When Konami announced that the 360 version of Lords Of Shadow would be split across two discs, we suppose we should have seen a big game coming. But for some reason, our minds were drawn to similar games that really take advantage of Blu-ray – things like God Of War III and Uncharted 2 – and assumed that the extra DVD would be down to graphical fidelity in what would be another 10-odd hour adventure. It’s an emphatic ‘well played’ to Mercurysteam, then, for not only producing one of the most artistically accomplished games in recent memory, but also one of the longest and most engaging the genre has ever seen.
Clocking in at a solid 20 hours for the main story alone, Lords Of Shadow is absolutely huge. Usually the value for money offered by action-adventure games comes from replayability (be it in the form of higher difficulties or returning to older areas to mop up collectibles) but here, even those uninterested in anything after the first name in the credits are looking at excellent value. And for those who do care about things like completion rates (read: Castlevania fans), most stages have a bunch of trinkets tucked away in the darkest, most secluded corners that will want finding, and getting the full 110 per cent completion for each area will take weeks.
Yeah, you read right – stages. In a controversial move, but one that makes perfect sense for the franchise, Mercurysteam has opted for a segmented adventure that reminds of vintage Castlevania. It also has the knock-on effect of forcing Lords Of Shadow closer to the more technical, score-attack end of the genre where Dante and Bayonetta reside, and this leaves protagonist Gabriel in a rather treacherous middle ground – it lacks the coherence or real sense of progression you get from a straightforward narrative-driven title, while its combat has to be compared with those games that share its modular structure. In truth though, Castlevania actually stacks up pretty well in this regard and, as you unlock all the extra combos and relic abilities, the move pool expands rapidly; although it lacks the freedom to cancel out of moves that makes Bayonetta flow so well, compensating for this – knowing when to lock yourself into powerful but drawn out attacks and when to slow down and play defensively – is an integral part of the combat system. Powerful linear attacks and wide-range area strikes can be linked together in Blades Of Chaos-style flurries… at its best, we’d even argue that general battles here feel tighter and more freeform than those of God Of War. It’s about spotting and exploiting opportunities, biding your time until an enemy throws out a predictable attack and parrying or evading to start your counter.
That said, it’s the clever implementation of Light and Shadow magic that really makes the combat system feel so tense and so exciting. The Focus meter fills as you fight well but shatters when you take damage, and, while it’s full, any hit you land rips orbs from your foes which can be converted to whichever of the two types of magic you choose. Light magic heals on every strike while Shadow increases damage, and using either stems the flow of orbs until you deactivate it – it’s a real risk/reward system, especially in boss fights, while ensuring you don’t take damage in order to refuel your magic can be a nerve-wracking task. Each of the two also leads to new combat abilities and these tend to be the explosive highlights, though as costly showboating skills they’re only really useful for the most untouchable players.
And as far removed as the combat may be from the traditional whip-cracking action of the series, other elements stray even further from home. Mercurysteam has to be commended for its bravery in committing to such a drastic shift – it’s something that previous 3D Castlevanias haven’t done and have suffered for, electing to try and force the usual template into the next dimension, and it seldom pays dividends. Art style, combat, narrative, structure… it’s all utterly different to the likes of Symphony Of The Night and its DS follow-ups, and Lords Of Shadow benefits for it. As a result, it gets to stand as its own alternative Castlevania universe, one that deals with the same lore and themes but in a hugely different way to its predecessors. While they may miss what they see to be ‘proper’ Castlevania, fans are at least offered a selection of references, nods and encounters that plant it firmly in the series.
