Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Castlevania has always been a series that resonates well with me, and I’ve always been a fan of these haunting adventures. I remember being OBSESSED with the Nintendo game Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest when I was no more than 5 years old. My aunt once owned a movie and video game rental store inside of our local theater, and when she babysat for me and my little brother she would bring games for us to play on her Nintendo system.

Castlevania II Simon's Quest cover box artCastlevania II: Simon’s Quest was one of the first games I ever played.

In retrospect, Simon’s Quest was an unforgiving piece of shit that has been made infamous by The Angry Video Game Nerd and his lesser copycats, but as a young kid I just loved the pure adventurous spirit of of the game combined with the thrill of killing skeletons, werewolves, vampire bats, and all sorts of horror movie monsters. Shortly after, my aunt sold her business and I was deprived of my yearning for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, until my grandmother purchased my very first video game: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. I was disappointed that it wasn’t Simon’s Quest… until I played it and realized that while it still had the epic sense of adventure, the game was infinitely BETTER than its predecessor.

Castlevania III Dracula's Curse cover box artMy first video game ever: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

I still have fond memories of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, and I do play it from time-to-time, but the thrill of the early Castlevania games is the standard by which I judge all other entries into the franchise.

I never did get a chance to play Super Castlevania IV as a kid because I only saw it in a store maybe twice, and each time I had already splurged my meager allowance money on a different game.

Castlevania 64 Cover artCastlevania 64. Probably the first Castlevania game that I realized was a mixed bag.

Years passed and Castlevania made a leap into 3D with Castlevania 64. My best friend in Junior High had a copy and he and I took turns playing it for nearly an entire day. While the camera sucked, and the controls were difficult to manage (especially platform jumping) Castlevania 64 had an eerie atmosphere and a fairly compelling story that seems to get overlooked amidst the tidal wave of (legitimate) complaints.

Castlevania 64 Hedge Maze chainsawCastlevania 64’s unkillable hedge maze chainsaw maniac.

I remember that one of the most thrilling video game experiences for me was running away from the chainsaw-fisted Frankenstein monster in a hedge maze, and every time you thought you were safe he’d race on screen and scare the shit out of you. Unfortunately, the game was so packed with riddles and missions that I lost interest after having to deal with the infamous “Nitro” segment where you’re forced to solve a puzzle involving you carrying highly-unstable explosives, and the slightest bump would blow you to Hell and you would be forced to restart the mission all over again. The end result was an experience that would have been as equally as nerve-wrecking as actually handling Nitro, except that if you fuck up with Nitro in real life, you’re lucky that you’re not required to try again.

In addition, the Castlevania 64 actually had an expanding plot via interactions between your main character and other NPC characters that help tell a story as a whole. There was a love story that budded between Reinhardt Schneider (the vampire killer protagonist) and a Rosa, a female vampire who attempted suicide under the weight of the despair she felt as an unGodly creature of the night. Carrie Fernandez (the second protagonist), whose family was turned into vampires, sought them in Dracula’s Castle. You met other likable characters like a seasoned vampire hunter, and even a demon salesman. And in the end, everything comes crashing down on the protagonists with Reinhardt being forced to kill Rosa, and Carrie having to kill her ‘turned’ kin. It was all extremely interesting to say the least, especially for a series whose only premise is “Kill Dracula”. At the time for me, this was revolutionary in a Castlevania game, and while it wasn’t the best story I’ve ever experienced, it was a fresh and indeed a welcome addition.

But overall, Castlevania 64 was a disappointment, even though it had several surprises and a decent story that helped make up for the lacking gameplay.

So where am I going with all of this?

Despite my taking a quick trip down memory lane, I’m setting you up for the latest entry into the Castlevania saga, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Does Lords of Shadow have the epic sense of adventure and a cast of famous monsters like the NES counterparts? Does this latest 3D Castlevania game have better controls and camera functionality as Castlevania 64? Is the story compelling and are the characters interesting?

Or, a better question: Is this a fucking sweet game to play?

