Some words from Mr Stanton.
If there’s one thing you expect from a Castlevania game, it’s Patrick Stewart. Sorry I mean vampires! Definitely vampires. Lords of Shadow has coffins full of the buggers, though it’s shy about the fact and sticks them behind one of the most turgid and over-extended openings I’ve ever had the misfortune to play through. Things do get sexy, but to find out about Gabriel Belmont’s combat cross you gotta jump, jump.
RPS readers are famous for their enjoyment of console-to-PC ports that add little beyond an increase in resolution and rely on your having, basically, a 360 controller or its equivalent. That’s what this is; I tried playing with the keyboard and, y’know, that’s not happening. The ‘Ultimate Edition’ subtitle refers to this having the console DLC, which is a few extra levels tying up plot holes, and three years after release is no less than you’d expect.
So LoS has had the minimum of sprucing-up, but in its favour is the fact that PC isn’t the king of platforms when it comes to 3D beat-em-ups. Sadly the finest developers in this particular genre, i.e. Platinum Games, haven’t yet made their PC debut – though Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which is one of the best games ever ever ever, is on its way.
But let’s put that to one side for the moment, and look at what we’ve got. LoS is and was developer Mercury Steam’s attempt to bring Konami’s classic Castlevania series into 3D; it’s part beat-em-up, part Uncharted-style platformer, and sprinkled with countless one-off set pieces.
The most initially surprising thing, what with this being a Castlevania game and all, is how generic much of it feels. Let’s put it this way: if the final third was lopped off, and LoS was renamed The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn-a Getcha, you wouldn’t even need to change the main character model.
This is perhaps my biggest disappointment with the game, because when I think of Castlevania my mind is filled with flickering candles and gloomy castles, a world where even the cutlery has a baroque-gothic vibe. LoS does have all of this stuff, but it’s such a long time until you see any of it that the damage is done. To give credit where it is due, LoS is very much its own take on Castlevania and there’s no doubt this is often an incredible-looking game. The earlier environments might not be much fun to play through but they’re often jaw-dropping, and the environmental art direction throughout is first-rate (though paired up with a temperamental automatic camera).
I’d guesstimate there’s six to eight hours of goblins, mini-werewolves, flying gremlins, crappy platforming, and all sorts of other tossed-off fantasy archetypes before LoS gets good. I mean really: goblins?!? The game is aiming for the kind of warped fantasy style you get in Guillermo del Toro films, but its enemy design sucks in a bad way.
By the time an interesting opponent, nevermind a vampire, turned up in LoS I’d had three children and a mid-life crisis. Once I’d recovered and eBayed the Harley-Davidson, I started to think about the game’s structure. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but it’s padded out with an enormous amount of mediocre nonsense. It’s hard to blame the developers for this, because many critics and consumers seem to actually *enjoy* the wall-climbing and scenery-traversal of games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider.
You do get to look at pretty views, but this kind of interaction is braindead; holding in one direction and watching your character scramble up a surface, holding another direction for a bit, maybe a jump here or there. OMG there are even bits where you can swing or wall-run! The thing is that climbing and platforming in 3D is very hard to do right, and so what you often get instead is this kind of autopilot mode – Gabriel homes in on jumpable platforms, while the next ledge or swingpoint is highlighted with an unsubtle shine (this can be turned off in the options). LoS also has a terrible habit of putting enemies at the end of these sections, and putting the checkpoint before them; so if you die in the fight you’ve got to clamber again before having another pop.
This linearity stands for the game as a whole. 2D Castlevania is known for its layered environmental design, but I don’t think there’s any problem with LoS taking a different approach. Unfortunately the developers didn’t quite have the courage of their convictions here and, in an attempt to shoehorn some backtracking into the design, the earlier levels have collectibles you can’t get at until you’ve acquired a certain tool. This is unnecessary, pointless, and you really won’t want to do it.
You may be thinking LoS is a total writeoff at this point, and the sad thing is it’s not. It looks amazing, the soundtrack is awesome, and it has the best story of any Castlevania game. LoS is at its core a combat game and its system – though simple – is superbly animated and enormous fun to master. Gabriel’s main weapon is a crucifix that somehow also contains a 50-foot chain, which he wields like a combination of bo staff and whip, and over the course of the game it simply gets more and more badass; pretty soon the chain has giant spikes on it, before eventually the cross becomes the stake of stakes.
Most fights are against groups of enemies, and the key mechanics are block timing and Gabriel’s light / dark meters. Blocking an incoming attack at the right time means you’ll parry the attack, which results in a big flash and slowdown effect – the timing window for this is huge compared to the ‘best in genre’ like Bayonetta or MGR:R, but it’s still satisfying to execute. The slowdown serves a purpose, too, because Gabe’s meters can be triggered during it; go into ‘light’ mode and he regains health while laying the smack down, while ‘dark’ mode multiplies the damage being dealt.
LoS is far from the best combat system I’ve played with – the parry window is far too wide, and it’s impossible to interrupt attack animations with block which leads to rather boring defensive play against the tougher enemies. But it’s also a lot of good-old fashioned fun. As the game goes on and your opposition becomes more challenging, there’s a definite thrill in how you can control a crowd before parrying and absolutely smashing down the biggest nasties. The boss fights start off terribly, with half-baked (though visually impressive) tributes to Shadow of the Colossus, but by the game’s latter half there are wave-based gauntlets that focus on stretching your skills rather than merely looking nice.
This is probably the most annoying thing about LoS. There are some properly great fights throughout the game, ding-dongers that have you clutching the pad and relying on instinct as much as finishers. The problem is not that there’s too little of this – there’s plenty – but that the experience as a whole is so padded with bad fights and below-average platforming and puzzles.
Some might see that another way, and fair enough. In an age of seven hour campaigns LoS certainly bucks that trend: in terms of sheer hours and sights to see, there’s value for money here and then some.
My favourite moment in the Castlevania series to date, and I’m sure many of you feel the same, is at the ‘end’ of Symphony of the Night – when the castle flips, and you realise the game’s just become twice as big. It’s a cruel irony that Lords of Shadow would have been a superb reinvention of Castlevania – if only it was half the size.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Ultimate Edition is available now on Steam.