If there's one thing that Lords of Shadow has taught me, it's that I'm pretty sure having Patrick Stewart read bedtime stories to you would be one of the best things in the world. The bald-headed, classically-trained national treasure purrs his way through chapter after chapter of fantastically nonsensical sotry, bringing an often contradictory and otherwise bland narrative to life with the rich tones and warm rhetoric of a man who's seen the best of both the RSC and Hollywood. He's probably the best thing in the game.
The inclusion of Sir Patrick, not to mention other well known actors such as Robert Carlyle (more Renard than Begbie in this uncharacteristically muted role as Gabriel Belmont), is testament to the fact that no expense has been spared on this title...and it shows right from the very start. Jaws will drop at just how staggeringly beautiful the medieval world that Gabriel inhabits truly is. From sprawling ruins, to deep, lush forests, to thunderstruck Gothic castles (eventually), the game makes passionate love to your eyeballs.
But it's not just the astonishingly crafted vistas and that will take your breath away and stir your imagination, the soundtrack is instrumental (forgive the pun) in conveying exactly the sense of epic fantasy for which Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is striving. The orchestra rises and falls like an ocean during the game, sometimes content to flutter under the surface before rising up in towering crescendos and making your spine tingle as a plot twist (and there are a few) slaps you across the face, or a gigantic Titan bursts it's way forth from the ground. I sat listening to the menu music for a good ten minutes or so, but then I'm a sucker for a bunch of rousing strings and horns.
The story is suitably grandiose, as well, although unlike the more Dracula-centric tales of previous series instalments, this is a much more personal tale of loss and revenge. You play Gabriel Belmont - no relation to previous Belmonts - a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a society of nomadic warriors who protect civilians from things like the undead and, probably, aliens. An evil group of baddies called the Lords of Shadow have gone and severed the connection between Heaven and Earth and allowed supernatural horrors to run rampant...and a few of them may have brutally murdered Gabriel's wife. The task is simple: stop the Lords of Shadow, restore the link between Heaven and Earth, drive out the monsters and exact some serious vengeance. One thing is made very clear: you are supposed to believe that this in an epic story, set in an epic land, and that everything you do is really quite epic...supposedly.
Don't be fooled, though. For all of the horizons that beckon to you, interesting areas that you want to investigate, the game shuts the door on your exploratory tendencies pretty damn quickly. Invisible walls are everywhere, the game opting instead to funnel you down strictly linear paths with the odd distraction. Forget that Castlevania tag and instead imagine that God of War, Devil May Cry and a whole bunch of other, less great hack-and-slash action titles pooled their genes and spawned a new game. It's getting boring to call a game God-of-War-esque, but quite frankly when a game tries so very hard to emulate its genre peers, it's relatively difficult.
Gabriel is armed with a weapon called the Combat Cross, which is essentially an enormous retractable metal whip. In typical hack-and-slash style, for every kill there's a little bit of XP which can be spent on new abilities and combos. But Konami, to their credit, have at least tried to mix things up a little bit with C:LOS's magic system. The bearer of both Light and Dark magic, the former will essentially allow Gabriel to restore his health with each successful hit when activated, the latter gifting him extra damage potential. The bars run out pretty quickly, and the only way to replenish the is by landing blows when neither ability is activated to get enemies to drop neutral energy orbs.
Sound confusing? It isn't really, not until you unlock some of the more complex combos that suddenly have you utilising you block button for offensive attacks, and it actually adds some tactical depth to fights. Or at least it would if the enemies you fought ever did things differently. There's quite a variety of adversaries in the game, but by and large, you'll go about defeating them all the same way - by spamming the roll button, landing a hit or two and repeating. You can forget about those awesome combos too, unless you're fighting someone one on one, as most of the time you'll be fighting multiple enemies and they'll interrupt you starting animation before you even land a hit. The interactive, context-sensitive right trigger doesn't help matters either: you'll want to chuck a grenade or grab an enemy and instead Gabriel will hang onto a switch or start rifling through a dead man's clothes and you'll probably die.
