Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a surprise. A sumptuous, vicious, meaty, gorgeous surprise which immediately reminds one of God of War - not simply because it cribs a great deal of its playbook from Sony's storied franchise - so I'll often compare the two, here.
When David Jaffe pitched the first God of War title to execs way back when, he was told there was nothing innovative about it at all - to which he replied
"I don't care about innovation. I care about fun. I think we can execute this better than anybody."Like Sony Santa Monica, Spanish developer MercurySteam took what others had done before and set to the task of realizing it spectacularly well. They haven't refined anything. They haven't iterated or evolved any mechanics - they've just done their damnedest to polish everything to a mirror shine - and they almost entirely succeeded.
Take the music, for example. Oscar Araujo has crafted one of the finest scores of 2010, rivaling the trembling emotional strings ably plucked by Gary Schyman in BioShock 2. The game's overall presentation is absolutely remarkable for a multi-platform endeavor - particularly as an entry in the adventure/brawler genre. The writing is lean and sharp (up until the lengthy final cutscene), and the story - narrated during loading screens by Patrick Stewart - is just as engaging and affecting as the God of War standard.
How on earth did they convince Stewart and Robert Carlyle (Belmont) to lend their talents to this? Whatever it cost, it was more than worth it. There are no weak links among the cast, but Stewart and Carlyle in particular imbue the entire proceedings with their worthy, human gravitas that draws the player in and invests us in this world - and the world is gorgeous.
Throughout its twenty-hour duration, Lords of Shadow never, ever repeats itself in setting. You'll slog your way through a fetid swamp one moment before coming to a place that seems an explosion of life, and subsequently navigate the ruins of an ancient civilization.
Lords of Shadow's most stunning achievement are its environments. They are graphically and, more than anything, artistically sublime. Each and every level seems to sing with gothic, gorgeous, vibrant inspiration. It's very unusual, to view a vista and feel so little disconnect from the concept artist who imagined it - as if we're not seeing a sunset or structure as translated and limited by technology, but as it was originally intended. As it was first seen by artists with fever-dreams of looming castles, ancient forests and forgotten places.
It's beautiful. Familiar, in terms of style, with our collective understanding of gothic fantasy, but still thrilling. Still gripping and engaging and inspiring us to push forward, and see what sights lay in wait beyond the next monologue from Sir Patrick Stewart.
Character designs are likewise very strong - particularly on the part of protagonist Gabriel Belmont. A troubled but soft-spoken man of God, his gentle eyes do not betray the savagery he is capable of. Like God of War's Kratos, he is a tireless, vicious creature - a giant who stands a head taller than every other mortal man - but after playing the title for a while, you come to understand that, unlike Kratos, he is not the spectacle we focus on.
The classic, familiar enemy designs do not initially impress on the same level as the environments, but it quickly becomes apparent that the monsters are the real stars of the show. As with the old 2-D Castlevanias, a great deal of the draw of the title comes from confronting and defeating storybook villains. Vampires and werewolves and witches, oh my!
There's something more satisfying about defeating them than the cannon fodder that populate other brawlers - something righteous. About staking a vampire, I mean. So long have the fantasy nightmare creatures on display here permeated the popular consciousness that it feels very right and almost wholesome to dispatch them.
Thankfully, the combat is up to snuff. While it doesn't approach the remarkable depth of more focused titles (Bayonetta, Devil May Cry), it ably matches Sony's gold standard. Gabriel's chain whip - the "Combat Cross" - allows for the same direct/area attack strategies that Kratos employs, and the mechanics have been streamlined here and there to allow similar accessibility and satisfaction.
While Lords of Shadow's combat is the front-and-center entree, you'll spend a great deal of your time navigating its wonderful environments. In terms of mechanics it is perfectly serviceable, here, but this is where the game begins to falter, in terms of design.
While I love that the title rewards - and often demands - exploration and recalls the heyday of its franchise in doing so, Lords of Shadow is not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to telegraphing potential routs to the player. Many of the game's more frustrating moments are a result of having absolutely no idea where - or what - you're supposed to do next. Perhaps this is an intentional nod to its roots, but it's still a frustration that mars the game's otherwise excellent pacing.
It doesn't help that the answer is often a mechanic you were told about four hours ago, and haven't had to use since - or one that was never explained at all. MercurySteam simply isn't very practiced at introducing and successfully layering mechanics as the game progresses.
Without question, the worst parts of the title are the occasional battles with titans. It's commendable that they tried to pursue the spectacle of Shadow of the Colossus, but these represent a shocking failure of design.
The player is expected to instantly grasp mechanics the game doesn't introduce, and each encounter with one of these (visually thrilling) behemoths is the gameplay equivalent of bashing your head into a wall until one of the two suffers a structural failure. Once understood, they reveal themselves to be rather scripted affairs - their only saving grace being a generous checkpoint feature that remembers how much of their health you've bashed away after a restart.
I am, frankly, stunned by Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It is 2010's Arkham Asylum - a new game from a property we'd all but given up hope on that blows the lid off our expectations. It's a far cry from perfect, thanks to some amateurish design in a few key spots, but this doesn't tarnish the lasting impression the title leaves.
When I think of Lords of Shadow, it is precisely what one should think of when presented with an action-adventure game. It is a game of soaring dreamscapes. Of blazing, beautiful fantasy. Of love and violence and the terrible weakness that hides in the hearts of men.
It's gorgeous. I think I'll go start up a new game.
-technically accomplished and visually thrilling
-an exceptionally good soundtrack
-the narrative is well above par, and engaging
-tight, tactile, satisfying combat - the whip works
-responsive, comfortable platforming
-incredible environments and encouraged exploration
-great boss fights
-Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle!
-kill werewolves with silver and stake vampires
-you get to carry a little container of fairies with you to send at enemies, and they're all "ooh, fairies!" and then you beat the crap out of them
-the stunner of an ending leaves you desperate for a sequel
-riding larger enemies feels like a forced bullet-point
-those titan battles are significantly awful
-navigation is sometimes a real hassle
-there's this one crank that was clearly never playtested and will drive you nuts
A thrilling, inspiring, gothic, romantic adventure with a few nits to pick. Buy it.