The Whip Asserts Itself in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

The Combat Cross has many uses. For example, stabbing vampires in the heart.

The biggest mistake Mecurysteam made with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was allowing Konami to brand their half-finished project as a Castlevania game. Without the expectations packaged with such a legendary series, the game could have easily survived on its own and potentially achieved higher regard with the reviewers that continue to shamelessly yearn for another Symphony of the Night1. Instead, it is viewed as an attempt to reinvigorate an aging series by capitalizing on recent trends in third person action games2. Indeed, Lords of Shadow borrowed liberally from its immediate peers only to be received as another Dante’s Inferno: a pretender to God of War‘s gratuitous throne. Yet the meaningless spectacle of the recent God of War III only confirmed the series as caricature of the third-person action game.

So Lords of Shadow has something to prove, as Mercurysteam isn’t in the same fortunate position of coasting on the success of past efforts. Lords of Shadow borrows the right parts of the action games that inspired it, and assembles a remarkable genre blend that can be appreciated on its own merits. The game provides an engaging variation on third-person melee combat requiring the development of player skill over the course of the game. Even the positive reviews that laud the reimagining of such an iconic series do a poor job of conveying what makes this video game such an accomplishment. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will appear as an attractive also-ran, but it is a game that demands examination to fully appreciate its competency within the genre. And those who are willing to submit to its initial allure will play one of the best releases of 2010.

The “reboot” is a common phrase in the modern media franchise. Inspired by comic books that wiped the slate clean of a decades-old convoluted storyline, it allows creators to start anew and re-establish their bankable characters without having to worry about continuity. Why Castlevania even required a reboot is anyone’s guess; it has been happily chugging along for years re-framing the eternal struggle between the Belmonts and Dracula. While past critics of the series may complain about the overuse of the castle setting, the more astute observer would understand that the castle wasn’t changing – the way the player character interacts with the castle was changing. Contrary to popular opinion, the series is far from stagnant; there has been enough variety in this series over the course of four generations of consoles to show that it was always in a state of flux. The series moved uncomfortably into three dimensions with the N64 version of Castlevania3 and then began a parallel lineage on Nintendo’s portable platforms that continued the design legacy of Sympony of the Night. This included the addition of weapons beyond Vampire Killer, new ways of outfitting the player character, and new combat and magic systems that complemented the Metroid-style upgrade-to-proceed formula.

So when Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was announced and associated with Kojima Productions, the responses ranged from “This game will have beautiful movies” to “will you even be able to play this game?” Once the videos of the game in action started to appear, the predictable refrain of “God of War rip-off” grew to a low rumble right up until the release of the demo, where these condemnations were all but proven in the court of public opinion4. At the same time, the early positive reviews claimed Lords of Shadow was a “bold new direction” for the conservative Castlevania, a series that had been retracing its steps in recent years. Yet these assessments did not elaborate on what made it such an achievement for the series. Evidence to support either claim was not present in the demo, and in the end was a poor choice for introducing players to Mecurysteam’s updated vision for the franchise.

The fiction of the Castlevania universe was never especially complex, so to overwrite it is not the catastrophe it would seem. The internal mythology that is constructed is sure to pay homage to the games in the series that came before it, but is founded in a more conservative interpretation of horror fantasy. Not all tall spires and evil forests, it takes a more tempered approach to the medieval Eastern Europe that provides the setting for Lords of Shadow. The mythical creatures presented abandon the caricatures of games past, grounded in an alternate reality inspired by Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This balanced approach doesn’t convey that Mercurysteam had a strong sense for themes from the previous installments of Castlevania, but this is their world now.