But that's not really the problem. Castlevania has always been a fairly difficult series. What is disappointing is that it never feels varied, the enemies all blending into one another in unsurprising fashion, nearly all of them armed with an area attack that will make you put a controller-shaped hole in your television. The game is so stingy to begin with when it comes to magic as well, that you never actually feel like the badass you're supposed to be. DMC did this exceptionally, and Bayonetta even better - marrying difficulty levels with a fluid, varied combat system that was challenging but also supremelysatisfying - the Combat Cross is supposedly soaked in Holy Water...but it feels more like it's been marinaded in the Thames. Everyday combat becomes a grinding slog until you're about fifteen hours in, which is probably quite realistic, but in a game that features magic, werewolves, vampires and grenade-chucking goblins, that's not really a good thing.
Then there's the platforming and exploration, or lack thereof. There's a level right at the start of the game where you have to activate a bunch of runes, one of them in a path off the beaten track. The only problem is that you can't tell where the path starts and I had to feel my way along the invisible wall in order to find it. There's sometimes some difficulty in telling which platforms and ledges are grippable and those that aren't, but what is completely inexcusable is that the game, for all of its restrictive walls and unseen barriers, doesn't stop you when you reach the arbitrary end of the Combat Cross's (think hookshot) tether. You'll be rappelling down a wall and then instead of stopping at the end of the chain, Gabriel will just haplessly fall to his death. These aren't game breaking things, but they take you out of the experience, an experience that the bells and whistles try so hard to maintain, that try as I might to get into the game, it wouldn't let me.
And I wanted to, I really wanted to absolutely love this game, but every time I turned it on it made me want to play another game, one that did what it tried to do, but better.
The boss fights, some of them anyway, proved to be saving graces, particularly the Titans you battle early on. Some of the fights are huge, contests that see you scaling the enormous beasts with the Combat Cross before crippling them at runic weak spots. These battles are stunning...but we've seen them before too, and they meant more too. It's impossible not to think of Shadow of the Colossus when fighting the giant creatures, but that game had a moving, expertly crafted context rather than 'this big thing just woke up and is in our way'. Sadly, for all of the special abilities that Gabriel receives, unlike, say, any Zelda game, you soon realise that most of the boss battles follow the same pattern as well and that until you unlock the block-breaking moves later in the game, you're resigned to rolling around and snatching attacks where you can. The battle with the Lord of the Lycans, for example, is a festival of button-mashing like any other fight but longer the first time through, after which the game has you do it all over again, only with more rolling. For all of the breathtaking scale of the first Titan, the realisation that defeating the second one took exactly the same method seemed like such a wasted opportunity. Towards the end of the game there are some genuinely thrilling encounters, but taking 8-10 hours to hit your stride is not a good thing as some might feel.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination and there will be plenty of people appreciative of its long game time (20 hours or so for the first playthrough and then many more to clock it completely) and value for money. But there's so much padding here that it dilutes interest, ruins pacing completely and turns the epic nature of the adventure into something of a tedious marathon. As you can probably tell from the tone of this review, I emerged from Lords of Shadow with extreme ambivalence, but it's worth playing to the end, the story's conclusion and epilogue is fantastic. But for every moment with which I fell in love, there was one that frustrated and irritated. For every fight I enjoyed, there were at least two that seemed superfluous. It's a real shame, because with an editor's touch and a little more soul, this could have been one of the games of the year.
- Breathtaking presentation and a beautiful orchestral soundtrack
- Some truly epic and intense boss battles
- It's certainly a time-sink...
- ...but too much padding and repetitive combat
- Horrible fixed camera
- Imitative rather than inspired
The Short Version: There are moments where everything in Lords of Shadow clicks into place and the game takes on its own personality and shines. There are moments when the game feels just as epic as it thinks it is. But for the most part, Lords of Shadow is riddled with slight disappointments and gameplay padding and, in spite of its majestic beauty, constantly fills you with the nagging feeling that you've played something eerily similar before...only better and more fun.