For all of its history, the Castlevania series can't claim a great 3D game in the franchise. Even as many other snes from the SNES era moved into the brave new world of 3D, producing such classics as Super Mario 64 and Metroid Prime, Castlevania has stayed in its old 2D form. To be sure, this wasn't entirely for the worst, as remaining in two-dimensions allowed for the creation of some great titles on both the PSOne and DS. However, everything has to change eventually, and thus we have Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a 3D update of the Castlevania series developed by Mercury Steam and over seen by Hideo Kojima. Although Kojima's latest creation doesn't take the title of the first truly great Castlevania 3D game, Lords of Shadow certainly delivers an enjoyable experience in spite of its flaws.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a game which takes its cues from many of the best games over the past couple of years, something which starts in the combat. Gabriel (the protagonist) is equipped with a whip extends out of your hand and can be used for two different types of attacks: area and direct. Sound familiar? If not, then go take a look at some God of War videos and it will all become clear. Nonetheless, even though it will remind you quite obviously of God of War, the combat in Lords of Shadow is enjoyable and deep, as you will need to use all of your wits and many of the purchasable upgrades in order to survive your quest to rid the land of the Lords of Shadow.
Similarly impressive is the variety and graphical quality of both the enemies and the areas which you will be travelling trough in your journey. The environments that you travel through really convey a sense of scale, although they are unfortunately quite linear and chock full of invisible walls. In spite of this, the sheer scale, detail, and variety of the levels combined with the beautiful cutscenes reinforces a cinematic feel which runs throughout the game.
The enemies also show an impressive amount of variety and detail. Mercury Steam has pulled out out everything in the fantasy playbook from goblins, to wargs to vampires and everything in between. Some of these enemies can even be ridden and used to solve puzzles after being defeated, a move which provides for a nice change of pace.
Of special note are the titan boss battles. These boss fights pit Gabriel against massive enemies and require him to defeat them in fights reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. These boss battles convey the sense of scale which is inherent with titans incredibly well, making players feel like even more of a badass when they win. Taken together, with the exception of issues of invisible walls limiting your exploration, the visuals in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will keep you occupied.
That gameplay time number may seem a little bit high for a linear action-adventure title, but rest assured it is very accurate. In order to fill up all that time, Mercurey Steam has augmented the combat with a variety of other activities. In addition to riding all manner of animals, you'll find yourself completing intermittent platofmring sections and also solving puzzles both large and small. The game is superbly paced, so you'll never feel as if you are bogged down in any one or with any one task. Unfortunately, these elements aren't as tightly executed as the combat and suffer from two problems.
First, as with many games which have longer playtimes, some of the objectives and obstacles start to feel repetitive after a while. Eventually you'll get to an area, see a certain type of barrier and think to yourself "okay, where's the cave troll" or "time to find two relic keys to pass this door". It doesn't come to be back-breaking thanks to the fact that the game clips along at such a nice pace but it does stop the game from being truly top-notch.
Similarly, all of the elements outside of combat aren't as polished as the combat itself. Perhaps the best example of this is the platforming sections. Not only is it sometimes finicky, with a light tap in the wrong direction will send you plunging to your death. Also, many times it feels like the developers are holding your hand through these sections, a feeling which contributes to a lack of freedom when completing many of the platforming areas.
In much the same way, the puzzles also feel as if sometimes you're having your hand held through them. only one or two puzzles are truly cleverly designed and force you to make full use of the variety of powers you gain throughout the game. On the bright side though, some of the more complex puzzles allow you to open up the solution at the expense of EXP. Nonetheless, both the platforming sections and the puzzles do provide a nice break from the action of slaying zombies.
Unfortunately, there is no silver lining when it comes to the game's camera. The developers decided to not allow players to change the camera angle and instead make it static, which is a totally respectable decision. What isn't respectable is the fact that the camera simply fails at times. This can be especially problematic during combat, when you'll occasionally be attacked by enemies who you had no idea were even present, resulting in minor nerd rage if you happened to be low on health at the time. What's more, when navigating through levels, the camera will spastically shift to a totally different angle, thereby disorienting you for a few moments.
However, these problems don't overshadow what are some otherwise very stellar aspects of Lords of Shadow. The sound design compliments the top of the line graphics and intense combat quite well, further adding to the intense cinematic sense which the game occasionally generates. Adding to the more than competent soundtrack are superb voice performances turned in nearly across the board to bolster the above-average storyline.
Last but not least, in addition to an already lengthy campaign, Lords of Shadow also gives players a fair bit of replayability. Much like Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light, there are challenges which are based on individual levels rather than across the game. These challenges are then tiered, meaning that in order to complete everything there is to see in the game you will need to replay each level multiple times, undertaking more difficult challenges each time. These challenges more than make up for the fact that the character customization is more of a set of upgrades which need to be acquired rather than a way to uniquely sculpt your character on each playthrough.
So, how then to best characterize Castlevania: Lords of Shadows? Is it a superb game? Definitely not. It has too many flaws for anyone to give it that title. In much the same way it fails to live up to some of the sleeper GoTY hype which was lavished upon the game leading up to release. However, the pacing of the game is so good, the mechanics tightly, if not uniquely executed. Add this to more than a few moments which simply make you feel like a badass and although Castlevania: Lords of Shadow can't be considered the first truly great Castlevania 3D game, it is a title which is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of the action adventure genre.