Review: Castlevania Lords of Shadow

Casltevania Lords of Shadow (CLoS for short) is the latest instalment to the 25 year old horror action game series. CLoS didn’t really sell that well, but if sources are to be trusted, it sold enough to warrant a sequel. Now I’ll be blunt; reviewing this game will be a difficult task, as I do like the game, but there are things that make me uneasy because it bears the name Castlevania. Is it good? Yes. Is it bad? Not really. Is it Castlevania? Well, kinda, but that’s something we’ll have to dwell into deeper.

Lords of Shadow is a reboot to the series, thus newcomers do not have to know anything about the lore of Castlevania, a good thing since they began to shove something called “complex plot and characterization” into the series since Akumajou Dracula X; Chi no Ronde on the PC-Engine. It all started to go all bonks when its sequel, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released making the series basically abandon its roots and started what we call a Metroidvania or Castleroid, meaning that linear venturing forwards stage by stage was replaced by one large castle that interconnects everywhere to anywhere, but you can’t access all the places unless you have items/skills/magic/vehicles/something to get there. For example, you might need a double jump ability to reach high places.

From this…

… to this.

Back in the day this caused a small outcry in the people who disliked the change. After the change all 2D Castlevanias have followed the Metroidvania gameplay and abandoned the difficulty the series was known for. Symphony of the Night, at the time, was what we would call “babby’s first Castlevania” nowadays, and many series fans began with this game.
When Castlevania jumped into 3D with the Nintendo 64, it was an abomination. I won’t defend the games, as they’re the same game, but the latter one was a fixed version of the first one. When your game is released as unfinished software and you release another one while calling it a sort of “sequel,” it will never bode well. And no, you can’t do Street Fighter comparison as all previous Street Fighter games were complete products that weren’t web of software bugs with bad music, horrible controls and camera that wants you dead in every pixel of the screen. The PS2 games did the 3D a lot better, something that wasn’t a hard thing to do in Konami, but they still weren’t Castlevania games people wanted. See, in the Golden days of gaming Castlevania was known to be filled with gothic horrors with vibrant colours and awesome graphics with an intense difficulty and awesome gameplay. PS2 and the N64 games everything else than that. 2D Castlevanias on the handhelds on the other hand kept promise of the graphics side most of the time, but lacked previously mentioned difficulty. For better or worse, every 3D Castlevania got better than the last. It all came to a halt with Castlevania Judgement, a Castlevania Fighting game not too dissimilar to CAPCOM’s Power Stone. Unlike Power Stone, Judgement was a horrible, horrible game that should have not existed for any reason just because it had a terrible art direction.

Above:  Simon Belmont, a barbarian from the medieval times carrying the Vampire Killer whip. Now excuse me, I’m going to burn my eyes

You might ask what was wrong with Judgement other than art direction, plot, gameplay, platform, and graphics. The answer would be “It’s not Castlevania game.”

At this point Castlevania has seen numerous games on vast variety of platforms and few remakes. The first Castlevania has been remade at least four times now. Only games with demand are treated with such passion, and games that are detested are soon forgotten only to be remembered by some Internet video game critics. There are numerous exception of course, and remakes that treat their inspiration and origin in a horrible way, like the recent Yar’s Revenge. A question rises amidst all this; Where does Lords of Shadow fall into all of this?

CLoS does not just respect the roots it stemmed from, it embraces them. It takes what makes a Castlevania game, tempers with them and uses them in a different way. The same way Metroidvania is Castlevania game, but completely different, CLoS is a game that seems to be Castlevania but rather than “being Castlevania” it is made “of Castlevania.” The difference is subtle at first, until you realize how little time you spend inside Dracula’s castle, or in a castle at all. There is very little “castle” roaming in Lords of Shadow, or if you pardon the bad pun in Finnish, “Siellä linnoissa ei paljoa vaanita.” However, everything else is there; the gothic horrors, the vibrant graphics, the difficulty (especially with higher settings) and the great gameplay.

