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What a Horrible Night to Have a Reboot...

  • Sep 27, 2013
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CASTLEVANIA is actually my favorite video game franchise of all time. Oh no…I'm serious. This is the series that has kept me coming back for years now, one that I have very fond nostalgic memories for and just can't seem to get enough of. My first experience with CASTLEVANIA was actually the second entry in the franchise, the second game I ever played for NES back when I was a wee little lad of 5 or 6. I was mesmerized by the 8-bit gothic presentation, by the lively soundtrack…I still remember getting chills for the first time seeing that creepy opening with the black title screen adorned with blood red and white letters backed up by the tension filled MIDI music. And then the screen shifts over to ominous opening text about how you (the player) are once again "descending into the haunted halls of Count Dracula". For a 5 year old who had never experienced a horror movie in his life, this was some creepy stuff. Forget all the jump scares in RESIDENT EVIL…that single title screen was enough to give me nightmares for a whole week on end.

I got over it though once I started playing the actual game. The whip wielding hero with his various tools, the assortment of ugly monsters, the looming castles with their evil necromancers, etc. All these elements spoke to me more of sword and sorcery than outright horror. Simon Belmont was simply too unflappable. He conquered horror at every turn and never shied away from a challenge. Forget all those fantasy heroes who spend their time fighting orcs and goblins; Simon had to contend with werewolves, vampires, and zombies; the stuff of nightmares. I think that alone made him for me a perfect masculine archetype. Oh yeah...the game was pretty fun too, albeit challenging.

The CASTLEVANIA series has changed greatly over the years for better or worse. Many fans consider the peak of the franchise to be the PSX release, SYMOHONY OF THE NIGHT. Upon first impression, I was not very impressed with SYMPHONY. It changed too many aspects of the formula for me and the gameplay I felt had become needlessly complicated. Then came the 3-D era with the N64 and PS2 entries experimenting to catch up with the technology. These efforts are widely regarded as flawed by the fanbase, but that didn't stop the developers from constantly trying.  Thus in 2010, we had this full scale reboot of the franchise courtesy of a Spanish development studio, Mercury Steam.

The game is a reboot, meaning it starts all the way from the beginning. For those familiar with the lore of the series, this means that this entry is set several years before the vampire hunting Belmont clan was even founded.  Dracula (the main villain of the franchise) is nowhere to be seen. The main hero of the story is Gabriel Belmont, a former holy knight on a quest to recover the soul of his lost love from the underworld. To do this, he must recover the pieces of the "God Mask", an anciet relic said to transform its wearer into God's vassal on Earth and give him immeasurable power.  The pieces of the God Mask, however, are held thrall by the ancient Lords of Shadow, dark reincarnations of holy warriors who lived long ago.  In order to procure the God Mask pieces, Gabriel must defeat the Lords of the Shadow one by one.  He is aided in by a Warrior Monk Zolbek, who also serves as an omniscient narrator throughout the game.

CASTLEVANIA has always been more about atmosphere than storytelling, and LORDS OF SHADOWS is no exception. Whereas the writers attempt to construct a coherent narrative that creatively ties together all the aspects of the CASTLEVANIA universe into an original fictional universe, the end result is not entirely successful. The story is kind of a mess, introducing new characters and new twists to its mythology and setting so fast that you'll barely have any time to keep up. Gabriel also doesn't seem have a stable personality, conforming to whatever kind of character the plot wants him to be. At one point he's an utterly ruthless demon slayer who commits the most heinous injuries against his foes.  Then the next moment he'll be an angsty pacifist preaching about the virtues of love and forgiveness. The narrator, Zolbek, is almost a non-entity personality-wise. He's voiced by Patrick Stewart, which you think is a good thing. But the dialogue the writers give him is overwrought, overly melodramatic, ominous and repetitive. Stewart himself doesn't seem terribly invested in his own performance, leading to some very bland in game narration.

Part of the problem is trying to construct a serious narrative around the concept of the original game, which was essentially just a funhouse of horror movie clichés and monsters. This CASTLEVANIA wants to be a highly developed fictional universe pulling inspiration from mythologies both modern and ancient, and the end result is just bizarre. This is especially apparent in the completely unexpected appearance of the final boss. I won't spoil his identity, but I will say you've seen in many, many, many video games before this…

Many fans have complained that this game lacks the feel of a "true" CASTLEVANIA title.  So much of the subject matter is original and has to do more with fantasy (orcs, pagan gods, etc.) than with the gothic universe of its source material.  This is true…to a certain extent. You do spend the first levels of the game traversing through beautifully rendered green landscapes encountering orcs, fairies, metal titans and other high fantasy tropes.  But eventually the adventure does come back to its roots. More familiar tropes like vampires, zombies, werewolves and even Frankenstein's laboratory appear, all playing major roles in your adventure.  I liked how they managed to creatively incorporate these familiar tropes into the adventure and create something completely new and original in the process. The end result doesn't feel like CASTLEVANIA, yet at the same time it does. Whereas purists may scream, I was completely satisfied. I thought it did what a reboot is supposed to do: present a fresh new vision of a well worn formula to attract audiences both old and new.

