Konami’s Castlevania series stretches back to 1986 with the original title following a character known as Simon Belmont, descendant in a family of vampire hunters. It was all about tracking down the popular vampire of the time, Dracula, in his devilish castle – with the sole intention of putting him to rest once and for all.
Since then, the series has undergone many a transformation and evolution. It’s a series that has been seen on almost every major platform of the last 20-odd years. Almost all of us have seen or played something from the Castlevania line.
The latest, a complete franchise reboot from Spanish developers, MercurySteam (and Kojima Productions to a lesser advisory role) – aims to reinvent the Castlevania name for next-gen gaming.
Set during the end of days in the year 1047, the alliance between Earth and Heaven has been shattered, the fabric connecting the two worlds torn asunder by evil commanders known as the Lords of Shadow. Their dark spells take over the lands, corrupting it with hideous creatures, preying on living people. The souls of the deceased are now cut off from the passage into Heaven, forced to wander in Limbo.
The Brotherhood of Light, an elite group of Holy Knights are despatched to investigate the dark spells plaguing the Earth – and to fight against the evil of the Lords of Shadow. Gabriel Belmont, one such Holy Knight, also embarks on the quest having lost his wife, brutally murdered by the minions of Shadow.
Plagued with guilt for her death, he sets out to recover the God Mask – a supernatural artefact possessing the power to resurrect the dead. Broken and divided amongst the three Lords of Shadow, he must hunt the trio down and destroy them, recover the mask, bring back his wife – and save the World.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a third person action adventure game, with fixed camera and ‘hack & slash’ combat.
Throughout the game we control Gabriel Belmont, who utilises a weapon known as the ‘Combat Cross’. This multi-purpose, upgradeable, chain whip is your sole primary weapon. During the game, you find shrines left for you by other Holy Knights which imbue the Combat Cross with additional abilities and powers (a razor-edged chain for instance). There are two main types of attack in the form of conventional direct attacks and wide-area attacks.
In addition to combat ability, the Combat Cross is also used as a grapple device for platforming and puzzle solving. Throughout the world you will find numerous glowing grapple points where Gabriel can attach the chain and either scale the wall or wall-run across. These grapple points often hide secrets and signify the next step in some of Castelvania’s longer platforming segments.
Platforming takes a significant place in the game play. Scaling walls, towers, crossing balance beams, climbing new pathways. The grapple also needs to be used to open up areas (grapple to fixed wall points and tear them down with mashing sequences) for example. The platforming is quite dynamic and coupled with the exciting environments and boss battles, always fresh.
In conjunction with the platforming element is an involving puzzle solving aspect of game play which ranges in everything from simply finding keys hidden on dead bodies – to unravelling a room full of electrically charged pathways.
Additionally, as you progress further into the game, defeating bosses and the Lords of Shadow, you reclaim some of their abilities. Without spoiling too much of what’s in store, after defeating your first Lord of Shadow for example, you acquire his legendary boots, allowing you to run incredibly quickly, jump much larger distances – and coupled with magics, perform a whole new series of combos and attacks.
Magic also has a place in Gabriel’s arsenal. There are two types of magic on offer; the Light magic – and Shadow magic. Both operate on an expendable ‘Focus’ meter. As you attack (without getting hit), you build up Focus. Once you have maxed out your Focus meter, enemies begin dropping Focus orbs which can be absorbed into either Light or Shadow energy – then used to power new, special magic attacks in conjunction with your Combat Cross – or any of the unique Lords of Shadow items.
Focus can also be acquired from numerous shrines located in the game world. There are over 40 unlockable combos with some spectacular results on offer, especially when using Light and Shadow magic. Magic is also used to solve some puzzles within the world, unlocking doors and various other ‘key’ type systems.
As you delve deeper into the story, you unlock secondary weapons. Accessible from the D-pad, you have the basic starter daggers – a thrown blade particularly effective against certain enemy types. In addition, you gain access to other items, such as Holy Water (as you’d expect, extremely useful against all forms of the Undead), Fairies (not as lame as it sounds – they offer distraction, temporarily stunning most enemies) and the pièce de résistance, a powerful summoning crystal which invokes a conjured demon/fighter to do your bidding for you (with catastrophic success).