The art of whip

Gameplay is a point that many people have been barking at, saying that the game is unbalanced between the combat moves and the enemies. I see where their aiming at, as most enemies do not stagger enough when they are hit, making proper use of larger combos and moves difficult to use. When enemies do not stagger, they just deliver a hit and stop your attacking. However, they fail to realize that CLoS’ combat mechanics enforce the player to use all three states of the character; no magic to stack in magic energy, light magic to heal and to deliver Holy damage, and Dark magic to bring in the punishment. When using the Dark magic the enemies get staggered as the damage is multiplied by two, and to keep up the damage deliver one must switch off the magic to stack the energy. The use of Sub Weapons is also recommended, thou personally I forgot them at times. It would be a good idea to throw those Silver Daggers at Lycans. The combat shines in boss battles and one-to-one scenarios greatly, as you can use multiple strategies depending on your own skills and selection of moves. The first major boss battle against the Dark Lord of the Lycans was especially memorable due to the moves at my hand and the set where it was staged. I was invested in the fight, not because of the plot, but because I enjoyed the gameplay. Is the combat flawed despite my own enjoyment? Of course it is, no combat system is without flaws. One would indeed be the staggerless enemies, especially when mobs attack you. Areal attacks are a bit too weak, but they’re essential. Also, there’s dedicated evasion button, a thing that I had hard time to get used to, as most of the time evasion is made with →/← + Jump Button. Nothing major, but that’s one button left in a game that could’ve used a Sprint button. While there a lot of context sensitive button presses, why wasn’t side + jump used? Then again, sometimes it seems people are unable to press two buttons at the same time on a controller these days.

Never look down unless you have to

Platforming in Castlevania has been stable since the beginning. In CLoS this has changed a bit into more acrobatic wall-climbing and whip slinging. Some parts of the whip slinging reminds me of Super Castlevania IV, which only a good thing. More things should remind me of Super Castlevania IV. While the basic movement control doesn’t lend itself well to the platoforming, the acrobatic wall-climbing has it’s own control “set” if you will, where actions are made according to situation with the help of the whip at times. It bodes well, and I found myself wishing for more wall-climbing rather than platforming due to this. It’s nothing special, but it works and doesn’t really stop the game’s action, a thing most platforming segments in other games does due to horrible controls. It’s like natural evolution to 3D from Super Castlevania IV rather than from any other Castlevania game. It’s flawed more than the combat system, but I’m happy that this game doesn’t place enemies near pits or edges that would tip you over like in the old games, like Medusa Heads or Bats

Like a shadow

Castlevania’s music is always been superb, a fitting themes of catchy tunes played upon every stage. You might want to put on any version of Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears, Theme of Simon or Praying Hands on Youtube while your at it. I’d recommend finding older versions of the Vampire Killer thou, as many modern composers can’t seem to use real instruments to express the song very well. Surprisingly, Castlevania Judgement has a pretty damn good version of it. That doesn’t make the game any better thou. Go on, start some music, I’m not going anywhere. In CLoS the music is very subdued, very melodic and in-the-background and at times I won’t notice it. I like when background music is there and I don’t notice it, but it has an effect. It gives me thrill without taking my attention from the fight at hand. This is completely different thing from previous Castlevanias, where the music always stood out and made you stop to listen to it. I have numerous hours in my Dawn of Sorrow because I stopped to listen the in-game music sometimes. The music’s good, there’s no doubt of it, but I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack, unlike in Castlevania Chronicle’s. There are nice touches here and there, for example Vampire Killer can be found inside a music box.
When walking towards the Bernhard family’s castle, the scenery, colours and the music make a perfect blend of atmosphere. It’s foretells about a castle of horrors and dangers. The same feeling overcame me when first time I stepped inside Dracula’s courtyard in the first Castlevania. This time however, it was far more immense feeling, more dense and drafting. The music crowned it, and I applaud the composer for choosing to make so subdued soundtrack over the catchy melodies of classic games.

It’s the art, not the graphics

The art direction is jut what Castlevania needs; murk gothic scenery. While I have enjoyed the kind of art Kojima Ayami has given to the series, I’ve always felt that pretty men do not belong in Castlevania. She did make Dracula into an attractive old gentlemen thou, and that’s respectable. The Lugosi look, while classical, slowly has becomes rather old and does not translate well into colour.