The game takes place in the year 1047. The Earth has been cut off from the Heavens, and the Lords of Shadow reign in the absence of God. It is up to Gabriel Belmont, figurehead for the “Order of Light”, to restore balance to the world. In the process, Gabriel Belmont must also search for an artifact called the God Mask to resurrect his recently deceased wife. Lords of Shadow tries to weave this insufferably ponderous story around the action to justify the player’s need to move forward, but it comes across as too desperate to be taken seriously. Furthermore, the “surprise” ending is overflowing with the same desperation to tie things together that it damages the delicate relationship between player and Mercurysteam’s new vision for the series. This is a video game about stabbing vampires in the chest and wrapping a chain around the necks of werewolves. No one should expect depth of any significance in a story from a video game in this genre, as long as the “video game” part provides motivation enough to continue.

To lend further weight to this tenuous story arc Mercurysteam used celebrities to provide voices for the main characters. When Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle were attached to the project, the presumption was that Lords of Shadow was going to be A Big Deal. Nobody mentioned that Jason Isaacs – better known as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter film adaptations – would be playing the part of Satan. Maybe that would give away the unconventional ending, because everyone knows that in Castlevania you fight Dracula at the end. Always5. All three actors mean nothing in the context of the game; they simply offer a recognizable voice. Stewart gets bored of his script after the second chapter, having been forced to read the unnecessarily lengthy introductions to each sub-chapter. Carlyle’s voice is too hard for the soft-faced Gabriel Belmont6. There is no expression in his plight; only the reading of lines. These inclusions were intended to cultivate credibility with video game culture, but are wasted efforts. I didn’t care that Jason Isaacs was trying to seduce Gabriel Belmont in the Underworld. What I cared about was being able to give Satan the beating I wish I could have at the end of Dante’s Inferno7

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Lords of Shadow begins at the gates to some rustic village under attack by werewolves. It’s an unremarkable encounter aside from a small flourish at the end where Gabriel must stab a giant warg in the heart with a sharpened log. Gabriel is then forced to ride on a horse with glowing tattoos through a pack of more werewolves, and there is an unsettling feeling that maybe Mercurysteam is operating out of their depth. Or perhaps Kojima, who had never worked with Castlevania before, gave some unnecessary creative direction. The scope of the game’s ambitions could not possibly be gleaned from this tiny skirmish. And yet this sequence was included in the game’s official demo.

And so after this very brief encounter – the quality of which would not be repeated for the rest of the game – the player is properly immersed in a gorgeously crafted world. And it is not all brown and grey; moving from the washed-out tones of a foggy swampland to the bright jungle of Pan’s Temple to the derelict walls of an abbey in the middle of a winter wasteland, the exceptional art direction of Lords of Shadow ensures that it does not fall within the territory of a dismissible reproduction. Mecurysteam has wrought their own dark and mysterious landscape, with a progression of themes accented by Óscar Araujo’s equally majestic score that suitably conveys the journey of the player through this new world.

Nevertheless, there is no Castlevania flair to any of these meticulously crafted landscapes. In the past, the Castlevania series drags out old standbys: the walls of stained glass, the disused cathedral, the clock tower, the evil laboratory. And while elements of these settings are certainly used in Lords of Shadow‘s series of locations, they are assembled in such a way that it could be any dark fantasy setting. The artists at Mercurysteam have put together a world that is internally consistent, and distances itself from the visual references that have become creative crutches for the series. Lords of Shadow is the new Castlevania, despite the belief that this new vision would effuse more influence from its progenitors.

An unfortunate trend among games that have such elaborately designed environments is that they are merely decorative. Very little of the game world is accessible by the player: prescribed pathways are opened by puzzles or brief platforming sections, with open spaces and hallways reserved for combat. The fixed camera is at odds with the game; these manufactured angles iterate the importance of the scenery, and not play. As a result, the platforming in Lords of Shadow is no more than a compulsory distraction in order to return to combat. Taking cues from a combination of the Uncharted and God of War series, particular parts of the environment must be sought out to be jumped on, shimmied along and swung from. And instead of scratch marks or other environmental cues to navigate the terrain, the path forward is paved with glowing ledges and grapple points. Death by falling only provides a modest penalty – like Link in the Legend of Zelda series, a portion of Gabriel’s health bar is taken and he returns to the ledge or grapple point he fell from.

