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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (360) Review

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Where’s The Castlevania:

The Castlevania series has some gone through many ups and downs over it vast history.  But if you analyze the history of the series, it isn’t hard to realize that the 2D games are much more successful than the 3D installments.  It is kind of funny, however, that Lords of Shadow is the best 3D Castlevania but it actually has the least amount of Castlevania flowing through its bloodstream. 

Created in high definition for current gen consoles, Lords of Shadows is a 3D action game that is actually composed of major elements from other games in the genre.  By taking the combat of God of War, the epic scenery of PS2’s Rygar, the boss battles of Shadow of the Colossus, and the platforming of Prince of Persia, the developers at Mercury Steam added ghouls, wargs, and vampires and dubbed it a Castlevania game.  The Metroid-Vania style of backtracking and leveling up is replaced with a linear romp focused on combat. 

Straying from the Castlevania roots isn’t all bad.  The game’s environments look gorgeous and the musical score along with the voice acting also play a stellar role.  Sir Patrick Steward proves his professionalism in the thespian arts with an unequaled performance as the mysterious Zobek while Robert Carlyle, the voice of Gabriel, uses the quiet-but-powerful character to his advantage.

Lords of Shadow has a heavy emphasis on combat.  Instead of using blades chained to his arms, Gabriel uses the Combat Cross.  With an extendable and hidden chain, this weapon acts like a whip but will eventually be upgraded with additional abilities like spikes to shred through solid objects and a stake to pierce the hearts of evil creatures.

To prevent combat from being cookie-cutter, the player has the ability to infuse the Combat Cross with both light and dark magic through the use of the shoulder buttons.  This opens up the opportunity for unique combos and other special moves.  But in order to balance out this magic system, the player first needs to be successful in combat. 

In order to fill your magic meters, you need to either kill an enemy in a different way, like stabbing an enemy through the chest with your stake instead of simply button mashing, or by blocking at the exact moment of an attack.  If successful, golden glowing orbs will float above the dissolving corpses of your enemies and can fill magic meters by clicking and holding the analog stick.  While it sounds like this system is balanced, as it rewards flawless and unique combat, it often acts as a tease in regards to how the player can be dispatching enemies.  You see, even if you do manage to fill the tiny magic meter, it will slowly fade even if it is not used.  This use-it-or-lose it magic system might not be so bad if it didn’t fade so quickly.  A full magic meter can literally disappear in mere seconds which renders the magic system with high maintenance.  It is kind of frustrating to dispatch a bunch of enemies just to kill other enemies a little easier.  Often by the time you fill your meter, the enemies have stopped spawning and you are left with unused magic.

Besides the awkward magic system, the health system is also a little different.  In order to recover health, the player has to activate the light magic and successfully attack enemies.  This will cause damage to your foes and also allow the player to regain small amounts of health.  But if you think about, you have to be in combat to regain health so if you are low on health to begin with, you could easily parish from the first attack of the first enemy you see.  This system never allows the player to properly prepare for battle ahead of time; you can only hope to maintain a higher level of health if successful in combat.  Combined with the ever-decreasing magic system, the player could have a tough time with the difficulty especially on the earlier stages when your energy and magic meters have not been upgraded and the game’s learning curve has yet to be mastered. 

Luckily, if the player meets an untimely death, checkpoints are never that far behind.  Unfortunately, each time the player begins anew, the health meter is only filled half way.  It is like the game never wants the player to properly prepare for a future battle.  Health recovery items are also non-existent.  And why do I have to hit the “restart” button twice in order to continue?

The temperamental combat system will take some time to learn but will become accustomed to the player as time goes on and as health and magic upgrades are unlocked.  However, the game has some unfortunately camera and navigational issues that have no excuse in this gaming age.   Like God of War, the camera angles are fixed and often give the player the proper view of the environment.  Unfortunately, this system suffers when the player backtracks as the camera does not move ahead of the player.  This also means that enemies can attack from off screen, providing them with an unfair advantage. There is also no option to view the environment in a first person perspective which is a shame because the game has been created with detail.  This also prevents the player from exploring these great environments. Weather effects, lighting, draw distance – they all look great.  Too bad they cannot be admired to the fullest.

The only other major flaw with this game is the lack of direction, both on a large and small scale.  Sure, if you access the menu you can see an overall general map which really acts more like a tool for the narrative than anything.  There is no mini map, radar or waypoints.  Because some stages have multiple paths, it would have been beneficial to be able to somehow track progress.  But a lack of map is excusable because the player should be able to eventually find the way.  What isn’t excusable, however, is the lack of direction when navigating specific pathways like when scaling walls.  In games like God of War or Prince of Persia, each climbable ledge is always clearly indicated with a glow or the character will animate towards it.  This is not the case in Lords of Shadow.  I fell to my death more times than I can count from what should have been the simplest of tasks.  That ledge on the other side of a gap looks like the next logical place to jump, but in reality, the game wants you to jump down one more level then shimmy across to the other side.  Why?  Why couldn’t the game indicate this?  Why is the simplest of tasks the most tedious?  Besides combat, simple platforming could be the most frustrating aspect of this game and truly stands out as a canker sore on a pretty face. 

The game has its flaws but it has also plenty of highlighting moments.  Taming, riding, and strangling wild beasts is a pretty cool feature.  Replaying levels with a specific task isn’t standard Metroid-Vania style of level progression but does provide challenging replay value.  The story starts off with the typical hero looking for revenge, has some pacing issues in the middle, but it gets better as time goes on.  And this is actually quite a long game.  It should take around 20 hours to complete the quest as opposed to the usual 10-12. 

By itself, Lords of Shadow isn’t a bad game.  But as a Castlevania title, fans might be disheartened to learn that there isn’t much Castlevania here.  Sure, it might be the best 3D installment in the series but the 2D Castlevanias are still the highlight.  There are a few rough edges in the overall game design, but there is still a fair amount of entertainment to be had with Lords of Shadow.

Not As Good As: Aria of Sorrow

Also Try: Rygar (the Wii remake)

Wait For It: Castlevania 3DS

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