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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania is a long and storied franchise.  Or so I’m told.  I’ll admit, I’ve never really played any of myriad of Castlevania games.  All I knew going in to Lords of Shadow is that Dracula is a bad dude and will generally need to be whipped back into undeath.  As it turns out, my lack of knowledge was probably a good thing.  Developer Mercury Stream has taken the Castlevania name and tradition, but basically rebooted the franchise.  This game isn’t considered canon to the rest of the series, which basically gave them a pretty blank slate as to the type and story of the game.  What they ended up with is a pretty sweet action game in the vein of God of War or Devil May Cry.  If you are a fan of such games and a fan of gothic style horror, Lords of Shadow is a must play.

I have to start with the bad in this case because the game does, sadly.  After an opening cinematic detailing the fact that the world is being slowly overrun by werewolves, vampires, and other nasty creatures, our hero shows up, one Gabriel Belmont.  Gabriel is part the Brotherhood of Light, which in case you couldn’t gather from their name, protect the innocent from just such thing as the aforementioned beasties.  So this is all well and good, Gabriel heroically stands pat as the village is suddenly attacked by werewolves.   Heroically, you swing your combat cross (cross that has a steel whip attached in a nice touch on the previous games’ tradition) at the invaders….who promptly run by you and off camera.  You can’t control the camera, so then your left staring at a beautiful foreground shot of the village, as werewolves attack you from the barely visible space behind.  This is the first impression I got, and it was not a good one. I’m surprised that this is the case though, because the rest of the game, while I did occasionally run into some camera issues, is remarkably free of such bothers.  My point in all this is that the first impression will probably turn you off, but the game very quickly makes it right and one should not discouraged by the first ten minutes of the game.

The opening fight against the camera....I mean werewolves, yeah, those guys.

The probable reason that the camera cannot be controlled becomes apparent almost as soon as the game moves out of the drab village.  Lords of Shadow is GORGEOUS.  The areas Gabriel travels through are insanely varied (Quite literally in some cases, as in some of the levels are bat shit crazy) and all look uniformly spectacular.  Swamps, castles, caves, plains, towns, ice and snow, fire and brimstone, scorched plateaus, fertile jungles, ruins, anything you can possibly imagine as a fantasy game setting is used here and used to great effect.  My jaw dropped as the narrow ice cave I was in opened up back into the world on a perfectly frozen lake.  Similar moments are found throughout the game and it is honestly worth a playthrough just on looks alone.  More importantly the level designs themselves are excellent.  The game is fairly linear, but many levels have a bit of a maze like feel to them, with multiple paths to reach the goal, although it is almost always worth exploring all available areas for extra power ups and goodies.

So I guess at this point I should address how the game actually plays, right?  The answer is: very very well.  The easiest game to compare it to is God of War in terms of controls.  Gabriel has two basic attacks ; one is a powerful but direct attack directed at a single foe, the other is a less powerful but sweeping movement of the combat cross, which hits multiple enemies at a time.  Combos and other moves are unlocked via experience points (and some equipment upgrades) as you play, and the system becomes fairly deep by the end of the game.  Throw in four secondary weapons (knives, holy water, fairies, crystals) that all have their uses and combat is a varied and smooth experience.  What sets it apart from the norm is the inclusion of the two-pronged magic system.  Gabriel has two magic meters, light and dark.  Light magic, represented by a blue gauge, will envelop Gabriel in a blue fire and cause his successful attacks to heal some of his life bar.  In addition, some normal combat moves have added effects when used with light magic active, ie a succesful counterattack not only stuns the enemy you perform it on, but Gabriel also unleashes a blinding flash of blue light that will blind all enemies around him as well.  Dark magic, the red bar, does the same kinds of things only in a more offensive way, with all attacks causing more damage as Gabriel is bathed in a reddish fire.  The real catch is that the way to replenish either meter is to collect orbs dropped by enemies, but those orbs only appear if you kill the enemy in a non magical state.  Also, orbs can either be assigned to all light, all dark, or split between both.  The result is combat where you’re constantly switching between light, dark, and no magic, which naturally varies strategies and makes combat a varied affair that never gets old.

Seriously, this game is a gothic fantasy lovers wet dream.