CLoS art direction takes cues from the game sprites of old and draws lot of inspiration from European architecture while keeping the strong fantasy vibes in there. Clichés in every regard of art is done well and they don’t bother. The sketch styled art within the artwork looks great something that could’ve been done in the past. Of course, it does have a modern twist in it which makes it rather ageless. Gabriel’s attire and overall design looks great; Hideo Kojima was right in wanting the character to look more heroic. Thou I like the idea of barbarian vampire slayer, a Brotherhood of knight serving God in vanquishing evil from the land doesn’t really feel like a place for a barbarian.
There’s very few points to say. The art direction, from the high castles and Frankestein’s mechanical spider to the village Wygol, looks fitting and smooth. Only here and there some designs might rise an eyebrow, like the jaw of the Ghouls, but MercurySteam showed here that they get what Castlevania should look like.

The story of beginning

The plot is what divided the Castlevania fandom, seeing this is a reboot to the series. Some hate it, some like it, and I just want to whip some evil ass. The plot is rather complex on its own; the lands have been shrouded in darkness as evil beings roam the lands and people are suffering. The Lords of the Shadow are exerting their might upon the people. Gabriel Belmont’s wife is murdered and he seeks rightful revenge against those who wronged her. He gains help in form of Zobek, the oldest member of their Brotherhood, with whom he plans a way to get rid of the Lords. Gabriel uses the Combat Cross, later nicknamed the Vampire Killer, against those who stand his way to reclaim their Holy power. There are many twists and surprises along the way, especially in the end where Gabriel SPOILER ALARM becomes Dracul after his quest.

Fanbase didn’t really like this take on Castlevania’s lore, and I understand why. Because of the game’s set, premise and plot the game can’t really be called Castlevania; Your not a vampire slayer against Dracula, Death isn’t your second-to-last boss and you’re not Simon Belmont. Gameplay wise plot is irrelevant and as such the game succeeds in being a great evil slaying action RPG in 3D. However, the fact still stays that there’s very little Castlevania there. Then again this shouldn’t matter when we’re discussing about a remake.
… or at all, as Symphony of the Night pretty much did the same thing and I can’t remember anybody complaining back then. Oh well, fanbases and their wishes.

Other points

Personally, I’d like to see a 2D Castlevania done with same values as CLoS. The demand is there, especially now that we have a reboot. The classic timeline is far too polluted by numerous anime clichés since Dracula X, and the new timeline most likely will be set in modern times if they’re going to make a direct sequel. Super Castlevania IV remake for the PSVita, anyone?
The thing is, the game could’ve sold more if it had been more aimed to the Symphony of the Night fans. I’ve heard that NES Castlevania players liked CLoS, whereas Metroidvania players disliked it. This is only hearsay thou. The real feelings are mixed all across the board.

The fact this that this game was turned into a Castlevania game in the middle of development and it shows. MercurySteam had to do Konami’s bidding and did it well in the allotted time and resources they had. The developers had worked on Severance: Blade of Darkness, and there’s some similarities here and there. Severance was also a pretty damn good game, a game worth checking out. It’s a rather unknown gem.

Indeed, the game has a feel that it isn’t really Castlevania, but beyond that it’s really a nice piece of software. People might call it a God of War clone, but that’s like calling a dog a clone of another dog when they both came from wolves. Technically I’ve have had nothing to complain about. There are bound to be a lot of bugs here and there, and I found few. There’s a level where Ghouls first time appear, and to stop their spawning you must make statues fall into their spawn hole with the help of Zobek. Once Zobek’s animation started behind another statue, a statue that needs to be moved beforehand, so he was pushing air. No matter, the statue I was pulling fell into the hole. The second glitch happened soon after. If you grab an enemy, Ghoul in this case, and if the enemy dies in your hands before the timing even appears, the camera won’t return to it’s normal state but will be kept zoomed in until you grab something again or jump to the Map Screen. These are few and did not take anything off from my enjoyment.

And…

As final words, I’ll say that the game is good. It’s nothing special, it’s not going rock your world. Unlike Super Castlevania IV. It’s pretty to look at, has subdued sound department and good combat, even if it is slightly flawed. It offers nice challenge when needed and delivers what it promises and nothing more. It’s not an underwhelming title, especially now that it’s in the sale prices. I got mine for 15€ and it’s a game I could’ve paid more when new. The game is rather short thou, lasting a weekend or so, but that’s normal for your standard 3D game.

Best way to judge the game would be to try the Demo and judge it yourself.
The game is Lords of Shadow, but is it a Castlevania? No, not really. In same manner the Dark Knight is a good movie, but a bad Batman movie this game is a good movie, but lackluster Castlevania game.

And this is for you weeabos.

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