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Sean Pettibone


Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (Playstation 3) 

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the first attempt by Konami to bring the storied franchise into the HD realm. Developed by Mercury Steam, the game takes place outside the traditional Castlevania universe and instead acts as a reboot of the franchise. This reimagined Castlevania features massive boss battles, time intensive quick time events and other changes that attempt to bring the series up to date. An impressive array of HD set-pieces, including richly detailed environments, screen filling bosses and a lavishly detailed story bring a cinematic flair to the action. Unfortunately, it seems that the soul of the Castlevania franchise was lost in this transition, leading to a game that doesn't feel or play anything like the previous installments. Read our review to find out why this Castlevania adventure falls short of the mark.

When it was announced that the largely unknown developers at Mercury Steam were being handed the reins of the Castlevania series for next generation consoles, the initial reaction among gamers was mixed. These were the same people responsible for the much derided Castlevania Judgment for Wii. Adding to the worries, Lords of Shadow had already been shown publicly and the new license attached seemingly out of nowhere was another bad sign. Things got somewhat more promising when Kojima Productions announced it would lend a helping hand. After all these mixed signals, and a seemingly endless development gestation, the Castelvania HD reboot has finally arrived. Unfortunately, the end result is a game that doesn't quite deliver on some of its promising concepts. Its biggest problem, in a nutshell is that it borrows ideas from other recent action franchises but neglects it own heritage. This might have been unintentional but, Lords of Shadow seems spend more time minimizing the Castlevania legacy and instead ends up trying too hard to break new ground. This makes it feel hald-baked, and it ends up as a title that feels like its neither here nor there. It's not that the game is necessarily bad or horrible, its just that it doesn't live up the spirit or style of previous titles in the franchise. While there are some minor points where some of the old magic re-appears, it seems that instead of chasing Dracula, the developers instead set their sights on taking ideas from another franchise. This leads to a title that has the feel of desperation to it, and it feels derivative and uninspired throughout.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes place in quasi-3D space and there is an attempt to give the player more freedom. The backdrops are mostly pre-rendered and this gives you limited freedom as well. Some lip service is paid to Castlevania tradition - the main character is named Gabriel Belmont and he once again and wields a powerful whip attack. The game takes a few liberties with series lore and there are many changes that are unexpected, some of which is misguided. There is a dark tone to the game and it has a haunting, horror-movie soundtrack to accompany the action. However, those expecting a trip through a haunted castle are in for a surprise. Much of the game takes place in lush, outdoor setting and there are some truly impressive open areas such as jungles and forbidding corridors that look very impressive. There are some familiar enemies and new ones such as giant spiders, undead monsters, evil gremlins and other bad guys. These standard foes are somewhat easy to defeat. Much harder are the screen filling bosses, including massive-scale titans that require much time and effort to beat. If this sounds familiar, its because it is. The developers are obviously taking a page from the God of War handbook. Unfortunately, Lords of Shadows doesn't do a good job in implementing this approach to gameplay, which makes it a messy, inconsistent experience.

Gabriel Belmont has some interesting abilities this time around with the coolest the ability to lock onto and repel against certain objects to reach other areas. He can also jump onto large rocks and grip onto ridges in other surfaces using the trigger buttons. In other sequences he can climb over and jump through large gaps to traverse huge sections of ruins in the netherworld as he explores its massive levels. He'll face numerous dark forces and other opponents in battle and Lords of Shadows' controls are fairly simple in the combat sequences. You can use sweep attacks to destroy them from afar or grab them up close and destroy them. There are a number of special attacks that you can deploy such as dash moves that allow you to get out of the way of enemy attacks. As you defeat enemies, you'll earn experience points that you can use to increase your abilities. Your main weapon is the Cross which you can upgrade throughout the game as well. You'll have access to other weapons including holy water and silver daggers that you can use for projectile attacks during some parts of the game to increase your power. During some of the boss battles and other events, the interface changes into a quick time sequence of button pushing, where you need to press a certain button while a series of circles appears on screen. You have to time your moves precisely in these sequences to auto-perform attacks. Failure to do this results a tedious repeat of the entire sequence. The combat sequences are uneven. Players will find other items during the game such as weapons power-ups and other items. In addition, there are numerous hidden scrolls throughout your adventure which you can usually locate on the bodies of fallen soldiers who have failed in their missions. Finding scrolls unlocks secrets and other items or can give you extra background information for the story. If enough of these come into your possession, you'll also be able to unlock other hidden content and abilities. Once you've found these secrets, you can look them up in Lords of Shadow's main menu system, which indexes your added abilities, weapons and bestiary content in a book format. It's a fairly simple system that allows you to navigate it without too much effort.

