Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I can very easily apply that old chestnut to the likes of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the latest outing for the series and a reboot that trades in series tradition for a shiny God of War-like overhaul and the time-tested methods of “hit it, hit it again, and hit it some more.” It’s lush, visually appealing, and a decent play. But as far as “reinventing” the series goes, I have to say that I was expecting an update with a little more “oomph.” Do developers need to resort to turning everything into a brawler to keep it fresh? That’s debatable. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a decent adventure here and one that I’d recommend for players who enjoyed Dante’s Inferno or any of the “me too” slashers released in the past couple of years. The bottom line is I’m not convinced this is really even Castlevania. This is…something else entirely.

Gabriel Belmont is the star of this strange outing, a newcomer to the series and seemingly introduced solely for the purpose of giving players a hero with a “lost love” yarn to play through (more like yawn). His dearly beloved wife was murdered, and like all murdered, kidnapped, enslaved, or otherwise indisposed women in video games, she has a man coming after her to bring her back to life. It’s standard procedure.

Gabriel is after the God mask, which would give him the power to bring his deceased partner back to the realm of the living. Of course, attaining this prize is not as simple as running to the local Walmart and purchasing at a ridiculously cheap price. Gabriel, upon a chance meeting with Pan, a creature reminiscent of the very same mythological creature, is informed that he must travel to the world where the Necromantic Wars took place. Of course, these lands just happen to be peppered with malevolent vampires and werewolves out for blood. Ain’t that always the case? As Gabriel journeys forth to mingle with these creatures and to recover the precious artifact, he uncovers quite a few secrets along the way — the origin of the Lords of Shadow, the Brotherhood of Light, and other convenient plot devices masterfully woven into the storybook tale as narrated by Patrick Stewart.

And that brings us to my first issue with Lords of Shadow. A solid portion of the game’s meaty narrative is actually contained in storybook format complete with an on-screen book with eloquently-written text that Captain Picard narrates to the player. Rather than having cut scenes show rather than tell, we’re presented with a few lines of text and an illustration. This makes so little sense to me, as Lords of Shadow is an absolutely gorgeous game and it’s possible that beneath the schmaltzy “I miss my wife” plot, the entire Necromantic War saga could be a more fleshed out and entertaining reason to keep trudging through the game. For a game as graphically powerful as this one, it’s almost a slap in the face to keep the action under wraps with the few small bits of visual decadence scattered throughout. I was not amused.

Aside from the meandering plotline and unwillingness to use in-game scenes to aid in telling the story, Lords of Shadows’ hack-and-slashery isn’t particularly satisfying to me. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled in games such as Bayonetta or God of War, but I felt a similar sense of “drudgery” combined when having to take out opponents as Gabriel. There is a certain slow deliberateness that I couldn’t get past what with all the rolls, uninteresting combos, and even the new moves I eventually unlocked. When Gabriel pulls off the “finishers” as we’ve seen in prior games of the genre, it’s awe-inspiring. Too bad that doesn’t last. A ring-like timing system (like quick time events) slightly reminiscent of Lost Odyssey was an intriguing addition, but ultimately did nothing for me when it came to improving banal gameplay. It’s satisfying the first few times you go medieval on a few ravenous wolves, but soon it begins to feel telling of how unimaginative this game really is.

Case in point: boss battles ripped straight from Shadow of the Colossus. The game doesn’t wait to showcase this blatant reference either, tossing gamers into a fight more than a little reminiscent of tiffs with the titans in the wildly popular PS2 game. Find a way to climb up on the boss, stab some weak points, and hold on for dear life. It’s exactly the same. It’s engrossing, yes. But it seems out of place here, and decidedly un-Castlevania. I’m all for being inspired, but this feels more like revisiting an adventure I’ve already been on.

At least Lords of Shadow is beautiful. It’s filled with lush landscapes, dilapidated architecture, and mythical beings to whet your appetite for the fantastic. Unfortunately, you need to fight with the game in order to see it half the time. Fixed camera angles are a real pain in the neck. Ledges are often obscured from view, leaving Gabriel to plummet to his death. You want to have a proper look around the landscape, but you cannot. I cannot fathom why fixed camera angles in this day and age are still thought to be a good idea from a developer’s standpoint when it comes to the exploration of absolutely stunning worlds.

Even without the hindrance of iffy camera angles, exploration is further hampered by the game’s tendency to hold your hand every step of the way. And when it doesn’t, as is the case in the several puzzles scattered throughout the rather long campaign, you’re left wondering why the solution to a puzzle happens to be an ability you picked up and used several chapters ago, then soon abandoned. It’s small gripes like these and the rest of my grievances combined that take a potentially fantastic adventure and drive it into the ground for worse.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is quite confusing to me. On one hand, it bears the weight of all of the previous and magical Castlevania outings on its shoulders, which is quite a heavy load to handle. It’s a completely different beast than the 2-D scrollers of the old days and even the quite poor PlayStation releases. I’m not quite sure it knows what it wants to be. On the other hand, it’s a decent hack-and-slash adventure. It just suffers from a yawner of a story, done-to-death monsters (except for a few), infuriating camera angles, and wholly derivative mechanics.

It might have made more sense as a completely stand-alone title far removed from the hallowed Castlevania name, but I can’t see this being a fantastic entry point for newcomers to the series or for fans who have been there since the very beginning. And it pains me to say this as a longtime Castlevania fan, but I can only hope that this is not the direction this storied franchise is going in, because if it is, I can’t say for sure that I’ll hang on for the ride.

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