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Review: Lords of Shadow


Rating Summary
A fairly entertaining concoction that has a spoonful of Castlevania and a scoopful of something else.

Premise

Castlevania and 3-D have always been known as an odd couple. Even if the problem hasn’t been gameplay, there have been loads of obstacles. Low technical quality, flat level design or the ignoring of Castlevania’s functional structure have done disservices to “3D Vanias”. The stern opinion of some players that three-dimensionality and Castlevania will never work as a full-blooded entity has also probably caused the series’ flame of technical advances to flicker. It hasn’t therefore been completely unfounded to ponder if 3-D is necessary at all. Then again, so many other things have contributed to the shortcomings of the previous 3-D installments that depth impression can’t possibly be the reason the previous attempts failed.

Lords of Shadow is the fifth release attempting to steer Castlevania smoothly into a new visual dimension. Gamers jump into the chainmail of Gabriel Belmont to fight mystical evils in medieval Europe. The game has been a commercial hit and has been received mostly positive attention from critics. Its release has been probably one of the biggest sources of anticipation in the CV community in years – not necessarily because of positive expectations, but because its origins were completely different from the other 3D projects. It’s also set on continuity separate from the previous games. The development team was the Spanish MercurySteam and instead of Koji Igarashi, the newcomer David Cox became the producer. Hideo Kojima, the father of Metal Gear, acted as an advisor and was the executive producer. More money was available this time around, so staff resources expanded.

Gameplay

LoS’ gameplay is characterized by battle-oriented action, which is paused by puzzles. The latter can be skipped by using experience points gathered from combat or by solving easier puzzles. The points accumulate more effectively by defeating enemies as skillfully as possible; you can add variations with dozens of different kinds of combos (which are “bought” with the points collected), blocking with perfect timing and delivering hits as much as possible without taking any damage. Variety for basic combat is offered by Light and Shadow Magic. Both enable specific special moves. With Light Magic switched on, you gain life from hitting enemies. Shadow Magic amplifies the damage you inflict. This is all, of course, a welcome change to the fight moves achieved through different button combinations in Lament of Innocence, for example. But the combat action of these two games does not differ as much as you might initially believe. The composition for both is to quickly disable charging enemy groups.

Though there are theoretically ample alternatives during fighting, there is often vexingly little room for maneuvering, causing the player to often just wish to make it alive to the next checkpoint. There is also an abundance of QTEs (Quick Time Events), instances where trigger commands requiring timing appear on the screen. In my opinion, most of them should have been left out. Angry cusses spew out especially if you miss the second you’re supposed to push the button during boss battles. This doesn’t always cause an instant death, but the player’s situation often reverts to a point from which you have to repeat the same pattern to be allowed to perform the finishing move. In general, the end battles vary between calculating the hit delivering to intense struggles requiring pretty much mandatory upgrading of weapons and abilities. So, there are challenges from one end to the other. I consider the titans ripped off from Shadow of the Colossus to be the weakest link of the boss battles. These giant enemies demand climbing to critical points in their body, where they are to be struck. This causes them to become numbing encounters of endurance instead of direct battles.

Re-scouring the areas to collect bonus items and taking on the additional challenges (passing an area without using magic, for example) adds replaying value. After playing through the game once, the highest difficulty is unlocked. For an achievement-centric gamer this is all very nice. But passing the game is such a lengthy and partly frustrating process (to me, at least), that I find the idea of a re-run distant. Examples for sources of frustration are clumsy jump directing and forced repetition caused by failure. Even an experienced gamer is guaranteed to fail repeatedly when playing the second highest difficulty. And when you’ve got to replay a spot where an introduction video is repeated, it would have been more practical to give the option of skipping it with a single push of a button instead of having to click through a menu. The worst thing is that some videos can’t be skipped (luckily, there are only few) even after watching them through once. When the game is over, you’ve got to dab through to choose continuing from last checkpoint, instead of a simple “Continue?” screen. On top of that, you’ve got to wait through the ever-present narrative text to load up for far too long.

