November 18, 2010

Review – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , — Brad Johnson @ 8:22 pm

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
I’m riding on the back of a long-dead dragon, the size of a skyscraper, animated through dark necromancy and thundering through the sky. I’m clawing my way up the massive spine, balancing precariously when it rears its head and tries to shake me loose. I slip, and pull the right trigger just in time to jam my ridiculous crucifix-weapon into the bone and save myself from the fall—and this is about the time when it hits me just how much I like this game.

This is the last of three titanic boss encounters in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow; battles that have seen me scaling massive creatures in elaborate platforming puzzles. Like many elements of this game, this may draw comparisons to the defining hack-and-slasher, God of War, and these aren’t unwarranted. Castlevania, when considered piece by piece, is a wholly derivative affair, but as happens so rarely, it manages to provide a unique and worthy experience all the same.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

From top to bottom, Castlevania is supported by incredible art design; even the menus look great.

Ostensibly, Lords of Shadow is about the quest of Gabriel Belmont to destroy the evil Lords of Shadow, who have separated Earth from God’s influence, and restore the life of his lost wife. In reality, Lords of Shadow is actually about killing waves of monsters with an ornate crucifix housing an impossibly long chain-whip, platforming across the beautiful and eerie world (and underworld), and challenging immense god-monsters and titans. Requiring two discs (on the 360) to house the surprisingly lengthy campaign and the heavy use of cutscenes, Lords of Shadow is story-intensive for a hack-and-slash game, highlighted by superb voice acting, but unfortunately undercut by weak scripting.

The adventure of our hero, Gabriel, is narrated by the authoritative voice of Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, who will, in his monologues, often tell you about how Gabriel is feeling and, indeed, about the gravity of his situation, because the unfortunate reality is that you probably wouldn’t pick this up on your own. There’s a great deal of talk about how Gabriel is descending into darkness, what with the abyss staring back, but besides these monologues there’s little indication of any such narrative, and, indeed, it’s hard to feel that Gabriel might be doing something dark and sinister by wiping out wholly evil creatures. While the charm of having Patrick Stewart open each chapter with a reading is hard to resist, the story he tells and the lore of the world rarely appear as part of the game itself, certainly never to inform the gameplay, and instead are relegated to cutscenes and character biographies.

Fortunately, while it’s easy to stop caring about the narrative early on, your attention is sure to be piqued by the exceptional art design, well-realized through an efficient engine that never slows or sputters, and renders the landscape with impressive detail. Lords of Shadow will take players on an elaborate tour of dark fantasy and horror, featuring werewolves, zombies, vampires, and even Frankenstein monsters, and it does so with impressive seamlessness. You’ll see ornate, electrified clockwork mechanisms in the former laboratories of Frankenstein himself, and a rotting, teetering old witch’s cabin in a dead forest, and it will always feel as if, yes, these things belong here, in this world, together. Besides Gabriel’s oddly small head mounted atop a dinosaur neck, Castlevania is a visually standout effort, very nearly ripped from the mind of Guillermo del Toro.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

It would be dishonest not to mention the debt Lords of Shadow owes to God of War.

This visual flair is well complimented by a strong orchestral score that will accompany you at all times, encouraging players to appreciate the scale of the events in which they are entwined, and most helpful in punching up the combat sequences—which is especially fortunate, as combat is the bulk of the experience.

The fighting mechanic exists, in terms of complexity, somewhere between the straightforward God of War and the infinitely nuanced Devil May Cry. This perhaps occupies the butter zone, where one is afforded a more involved experience than provided by God of War, without being subjected to the Devil May Cry demand for brutal Japanese precision. Though there are certainly advanced techniques many will simply not be dexterous enough to employ, the mechanic strikes a delicate balance between accessibility and depth.

