At first, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a very loathsome beast. The first level alone was hardly inviting, showing off more moves than my pitiful diminuitive brain could record in a short amount of time. As a Castlevania enthusiast, I certainly did not anticipate being able to use a whip in so many ways. Lords of Shadow then threw me off course in the second stage, where I had to battle while riding a mystical unicorn (and I don't even know how I came to possess one). I fell off rather easily, not expecting a Castlevania game to throw a quick time event to stay on into the mix. (For those unfamiliar, a quick time event is one where, during a scene, you need to press a button at just the right time to succeed, typically indicated somehow on-screen. It's a questionable substitute for actual gameplay.) The third level threw me into a poisonous bog where not only did the local goblin creatures want me dead, but the unhealthy water gave me pause. The levels all seemed arbitrarily difficult, and this trend continued through the next couple of chapters, filled with requirements to defeat overly strengthened beasts and climb more cliffs than a Mount Everest enthusiast. I was annoyed by Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and I only continued because I strongly dislike leaving games incomplete.
I don't know when it happened. It may have been in the fifth or sixth chapter. Or it may have been right after I toggled the difficulty level, but who's keeping score here? Something clicked. The hatred festering within my brain fizzled away, replaced by, dare I say it, enjoyment. At some indistinguishable point, I started to connect with what I was played. The vision of the developers was emerging from the digital fog. The journey was becoming exactly that, rather than an uphill trek for the mind. I began to feel that I had more control over my character, his powers, and his destiny. That's an impressive turnaround.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow follows the active pursuits of Gabriel Belmont, reportedly the first of the Belmont clan ever to venture into the darkness, effectively retconning the events of Castlevania: Lament of Innocence and proving this to be a genuine series reboot. (Interestingly enough, the game makes several mentions of Rinaldo Gandolfi, the man who appeared in Lament of Innocence to give Leon Belmont his famous whip. Gandolfi is apparently the creator of Gabriel's weapon as well, also dubbed the "Vampire Killer".) After losing his beloved wife, Marie, Gabriel seeks the Lords of Shadow, the dark counterparts to his own Order of the Brotherhood. Only by challenging them can Gabriel even dream of returning Marie back to the land of the living (and, along the way, he can also purge the world of evil, so there's an added bonus). Yet, as he progresses further into the depths, he changes... He becomes less of a noble man looking to right the wrongs of the past and more of a cruel vengeance seeker, casting away many more lives as a proclaimed murderer. This is one of the few Castlevania games where the main character (or any character at that) shows signs of grief and repugnance of his actions.
Sparks are definitely flying. Could romance be in the cards for Gabriel?
The game is very different and yet it is very familiar. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a completely new direction for the series. Konami had attempted 3D Castlevanias before, but nothing of this depth. Never have we so closely seen the torment and the epic backstory of a Castlevania game before, told both through cutscenes and via scrolls picked up from slain soldiers upon the ground. Gabriel also can use both Light and Shadow magic, and it is necessary to complete the game to use both of them, often in tandem. Belmonts have had magic meters before, but the magic itself is integral to the plot and to the advancement of the game. Lords of Shadow also possesses many large platforming sequences involving scaling cliffs, buildings, and other surfaces, a feat not often performed by future Belmonts.
Puzzle elements also appear rather frequently, requiring you to think hard before you act. It's Myst with a whip sometimes, and frankly, the game could have easily done without most of the puzzles. Case in point: Vampire Chess, Castlevania's answer to Final Fantasy X's Blitzball. I really didn't want to play a modified game of chess with a spoiled vampiric brat. It's very difficult to play well, and I used the option to skip this part with little delay. I didn't plan on Tetriscizing my way to glory, Konami.
But it's also extremely familiar, not because it contains strong elements of previous Castlevania games, but because it contains tropes from so many other popular releases rolled into one sushi roll of gaming. The platforming sequences are properties of other action games like Assassin's Creed. Going after hoards of enemies simultaneously elude breeds memories of God of War or Dante's Inferno. There are several colossal bosses called Titans that you have to climb to defeat, a parallel premise to Shadow of the Colossus. To summarize, Lords of Shadow is many games combined into one package. Unfortunately, they also pulled quicktime events into the mix, à la so many games, and that brings the experience down a little.
Being derivative doesn't make Lords of Shadow a terrible game. It pulls off many action sequences rather well, and much of the game is quite entertaining. The feeling you get when you defeat a rather gruesome boss is satisfying as your cross rips through its torso like a panther on a tiramisu! The game is, however, not without its flaws. Lords of Shadow boasts a move list that is beyond overwhelming. Each move is purchased by experience points you receive by completing levels (and you can freely go back to previously completed stages), but you honestly don't need them all to survive. As well, you don't even start out with a complete health bar. Instead, you have to hunt down Life Gems as held by fallen soldiers that are well-hidden throughout the game. By collecting five of these gems, your life meter will expand slightly. If you can't find those gems, you're out of luck because every sliver of health can be the difference between success and bloody failure. The same goes for the Light and Shadow magic meters; you must find five of each gem to expand your pitifully small meter. At least the game informed you of how many gems you missed in each stage, and you can return to previously explored stages as many times as you wish.
And then there are the Chupacabras.
Gabriel shows up pretty much everywhere. Sometimes, however, he is not welcomed warmly. Actually, he rarely is.
Ah, yes. Perhaps these little devils were inserted into the game when the producer's back was turned as a practical joke. I hope this is the case because otherwise, there were some dense people on the development team. Who could have possibly imagined that a mogwai-looking imp that steals all of your relics (and, thus, special powers) and taunts you incessantly with a grating Muppetly voice about how "hot" or "cold" you are relating to his location would NOT be at all fun? Their appearances are few, but they definitely break the flow of the game and pursuing them is, basically, a tiresome and infuriating assignment. You'll spit out your Fresca in rebellion when they appear, and I wouldn't blame you.
Yet if there was one thing that impressed me beyond the rest, it was the sheer beauty of the graphics. I realize that looks aren't everything in a video game, but one cannot help but stare in awe at the magnificence of Gabriel's highly varied surroundings. Painstaking care was taken to ensure that every minute detail received attention from the tallest statues and Titans to a tiny rock in a corner. The development team's efforts have not gone unnoticed in this regard. It made me think that perhaps more time was spent polishing graphics than innovating gameplay. The worlds feel genuinely expansive, even when they are relatively small in scope. Character and enemy design is intricate as well (though having a backlog of Castlevania games as a reference probably helped in the inspiration process).
There is also a soundtrack to accompany Lords of Shadow, but you probably wouldn't remember much of it. Atmospheric, scenic audio ripples in the background more often than not. If music is present (usually during times of battle rather than exploration), it is rooted in subtlety, choosing not to draw attention to itself while you focus on the task at hand. Castlevania music used to be more forward, but it is so no longer. You can, however, get a brief glimpse into the past: in a music box level, the song being played is the classic Vampire Killer theme (perhaps one of the few references to the series' history in the entire game).
Enthusiasts of games such as Assassin's Creed and God of War will probably eat this up while fans of Castlevania's lengthy and relatively simple 2D platforming history will need some significant extra time to adjust and reach a desired comfort level with Lords of Shadow. I fell more to the latter; I needed time to see all of the intricate pieces of this puzzle fall into place before I could enjoy it. Before that point, the game is a beast, but once everything "clicks", the experience becomes a wonder. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is far from perfect, but you are at least guaranteed an exhilarating ride.