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.
I have played many games, as I'm sure you have, that present you with a world filled with a bizarre, yet consistent logic. They then enforce that logic at various points in the gameplay to coax you into puzzle-solving within the game's alien rules. This is not uncommon -- in God of War III you learned that hijacking birds allowed you to cross chasms and additional smacks from your blades made the birds fly farther. In Gears of War you learned that throwing grenades into Locust holes prevented more Locust from coming out. These aren't every-day skills you learn in school; these are bizarre, in-game twists of logic that are conveyed to you in a consistent manner so as to train you into playing the way the developers want you to.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is also filled with its own rules and logic, and yet it enforces them all in completely inconsistent ways. Crystals are required to open doors, yet sometimes fairies will open doors instead. Blue and red crystals of a different type will fuel your light and dark magic meters, which themselves have rules regarding how and when to use them. At one point you also have to collect pink crystal shards for no reason other than to power up a room full of statues. These rules spawn gameplay loops that work well enough on their own, though they don't do anything particularly new, and ultimately serve to confuse what is already a jumbled mess of game rules and conventions that have been lifted wholesale from other games.
The game also goes to great lengths to describe its own control scheme at regular intervals -- a feature that speaks volumes about hopelessly clueless you will be even after playing the game for several hours. In any other game, a simple tutorial level would suffice in communicating all you'd need to know about riding monsters, using magic and interacting with the world in general. The rules Castlevania goes to great lengths to explain however, change from one room to the next and so the instructions will appear on-screen almost every single time you have to do something very specific -- which happens almost constantly.
Take the ledge-climbing sections for example: the game teaches you early-on to grab glowing ledges only. I experimented during this section by deliberately grabbing for non-glowing ledges as well. Of course I couldn't grab them. Not 20 minutes later, however, I was presented with a series of obvious-looking ledges, none of which were glowing. After a moment of careful consideration I jumped at the nearest non-glowing ledge and, amazingly, grabbed it. At this point I thought that the 'glowing ledges' were just a training aid and now the game was letting me fly without a net, so I jumped to the next closest non-glowing ledge, only to plummet to my death because there was an invisible wall in the way. How, then, did I navigate my way to the summit? Only by sheer trial-and-error and guesswork. The rules for vertical navigation in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is thus: Although it may look as though there are 30 or so ledges in front of you, the developers only made 7 of them interactive, and you'll have to guess at which ones those are. Good luck!
This environmental vagary is present throughout the entire game. The areas I found myself in at many points during play were so finely-detailed that almost every area featured ledges and natural outcroppings that indicated good places to climb, jump and explore. Thanks to MercurySteam's penchant for imprisoning these lush, sprawling environments with a labyrinthine network of unnecessary invisible walls, however, I found that for the most part it is all just window-dressing. And yet you are still expected to explore for hidden items. There is always a preset path in the rock that will safely get you from the entrance to the exit, but it all devolves into arbitrary guesswork because the visual cues aren't there, and on the occasions when they are there they aren't consistent. Over time this blanket of vagary wore me down and dispelled any notion I had of exploration, adventure, excitement, creative thought or enjoyment.
Another example of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow's inconsistent rules is navigating narrow bridges or spider webs that require you to control Gabriel's balance work. Sometimes invisible walls will prevent him from falling to his doom, yet at other times the slightest deviation to either side of the narrow platform will send him plummeting to his death. Again, there are never any visual or thematic cues that convey to you whether this particular bridge you are on is a deadly bridge or a safe one. Instead you are left to guess all over again, and you won't know if you've screwed up until it's too late and you are reaching for the 'retry' menu option.
Speaking of falling deaths, sometimes Gabriel can fall about 30 feet without so much as a grunt, and yet at other times a drop from a 10 foot high ledge will trigger the slow-motion death animation, as though he just fell into a never ending abyss. Again, it is very obvious at all times that these rules change on the fly to serve some arbitrary purpose of that section of the level, as the game constantly changes its own rules and conventions to serve the level design.
The grapple hook only works when the game wants it to. Sometimes you will be able to grapple to a point a great distance away, whereas at other times it will not fire until you are standing in a predefined area much closer to the blue glowing grapple-point. The grapple hook will only allow you to swing horizontally when there is an adjacent ledge to your left or right. If not, then that very same grapple hook will only let you scoot up and down. If there is no ledge or platform to swing horizontally to, the game simply won't let you swing left or right. I know there isn't much point to swinging sideways when the only way out is a door above me, but lie to me, just a little. Make me think that I at least have some modicum of free will.
Overall, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a wonderful game to look at and listen to, but from the minute you pick up the controller to the minute you put it down, the game is an on-rails theme park ride with wonky wheels. It encourages you to explore and find hidden treasures, and then blocks the majority of your attempts with invisible walls. It features a backtracking element, allowing you to use skills earned later in the game to access areas that you discovered much earlier, but the game is broken down by levels, not an overworld where that mechanic works best. It pulls in a thousand great game mechanics from other games and, with the exception of combat, doesn't polish a single one. It tells you to climb the intricate stonework of castle walls and wonderfully jagged cliffs, but gives you only one way to do so. It lets you to ride giant Lycans, spiders and ogre's and then makes them handle like tanks.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow could have been a wonderfully rich gameplay experience, had MercurySteam tightened its overall focus and opened more of the world to exploration. Instead, they threw the kitchen sink at the Castlevania license and this is what came out the other end -- a haphazard mess. There are far better-made games on the shelves right now that are more deserving of your $60.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow released for PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 5, 2010 and PC on August 27, 2013.