These can also be combined with the Light and Shadow magics to unlock further powerful abilities.
There’s a tremendous amount of variation in enemy types for Lords of Shadow. As environments and locations change dramatically, so do your foes. Huge open spaces are often met with massive Titan enemies, towering over you. So large you actually platform around them. Thick, jungle areas and gardens are met with giant spiders and tiny, life-sapping Mandragora (animated plants). Castles are full of heavily armoured Knights and Vampires. Ancient city ruins are populated by Lycanthropes and Trolls.
Then there are the ‘special’ enemies (the Butcher for example), a hulking beast dicing Human carcasses as food for the castle’s Ghoul inhabitants.
Oddly out of place are the ‘Chupacabra’ sequences, where a strange, annoyingly voiced character appears, steals all your relics – and you then have to sidetrack to get them back. I’m not sure of the purpose of these sections, but they felt wholly unnecessary.
The Light/Shadow Magic usage is great – but the dependence on its use for vanquishing certain enemies (and solving certain puzzles) isn’t relied upon until the last few chapters. I felt this was a mechanic that could have been expanded on a bit more (especially as its usage against later enemies and the end boss was very innovative and enjoyable) throughout the entire game.
Gabriel’s story is intense. It wears him down, exhausts him. He doesn’t sleep. It drives him mad, drives him to darkness. It would have been great to see his character model evolve to reflect this over the course of the game, particularly in the last few chapters, but essentially he looks and acts the same, even though the story reflects a broken, exhausted, shell of a man.
I really am nit-picking though. I’ve found it hard to truly fault Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It plays so well and becomes so addictive. ‘Just one more level’, I’d be saying to myself at 1 in the morning on a work night. As a hack and slash, it’s great. As a puzzle game, it’s fantastic – as a platformer, it’s good fun. The story is brilliant.
Having amalgamated solid game play mechanics from lots of other games, it’s enjoying the best of all worlds. In the same way as Darksiders was a gem for what it actually delivered, so too is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Graphics & Sound
Without a doubt, this is one of the most stunning titles we’ve seen on the PS3 to date. The attention to detail is overwhelming. Early levels have you moving through thick jungle environments, every leaf and vine modelled with incredible detail. Later levels take you through simply gigantic castles and elaborate ancient ruins. The “Necromancer’s Abyss” is amazing. There is a pleasant variation in environments, even the castles themselves have significant differences in architecture, colour palette and style.
Enemies are equally as impressive. Ghouls with poisonous bile breath, Armoured Skeletons capable of reanimating and the ability to attack in a massive whirlwind of bone, poltergeist-powered Armoured Knights, freshly changed Vampire kin, a commander Vampire with a double-blade sword as tall as Gabriel himself. It’s a much darker edge for this Castlevania outing. If you mixed Pan’s Labyrinth with Lords of the Rings, you’d be getting some idea of the character design here. It’s fantastic.
Unfortunately all of this beauty and detail comes at the cost of some frame rate stability. Occasional portions of the game feel like they’re running at sub-30 fps. It’s an odd ‘staggered’ effect, as if the game is just, ever-so-slightly, outrunning the hardware. But only just. It might be enough to discourage the graphics purists, those used to 100fps on PC’s, but to be honest, it never really affects playability. ~25 hours of story and I can’t say it ever bothered me beyond occasionally noticing it.
Gabriel is voiced by Robert Carlyle. Your mentor (and the story’s narrator), Zobek, a fellow Holy Knight, is voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart. Voice talent is brilliant. The story has a deep, serious, cinematic tone to it. Coupled with the unique and stunning chapter presentation in the form of tome entries, narrated as words scroll across the pages, it is wonderfully delivered.
This one is a labour of love. You can feel the time and detail invested into the game. At well over 20 hours for the story, it’s good value too. And there’s plenty of reason to replay as there’s lots to collect, plenty of combos and upgrades and Trials emerging after each level completion.
If you miss Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, you miss one of the best games of the year. It mixes the best game play elements of a number of successful titles before it and wraps the bundle in a stunning, epic scale of story and imagery. Absolutely this is one to devote some time to. You’d be crazy to miss it