Well, the last question I can simply say: “Fuck yeah!” But for the rest I need to go into more detail:

 

STORY

So let’s look back at the classic Castlevania games; what was the story? You’re a guy with a whip who kills monsters on a quest to find and kill the king of all evil, Count Dracula. Pretty straightforward stuff, and not many early Castlevania games really elaborated on the simplicity of the “kill Dracula” theme; however the rise of Castlevania on the Playstation and Nintendo 64 brought an end to that by retaining the “kill Dracula” concept, but adding deeper character development to NPC (Non-Playable Characters) that you encounter along your journey. It has since become a necessity to tell a captivating story in a game because video games have evolved into an art-form that now rivals Hollywood itself.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was actually a pleasant surprise for me. While the storyline isn’t anything completely mind blowing, nor is the character development flawless, it’s a new take on the vampire slaying theme that definitely needed a jumpstart.

Gabriel Belmont Castlevania Lords of ShadowGabriel Belmont Castlevania Lords of ShadowGabriel Belmont after defending a village from a werewolf attack. PETA will be shitting bricks.

Two masks referred to as the God and Devil Masks, lie at the center of the plot, with the God Mask having powers to resurrect the dead.

The story starts by introducing Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, an elite group of holy knights who fight to protect innocent people against supernatural evils. It’s medieval Europe and mankind is tormented by legions of vampires, werewolves and the undead, but Gabriel was given a vision by his deceased wife, Marie, and in it was the key to saving mankind: Destroy the three Lords of Shadow. So Gabriel Belmont is hunting down the three Lords of Shadow (a werewolf, a vampire, and a necromancer) because each of them holds a piece to a mask that when combined can grant the wearer enough power to challenge God Himself; however, Gabriel is only wants the mask to resurrect his dead wife, Marie. As Gabriel’s increasingly insane quest progresses in step with his own madness, he is followed by the story’s narrator, a fellow Brotherhood of Light member and mentor to Gabriel, Zobek (voiced by Patrick Stewart). Zobek only rarely guides Gabriel in any given direction, and instead plays the part of a casual observer and overseer of the tale as it unfolds.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Zobek GabrielGabriel and Zobek

So, along the journey Gabriel Belmont meets up with several NPC characters; however, aside from Pan, the goat-headed guardian of the forest who aides Gabriel on his journey, very few of these side characters have any staying power. I would go onto more detail on each one, except for heavy spoilers tied to each, but all you need to know about the vast majority of them is that, while they do have SOME character development, none of them leave a lasting impression on the game as a whole and -with the exception of one particular character- are instead just as quickly forgotten as they are introduced, leaving little time to really flush out the characters or make them compelling.

Gabriel and Claudia Castlevania Lords of ShadowClaudia, the mute girl, talking to Gabriel… She talks to him with her mind… It’s not like it’s really that important because the soulless and mindless Black Knight golem behind her is 10x more interesting than her.

 

Speaking of spoilers, the ending to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was intended to be a curve ball. But I, LaughingMan, Ace Detective, called the ‘twist’ ending before I even finished the fucking demo.

 

**VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD**

It’s not like it was any sort of challenge, seeing that in the trailers and the demo any and all references to a particularly important Castlevania: Lords of Shadow antagonist was suspiciously absent.

**END OF SPOILERS**

 

I’m so displeased that I was correct in my initial assumptions that I hereby issue the following statement to Konami and MercurySteam:

Dear Konami and MercurySteam,
You don’t know me, but I know you. Your ending to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was actually clever but your execution sucked. I mean, really, a blind, obese, retarded beagle could have sensed that ending coming… even WITH that big damn gap in the storyline leading up to the final revelation. If you want a better promotional strategist and/or story-writer, then send me a 72 hour, all-expense paid trip to The Bunny Ranch. The trip must also include round-trip airfare, 15 “5 Hour Energy” drinks and 17 doses of Viagra (unless the Viagra warnings are true and I need to consult a doctor if my Bunny-Borer lasts longer than 4 hours).

C’mon, you already do this service for all of the reviewers you pay off, so why not put the money where it counts and hire me to play Captain Obvious for your marketers and writing staff?

Not that sincerely, but in all seriousness,
LaughingMan

(P.S. Hopefully someone down there can figure out my email address just with my persona-name and the website URL put together.)

Without giving any more spoilers to the after-credits ending, I will say that while it was clever, there is still a lot left to be explained. There is rumor of DLC (downloadable content) coming down the pike in the future that will help explain the events post-game and pre-final ending, so I’ll be looking forward to it.

