Written by Jason Trent Friday, 19 November 2010 05:00
3D Castlevania games have always been the black sheep of the family. When most of us think of Castlevania, our minds immediately go to Symphony of the Night or Castlevania IV, and so we've come to expect similar experiences from our Castlevania games. Many fans of the series were taken by surprise when they learned that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow would again take the franchise into the third dimension, and this skepticism continues even after the game's release. Though Lords of Shadow may not be what many would consider a traditional Castlevania experience, it's a game that's incredibly successful on its own merits.
It's hard to discuss Castlevania: Lords of Shadow without talking about the God of War series. Castlevania includes many of the same things that fans of God of War enjoy, namely huge set pieces, massive boss fights, and brutal action; but it largely improves on these things in many ways. Combat is fast, unforgiving, and technical. Replacing the traditional whip from earlier Castlevania games, your character, Gabriel Belmont, wields a cross that contains an extendable chain used to grapple and pummel enemies. Eventually, both light and shadow magic is introduced, which is when combat moves from the norm to something else entirely.
Defeating enemies, landing consecutive attacks without being hit, and parrying all result in orbs being dropped. From there, you can decide to put these orbs into your light or shadow magic reserves, which leads to a struggle of balance as you try to find the perfect combination of magic to compliment your play style. Using shadow magic causes extra damage being dealt, while using light magic recovers life, so you'll have to be quick on your toes and know enemies' attack patterns to survive. Magic also changes how certain items work, for example, using shadow magic while throwing a daggar will make the dagger catch on fire and deal more damage. Using holy water with light magic grants you a shield, which can help asorb damage. There are many combinations to discover. Being smart in combat rewards the player with a steady stream of magic which is a must in the game's later levels.
The game may be difficult, but it's not cheap. Combat is further customized by granting experience points for each enemy you defeat, and using these points you'll unlock new abilities, which cater to different play styles. Should you run out of abilities to purchase, you can then pony up your points towards the game's many extras. As is the case with many third person action games, you'll also find pickups to increase health and magic throughout the game, traditionally hidden in the more offbeat parts of each level.
There are many reasons to return to Castlevania once the main quest is complete. Areas once inaccessible are now available with new abilities and there are a lot of extra pickups to search for.
Though Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a 3D game, the progression through the game is quite linear. Most levels involve going from point to point, from battle to battle, and from puzzle to puzzle. You're never weighed down with wondering where to go next, or what to do, and the pacing of the game's levels is done very well, with nary a dull moment to be had.
As is has always been the case with Castlevania games, Lords of Shadow not only features combat, but it also challenges the player with platforming segments. The game has a lot of them, but they're always accompanied by breath taking spectacles of scenery and action. A couple of levels are actually giant boss fights in which you'll fight a handful of titans, which combine platforming elements with action that is much like Shadow of the Colossus. They're truly a site to behold.
If I have one negative thing to say about the Lords of Shadow experience, it's the game's puzzles. They're too often far too obtuse and obscure for their own good and lead to frustration instead of fun. I was able to get through all puzzles without help with only one exception: a puzzle focusing on a time and date riddle with a main clue being a Zodiac sign. I had to look that one up as I had no idea what the symbol I was looking at meant. I should be able to use information in the game to solve its puzzles, but this wasn't the case. There were some clever puzzles that were fun, but unfortunately they were the exception to the rule.
From a technical perspective, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow excels. Graphics are extremely detailed, with especially great care put into the variety of environments. Though there is an issue with slowdown throughout a good chunk of the game, I never found it to be distracting, and felt that everything else more than made up for this shortcoming. The audio too is done great. This game has a fantastic soundtrack, one that fits the mood of the game perfectly and works to create a feeling of excitement and peril.
The story is probably where some of the greatest departures from the series lie. First of all, you're not tasked with killing Dracula. Your character does have the last name of Belmont, but that's pretty much the only ties to the stories previously told. The story is one of revenge: Gabriel sets out to avenge his wife's death as well as stop the evil from overcoming the world. It's a pretty standard story, and not the game's strongest point, but I will say this: Dracula does show up and does so in a great and unexpected way. The ending of the game left me craving the next entry in this rebooted series, and will almost certainly make you feel the same way. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a top-notch third person action game that all hard-core gamers need to check out. Forget what you already know about Castlevania and embrace the changes that succeed on nearly every level. You'll be hard pressed to find a better game this holiday season, and considering that it's easily a 15+ hour experience, you'll get plenty of content for your dollar.
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