Set in a medieval alternate-universe, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow lets you assume the role of Gabriel Belmont — a knight of the Brotherhood of Light. The Botherhood of light is an overwatch of sorts that protects the weak and the innocent against the forces of darkness. Apparently, the forces of good and evil are so potent in certain locations that the fabric between reality and the beyond is all but non-existent. This of course means that the lands are overrun with unsavory demonic beasts of all kinds, and humble country-folk are being slaughtered all over the place.
Shortly before the game begins, we learn that Gabriel’s wife, Marie, has recently been savagely murdered by said beasts. This of course drives our young, coiffed hero to volunteer for the task of going right to the source of this demonic outbreak to kill everything, except humble country-folk of course.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a 3rd-person action-adventure title, featuring an even mix of combat, exploration and puzzle-solving. In many of its aspects, God of War appears to be its greatest influence, with Shadow of the Colossus coming in a close second. Though at its heart I get the impression that it really doesn’t quite know what it is or what it wants to be. There are too many gameplay loops lifted verbatim from other games and certain boss fight have apparently been taken wholesale from other games.
If any game was in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own ambition, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow fits the bill perfectly. What starts off as a seemingly solid intro into the world of vampires and Lycans very rapidly dissolves to expose the jumbled mess of halfhearted game mechanics. This game is quite literally the most awkward and annoying single-player experience I have ever had.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow isn’t a total loss, by any means. Before I dive headlong into the myriad of things it gets wrong, let me preface it all by highlighting the things it gets right. You see, occasionally the bad camera work and awkwardly-contrived navigation would recede, giving me a glimpse at the shining star this game could have been, had it spent another 6 months getting cleaned up and focus-tested.
Firstly, the graphics are gorgeous and are at least equal to those seen in Uncharted 2. Textures are beautifully natural and the level of geometry and detail in any given scene is breathtaking. The color palette throughout is rich and varied also. No structural style or texture palette overstays its welcome and, normally, a refreshingly different art style is just around the next corner. Monsters look like real monsters and move in physically-believable ways. Additionally, all human characters emote and act with a great amount of realism. Indeed, there is very little difference between the in-engine visuals and the pre-rendered cut-scenes.
The monsters are by far and away the best-realized in the business. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow envelops you in a much darker-toned world than the previous Castlevania titles – a fact that is reflected in many of the tougher enemies in particular. Likewise, the boss battles see Gabriel squaring-off against some foes that are both truly haunting and technically incredible.
Deserving of equal praise here is the game’s musical score. Spanish composer, Oscar Araujo, has put together a beautifully dynamic soundtrack, that swells in triumph and also softens in quiet self-reflection when needed. Apparently he assembled a 120-piece orchestra and an 80 person choir to bring this game’s soundtrack to life, and boy, does it show. Most of the game’s atmosphere is inferred by the music rather than the visuals. It is at times epic and empowering, and at other times muted and emotionally burdensome. Very excellently done indeed.
The combat, too, is finely honed and tuned to near-perfection. It is visceral and meaty, complex and engaging, and the additional ‘minigame’ component of triggering light and dark magic mid-battle to gain health from hits or deal more damage is a masterful touch that at first feels overbearing, but becomes very instinctive the more you play. Gabriel’s attacks convey power and his move list is simple to get to grips with initially, but layers of complexity build it over time through purchased upgrades in order to give you a wide arsenal of magical and physical attacks.