Another reason combat never gets old is the foes you will be facing.  Werewolves and vampires are here of course, but the different types of each really shine.  The first time a big ass bipedal werewolf attacks you is scary stuff!  On top of those traditional Castlevania foes though, you’ll find demons, ogres, animated suits of armor, plant life, trolls, and even corpses that remove their heads and chuck them at you.  The best of the bestiary though are the epic boss battles.  Lords of Shadow borrows heavily from Shadow of the Colossus for a couple early boss battles, but it really gives you a sense of what that game would have been like had it been on this generation of consoles instead of the PS2.  The more traditional boss battles are excellent as well and will test your pattern recognition and reaction time as epic battles should.

As I touched on earlier, the plot of Castlevania really doesn’t deal much with the other games in the series.  This is meant as a reboot and alternate version of the story, as if Harry Turtledove wrote the Castlevania series.  Sadly, the writing is nowhere near Turtledove level.  The actual plot, involving three “Lords of Shadow” who are responsible for cutting off Earth from heaven and the protection it provided (thus the growing number of monsters!) and Gabriel’s quest to solve the problem is actually pretty good.  The game isn’t afraid to deal with religion in a very straight forward matter, which I appreciate.  Sadly, while the plot is strong, the writing is terrible.  The voice cast is names you recognize (Robert Carlyle as Gabriel, Natasha McElhone as his wife, and Patrick Stewart as fellow Brotherhood of Light member Zobek, who also serves as the narrator) but they are not given much to work with.  Carlyle probably fares the best of the bunch as he delivers a solid performance with some standard material.  I have no idea what McElhone was paid to do this, but it had to have been the highest hourly wage she’s ever earned as she has maybe eight lines in the whole game.  But the real star of this affair is Patrick Stewart.  He has the most dialogue in the game by far as he narrates for the opening of each level, and he is so over the top that I could barely believe it.  Every possible fantasy cliché has been employed.  Whomever wrote this game had a thesaurus and old english dictionary handy and used the hell out of both.  I could just imagine Patrick Stewart in the recording booth, looking at the totally insane stuff he was supposed to read, and saying “Eh, screw it, I’m Patrick god damn Stewart, let’s have some fun!” and just going for broke.  As a serious narration this is not, but if you imagine Patrick ranting and raving and just having fun with it, it makes the dialogue fun in a super campy sort of way.  Props to you Patrick Stewart for not just reading it monotone and mailing it in.

AGGRO!!!!!!

For an action game, Lords of Shadow is long.  It comes on two discs, joining such traditional RPG’s as FF13 and Lost Odyssey, which is impressive.  The game probably took me about 20 hours to complete, but it has incredibly high replay value as well.  Each stage (the stages themselves are bite sized, with most taking no longer than 20 minutes to get through.  There are just ALOT of them) has a trial unlocked after completing it once, which tasks you to play the stage again but achieve a specific goal (don’t use light magic, for instance) within it.  These are fun and force you to play a bit differently than normal, with the usual achievement carrot at the end of a stick to nudge you along.  Throw in four difficulty levels and concept art you can spend excess experience points on and the game will keep you playing for much longer than something like God of War or Bayonetta.

Before wrapping up, I have to point out one thing ; the ending of Lords of Shadow is totally insane and really really interesting.  Mercury Stream has already confirmed they are working on a sequel and if the ending is any indication, it could be a VASTLY different game than this one.  I’m very excited to see what they do.  No spoilers, but the ending reminds me of the time Tophat and I finished Kingdom Hearts at like 3 AM in my basement.  The whole game had been a happy-go-lucky affair with Donald and Goofy, but the ending was like freaking The Matrix with keyblades and scary heartless monsters.  I just sat on my couch saying “What the hell” while Tophat hid BEHIND the couch and said he was scared and wasn’t going to be able to sleep.  The fact that Lords of Shadow inspired the same kind of reaction is a good thing.

Patrick Stewart sporting the same facial hair as his character, Zobek. The dude is dedicated.

If you’re a fan of action games, do not let Castlevania slip by you.  It has some of the best vistas and level design I’ve ever seen in a game to go with some very smooth combat.  It’s also easily worth the money given the enormous length of the game (insert own joke here).  And really, who doesn’t want to hear Patrick Stewart ranting and raving totally incomprehensible fantasy babble?

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