Now onto the gameplay. In 2001, DEVIL MAY CRY came along and rewrote third person action games, rendering the CASTLEVANIA franchise in an obsolete rut. For every new 3-D entry in the latter franchise, the developers would always have to resort to imitating more well known titles to compensate.  LORDS OF SHADOWS, intended as a reboot to the whole franchise, unfortunately doesn't break that trend.  GOD OF WAR is once again the biggest influence here, but the game also heavily borrows from PRINCE OF PERSIA and SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS as well.

Let's discuss the combat first since it's the meat of any action game. First of all, I'm disappointed to admit that, like GOLDEN AXE: BEAST RIDER, CASTLEVANIA limits the player to the use of single primary weapon: the whip. However, unlike the aforementioned title, the player gains access to a huge and diverse inventory of abilities and moves to compensate for lack of alternate demon slaying tools. You start out with just a few basic swings, including wide area attack where Gabriel twirls the whip in all directions. Eventually though you'll be using the whip to snatch enemies into the air, slamming it into the ground with such force that it creates tremors, twirling it like a buzzsaw, spinning like a top in the air, and other cool moves. True, the combat feels a bit too similar to GOD OF WAR, but that's to be expected. Gabriel can also parry attacks by blocking a blow the moment just before it hits them. Upon successful execution, the enemy will be stunned, leaving them open for a vicious twirly counterattack with the whip. Although this could have easily been just a gimmick, it is an absolutely invaluable technique to master. Successfully parrying attacks gives an enormous bonus to your magic meter, which is essential for staying alive during combat.

There are two types of magics in the game: Light and Shadow magic. They're not really so much magical abilities as they are magical energies that are infused into your whip. Light magic, as stated before, when turned on, recharges your health. Shadow magic, when turned on, increases your damage. Different enemies are susceptible to different types of magic. For instance, vampires take extra damage when light magic is turned on while some of the demons later on in the game can literally be set aflame by hitting them with Shadow magic turned on. Having two "magic modes" you can switch back and forth between is a neat idea. It's kind of like having two "devil trigger" modes. However for the most part, I found myself relying purely on Light magic for a majority of the game. When enemies hit you in this game, it hurts, so you're going need to keep your health constantly rising if you're going to survive.

You also have secondary weapons at your disposal, just like the classic CASTLEVANIA titles. These, for the most part, are not so interesting. You start out with silver throwing knives which are incredibly weak against most enemies except werewolves. Later on, you get access to Holy Water, which unleashes an explosive area attack useful for crowd control. Then you get these little fairies which hypnotize your opponents. Finally, you get access to a powerful crystal concealing an ancient demon which you can use to destroy everything in immediate vicinity. The utility of these special weapons is undermined by the fact that you can only carry a couple of them at them at a time, and, with the exception of the crystal, none of them are very powerful. It would have been better if they had offered a greater diversity of weapons for you to use (like the throwing axe from the first CASTLEVANIA) and given you more ammunition to spend. As it is, special weapons are only useful for distracting the enemy so you can mop them up with your whip.

The enemies you fight range from brainless (zombies, orcs) to cunning and quick (vampires, werewolves) to large and cumbersome damage sponges which take forever to kill (wargs, giant spiders, etc.). Still, all of these enemies have the potential to kill you quickly. Playing on medium difficulty, the damage you receive from enemies is really high. All of them, from the lowliest zombie to the werewolf commander, are extremely aggressive with their attacks. Make no mistake, the combat in LORDS OF SHADOWS is CHALLENGING, which definitely is appropriate in light of the classics that preceded it. You'll have to be quick on your feet and quicker to keep your magic meter filled) if you want to survive. The boss fights, by contrast, are a "dodge and strike" affair with lifebars that take too long to bring down. They get repetitive rather quickly.

Then there are the colossi battles. There aren't a huge amount of these throughout the adventure, but what there are is noteworthy. These are monstrous opponents, tall as skyscrapers, whom can only be slain by being climbed on and having their weak points carved out. Whereas the shadow of GOD OF WAR looms large in the main combat system, these titanic boss battles are clearly ripped from SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, albeit with underwhelming effect. They come off as more tedious than challenging since your main difficulty in these sections will be holding the RT button at the right moments to prevent from falling to the earth. Thanks to the added technology, these sections look astounding. It's just a shame that the gameplay is so uninspired.

