Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – XBOX 360 (game review)

In a generation when so many beloved 8-bit properties have made the leap to the third dimension, revitalizing their brand and teaching gamers new tricks while showcasing their fancy new looks, it’s quite jarring that the venerable Castlevania series has stumbled hard whenever it has stepped aside from its usual 2D platforming action. That damned third dimension has haunted the series like a grim specter, cackling madly each time some foolhardy developer has dared to take a Belmont to the big time – with notable failures marring the series on the N64 and PS2. And while the games have lived long off their 2D Metroidvania design, producing a series of stellar items for the handhelds, their big brothers demand something more.

Usually the news that Konami is at it again would leave fanboys laughing maniacally in the dark, but the addition of Kojima Productions, as a guiding light to developer MercurySteam, has made Castlevania: Lords of Shadow one of the most anticipated titles of this holiday season.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow once again places you in the role of a Belmont; this time, Gabriel, a member of a secret order aimed at bumping back at those nasty beasties that go bump in the night. Gabriel’s mission is made more personal by the tragic death of his beloved wife. As the game begins, Gabriel is on a quest for retribution before the rug is pulled out from underneath him and he discovers a vast conspiracy that dovetails with his own personal crusade.

It’s a narrative page ripped from the God of War playbook, which is fitting, since MercurySteam has looked at that Sony archetype for a winning blueprint to finally bring Castlevania to vibrant life in the third dimension.
Lords of Shadow offers up a massive adventure, and in a change of pace from its predecessors, the majority of the game steps outside of the series’ signature sprawling castles and takes the battle on the road, with Gabriel adventuring through a myriad of fantasy-themed outdoor locales. You battle through dank swamps, engage in perilous platforming along mountain paths, and raid crumbling tombs, each new area unleashing a vast menagerie of sharp-clawed critters culled from the classic sword-and-sorcery bestiary.

Along the way, Gabriel augments his arsenal with weapon upgrades and an evolving combo system, enhanced by a dizzying array of unlockable moves. While the action and platforming are evocative of the God of War series, Shadow often offers your pounding fingers pause by presenting some fiendish puzzles aimed at exercising the brain. Success in these sequences often results in extra experience points, which can be used to purchase additional combat moves.

It’s clear that MercurySteam was determined to avoid a repeat of past mistakes in this series, so they took pains to craft a winning three-dimensional entry. To that end, they’ve cribbed wholesale from some of the more prominent action classics of recent years. The narrative beats and action brawling are ripped from God of War, subbing Kratos’s Greek myths for Castlevania’s goth vibe. The deft platforming sequences – in which Gabriel finds himself scaling and scurrying massive heights – are on loan from the Uncharted and Prince of Persia series. And Shadow of the Colossus fans will find a series of familiar boss battles, including one sequence in which Gabriel must scale a massive Ice Titan to hit at weak points, and another in which he holds on for dear life as a dragon soars through the skies.

That said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and like last year’s thrilling Batman: Arkham Asylum, which also echoed a number of action classics, Lords of Shadow borrows from the best of them and then spins off on its own unique yarn. At this stage in gaming, new ideas are few and far between, so if a developer is going to offer their own take on something we’ve seen before, they need to add their own compelling hook to the familiar. MercurySteam knows this and has engineered some thrilling set-pieces, with a number of the boss battles looming large. Sure, I’ve taken down a colossus or two, but I still got a huge charge when I finally shattered that Ice Giant. This is a game littered with “pat your back” moments like that.

Purists might cry that this is not the Castlevania of their youths, that this is simply God of War under the Castlevania banner. I’m fine with that. In fact, the God of War series has crafted a winning blueprint for the modern action-platformer, and MercurySteam has done a great job in grabbing those plans and tinkering with them. This might not be the same castle-crawling adventure we’ve played for almost three decades, but a little evolution is not a bad thing. And it seems that, in tossing aside so many of the series tropes (not much candle whipping or hidden meats to be found here), they have found the key to making this series work in the new dimension.

Plus, the game looks gorgeous, with lush, vibrant, colorful outdoor environs that are such a welcome change of pace from the usual gunmetal grays and beiges we typically associate with Lord of the Rings-esque fantasies. The excellent character models and cut-scenes add support, and you can feel the Kojima Productions stamp on these presentation elements, which could indicate the influence they had in helping MercurySteam shepherd this game.

My only complaint is that it takes a few hours before it really grabs you, plunking you down into the action without much of a driving reason for why you are fighting these angry hordes. Eventually the story catches up, and once it does, you’re off on a grand adventure that spans close to 20 hours on the first playthrough, and offers great replayability through unlockable challenge trials.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow might start out as Castlevania in name, but eventually it finds its own identity and marks the beginning of a good parallel series for this venerable franchise. It might have been cobbled together from disparate parts, but there’s magic in this game design that beautifully brings all of these various elements together, engineered for prime enjoyment and buffed to a sheen. For those who just can’t get enough of the God of War style of play, Lords of Shadow offers a great challenge and is one of the year’s more thrilling adventures. It’s scary good.

[game 4.5]