The mechanic that most obviously distinguishes this system from other titles is that of light and shadow magic, where defeating enemies yields orbs that can be converted to fill either meter. When activated, striking your enemies with light magic will restore your health, while shadow magic will increase damage—and each state offers distinct combat opportunities, should you spend your experience accordingly. Further complicating matters, in order to increase the number of magic orbs dropped by enemies, the player must first fill the focus meter by defeating enemies using varied attacks without taking damage. This adds a strategic element to combat, where the player must constantly be aware of four separate gauges—health, light magic, shadow magic, and focus—and plan attacks accordingly. The impetus becomes to walk away from each skirmish with greater resources than you had walking into it, and this serves to make combat uniquely challenging and thrilling.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

The combat starts small, but you’re likely to feel like a DragonBall Z character when the final boss rolls around.

A critical block and counter maneuver, alongside a novel approach to the quicktime event (where the button you press doesn’t matter, so long as you press it at the right time), and a handful of other small innovations result in a combat system that is well above the standard. An entire catalog of useful upgrades will ensure your fighting style continues to evolve and remain engaging for the entirety of the lengthy campaign, and the ability to revisit previous chapters to amass even more experience means it’s easy to return to a difficult challenge renewed with new skills.

A wealth of varied enemy types provide encouragement to explore different approaches to combat, and manage to keep you thinking for the bulk of the experience. However, because enemy attacks are not disrupted by your own blows, and some enemy attacks are unblockable, your fate will sometimes be determined by the roll of the die. While unblockable attacks are telegraphed by a bright glow, these can become impossible to spot in the flaming whirlwind of combat, and with so many enemies unimpeded by your attacks, it can be a little too easy to be derailed by enemy blows. While this can lead to frustration—especially in boss battles—any challenge can eventually be surmounted with the sufficient application of strategy.

Breaking up the action are a wealth of platforming sequences which, while less elaborate than those provided by a dedicated platformer like Prince of Persia, are sharply designed and entertaining to play out. Also present are a selection of puzzles, most of which manage to offer just enough challenge without becoming frustrating. Each such puzzle is unique and requires unique thinking, but for those who prefer to get back to the slaughter of underworld deviants, the game always offers to unlock the solution for you, if you wish to forfeit the XP reward. This is perhaps not the best policy, as some of the more memorable moments come from overcoming the more clever puzzles.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

A handful of upgrades for the combat cross will improve your ability to interact with the environment, and grant you the ability to ride certain larger enemies.

However, there are some moments where puzzling and platforming are simply not compatible with Gabriel’s abilities, nor well communicated by the game design. Certain puzzles require extremely delicate maneuvers that the player character has not been designed to perform, while other instances may leave you hopelessly clueless as to how to proceed. The fixed camera aggravates these problems, sometimes sabotaging your movements or hiding important details from your view.

Exploration is critical, as many stages have alternate paths that—while brief—can yield important rewards if explored. The bodies of others set upon this quest litter the ground everywhere you go, offering upgrades and a series of darkly humorous journals, where the Knights explain their woeful inability to solve puzzles, but their unique aptitude for becoming trapped and starving to death. Fortunately, missing items can always be retrieved by revisiting chapters, so the knowledge that you may have missed something important won’t hound you as you move on.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, taking as much as it does from similar titles, is a game that could have easily gone very wrong, very quickly. Instead, sharp gameplay design and tremendous production values surmount the borrowed mechanics and weak narrative to create a strong and surprisingly memorable experience well worth exploring, and worthy of developing further in the sequel suggested by the hilariously awesome closing cutscene (and sorry, I’m not going to spoil it).

MercurySteam Entertainment, Kojima Productions


PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Xbox 360 Reviewed)


Release Date
October 5, 2010

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review


  1. I have the CE for PS3 but haven’t played it yet since I still have some “bought in 2009” I need to finish before it’s turn comes up.

    Great review Brad.

    Comment by EdEN — November 19, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  2. I haven’t played this game yet, but I know I want to because of all the Super Castlevania IV influence that’s in this game alone, and I loved SCIV.

    Quite an unexpected, but pleasant surprise from a 3D Castlevania title.

    Comment by Celeph — November 20, 2010 @ 3:30 am

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