The final influential shadow that looms large in LORDS OF SHADOW is PRINCE OF PERSIA, which manifests itself the multitude of platformer sections scattered throughout the game. These sections like the titanic boss battles are also not very inspired, but still manage to be pretty fun. The gothic locales you visit throughout your journey are full of crumbling old castles, providing Gabriel ample opportunity to climb, tightrope walk, scale and vine swing his way around. The level design is polished, meaning that you'll rarely be wondering about where to go next and can just rely on your skills on jumping and swinging you whip in time to take you where you need to be. Unlike the original games, you won't die when you miss a jump. Usually Gabriel will just send out to his whip to catch the nearest ledge and pull himself back up again. It's a shame that Simon wasn't so agile!

For a 360 title released in 2010, the game is utterly gorgeous to look at.  The meticulous attention to environmental detail is astounding.  Green valleys spring alive with the movement of flowing water, swaying grass and small critters buzzing about the bushes.  Some of the scenery feels just so jam packed with detail, that snapshots feel like they could have come right from the portfolio of a master fantasy artist.  I can't emphasize enough the minute detail put into every single object in the game, to the realistic animation of a butterfly zooming around Gabriel's head to the tiniest strand of hair on a werewolf enemy.  You cannot fault Mercury Steam for dropping the ball in any way here: the game really looks like an exhaustively polished work of art in stills. In fact at the moment, it might possibly be the prettiest looking game I've ever seen on the 360, maybe even only second to HALO 4. The animation, while far from perfect, is smooth enough and in some cases outdoes some of Batman's limited animations in ARKHAM ASYLUM (especially where facial movement is concerned).

The sound is fairly successful across the board, but not completely so. As if flaunting their production values, Mercury Steam made sure to hire a cast of celebrities to voice the characters in the game. Gabriel is voiced by Robert Carlyle, and he comes off as bizarre. Carlyle has a tendency to underact here, and for the most part it sounds wrong for such a vengeful, badass vampire slayer; although there are some moments (like when Gabriel is grieving) where he comes through. It's great to hear Stewart's voice, but the old Shakespeare thespian has done better. His performance just lacks energy, even in dramatic moments where you would expect him to be excited. This might be his age (he is going on well into his 70's), lack of interest or mediocre directing. Actually the final reason might be the case all around since the rest of the cast also puts in performances that are adequate, but not excellent. The only exception to this trend being Jason Isaacs, who truly is over the top here. The music is once again prodigiously executed, spanning from the awe-inspiring LORD OF THE RINGS style choral overtures to blood pounding GOD OF WAR-style marches. However they must have run out of money at some point because the soundtrack tends to repeat far too often. Sound effects are good, although there are some "killing move" cinematics in the sound is subdued.

CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOWS reminds me a lot of DARKSIDERS II. Both games are action adventure titles set in dark fantasy universes heavily inspired by Pagan and Christian mythology. Both are gorgeously rendered and heavily funded productions. Finally both have gameplay mechanics that are highly unoriginal and derivative of other more modern action adventure titles. I think CASTLEVANIA comes off as slightly more successful though. Though the CASTLEVANIA fanbase may scream, fans of dark fantasy should be impressed.  It's just a shame that, besides its art style, the game isn't really able to establish much of its own identity, instead playing just as a reflection of the modern classics which inspired it.

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October 01, 2013
great job on this review. Last time I played anything Castlevania was in the side-scrolling game on PSOne. This looks good
October 01, 2013
Thanks! Thats funny...I think the PS1 era sort of marks the end of my really nostalgic memories of the series. Not much afterwards could match up to SYMPHONY OF THR NIGHT (even though the game at first threw me off). I also did appareciate CASTLEVANIA CHRONICLES despite it being sort of a step backwards for the gameplay. All the stuff afterwards though feels "new age" for the franchise, and its been fun...just not the same.
September 28, 2013
More Castlevania: Lords of Shadow reviews
Quick Tip by . September 26, 2013
Just finished this, so I wanted to share my initial impressions. First of all, I think this is an extremely solid interactive experience. Magnificent production values, good story, creative reworking of classic CASTLEVANIA mythology, a combat system with depth, nicely balanced variety of gameplay types (platforming, puzzles and combat all have equal attention), all wrapped up in a single player campaign that is truly EPIC in scope (the main game will easily take you about 30+ hours to complete the …
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"Then blockishly mumbling with a set on countenance a piece of scurvy grace, he washed his hands in fresh wine, picked his teeth with the foot of a hog, and talked jovially with his attendants. … more
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