Fans of Konami’s legendary vampire slaying series have waited years for Castlevania to make a successful transition to 3D. Sure, it’s been kept alive as a 2D property on the Nintendo DS or on Xbox Live Arcade, but where its closest contemporary - Metroid - made the jump 7 years ago with Metroid Prime, every attempt to bring Castlevania into three dimensions has resulted in mediocrity or, worse, disaster. When will we see a Castlevania with the legendary depth, intelligence and exploration that made the series’ reputation in the first place?
Well, probably not this year. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is many things - including an excellent game - but it’s nowhere near as faithful to the classic Castlevania template as Metroid: Prime was to Metroid. Instead, it is a fairly linear action adventure which leans heavily on Devil May Cry, Uncharted and, most crucially, God of War. From the chain weapon wielded by hero, Gabriel Belmont, to the pacing, violence and brutal finishing moves, it’s impossible to imagine Lords of Shadow existing in a world where God of War did not. The good news is that, if it is a bit of a clone, at least it’s a bloody good one.
Developers Mercury Steam, previously known for the woeful Clive Barker’s Jericho, hasn’t got everything right, but the team has certainly done a good job with the important stuff. For a start, Lords of Shadow looks incredible, with a strong mix of beautifully lit, gorgeously detailed landscapes, gothic horror monsters and dazzling animation. While God of War has it trumped on the heroic scale front, there’s no denying that the new Castlevania is a breath-taking piece of work.
The core gameplay is equally strong, starting off with a solid combat system, and building up from there with a steady stream of game mechanics that give the action a surprising amount of depth. There are grabbing moves, blocks, evasive manoeuvres and combos, but also a nice system of light and shadow magic which enables you to heal yourself or dish out extra damage during combat. Cleverly, you power up your magical abilities by collecting neutral magic orbs, and the best way to gather these is by achieving “focus” by streaming together attacks and blocks without letting enemy attacks through your guard. The whole system rewards elegant, tactical play and discourages button mashing (though you can still get away with a certain amount on the easiest difficulty level).
When you’re not fighting, you’re engaging in a little platforming, and while Lords of Shadow isn’t one for the Uncharted or Tomb Raider crowd, there’s certainly enough climbing, leaping and chain-swinging to give it some of the feel of the series from which it sprung. On top of this the game adds larger beasts who can be stunned and then mounted, enabling you to use specific abilities you’ll need to knock down barriers or cross wider gaps. Finally, this thieving magpie of a game even finds space for a few steals from Shadow of the Colossus when it comes to the boss battles, with Gabriel clambering around and laying the smackdown on some truly titanic foes.
It’s not as atmospheric or assured a game as God of War III, but Lords of Shadow moves at a similarly relentless speed, and the rhythm and pacing of the levels is spot on; it’s hard to think of one section that outstays its welcome. Despite the participation of heavyweight actors like Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle, the narrative is ponderous and - frankly - bobbins, and some of the sudden changes of scenery, from icy wastes to Asian jungle temples, are jarring, but who cares when the vistas are this gobsmacking, or the action so satisfying? And the more the game goes on, the better it gets. It’s one of those games where you start off a cynic, but end up thinking “give me more!”
If anything, the game goes a little too far in answering that request. Not only is it exhaustingly long, but there are actually good reasons to go back and re-conquer old levels, as not only are you able to open new areas with equipment you’ll have picked up later on, but you’ll also earn new experience points which can be spent on new combat moves and abilities. Still, you can’t really moan about a game that gives you too many hours of play for your money, and completists will have a field day on this one. What’s more, this kind of stuff is in the proper spirit of the series.
If Lord of Shadow has a downside, it’s in the details. Some of the battles feel excessively protracted, and there will be times when you’ll find yourself checkpointed going into a fight with precious little health, with the only realistic way forward being to go back and redo the level from the start. Some of the sudden death hazards feel unnecessary, and while the CPU-controlled camera does a mostly excellent job, it still has the odd off moment here and there. The narrated story sections between levels are almost painful - though Patrick Stewart can’t be faulted for effort here - and when the game pauses to give you instructions, the wait is so worryingly long that you suspect Mercury Steam were paranoid about losing the semi-literate Neanderthal market. All the same, compare Lords of Shadow to most other God of War wannabes, like EA’s execrable Dante’s Inferno, and it’s simply in a different league.
While it's closer to being God of War meets the Underworld movies than a true descendent of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, don’t let that blind you to the fact that Lords of Shadow is a seriously brilliant, blood-letting epic. From the sumptuous visuals to the thrilling score, it’s a triple A experience, and only a few rough edges and the damning lack of originality prevent us from giving it a higher score.