The game can’t be completed quite as nonlinearly as I expected. But the narration, divided in chapters, enables the possibility to enter a spot after completion whenever you want. This also helps to expand the life bar and to accumulate other advantages as the challenges increase towards the end. The stage structure of LoS is substantially more diverse than (as an extreme example) Curse of Darkness, to draw one comparison. The promise of using SCIV as the game’s inspiration was at least held on to the point of using the “whip” to move around and climb to different planes, thus bringing in much yearned platforming. Unfortunately it consists mostly of inching that lacks the element of imminent danger and requires negligible sense of timing. Mostly you’ll find yourself shimmying across wall cracks and ledges instead of avoiding, for instance, crushers and medusa heads. Reaching certain spaces inside the stages has awkward attributes; at a certain point Gabriel can’t jump over a small barrier to check out the location of an item. Instead you’ve got to get to it in a more complicated manner.

All in all, playing LoS is entertaining – as long as you accept the shamelessly direct borrowing from a handful of more successful new-gen games. The controls grow on you fast and if you don’t burn out all your fuses by slamming against the trickier parts in one sitting, you can spend hours on the game without noticing it. The abundant part of the game’s offering, combat, is at its best in situations where different approaches can be utilized instead of engaging in forced arena-style struggles. Memorizing the bulk of the combo moves feels like an unnecessary and even impossible task. In my opinion, all this cramps the combat mechanics, though it probably fits a certain target audience. Most threats demand fast reactions, making all available assets useful only if you make the right decisions quickly. A learning curve that doesn’t demand repetition and happens while playing would undoubtedly have pleased the majority. Instead you advance through trial and error, especially when it comes to boss battles. This is why it is very human if you resort to lowering the difficulty level in the middle of the game due to getting annoyed.

Even if you get through the game’s challenges with sheer skill, LoS has many game length extenders that stink of deliberate stretching. The embodiment of this is an enemy called Chupacapra. I doubt I’m the only one thinking that after capturing the creature, there should have been a QTE that ends with Gabriel murdering the imp as messy as possible. To make it short: the critter steals your items and does it more than once. This leads to a completely unnecessary hide-and-seek mini-game in order to get your possessions back. The almost laughable slimness of the platforming portions and the cumbersome jump controlling are also significant flaws to any Castlevania game. Instead of the traditional, fairly simple brain-teasers, the game’s puzzles offer a variety to the usual Castlevania formula without diverging from it jarringly. Surrounded by clusters of enemies, it is still far too easy to forget you’re playing the newest installment in a series whose gameplay is perhaps mostly associated with strategically set enemy defeating or evasion, distinctive finishing battles and the importance of well-timed action.

Technical characteristics & supplementary material quality

Lords of Shadow is more than presentable when running on the tracks of performance and aesthetics. It has clear and detailed graphics, a couple of big names as voice actors and technically high quality music. The graphical look itself is difficult to criticize – although its colorfulness and brightness collide with the image of the series it represents. Many kinds of different environments can be found from snowy villages to lush forests. The imagery is versatile, to say the least, and the fixed camera runs smoothly, especially in broad sceneries. I did miss a controllable camera in narrow spaces and definitely during big boss fights. Since the areas don’t have a map either, it’s easy to get confused with the angle-switching camera. This makes navigating occasionally difficult. Luckily there aren’t too many labyrinthine sections.

The camera also has a strange habit of shaking a little every now and then. It doesn’t really affect playing, but is a slightly curious detail nonetheless. A more noticeable bug is getting “frozen” in the air while jumping. This happened to me a couple of times – once requiring reloading a save, otherwise getting fixed by simply floundering out of it. I played the PS3 version. Officially there aren’t supposed to be any differences between that and the Xbox 360 version. By studying the frame rate tests and the observing of hardware-dependent varying of graphical quality conducted by different websites, one can form a more rigorous opinion. I believe some tests have found lagging caused by slight frame rate jumping.

