How fitting that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a digital Frankenstein’s monster, an assortment of disparate parts stolen from games recently interred in the second-hand section of your local retailer and roughly sewn together in MercurySteam’s laboratories to give new life to a deceased franchise.
But powerful though each of Lord of Shadow’s purloined limbs may be – Uncharted’s platforming, God of War’s combat, Shadow of the Colossus’ Titan-scrambling set pieces – they don’t always work together in unison.
And if the game is sometimes uncoordinated, it’s always shambling. It lumbers on for perhaps 20 hours and it’s needlessly lengthened by frustrating fetch quests and unnecessary puzzles.
Furthermore, Lords of Shadow has very little in common with its predecessors. It’s a fixed perspective hack ‘n’ slashing action adventure with next to none of the non-linear exploration that the Castlevania series once built its reputation on.
You control a new interpretation of Belmont, a holy warrior on a quest to resurrect his murdered wife. Your plotted expedition will take you to the lands of the lycans (werewolves), the vampires and the necromancers to collect the scattered fragments of the God Mask, an artefact rumoured to have power over life and death.
The melodramatic narrative is relayed by a fellow member of the Brotherhood of the Light, Zobek, voiced by Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart. Stewart’s over delivered voice acting attempts to ominously foreshadow the events of each level but his work sits in stark contrast to the game’s cut-scenes. These feature an inexpressive, strutting Belmont that you’ll struggle to engage or sympathise with.
The opening hours of Lords of Shadow are a disjointed montage of gameplay styles that feel as though they were assembled by a committee more concerned about what sells than what works harmoniously. You’ll go through an arena-style tutorial, on-rails vehicular combat, heavy platforming and two boss fights with Titans entirely composed of frustrating trial and error quick-time events.
Consider also that these sequences are bereft of anything resembling the eponymous promise of gothic castles and you could be forgiven for beginning to despair.
You’d be wrong to do so. The game turns on a dime about a third of the way through and soon you’re exploring decrepit towers that have become the haunt of witches, bleak peasant villages huddled in the shadow of menacing citadels, reinforced abbeys defended by mad friars and gaunt fortresses that conceal nocturnal secrets.
And in spite of an initial poor showing in the boss department, MercurySteam ultimately prove themselves to be adept at designing interesting, tiered battles that require skill and responsiveness. The combat system is one of the game’s greatest strengths and in many ways Lords of Shadow manages to surpass the games it apes. Belmont’s primary weapon is his chain whip with a crucifix hilt with which he can deliver heavy direct attacks or weaker area attacks. He’s also armed with a variety of secondary weapons; daggers, holy water, a daemonic crystal and fairies, each with its own useful application.
Where the combat distinguishes itself, however, is with two magical states that Belmont can enter into. Light magic returns Belmont’s health with each blow landed while dark magic increases the damage dealt.
Both of these modes must be used exclusively of one another and both are tied to diminishing resource pools. The pools are refilled by executing uninterrupted hit combinations. The result is a hack ‘n’ slasher that transcends button-mashing and focuses on anticipation, defence and finesse.
The fixed camera is slightly more problematic. Enemies can be pushed out of frame or obscured by objects. For a game that doesn’t blush as it borrows from its sources, it seems foolish not to have included God of War’s ability to make small adjustments to the perspective.
As Belmont solves puzzles and dispatches the cast of the Ghoulies, he’s rewarded with experience points that can be reinvested in new combinations and talents. Unfortunately, the overlong list is padded with button combinations you’re likely to forget as soon as you’ve acquired them and situational abilities of passing usefulness. It’s likely to be systemic of the game’s extreme length and the corresponding need for MercurySteam to continually dream up new rewards for the player.
The game’s platforming elements are also a mixed experience. While the camera, highlighted cues and Belmont himself will indicate where to jump to next, there’s no clear rule set as to which movement options can be used at any one time. Belmont’s chain whip doubles as a grappling hook. Sometimes he’ll be able to use it at ten metres, at other times he’ll have to be extremely close to the highlighted latch. Belmont can also use the chain to abseil down walls but extending too low will see him plummet to his death. Again, you’re punished on a case by case basis as there’s no predetermined length at which you’ll fall.
At least the game’s checkpoint system is extremely generous. Any mountaineering mishap sees you restarting at the last ledge with a sliver of health lost.
Moreover, these frequent stops in gameplay allow you to pause and consider the game’s finest attribute, its presentation. As a result of the fixed camera, the game’s director can ensure that each level is a succession of arresting panoramas and carefully presented assets. Even the incongruous early levels are a delight to view.
Indeed it’s the unifying quality of Castlevania: Lord of Shadows’ presentation that manages to elevate it somewhere above the sum of its pilfered parts and allows it stand on its own two feet as a game of some note.
Like Mary Shelley’s gothic creation, you’ll come to discover that Lords of Shadow is no monster, even if its ubiquitous quick-time events will occasionally see you reaching for your pitchfork.