Castlevania is a series that I’ve only dabbled in, struggling to remember anything genius or even interesting about it to convey. I certainly missed the boat – as my peers consistently remind me of – but returning to the older games just doesn’t appeal to me; the lack of nostalgia to attract is surely of great cause for such reluctance. As a result I can’t make an accurate judgement as to how Lords of Shadow fares in terms of respecting the franchise. What I will do though is review Castlevania: Lords of Shadow a separate entity, void of any comparison with what I recognize as a much beloved franchise. For some this may disappoint, but if this is your first real venture into the series – as it is mine- read on.
The premise of Lords of Shadow is shallow and makes little sense: As Gabriel Belmont – member of the Brotherhood of Light – your murdered wife’s is trapped in limbo. As she is neither dead nor alive, she can somehow envisage the end of the world; it’s Gabriel’s destiny to obtain a mask which will cleanse the world and resurrect his wife. I’d like to say the narrative is more complex and involving than this, but other than some faintly interesting character encounters which help provide some context; the plot is hardly compelling and throwaway for the most part.
What spares Lords of Shadow from absolute anonymity are stellar performances from Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle. With a forgettable script, both actors do a remarkable job of grabbing your attention and keeping the player engaged enough to progress. Without such compelling voice-overs, the narrative for Lords of Shadow would be entirely redundant.
Lords of Shadow is far removed from the series’ staple setup of 2-D side scrolling, instead opting for a 3-D hack and slash direction. As one might expect from such a shift, Lords of Shadow feels all too familiar. It plays like God of War with some locational overtones akin to Devil May Cry, mainly the gothic inspired architecture, though less ‘comic book’ in presentation. Thankfully however Lords of Shadow’s combat provides just enough complexity to be worth mastering, whilst offering accessibility to engage a larger audience. The question for the player of course is whether they are ‘over’ this type of combat, perhaps looking for something more elaborate and fresh. If you’ve grown jaded or are simply uninterested with this tried and trusted formula, Lords of Shadow will do nothing to convert you. If however you’re still fully invested in Kratos’ School of Hurt, Lords of Shadow emulates it to a tee and will satiate.
If Lords of Shadow was to be described in one word, it would be derivative, as nearly every aspect or design has been ‘inspired’ by successful forebears. The one sui generis aspect the game does have however is the player controlled switching between shadow and light magic. Use light and you increase damage to your foes, use shadow and you are capable of replenishing your health with each kill. It’s nothing revolutionary admittedly, but it provides a twist to combat scenarios that can ebb and flow at the player’s discretion. These capabilities aren’t limitless, requiring a string of combos to refill your magic, but they certainly incentivise the player to master the Gabriel’s abilities.
Where Lords of Shadow takes the imitation perhaps too far is in the level design. Sure you’re treated to some sumptuous vistas and ‘encouraged’ to preoccupy yourself with the highly detailed environments you traverse during some down time, but a fixed camera is now old hat; a relic of level design which is rarely done well enough to justify for today. A fixed camera may bring out the giddy nostalgia in all of us, but it’s at best functional in Lords of Shadow; at worst infuriating. The biggest ballache is the traversal, which can either feel automatic and thus unnecessary, or too intricate to be tolerable. When the camera doesn’t allow for free movement, the delicate moments of tight-roping or making that necessary leap when restricted can often be an exercise in frustration, destroying much of the intended oscillation necessary to keep the narrative cohesive and entertaining. Lords of Shadow in certain areas relies too heavily on traversal and lacklustre puzzles. At around 15 hours it feels too thinly spread at times; it would offer a much more wholesome experience should several hours and numerous monotonous key-chasing/puzzle moments be exiled.
The inconsistencies are never more apparent than in the frequent bosses you encounter. The first few are merely Shadow of the Colossus rip-offs minus the charm or challenge the PS2 classic excelled in. Lords of Shadow is unable to replicate these demands, making for initially some boring and characterless engagements. Survive, or rather endure these however and Lords of Shadow begins to show a more enchanting and strategic side to it, forcing the player to adapt and learn every skill in their arsenal. What starts out as ‘going through the motions’ suddenly becomes a game of cat-and-mouse in which your ability to switch between evasion and aggression is severely tested.
Lords of Shadow was an excellent looking game on console, and the transition to the PC seems to have gone extremely smoothly. With detailed textures, good character modelling and vibrant environments, Lords of Shadow goes beyond the console limitations and is a truly beautiful game at 1080p. It may lack the latest DX11 technology, but excellent art direction and a solid graphics engine offer up a surprisingly good looking PC conversion. Add to this 60fps of butter-smooth animations and gameplay, the PC iteration is certainly the one to get should you have the luxury of choice.
What is even more impressive is the hardware required to run the game, or lack thereof. At maximum details a humble Radeon 7770 can easily provide a locked 60fps experience at 1080p, with anything else being overkill, quite frankly. Any half decent graphics card such as a 5830 or GTX460 768mb from 2-3 generations ago should max this game without issue. The blend of great visuals and a highly accessible hardware entry level is a welcome combination.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a fun and accessible game, even if it is nothing more than a Devil May Cry/God of War. It’s hard to complain about such blatant imitation when the combat is as gratifying as it is, but what can be criticized however is the inane game design. The latest Devil May Cry from Ninja Theory proved that player controlled camera can be done for hack and slash games, freeing the player from the pomposity of a developers’ need to create ‘tension’ or fixate on the ill-omened horizon. Lords of Shadow feels and plays like a game from 2003, and in that respect it’s a disappointment. Choose to accept or embrace the antiquated design however and this latest iteration of the Castlevania series is compelling in an equally attractive and vulgar package.