Now, even with my gripes, the Story, while excessively melodramatic, had an epic quality about it that I enjoyed. I guess if I had a narrative running in my young mind while I was playing the early Nintendo Castlevania games, it would have been very close to the sheer magnitude of what Konami and MercurySteam have conjured in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

 

Characters

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has a large character roster: A mute psychic girl guarded by a giant Black Knight iron golem, a young girl vampire who likes to play chess (?), the werewolf Shadow Lord, the vampire Shadow Lord, the necromancer Shadow Lord, and even the fucking DEVIL makes an appearance.

However, we’re going to focus on all of the characters that have more than 10 minutes of screen time. All four of them.

Gabriel Belmont Castlevania Lords of ShadowGabriel Belmont
(voiced by Robert Carlyle)

Tormented by the death of his love, Marie, Gabriel is given some hope that he can resurrect her after receiving a vision by Marie’s spirit. Gabriel is bound by his faith and determined to expel the evil in the land and be reunited with Marie, regardless of the cost.

Marie Belmont Castlevania Lords of ShadowMarie
(voiced by Natascha McElhone)

 The deceased wife to Gabriel, she was murdered by one of the Lords of Shadow and now her soul is trapped in Limbo. She appears to Gabriel in his nightmares and gives him hope that she may be resurrected once he purges the world of the three Lords of Shadow and reunites the three pieces to the God Mask.

Zobek Castlevania Lords of ShadowZobek
(voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart)

Zobek is an elder member of Gabriel’s holy order of the Brotherhood of Light, and acts as a mentor to Gabriel. Although he is only directly involved with Gabriel’s quest on rare occasion, he secretly follows him during the journey, monitoring his progress and offers his insights to Gabriel’s declining mental condition during the course of the game.

Castlevania PanPan
(voiced by Aleksander Mikic)

The ancient God and guardian of the forests, Pan watches over Gabriel and points him towards his next quest from time to time. Pan can take multiple forms in order to best aid Gabriel on his adventure.

And that’s pretty much it. Every other character is a complete throw-away character and if any of them were missing the story of Lords of Shadow would easily continue as though nothing was amiss. Even the Lords of Shadow only appear briefly as (compelling) boss fights, and then once defeated they disappear into obscurity. Konami and MercurySteam apparently avoided the cliche video game Boss taunting segments where the Bosses are introduced early on just to taunt the protagonist into completing the mission or quest. I wouldn’t be nearly as pissed off except that Metal Gear Solid creator and video game GOD, Hideo Kojima, was involved in the creation of Lords of Shadow and Kojima is the fucking MASTER of the Boss taunts thanks to his Metal Gear Solid franchise. And if Castlevania: Lords of Shadow actually HAD these Boss taunting scenes, then it would have given the writers more room to develop them as characters.

Carmilla Castlevania Lords of Shadow vampireCarmilla, the vampire Lord of Shadow is chronically on the verge of an EPIC ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and I’m about to spill my Holy Water.

Look, if you’re going to include lots of characters in a compelling story, then each character needs to be flushed out in what screen time they have, and I honestly didn’t feel that ANY of the other characters were really explored enough to make me care that they were even included in the game.

 

Enemies

During my playing the first few levels of Lords of Shadow, the bestiary and diversity of enemies already heightened my expectations of what was to come. The first two stages involve Gabriel fighting off werewolves and wargs (enormous wolves) and immediately after you descend into a swamp where you then battled horrible little grenade throwing Goblins and transversed the treacherous waters where unseen creatures waited to pull you under the water. Three levels into the game and I was already excited about the diversity of the enemies you fought.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow vampire

But then I realized that after the swamp I was once again fighting off hordes of werewolves and wargs. Sure, the occasional Swamp Troll and Giant Spider was present, but it was legion after legion of werewolves that I was killing and it began to make me nervous about exactly how diverse the bestiary was ever going to get.

Luckily as I pressed further the bestiary all of a sudden EXPLODED in diversity. There were Trolls, Goblins, Werewolves, Vampires, Armored Knights, Zombies of all sorts, Giant Spiders, killer Scarecrows, Devils and Demons, Necromancers, Phantom Grim Reapers that kill you with one hit, disturbing root babies, and the list goes on.

