Castlevania – Lords of Shadow Xbox 360, PS3
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (developed under the watchful eye of editor’s nightmare Hideo Kojima) eschews the autism-inducing Metroidvania template of recent Castlevania games, and opts instead for some good old fashioned linearity. I’d say ‘God of War clone’ but that’d be a kick in the balls to the earlier entries in the franchise, when you just had to walk left to right, with all the grace and dexterity of a man with a dump in his pants. What we have here’s a good old fashioned roaming fighter.
You play as Gabriel Belmont, a holy crusader who finds himself in a land filled with evil, mired in terrible darkness, and other such gothic unpleasantness. His wife’s been killed, and Gabriel’s after a mask that he thinks could bring her back to life, which is an excuse for him to go on a scowling soiree through a land of beasts, dilapidated churches and Patrick Stewart. There are twists and turns aplenty, because Hideo Kojima is basically the M Night Shyamalan of video games, although thankfully there’s no sign of an effeminate Mary Sue with a terrible hairdo talking about Godzilla. Hooray.
When you start off on the latest Castlevania quest it isn’t promising. Your little man Gabriel (voiced in a somnambulant haze by Robert Carlysle) turns up in a drab backwater dump and is immediately confronted by a load of wolves. Medieval Begbie then proceeds to rip apart the little buggers with his snazzy whip/cross weapon. It’s not the most thrilling opening (compare this to the opening scenes in something like Bayonetta), although that’s probably a bad indictment of people who play games nowadays, constantly demanding insane spectacle from the off, because their attention spans are shot. Still, things aren’t helped by a shonky framerate that leaves things jerkier than a jamaican barbecue.
Things get worse when the game cuts to a screen filled with text to load up the next level. I’m not normally fussy when it comes to this stuff, but when competitors like ‘God of War’ can load up the next section without you noticing, it’s a bit of a step back. Oh, and these reams of clumsily written prose are read by the aforementioned Mr Stewart, who hams it up so gloriously, pig farmers the world over are out of work. There are torturous, slow, turgid brown swamp levels (although Stewart’s pronunciation of ‘THE DEAD BOG’ is oddly wonderful), ballache puzzle sections and a Portal reference that made me want to pull Gabe Newell’s head off for starting all those awful memes in the first place.
But then things change. An hour or so later, through dark ancient magicks no doubt, the framerate mysteriously fixes itself, the levels open up and become more interesting to look at, and the fighting gets more fun when you unlock more moves for your miserable (pile of secrets) devil slayer. It’s got a nice soundtrack too, that wisely dumps the camp gothic disco of old in favour of a sweeping, grandiose score. It turns from drab to serviceable.
Further along the treacherous, beastie filled roads though, it transforms from serviceable into something pretty special. The whole thing clicks, and you wonder why the opening was so drab. You don’t even mind when Patrick Stewart blunders in with his Shakespearian bluster, as the game suddenly starts living up to all the hype that was afforded it. It starts doing everything right. The platforming, while not quite Sands of Time levels of ingenious, is fun and intuitive. The combat opens up wonderfully too. You see, you can’t just win by bashing buttons in a Kratos-esque frenzy. If anything, the fighting in Lords of Shadow is like a less fraught variation of Ninja Gaiden. You need to block and dodge obsessively and time your attacks. If you go in whip flailing, you’re fudged sunshine. Then there are the boss fights, which are either intense one on one encounters, or epic Shadow of the Colossus style struggles, which see you traversing up the lumbering goliaths in order to find their weak point, only there’s no moral ambiguity here, they’re all utter bastards.
And the graphics. Goodness gracious. I’m a terrible judge of graphical quality (I still think Turok 2 is one of the best looking games ever made) but even I can tell Lords of Shadow is a looker. There’s a moment where Belmont is running on a snowy cliff’s edge and a townscape looms ahead, and it’s among the most impressive sights I’ve seen on a current generation console. It’d be nothing without the art style though, a voluptuous bastardisation of Bram Stoker, Guillermo Del Toro and the old Universal films.
It’s epic in length as well as scope. One playthrough will take you up to twenty hours, and that’s not including revisiting earlier levels for power ups (all done conveniently via the menu screen). Admittedly some of it feels like filler, and there are various bits with a certain mythical beasty that are hideously ill judged, but the many high points more than make up for the screw ups. Factor in a genuinely incredible ending and you’ve got a belter.
On the whole it’s a stellar job. Hardcore Castlevania fans are probably furious that the canon’s been messed with but they can sod off. If it was up to them we’d be getting Symphony of the Night retreads until the end of days. There’re only so many times you can wander through identikit James Whale inspired hallways and ineffectually swipe at the same fourteen year old pixels.
The franchise needed this. It’s not remotely original and it occasionally threatens to drown under the weight of its own bluster, but it’s also clever, challenging, bewilderingly pretty in places and a ripping good yarn. It’s also probably too long, although in this day and age where we’re inundated with five hour single player campaigns, it’s comforting that developers are still aware that epic doesn’t just mean boring explosive scripted set pieces.
Oh, and if you’re wondering whether or not a certain villain is in it, I’m not telling you. You’ll be asking in vein (groan).