
The developers definitely didn’t craft the greatest original work here, but I don’t see it as hurting Lords of Shadow because they didn’t just copy existing ideas - they took them and at least put their own spin on them. Plus, they executed them about as well as could be expected. The series has lifted things from other games before without hurting the franchise one iota - Symphony of the Night was the first of the Metroid-style ‘Vanias, and it’s not only arguably the finest game in it, but also led to a successful sub-series of games with that gameplay archetype at its core. I think the similarities to GoW/SotC will bother people for a little while, then they’ll be forgotten about. As a reboot, this is fantastic, and the variety of gameplay options available makes for an experience that can be enjoyed by more people.
Visually, Lords of Shadows is one of the best-looking games this generation. The visual design of all of the environments is top-notch, and it’s a joy to not only progress to see the plot advance, but also to see each new area you’ll uncover. The grassy environments are some of the most lush I’ve seen in a game, and the icy areas are incredible - you’ll even see little snowflakes hit the screen and slowly melt away. The character models are fantastic,
Lords of Shadows delivers a satisfying experience for the ears as well. The orchestral music is remarkable and the blaring trumpets in soundtrack gives the game an epic feel. The voice over work is also some of the finest in gaming, with Patrick Stewart serving as a fine narrator and in-game character as well. It’s a shame the voice work can also go into the melodramatic side as well, which hurts it from time to time, but not regularly enough to hurt the overall cinematic greatness of the experience as a whole.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadows is a fantastically-crafted game. In some ways, it seems like Castlevania in name only because it is stitched together with many existing gameplay mechanics, but it sticks close enough to the action-packed cloth the series is woven from to seem worthy of the name. In the end, it winds up being an amazing, memorable experience, even if it is lacking in innovation. Long-time series and action game fans should definitely pick it up. Players with both systems might be wondering which version to buy, and while both versions of the game are fantastic, I’d give a very slight edge to the PS3 version since the Dual Shock 3 is a little more comfortable to use than the 360 pad for it.