The best 3D Castlevania title to date (despite little competition).
Castlevania is another one of those franchises that I hold dear to my heart. I’ve enjoyed just about every game on the market from the classic, hellishly difficult sidescrollers to all of the recent Metroidvania titles, thus played a large majority of the series’ installments (and I’ve almost beaten Castlevania 3, aside from defeating the ridiculously difficult 2nd to last level). Being a handheld gamer at the core, the GBA/DS additions to the series are always well received by me whilst Symphony of the Night still remains as one of my favorite games of all time.
Nonetheless, there are oft times when I wonder what it would be like if Konami could actually create a stellar 3D form of the game. There have been a few attempts in the past (Legacy of Darkness on the N64 and Curse of Darkness on the PS2), though with much less acclaim than the series’ 2D counterparts. When I had heard that Kojima studios would be overlooking the most recent stab at an action, 3D Castlevania title, however, I became a little more hopeful about my transition to a love for 3D Castlevania games in the future. Could up and coming developer, MercurySteam, live up to the task of finally creating a strong 3D installment to one of the oldest series of games to date?
Production-Quality Presentation (Almost)
If you’re familiar with Castlevania, you should know that there is a storied timeline in which each of the games in the series fits into the history of mankind’s battle with Dracula. Though many times the story takes a little bit of a backseat to the gameplay in the series, the games themselves never lose their sense of epicness built out of incredible environments and iconic musical scores that rival those of the Mega Man series in catchiness. Thus, first and foremost Lords of Shadow would need to fit the bill presentation-wise for it to succeed as a strong addition to the Castlevania universe.
In terms of story, the game has more narrative sequences and cut scenes than in previous 2D Castlevania games. As the 360 and PS3 are powerhouses compared to previous systems housing Castlevania titles, it’s only appropriate that the game’s storytelling become more of a production than in previous installments. With a strong cast of voice acting and cut scenes that are lengthy and plentiful, the presentation value is high in this game. However, the storyline itself is still nothing particularly special in itself.
From the moment you turn on the game, you’ll notice an attention to detail rivaling that of PS3 beauties such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The only drawback to this visual feast is the drop in overall framerate due to overly saturated effects (such as an excess of raindrops). I’ve heard reports that it’s much worse on the Xbox 360 but even on the PS3 version it was noticeable to me (so I can’t imagine what it’s like on the 360). Still, I enjoyed the eye candy, nonetheless as the scenery is downright gorgeous.
As for the music, I enjoy the production quality of the overall soundtrack. However, I must say that I was a bit disappointed in the overall score and how little it reminded me of the gothic mix of orchestral fanfare/catchy tunes of previous Castlevania titles (if you’re unfamiliar, listen to the soundtrack of Symphony of the Night or Castlevania 3, my two personal favorites or you can listen to the rockier remixes of the original 3 scores at Powergoat.com (http://www.powergoat.com/page2.html)). Music to me is one of the more overlooked portions of a game’s overall presentation and I feel that music can sometimes be the difference between a great game and an epic game.
Recycled Mechanics=Solid Gameplay
As for the gameplay, Lords of Shadow features a style that has become common in many games as of late, touting an action fest similar to that of God of War. Sure, you have your differences that keep this game from actually taking the formula entirely (such as dark and light magic and secondary items straight out of the Castlevania universe) but all in all it still follows the same action based gameplay as many titles currently on the market. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about this game taking too much from the GoW’s combat but I must interject with the fact that previous Castlevania installments have also been majorly successful due to picking bits and pieces from other successful genres.
Take the classic Metroidvania style of gameplay, one that clearly was inspired by the non-linear format of Metroid titles and has shined despite having that similarity. Another example of a game that takes heavily from other titles is Arkham Asylum: with an exploration style similar to Metroid Prime, combat style similar to Assasin’s Creed and stealth moves similar to Metal Gear Solid, the game was able to flourish as the best Batman title to date. Thus, though it would be nice to see truly original gameplay in a “reboot” title, it’s hard to knock a game for regurgitating a portion of another game’s gameplay while becoming a game of its own in other unique ways.
In following the theme of taking bits and pieces from other successful formats, Lords of Shadow sees some similarities in its exploration mechanics to other popular games such as Assassin’s Creed. Scaling walls is an enjoyable addition to the game to help diversify it from purely an action kill-fest and though the game is quite linear, there are some different paths you can take as well as areas in levels that are only reachable once you have later moves (don’t mistake this with nonlinearity, however, but rather as an encouragement to retry levels for exploration as well as attempting to complete in-game challenges set forth for each level).
As for the variations to the combat, the game does have a form of leveling to help keep your combat experience less repetitive throughout the game. Defeating enemies and solving some of the game’s in-game puzzles will grant you experience points that can be used to purchase or upgrade new moves to add to your arsenal. Even with these additions, however, the combat can still borderline monotonous at times (despite some quite epic boss battles). Still, it comes down to your own gaming preference and if you’re an action aficionado, you’ll enjoy the game’s ever evolving combat system.
Despite a stellar presentation, there were a few interface problems that I had with the game. First of all, the inability to change the camera angle felt like an unnecessary devolution that drove me nuts from time to time. I often wished I could pan the camera to spot vanishing items or life refill stations. Secondly, I felt that the lack of a map was also a big minus for me. As I’ve admitted, I’m much more open to 2D games because they are less overwhelming to me at times but maps certainly help to make 3D experiences more accessible. The lack of a map in Lords of Shadow made my perfectionist tendencies much more difficult to fulfill and frustrated me that I sometimes would pass up a scroll or health upgrade merely because I couldn’t tell which direction was the “right” direction and which led to them.
Though I was excited to try a 3D Castlevania game overlooked by Kojima studios, I didn’t quite know what to expect. My Castlevania fanboyism hoped for a game that could channel the greatness of previous games in the series into a 3D Castlevania game that’s finally an epic tale. What I’ve found is a game that will probably be one of the more polarizing games of the series to date. On one side, you’ll find the action apologists who can’t get enough of every iteration of God of War they can find. On the other hand, you have the hardcore Castlevania aficionados such as myself that prefer the style of gameplay seen in the 2D versions of the game (whether that be hair pulling difficult side-scroller or Metroidvania exploration).
I can still see the merit in the game and enjoyed several aspects about the game (combat, graphics, some exploration). However, as a Castlevania game, I still felt that it fell short in providing the typical gothic experience you’d expect from a game in this storied series. Nonetheless, there is potential to be had in the new style of gameplay and with some further tweaking to the system, MercurySteam could end up with a true classic the next time around. Until then, Lords of Shadow is still the best 3D Castlevania game to date (even if it doesn’t feel like Castlevania).