I think it’s safe to say the game has more narrative cinematic than all other Castlevanias put together. Being able to watch the cut scenes without a need for re-playing would have been a refreshing option. Lots of opinions can be voiced about the storyline’s merits, but visually there isn’t much to complain. Hawk-eyed players may notice a few goofs on a couple of occasions where the in-game action switches to a scene. But they are subtleties that don’t really affect the viewing experience in any way.

Óscar Araujo composed the game’s music, even receiving an award for his work. The game’s soundtrack has been criticized – and rightly so, in my opinion – not as much for its technical standards, but for its content. In creating atmospheres for bright, large environments, it serves its purpose. But despite all its grandiose (or maybe because of it), it makes me think of a cookie-cutter fantasy movie or game. Even if one doesn’t evaluate the individual tracks as a Castlevania enthusiast, they lack melodically rich segments. What largely stayed in my mind after playing through were the serenely atmospheric “Waterfalls of Agharta” (perhaps mostly because it reminds me of Super Castlevania IV’s melancholically tranquil “The Waterfall”) and the sturdily symphonic yet strikingly simple “Belmont’s Theme”. The character illustrations offer variety to Ayami Kojima’s romanticizing portraits and the straightforward anime style DoS and PoR employed. I found Masaki Hirooka’s material for Order of Ecclesia truer to original CV art and it was a pleasure for my eyes. LoS’s art creates a similar feeling. Diego Gisbert Llorens creates a fine balance between details and hazily dark color temperatures. And at long last the playable male character is not blond, pale or dressed stylishly at the expense of his safety.

Atmosphere and implemenation

I didn’t make this review this long just to wear out my keyboard. Because of its length, I divided it in three sections so that checking out the overall rating can be done quickly if one so wishes. The reason for the amount of text is my point of view – from where LoS was not simple to rate. The most essential objective was to place it inside the series I have been into for years – to ask myself what I like about the game as I compare it to the previous installments.

First of all, LoS does not live strongly off Castlevania’s history and internal mythology. The story has many elements of which only few are straight from Castlevania. The game has many familiar names, such as Orlox, Cornell, Rinaldo Gandolfi and Carmilla, but only the last two of those are fairly faithful to the original versions. Gabriel’s weapon isn’t exactly a whip, but a “Combat Cross” which conceals a chain. When quite a few changes like these have been made all at once, the name-dropping and hollow small references feel like simple fan-baiting as they only scratch the surface. At the most, LoS makes nods to Castlevania instead of being inspired by it and letting that lead while molding itself. By the way, I feel inclined to warn that this section of the review contains straightforward story spoilers.

While the Castlevania-likeness has been left secondary, others, mostly needless features were emphasized. If anything, the game’s pop culture references and jokes about other game series invoke a feeling of emphatic embarrassment (it also seems Hideo Kojima could not avoid the temptation of sticking Metal Gear in there somehow). The narrative constantly refers to the history of the game’s fantasy world – for example, to a war with one of the game’s enemy factions. Neither a fresh player nor a ripe Castlevania fan can know a darn thing about these events, but they are not bothered to be explored further. The enemy assortment is extensive and has been built almost completely out of European lore. This isn’t actually the wrong thing to do, because many of CV’s adversaries have been inspired by mythologies across the world. But they have always gone through the Castlevania treatment. This has made them fit into whatever game they’ve appeared in. In LoS, you meet or kill goblins, gremlins, fairies, ogres and talking animals. Oh yeah, and Satan himself. A snarkier guy might say that the only things missing are Hansel and Gretel. In other words: LoS stuffs too much into a single game, but only a little of that feels necessary. And what remains has not been sprinkled with enough of Castlevania’s essence.