Castlevania WrathCastlevania Scarecrow
A Wrath and a Scarecrow

Admittedly, the enemy roster is not nearly as impressive as sprite-based 2D Castlevania games like Symphony of the Night, but the bestiary in Lords of Shadow surpassed what I was expecting in a 3D game. Even nicer was that the monsters in Lords of Shadow stick very closely to European mythologies, rather than delving into more Asian mythologies like Kappas (demon turtles), skeleton ninjas, or the dreaded The Ring girls that it could have dabbled into.

Castlevania Frankenstein MonsterNo, seriously, where is the REAL Frankenstein’s Monster? ….Oh… I can live with this.

And then there are the Boss fights. The highlight of ANY game is a Boss fight, and for a game to be great, there has to be a LOT of them. I half-expected there to be maybe a total of four boss fights (The 3 Lords of Shadow and likely 1 Final Boss), but I was (pleasantly) overwhelmed by the number of boss fights there are in Lords of Shadow. You fight several Titans (giant stone bosses), a giant Raven Witch, a Black Knight, a Frankenstein monster that looks more like a fetus in a metal scorpion, a disgusting Demon Butcher, a Pyramid Head (Silent Hill 2) knockoff with a shovel called The Grave Digger, Death in the form of a massive flying skeletal dragon, the barbaric Lord of Werewolves, the seductive Lord of Vampires, a Giant Ogre, and so many more that the rest would be considered spoilers. And the fights are epic, make no mistake about that. The Boss fights are probably the most satisfying I’ve played since Devil May Cry 3 to be perfectly honest, and that’s a mark of quality.

There is one negative to the bestiary in Lords of Shadow, and it has to be the ever-annoying Chupacabra. Imagine Yoda from Star Wars appearing out of nowhere, shooting you with lightning, STEALING ALL OF YOUR POWERS AND ITEMS, and then forcing you to play Hide and Seek with it before you can progress further in the game. And this doesn’t happen just once, but between 3-5 times during the entirety of your journey. Nothing brings the game to a complete halt like this annoying little fucker, and whoever thought it would be fun to include this segment should be whipped with Gabriel’s cross/chain-whip.

 

Gameplay

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Troll

Here’s where Castlevania: Lords of Shadow comes together. While Castlevania has traditionally been a 2D platformer, there have been 3D iterations that have FAILED MISERABLY. Even to this day, the traditional, 2D Castlevania games (Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night, all of the SotN knock offs on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS, etc) are the most successful because the 3D games just haven’t gotten the formula right. Castlevania 64 had a HORRIBLE camera that made the game difficult for all of the wrong reasons, and other Playstation 2 iterations of Castlevania haven’t fared much better according to what I’ve heard.

But Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a tight package that (aside from the lack of an interactive/adjustable camera) is a step in the right direction. However, Lords of Shadow isn’t exactly setting foot in uncharted areas, but instead following the trails blazed by previous games.

At face value, people will look at Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and instantly think “God of War” or “Devil May Cry” rip off. And they would actually be right for the most part. Lords of Shadow does have the chain-swinging, monster slaying goodness of God of War, so fans of the extreme-action beat-em-up genre will feel right at home.

The controls are very responsive, which, after beating my head against a wall playing the frustratingly unresponsive game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, is a damned relief. I have one pet-peeve about extreme action games: When I need to jump, dodge, block, or attack, I need to do it IMMEDIATELY. For instance, the controls in The Force Unleashed were god-awful; whenever you attack an enemy with, for example, Force Lightning, you have to wait until the end of your character’s action before you can effectively block or dodge an enemy’s attack, which basically means that your character is so sluggish that you are constantly open for attack. However, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is damn near as quick and responsive as the God of War games, where regardless what you are doing -whether attacking or using magic or whatever- you can INSTANTLY terminate your current action and block or roll out of harm’s way. And when you have a pack of pissed off werewolves trying to maul your medieval ass, speed and reflex is key to staying alive.