Most levels in Lords of Shadow are fairly simple and straightforward in appearance and style. For large part, the game unfolds in a fairly linear fashion, though there are some sections that branch out into two paths. This makes things somewhat more interesting, but for the most part, Lords of Shadow stays very true to conventions, where standard levels follow with sub-boss battles, other sections, then a major end-level boss. To keep things interesting, there are a few puzzle sections thrown in and extensive cut-scenes that allow the game's narrative to unfold. All of these different elements make for a somewhat odd approach and it doesn't really make as much impact as you'd expect it too. One of the more aggravating aspects of Lords of Shadow is its habit of throwing different things at you in an attempt to keep things intersting. One minute, the game plays like a traditional platformer, the next you're unravelling a complex puzzle or fighting off a massive, multi-tiered boss. These boss battles can be amazingly frustrating - consisting of multiple phases with quick time attacks, where you need to make split second moves or else find yourself literally thrown back to the beginning of the stage without making much progress.

Making things more frustrating, there's usually a relatively simple method that can be used to defeat them, but these are typically oblique and require multiple attempts before they have fallen. With these extended battles taking up so much of the gameplay, there's little that you can do except endure them. Having to perform these monotonous motions and button sequences perfectly while the smallest error is punished without mercy makes these encounters feel needlessly difficult. This approach brutally drains a lot of the fun out of Lords of Shadow. Its unbalanced gameplay only becomes more pronounced as you play deeper ino the games. The level of difficulty in Lords of Shadow thus ranges wildly between these sequences, ranging from too-easy cakewalks, to sections that seem to put up a brick wall in front of players who can't discover the secret weakness of a boss enemy. The game tries to mitigate this with helpful hints that pop up after your character loses, but they are so vague as to be almost useless. This helps to create a game, that despite its sometimes beautiful production values, offers an inconsistent and frequently stymied gameplay experience. This makes for a title that doesn't quite meet up to the high-expectations that many gamers might have had for it. It's a shame since there are some good ideas and you can definitely see that there were some potentially good ideas.

It's this inconsistency that makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow so disappointing - the game squanders its good ideas under poor execution, frustrating controls and sometimes derivative content. Lords of Shadow occasionally shows inspired elements, such as the cinematic sequences and a few interesting puzzles and its some of its story sequences are interesting. The production values are slick, complete with celebrity voices, makes this one of the most polished and aesthetically impressive in the series to date. It's story is a bit predictable and somewhat dull, but it gets the job done. Unfortunately, these special effects can only mask so much. Its presentation is undermined by the design's flawed gameplay mechanics and balance issues. Its level of difficulty veers wildly from challenging to impossible to frustrating in the course of a single stage. These elements also break up Lords' narrative to a degree that it makes the story feel a disconnected. While the developers deserves some credit for bringing something new to the storied franchise, the end result is that the game doesn't evoke the classic Castlevania feel players have come to expect. Looking beyond this, the basic mechanics are a little bit off, and the developers seem to have placed to much reliance on quick time events. At some points, it feels like an interactive movie where you only press buttons in sequence, while others require hard-core gaming skills. This leads to a choppy feel throughout and makes for an inconsistent flow and structure of the game. It could have been an excellent approach to rebooting the franchise, but Castlevania: Lords of Shadow falls short and ends up as one of the lesser titles in the long running series.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: C-

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