The game’s story unfolds after a longer time than usual and has twists. One could repeat the worn-out phrase of Castlevania not even needing a profound plot. However, with its numerous cut scenes and narrative attributes, LoS is not comparable to Castlevanias that were built mainly on their gameplay. The game strives to tell a compelling story and because it ignores the events of the other games in the series, it has much leeway to achieve that. Ultimately, the story is still ridden with weaknesses. Whereas Castlevania has so far leaned to Christian mythology and mysticism in a referential and atmospheric fashion, LoS dives into the cornucopia of myths and wolfs it down until its stomach bulges. In the story the dead can’t enter heaven to be with God because someone is using a spell to prevent their ascension. These dead include Gabriel’s murdered wife, whom he wishes to resurrect by assembling the legendary “God Mask”. The turns of the latter parts are near-absurd; Zobek calls Gabriel his “old friend” after knowing him for just a couple of days and narrates his journey in an amusingly adoring way. Despite all this, he eventually confesses to having used Gabriel as a pawn of his evil plans. Then the world’s perhaps cheesiest antagonist steps in for a final duel. What’s probably most dubious is that similarities can be found from the movie Van Helsing (2004), which borrowed (intentionally or by accident) the basic idea of Castlevania. One might initially be certain that Patrick “Captain Jean-Luc Picard” Stewart, a classically trained veteran actor, would lift the game’s dialogue to maximum quality. But not even he can do miracles for the corny narration. The “story book time” preceding every area gets tiresome quickly due to its ubiquity and lengthening effect on waiting time. Still, the post-credits sequence, obviously hinting at a sequel, does pique my interest somewhat.

LoS has stately framework and resources, but I don’t see them directed properly. The action is explosive and impressive, but also repetitive and overly violent. The development team mentioned its goal of making Castlevania ”dark”. They succeeded, but not by adapting to the motif. LoS is grim in a gut-tossing, blood-splattering and desolation-wallowing way. If the somberness of Castlevania were a handmade painting, LoS would, in my opinion, be a movie that has that painting on the background of few scenes. Perhaps MercurySteam is offering what a broader audience asks for, but in my mind this does not make the game enriching to the Castlevania experience. This might all be, in part, a byproduct of the game’s development being handed almost completely to European makers. It’s not unique in any way; many Japanese video game developers have outsourced their popular series to the West, often alienating their original fans. But most of all, I see LoS as pampering primarily casual players. Did Konami therefore wish to bring the mountain to Muhammad; if the “old” CV fans won’t warm up to a pervasive renewal, a new primary audience will be generated and Castlevania will be remade?

Castlevania is crafted from the sum of its parts – not from a few scattered fragments. For example, LoS may have more platforming than its most appropriate counterpart, LoI. But it still lacks a gothic palette, a darkly romantic theme and the legendary, lonely flair of the castle. Those are things I feel LoI at least managed to capture. In LoS, you reach catacombs, desolate areas, and especially the castle only at the middle of the game. Playing through those areas, the feeling of playing a Castlevania felt strongest to me. But in LoS the castle is down the road instead of being at its end, thus making it less the center of the story and more like just a common stage along the way. And I don’t call LoS something which at worst has the Castlevania name glued on just for the hell of it. It would, after all, be only for the better for such a big-budgeted, commercially successful game to be exactly what the fans had expected from a new Castlevania.

Lords of Shadow is worth playing, no matter what angle you perceive it from. However, you might be preparing yourself for a disappointment if you believe the promises of “Super Castlevania IV in 3D”, as the pre-release sales pitches led to believe. By building on Castlevania’s mythology and its (meta)history and by respecting its audiovisual cadre and overall theme, LoS would have won over more of the original fans. Despite this, anyone can point out how much Castlevania you can find from this game. Largely what you can’t find, may be interpreted as essential to Castlevania. What in it manages to continue a legacy or come up with something new for it, can be construed as an asset for the game or the series as a whole.

A-Yty
29.11.2011

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