You can also purchase new combos for the weapons you acquire from some of the larger-than-life bosses, much like in the Devil May Cry series. Killing the Dark Knight Golem gives you an iron gauntlet for punching walls and enemies; the Werewolf Lord of Shadow gives you grieves (boots) for dashing; the Vampiress Lord of Shadow gives you angel wings for double-jumping.

There is a secondary weapon system in place where you can select a projectile weapon to use against your enemies. The projectile weapons include:

  • Silver Stakes – Gabriel throws silver stakes straight at enemies like a knife. Highly effective against werewolves. Charging 5 stakes creates a forcewave-like attack. Pairing silver stakes with Shadow Magic can cause the stakes to explode on contact.
  • Fairies – Fairies will use their magic to temporarily stun one enemy, and are useful against most non-boss enemies.
  • Dark Crystals – By collecting 4 dark crystal pieces, you can form a single dark crystal that will summon a demon from Hell to kill everything on the screen. The demon herself is disturbing in a Final Fantasy X’s “Anima summon”, BDSM sort of way.
  • Holy Water – Throwing holy water vials on the ground creates an outward spreading circle of fire that is extremely effective against vampires. Using holy water with Light Magic enabled can create a temporary protective barrier around Gabriel.

Located throughout different levels are upgrades to your main weapon (found in monasteries) that enable Gabriel to overcome obstacles in his path and advance further in the game by allowing him to climb and swing on cliff sides, turn cranks, or saw stone pillars in half. Upgrades to Gabriel’s projectile weapons can be found inside of Arcs within select levels, but are often only accessible towards the end of the game because of some required power up needed to acquire the upgrades.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow vampire

In addition to new weapons and abilities you are also given an overdrive system similar to the Devil Trigger (Devil May Cry) and Rage of the Gods/Titans (God of War) that will unlock a few extra special attacks and give your character a bit of an edge in power. But, instead of having only one single gauge, you get TWO: A Light Magic, and a Shadow Magic. When you fill either of your separate Magic gauges -either by collecting neutral magic spheres from either enemies or from magic statues- you can utilize Light or Shadow Magic. Light Magic allows you to cipher health from the damage your enemies take. With Shadow Magic enabled, your attacks will deal more damage. And the bonus is that neither of the Magic Gauges need to be completely filled in order to use Magic, which can spell victory or defeat if you are low on health and you have a droplet of Light Magic to spend. Both Light and Shadow Magic gauges can be upgraded by collecting Light and Shadow gems in sets of 5. When you collect 5 gems (often found on the corpses of long-dead knights), your gauge capacity is increased.

On top of the fast and furious action, you also have puzzles that you are required to solve in order to progress through the game. The chief difference between the puzzles in Lords of Shadow and God of War is that you are actually allowed to CHEAT and literally BUY the answers to the puzzles by forsaking the experience points you would have been awarded had you solved the puzzle on your own. However, you are still required to complete the puzzle, so don’t think that you can just skip over the boring bits and continue monster-mashing.

Along with a large bestiary of enemies, there are select few enemies that Gabriel Belmont can subdue and ride. Cave Trolls, Giant Spiders, Wargs (huge wolves), and Armored Warthogs, when near death, can be mounted like a horse and used to either tear through enemies with unique abilities, or are required use to solve puzzles and progress further in the game. The concept of riding enemies is not necessarily a new concept, since it was introduced in Dante’s Inferno and in God of War III, but in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, riding enemies is a more diverse experience, although a required one. After the beast you have mounted has outgrown its usefulness you can kill it by strangling it to death with your whip.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow swing whipGabriel Belmont swings on his whip between ledges against a lush backdrop.

While there are striking similarities between God of War and Devil May Cry games, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow also rips off… er, I mean ‘borrows’ from other games for the platforming segments. After all, Castlevania has been an action platformer from its very inception, so naturally, it needs to evolve while retaining platforming elements. And so, borrowing heavily from the Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed games, Gabriel can climb mountains, ruins, and castles like a little monkey. Gabriel also utilizes his chain whip to swing and climb the terrain, which is a great touch that is a call back to innovative Castlevania games like Super Castlevania IV for the Super Nintendo. While the climbing and swinging sounds like a horrible addition to a Castlevania game, the climbing gameplay actually worked very well and helped break up the monotony of fighting a never-ending horde of monsters. I’m not saying it is necessarily as smooth as Uncharted, but I honestly didn’t have that many problems with the climbing segments. That was, however, until towards the end of the game at the Necromancer’s floating castle where the climbing became so mentally exhausting and tedious that it literally started to feel like I had actually climbed a damn mountain.

