Narrated through the voice of long time actor, Patrick Stewart, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the re-imagination of the beloved Castlevania series. It’s taken another bold attempt at the 3D direction, but this time with the assistance of the mastermind behind the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima.
You take the role of Gabriel Belmont, an elite holy knight and member of the Brotherhood of Light. The world is in chaos and monsters run amuck. Although Gabriel is a defender of the people, he was unable to save the life of the person who was of utmost importance to him, his wife Marie. With the guidance of the God Pan and his friend Zobek, Gabrielle seeks out the Lords of Shadow to put a stop to the suffering they’ve caused, and bring his love back to life.
Gabriel‘s weapon of choice is a chain whip called the Combat Cross. It can deliver a variety of attacks that evolve throughout the course of the game. Regular attacks deliver more damage while the area attack covers hordes of enemies. The combo system is very fluid - players can link attacks at their own pace, which makes mastering most of the combos an easy task. Because the camera angle is fixed, though, monsters are frequently hidden from view. Enemies usually telegraph their attacks beforehand, so if you can’t see them the combat can become frustrating. Fortunately this is the only major problem I’ve encountered with the game. So as to not interrupt his momentum, Gabriel can immediately shift to a jumping attack at any point in time by tapping the jump button. This technique proves useful when enemies begin to introduce ground based attacks. While attacking, time will periodically slow down to give the player time to react, block or evade an attack. Grappling small enemies can instantly kill them, but this requires Gabriel to correctly time his blow. Larger enemies, on the other hand, need to be weakened first.
Gabriel can learn new combos and abilities with the experience he gains from enemies or solving puzzles, and his travel book provides a handy animated visual of the abilities before you purchase them. Gabriel also learns new abilities through story-related weapon upgrades or with collected equipment from fallen bosses. Sprinting and double jumping are soon added to his arsenal of moves, but it’s the hook upgrade that completely changes the style of the game. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of climbing. When you’re not using the hook to grab distant enemies, Gabriel is swinging across chasms, scaling castle walls and collapsing architectures, or creating entrances by smashing his way through windows. It’s actually a nice break from the traditional, straight-forward button mashing because it opens up a world of exploration.
The Light and Shadow magic gauges add an extra layer to the gameplay. When activated, these spells give the player access to new combos and techniques. The Light magic replenishes health with each successful attack and instantly cures poison, while Shadow magic increases the amount of damage dealt with each blow. You can fill up either of the meters with magical orbs which fall from enemies. It can become quite the dilemma deciding where to add them, though you can come across fountains that offer an endless source of orbs. Because some enemies aren’t as easy to kill there’s a third meter, Chain gauge, that allows for enemies to drop orbs as they get hit instead of after dying. This is especially useful during boss battles. However, it can only be maximised by pulling off successful combos without taking damage.
Gabriel has the ability to tame large beasts. Instead of killing them, you can mount monsters before delivering the final blow, permitting full control over them. This feature can be seen as a substitute for the metamorphosis ability we’re all too familiar with in previous Castlevania games. They allow Gabriel to access areas that he's unable to reach on his own. For example, trolls break open paths and spiders create paths, whilst giant werewolves can clear long jumps.
Hidden throughout the game are red, blue and green gems that increase the shadow, light and health gauges. They are well hidden, and Gabriel must cleverly use his grappling hook and beast mounting abilities to find them. Puzzles also heavily rely on abilities Gabriel gains throughout the game. They start off simple, like collecting key items to open up locked gates, but they quickly increase in difficulty. Scrolls found on fallen knights often provide hints to the puzzles at hand, so if you’re facing too much difficulty you can always refer to scrolls to solve the puzzle for you. However, you’re not awarded with experience points if you do use them. Puzzles include positioning mirrors to reflect light, vampire chess and (probably most annoyingly) finding chupacabras who randomly appear and steal your relics.
Aside from the typical brute bosses, Castlevania has a lot memorable battles. There's the Evil Chef who uses every single object in his kitchen to either kill you or replenish his health, two vampire commanders and the Grave Digger, to name a few. The most notable, however, are the titan and colossi battles. These immense beasts have a handful of weak points on their bodies. Gabriel must find the opportunity to grab on to the titan and use the Combat Cross to climb it, all the while it's constantly trying to shake him off. Sound familiar? That’s because these battles are highly inspired by Shadow of the Colossus, if not identical.
Characters are well modeled and the facials expressions alone paint a huge picture. Gabriel’s fighting stance is identical to Simon Belmont’s 2D counterpart, and it’s just wonderful to see it translated perfectly in Lords of Shadow. Although there is a castle level, the game’s story doesn’t revolve around it alone, which breaks a long served tradition that many of us almost expect with each Castlevania release. There are still many familiar locations that are beautifully represented in the game, like the clock tower and library, but the new levels (which require a fair amount of climbing) are the ones that really show off the visuals. Indoor levels, on the other hand, capture a dark and ominous touch that creates a thrilling atmosphere. Shortly after entering the vampire liar for the first time my heart nearly sank when the sun set, and thanks to the frequent changes in camera angles the game can sneak in a few startles.
The voice acting is superb, including British actors Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart, Natasha McElhone who really breathe life into the characters. The music has its grand moments, notably during boss battles, but it’s generally quite depressing. Its gloominess competes with that of Final Fantasy X at times for most dispiriting soundtrack. And it doesn’t help that the same soundtracks are repeated for chapters at a time... before it finally changes to another that’s equally repetitive.
The game took almost 20 hours to complete. The paladin difficulty is unlocked after finishing the game. Each level can be revisited to try and achieve 110% completion by finding Brotherhood Arks and missed gems. All items and abilities cross over and finally a trial mode for each level also becomes available. Trials require the player to complete the level in a certain amount of time, finish them without replenishing health or solving a puzzle without making any mistakes. As well as the 40 plus combos that can be purchased with experience points, you can also use your points to unlock artwork in the Extras menu. Solid Snake accessories can also be unlocked, as well as vampire chess.
One may argue that Castelvania: Lords of Shadow's gameplay borrowed a lot form the God of War series. After all, it was Kratos who introduced flailing chains to the hack and slash genre. Nonetheless, despite the similarities, Castlevania is able to maintain a certain charm about it. It’s a solid, all-round game, offering a little bit of everything in healthy doses whilst also preserving the essence of the Castlevania series. Exploration and puzzles keep it from getting monotonous, and the compelling yet emotional story makes this game an experience to remember.