Lore is a point worth expanding upon, if purely for the reason that the European gothic fantasy setting and extensive cast of night-dwelling terrors are utterly exceptional. Architecture constantly amazes from both aesthetic and level design standpoints, the freedom of a stage-based structure affording Gabriel the luxury of jumping from snow-coated wastelands to imposing castles to dense wooded areas to otherworldly landscapes in no longer than it takes for the game to load. At times, the change of scenery can be a little jarring, especially when your only real concept of place and progression comes from the Patrick Stewart monologues that bring the gravitas between every level. He voices Zobek as he observes Gabriel’s progress, though frustratingly there are frequent references to events we’d much rather have witnessed or even played for ourselves, rather than just having Picard tell us how it all
It’s not like you don’t get more than your fair share of involvement over the course of the epic quest, though. Boss battles are frequent and seldom disappoint, several even tossing proverbial hats into an equally proverbial ring for a place among the generation’s finest. Inspirations are often obvious to the point of utter transparency – the Titan boss encounters, for example, involve clambering around their giant rocky bodies and stabbing glowing weak spots while they try to shake you off, if that sounds at all familiar – and some just follow the generic videogame boss template of giving big dudes more health, but even these can be brilliant battles with such strong design in every sense of the word. Similar to God Of War, these tend to culminate in the opportunity to grab the enemy and QTE them to bits, and, while the button-mashing ones are fine, one in particular (a set of converging circles, telling you to press A after they’ve overlapped but before they disappear) is horribly overused and even more intrusive than regular button prompts. You end up staring through many of the cinematics as though they’re Magic Eye pictures for fear of missing a sneaky button press, meaning it’s easy to miss out on the full effect of some outstanding sequences, particularly when Gabriel finishes off bosses in some brutal and inventive way or another.
As the franchise’s rules dictate, exploration is a key element of Lords Of Shadow. While progress here is generally pretty linear, even from the early stages there are plenty of branching routes and hidden areas. But an adventurous spirit is a mixed blessing here; while it’ll lead to all manner of secret items and upgrades, it’ll also expose the limitations of the game world. Invisible barriers are everywhere and, though we understand they’re there to point you in the right direction, not being able to leap off crumbled columns or reach obvious vantage points goes against everything that Castlevania has come to stand for. You could even argue that the general controls aren’t quite tight enough to accommodate the platform sections the game appears to fall in love with as it hits disc two (or everything beyond Chapter 6 for you lucky swap-free PS3 types) if you were feeling particularly mean. But there are only a few moments where the controls don’t quite feel up to task and, in contrast, so much of the game where everything feels spot on.
True to the usual formula of its chosen genre, platforming and combat are joined by a handful of puzzles woven into the adventure. At their simplest, these can be trial-and-error tasks that can be breezed through even if you’re not paying attention though, towards the end, they begin to tax both grey matter and reflexes that merge this more cerebral element with one of the other core pillars. There are even whole levels based around the most elaborate puzzles – the Music Box level is a definite highlight – and should you ever get stuck, you can choose to forego your reward in exchange for a solution, so you’ll never be truly screwed.
Most interesting of all, though, is the rate at which Lords Of Shadow matures. For a good few hours it holds the player’s hand far too tightly, patronising seasoned gamers by helping you overcome most obstacles before you’ve even had a chance to tackle them yourself. It can frustrate, sure, but it gradually subsides and then, before you know it, you’re at the other end of the spectrum. By the time you reach the castle lair of the vampire lord, you’re dropped into each new stage with little-to-no guidance, and the feeling of isolation and oppression is another echo back to the mighty Metroid Prime, back before Samus went all talky. It’s at about this point that Lords Of Shadow feels at its closest to any other title in the Castlevania franchise, freedom of exploration and minimal guidance allowing you to get lost in this stunningly realised world, scouring every last chamber by mistake as you desperately try to reach an exit.
We may not have been as gushingly positive as the score at the foot of the page would normally suggest but there’s a perfectly good reason for that – Lords Of Shadow’s problems are plentiful and minor while its appeal, beyond evident basics like the lush artistry, stunning score and robust combat, is far harder to pin down. It’s the synergy of its elements that makes it so compelling and, while some of the choices Mercurysteam has made may well send franchise fans’ fangs a-gnashing, the realisation that fundamental change is necessary for Castlevania to successfully operate in 3D is the key ingredient the failed experiments before it were missing. While it might be lacking the Japanese quirkiness that many love about the series, Lords Of Shadow shatters conventions and preconceptions to reboot the franchise with one of the most involving and fleshed-out fantasy adventures you’ll ever play outside of the RPG genre. Though its imperfections are numerous, the overall build quality is such that all fade into insignificance in the face of masterful design – there’s just something about Mercurysteam’s collaboration with Kojima Productions that will keep you coming back for more, even after the Lords of Shadow are no more. Whether or not it constitutes a good Castlevania game will depend very much on what your expectations are. But taken on its own merits, there’s far less question over Lords Of Shadow’s credentials – it’s as brilliant as it is long. That’s 20 hours brilliant, then. Whatever that means.