One nice touch is that the climbing mechanics don’t stop at just the levels. Again, borrowing from another successful and critically acclaimed game (Shadow of the Colossus), Gabriel utilizes the climbing mechanics to fight enormous stone monstrosities. Now, with the borrowing from Uncharted and God of War, there are a few things that help shake-up the gameplay and set Castlevania: Lords of Shadow apart from the competitors; however, the Shadow of the Colossus segments in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow are a 1-for-1 RIPOFF: You discover a weakness in the giant, stone creature’s attack that leaves him vulnerable. You then proceed to climb said beastie, hanging on for dear life as it tries to shake you off. Falling off requires that you re-climb the Colossus… er, sorry, in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow they’re called TITANS… yeah, big difference… Anyways, you successfully climb the TITAN until you reach a magic ring in which you plunge your weapon into it to deal damage. Continue to the next weak point, rinse, repeat.

Am I saying that Castlevania: Lords of the Shadow of the Colossus is not fun? No, it is actually really thrilling (especially the giant bone dragon you fight at the end), but this is the one aspect of Lords of Shadow that did not improve or differentiate upon the source material that they ‘borrowed from’. No, it was a direct copy and paste from Shadow of the Colossus, regardless of how fun these segments were.

One last complaint I have are two cliches that ALL extreme action games have created for themselves. The first is obviously the quick-time event where while confronting an enemy the gamer is required to press a series of buttons displayed on the screen in order to kill it. The quick time button sequence is alive and well in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and frankly I’m getting sick and tired of them. Admittedly, they were cool, exciting, and interactive in God of War, but now they have become cliche and a chore. Luckily, as with other aspects of the game, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does improve upon the button sequence by adding a timed action sequence that appears initially as two circles, one embedded within the other. As the external circle shrinks and finally overlaps the smaller, internal circle, you have to react by pressing any button at that specific moment. It’s something new, but it’s also extremely frustrating for the first few levels because it does require practice to master.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Titan fightThe second ‘Titan’ in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. A classic example of the “Big Stone Motherfucker Fight” cliche.

The second, ABSOLUTELY UNFORGIVABLE cliche is what I call “The Big Stone Motherfucker Fight” cliche. You know the one I’m talking about, where in EVERY extreme action game after God of War II, you are required to, at some point, fight a giant animated stone statue. THERE IS NO FUCKING EXCEPTION TO THIS RULE! Devil May Cry 4 had a statue boss fight at the end, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 had a few actually ADDED to the Playstation 3 version, God of War 3 has giant stone Titans you have to fight, I never played Dante’s Inferno but I bet money there’s a Big Stone Motherfucker somewhere in Hell that you fight in one way or another, and now Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has THREE Big Stone Motherfuckers that you need to take down. Taking down giant enemies is probably one of the most exciting things you can do in any given action game, BUT WHY IS IT ALWAYS A STATUE OR MONSTER MADE OF STONE? Because no one has a spark of originality, that’s why.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a very long game. VERY long. While action games traditionally last about 8 hours, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a massive 20-hour long game. Do they pad out the game with hour long cut scenes like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid games, or does the 20 hours include backtracking and completing the game 100% by collecting all of the upgrades and completing all of the level trials.

NEITHER. If you gun through the game, balls to the wall, racing to the end without completing challenges, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is STILL about a 20 hour experience. Lords of Shadow is a massive game, and because it is also fun as hell to play, you will get your money’s worth even at full price. And trust me, when a Scrooge like me says a game is worth the full price of admission, then you know you are making the right purchase.

 

Graphics

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is fucking BEAUTIFUL.

Pan's Forest Castlevania Lords of ShadowEven with the corpse, Pan’s Forest is a little slice of Paradise

Castlevania Clock Tower Lords of ShadowThe dreaded Castlevania “Clock Tower” returns and it is still difficult, but at least every time you die you have something cool to discover.

