Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a game that finds itself in an interesting position. It attempts to simultaneously bring Konami’s storied vampire-killing series successfully into the third dimension – where previous attempts have largely failed – and to reboot the increasingly convoluted story of the Belmont clan and their feud with Dracula. As with all reboots, fans of the series have been worried that Lords of Shadow might lose a bit of what makes Castlevania feel like Castlevania in its haste to take notes from games like God of War. Others claim that change is a good thing, and that this is merely a harkening back to Castlevania‘s true action-game roots.
Well, they’re both right, kind of.
Like prior Castlevania games, Lords of Shadow stars a Belmont. It’s just not a Belmont who we’ve ever heard of, and it’s not a Belmont who has anything to do with the entire rest of the Castlevania franchise. It’s just some guy named Gabriel Belmont, a warrior of the holy Brotherhood of Light, who is on a mission to help defeat the darkness covering the world, cutting it off from God. To do so, he has to defeat the three evil Lords of Shadow – and while he’s at it, he might as well reconstruct the mythical god-mask that will let him resurrect his dead wife, murdered thanks to the Lords of Shadows’ machinations.
If you think that sounds like a fairly generic story, you’d be right. It’s fitting, because initially, Lords of Shadow simply feels like a fairly generic game. Gabriel’s weapon of choice is the Combat Cross – a giant chain concealed in a crucifix-shaped hilt – and the core gameplay feels all but indistinguishable from games like God of War or Devil May Cry. You have hard single-target attacks, weaker group attacks and a throw, and can use them together to create combos. It’s gory and action-packed, but the base combat doesn’t feel like anything we haven’t seen before.
Battles occasionally boil down into quicktime events, and while Lords of Shadow does have the common “mash this button repeatedly” type, it also has a rather-appreciated take on the well-worn concept: Rather than requiring a specific button press, the game asks you to press any button with a specific timing. It’s a small change, but it means you can be watching the action on-screen without waiting to see which arbitrary input the game will make you do next.
Combat starts to get interesting when you acquire your different types of magic. Light magic will empower your attacks to regenerate your health, while Shadow magic will make all of your attacks significantly more devastating – but the same resource is used to recharge both of your pools, forcing players to make choices on the fly. Light magic tends to be the more useful, because you will almost certainly find yourself dying often.
Though the bulk of your deaths will likely happen in combat, Lords of Shadow‘s platforming sections occasionally take a sharp turn into the “wicked” territory as Gabriel acquires more and more abilities to let him traverse areas – from a grappling hook on his Combat Cross to enchanted shoulders that let him jump twice. It is occasionally put to the test in the Titan battles, which are more than a little reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus – but they’re also much more boring and repetitious than the Colossus battles.
While there isn’t quite as much exploration in this game as in past Castlevania titles using the “Metroidvania” formula, Lords of Shadow definitely encourages players to return to previous levels with their shiny new toys to acquire secrets and upgrades that had been inaccessible before, which does feel like a nod to past entries in the series.
Beyond platforming and combat, the third obstacle in Lords of Shadow is the game’s love for puzzles. While there are some brilliant standouts, like a jaunt through a magical music box where the player must arrange the notes to a classic Castlevania theme or a match of pseudo-chess, for the most part the puzzles involve unlocking particular doors – or are wrapped into the platforming. That said, they do break up the pace nicely and the game thankfully gives puzzle-hating gamers a chance to automatically figure out the solution (at the expense of some ability-purchasing experience).
Fans of the series may have mixed reactions to Lords of Shadow. While the game does occasionally name-drop people and places from Castlevania games past, it takes a while to capture the Castlevania feel. The first few chapters feel almost Tolkienian at times, with lush forests and ancient, dilapidated ruins. Though these genuinely stunning vistas are hardly a bad thing, it isn’t until the middle section of the game – with Gabriel fighting vampires in a huge Gothic castle – that Lords of Shadow starts to feel like anything beyond a generic action game.
Strangely, Lords of Shadow ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. The combat works well most of the time, the platforming is competent (and the scenery truly breathtaking), and some of the puzzles are rather clever. The story is somewhat engaging, though the writing is hilariously overwrought at times and the voice acting rather uneven, with Gabriel and his dead wife Marie sadly two of the weak links in the chain. All the pieces are there for a genuinely great game.
Unfortunately, the game ends up feeling more like a “jack of all trades, master of none,” by virtue of the very games it takes its cues from. The Titan fights are cool, but Shadow of the Colossus does them better. The combat is good, but not as good as God of War or Bayonetta, and the platforming echoes Prince of Persia without being as good as Prince of Persia. It’s certainly fun and a solid fifteen-twenty hours of well-done action, but it’s a game that always seems like there’s something holding it back from glory – and that’s a true shame.
Bottom Line: While it takes some time to find its own identity, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a solid Gothic action game that is competent in all areas – but never outstanding in any of them. There are occasional moments of brilliance, but they are few and far between. It’s never really bad (except for the Titan’s Graveyard level), but it’s never really great, either. That said, it looks really, really nice.
Recommendation: Action fans and Castlevania fans will probably enjoy the game for its fifteen-twenty hours. Otherwise, give it a shot – or rent it – if you’re in the mood for something thoroughly good, but never really spectacular.[rating=4]
This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
John Funk is still kind of pissed they didn’t have any of the Castlevania classic tunes. Well, except for the one.