To be honest, the worlds were better flushed out than the characters themselves. The locales are exotic and mesmerizing and even the murkiest swamps have a real profound artistic beauty about them that quite honestly rivals the breathtaking world of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Scarecrow villiage Castlevania Lords of ShadowEven the dead and decaying village of Scarecrows is graphic eye candy.

The cinematography is also as visually stunning, and whether you are fighting off enormous monsters, or if Gabriel is just taking in the view of a castle in the horizon, there is a Hollywood blockbuster feeling throughout the course of the game. The most memorable and easily accessible scene (thanks to the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow demo) is when you ride the white spirit horse (one of Pan’s many forms) through the forest in a prolonged battle against the werewolves and wargs. Check it out below and you’ll know what I mean.

All of the characters are well designed, fairly original and highly detailed. My favorite of the character designs is easily Pan, who looks like he could easily be the proud creation of Guillermo del Toro, quite possibly one of the greatest and most visually outstanding dark-fantasy directors of recent time.

Pan Gabriel Belmont Castlevania Lords of ShadowPan guides Gabriel Belmont on his quest.

In fact, a number of characters and creatures have a Guillermo del Toro style: The vampires and select zombies look like the bald Nosferatu ugly Reaper vampires of Blade 2, Pan looks like he stepped out of the Hellboy movies (rather than Pan’s Labyrinth sadly), and the larger-than-life boss monsters have fantastic, almost bittersweet death scenes reminiscent of Hellboy 2‘s giant plant monster.

Castlevania Art comparisonWhich Castlevania character looks like the vampire slayer, and which looks like the fetishist?

On the topic of character design, I have to give a shout out of approval to whomever the head character designer is, because he or she literally bitch slapped Konami by diverging from the ever increasing “bondage” look that has been creeping into the video games created by Japanese developers. Finally, someone realizes that this location is medieval Europe, and not a fucking BSDM party. Seriously, why in the holy name of Hell would you EVER want to play a game when a main character looks like some kind of pretty boy GIMP? And people seem to wonder why the Japanese developers are shifting towards increasingly ‘westernized’ look and feel? It’s because of the bullshit they pull to appease their own narrow demographic. If I had to play Castlevania as a whip-and-leather fetishist that looked like a Final Fantasy transvestite, I WOULD HAVE PUKED. There’s only so much of this sort of character design that I can take before vomit comes trickling out of my ears.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow castleGabriel in the castle of the Vampires.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow isn’t the most visually impressive video game from a technical standpoint, but the artistic quality (and ‘quality’ is an understatement) is mind blowing

 

Sound

Despite some real sub par writing sounding absolutely horrible when paired with the melodramatic voice acting, the sound is great. The voice acting of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow features a strong ensemble. Headlining the voice acting of this latest chapter of the Castlevania saga is Sir Patrick Stewart as Zobek. That’s right, the man behind the powerful presences of Professor Xavier (X-Men) and Captain Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is the narrator of this epic tale of love, hate and vampires.

Patrick Stewart the Count Sesame StreetPatrick Stewart and vampires. A match made in heaven, right?

Patrick Stewart offers an air of Shakespearian grandiose and elegance to a script that honestly sounds as though it were written by a C+ English Literature student. While the script sounds like it literally drowned in bad expressive writing like the three Star Wars prequels (ex: blatantly saying, “Gabriel is angry/sad” without finding a more poetic way of expressing feelings and/or actions), Stewart is wearing his water-wings and paddling frantically to stay afloat, turning horribly written dialogue into a scene that honestly doesn’t sound nearly as bad as it reads. It does, however, still sound slightly awkward in this reviewer’s opinion. Regardless of the narration, the in game scenes with Zobek (Patrick Stewart’s character) are good, though a bit long winded at the end in a James Bond sort of way (you’ll have to play to the end to understand that James Bond reference.)

The voice of Gabriel Belmont is none other than Robert Carlyle, whom most people may recognize as Doctor Nicholas Rush in Stargate Universe. According to the rumor mill, the crew of Lords of Shadow originally wanted Gerard Butler (Mr. “300”: THIS IS SPARTAAAAA!!!) to voice Gabriel Belmont; however, Gerard Butler had to decline because of scheduling conflicts. It’s a shame, too, because Gerard Butler has experience in carrying laughable but exciting dialogue (ie: 300). Still, Robert Carlyle does a commendable job in playing the brooding, increasingly self-destructive protagonist. He is gritty, bitter, increasingly standoffish, and his Scottish accent gives the part flavor.

Playing the mysterious mentor to Gabriel, Pan, is Bosnian actor Aleksander Mikic.To be perfectly honest I am not familiar with much of Aleksander’s work, however his voice as Pan is appealing in a haunting way. I noticed an Eastern European dialect the minute that the white horse (Pan’s first form) was introduced and it seemed fitting in a way I can’t explain. Marie, Gabriel’s dead wife, is played by Natascha McElhone, most notably from the Showtime cable television series Californication as Karen. Natascha, I felt, played up the role of a female spirit a little to thick and played the role very melodramatically, as though directly competing with Patrick Stewart for Most Overly Theatrical Performance contest. Emma Ferguson is the voice actor for the mute girl (???what???), and the list goes on and on for the characters who have increasingly shorter screen time and aren’t really worth mentioning because of their lack of impact.

And then there is Jason Isaacs who plays Satan (aka THE FUCKING DEVIL!). As brief as the appearance is, I felt that Jason Isaacs actually nailed the part of the voice of Satan, even if the appearance of the Devil wasn’t what I really expected. Satan is actually correctly represented in a true Biblical sense, where he is really represented as a human-like angel rather than a horned beastie like in the game Dante’s Inferno, and he is voiced as so. The voice is human, well pronounced, acted without overacting, and entirely sinister in a very subtle way. It was a perfect representation of true evil because it is so subtle about being evil.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow Special Edition w Soundtrack ArtbookCastlevania Lords of Shadow Special Edition w/ Soundtrack and Artbook

Moving away from voice acting and into the music, I’ve heard mixed reviews about it. While cruising through Amazon.com to determine whether or not the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Special Edition Soundtrack was worth the extra $10, I read mostly negative reviews saying things along the lines of “Save your money because the soundtrack isn’t anything special.” Meanwhile, the musical score has been commended by many of the mainstream reviewers, often calling it powerful and fitting. In MY own opinion, both are actually right.

During gameplay, the music to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is icing on the cake where the music accents the visual mastery that you see on the screen, expressing the mysticism/dread/intensity of a scene, and will often send chills down your spine because the game as a whole is amazing to behold. As far as being a CD that you can pop into your car’s CD player and listen to, it won’t make sitting in traffic feel like Disney’s Fantasia. No, the music is a lot of classical(ish) music that is heavy on the ‘God choir’ and when taken out of the context of the game can really lose all of its magic.

You WON’T turn others onto classical(ish) music with this soundtrack.
You WON’T be humming this soundtrack because it got stuck in your head (because it won’t be. Ever).
You WON’T remember this soundtrack like you can remember traditional Castlevania melodies like Bloody Tears.

The soundtrack accented the game. It did its job very well. End of story.

 

OVERALL

Castlevania Lords of Shadow vampire gabrielThe power of Christ compels you, bitch!

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has its faults, but in relation to the early Castlevania games that I grew up on and still love, Lords of Shadow excels on every level. The gameplay, though ‘borrowed’ from other games, actually improves on several aspects. The story is pretty good as a whole, but predictable towards the end. Character development falls flat on its face, with only roughly four characters out of the entire ensemble ever having enough screen time to be fully flushed out. Although the entire game is written so melodramatically that it would barely pass as a high school play, the talented voice actors, headlined by Sir Patrick Stewart, manage to still make it sound good. The graphics are stunning to say the very least, and the exotic locale and the artistic magnitude makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow the most visually satisfying game I’ve played in a long time.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes everything I’ve ever liked about Castlevania games, dating back from the NES classic Simon’s Quest and up to the present, and makes it all better. I was expecting another so-so 3D experience like I found playing Castlevania 64, but what I found was a tight package that is a welcome addition to the Castlevania franchise.

LaughingMan

The loveable lunatic with the foul mouth and the iconic laugh, Laughingman is the founder of CCS. With more coffee than copper in his bloodstream, he's a full-time website developer by day, and a gamer, editor, and fiction writer by night.

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