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Lords of Shadow awkwardly takes renewed interest in platforming once the Seraph Shoulders are obtained. At this juncture over two thirds of the game has been played through, and the player has resigned themselves to mediocre-to-poor platforming breaks between the more satisfying combat. And these new platforming sections are good: from simple jump/double-jump/swing sequences to “Aperture Magic.” Lords of Shadow may be the latest game to take inspiration from Valve’s Portal, but there is no clumsily integrated tool to be manipulated in such a disparate setting. Rather, these portals are already in the world, and Gabriel must navigate them using the Seraph Shoulders to double-jump and float through a moderately challenging sequence. Apart from calling these spatial anomalies “Aperture Magic”, it is no different than the typical “magic mirror” mazes that were in video games long before Portal.

To call Mercurysteam’s ideas for breaking up the action “puzzles” would be generous, though that is by no means disparaging their contribution to Lords of Shadow. Instead, these are simply further manifestations of what has afflicted the third person action game, where the genre has developed a parallel definition of “puzzle” that has polluted the video game forever. These “puzzles” are useless distractions thrown into the game to extend it, and perhaps alleviate some of the monotony that combat has caused. However, in most cases the designers lack pacing in the flow of their game, and so insert these activities to slow down the action while still maintaining the player’s attention.

“Puzzle” is such a loose term in the case of Lords of Shadow, as what are set up as tests of logic have one obvious solution, or a solution that can be brute forced without much thought. There is an equal amount of lever turning and switch activating, sometimes while under assault. There are switch panels that will do damage if they are selected in the wrong order. There is a game of battle chess8. Lords of Shadow is already a game of substantial length, so these activities do more to sidetrack the player than searching for a glowing ledge to leap over a wall. Well, all except one.

The Music Box is a brilliant segment of Lords of Shadow where Gabriel is miniaturized inside a music box and must traverse a series of trap rooms to escape. While the segment was completely ridiculous in the context of the game, it was the setting for one of its most enjoyable environmental challenges. Gabriel must wander around the music box finding sections of sheet music for it to play, each section modifying the behavior of the traps inside the box depending on what order they are played in. The music that plays is a variation on the “Vampire Killer” theme, and the appearance of the box is reminiscent of the clock tower and church organ rooms from the Castlevania maps of old. Fan service, perhaps, but the best kind.

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Lords of Shadow is oddly distracting in the way it deliberately holds back in its first few hours, intently focused on showing off its environments through sub-chapters that sometimes amount to little more than walking through a forest. Had the platforming been more elaborate at the start, the coyness surrounding the combat system would have likely gone unnoticed.

Then perhaps two mistakes were made by Mercurysteam. The second is withholding a fully functional combat system until the player has spent four hours with the game. For some players, this will seem like the natural order of things. They start off with a limited selection of abilities, and gain rewards such as magic items or new weapon upgrades. This is a familiar design for the Castlevania series, and others of its exploring and item-hoarding ilk. However, this method of delivery is more appropriate for items auxiliary to the whip-based combat system, which is the centerpiece of Lords of Shadow. Instead, the full complement of abilities for the Combat Cross is frustratingly delivered in pieces over the course of the first nine levels.

The Combat Cross is a redesign of the legendary Vampire Killer: a large metal crucifix where the top extends into a chain whip. Although reference is made to the weapon’s more recognizable name, it is more in-game folklore than new canon. Its construction is still associated with Rinaldo Gandolfi, the creator of the original Vampire Killer established by Lament of Innocence. Initial impressions might classify the Combat Cross as an uninspired recreation of the Blades of Chaos. However, even in the setting of a video game a knife on a chain teaches nothing of swordplay – only that melee attacks are transformed into distance attacks and danger is less immediate for the player. In truth, the Combat Cross is the Blades of Chaos reduced to first principles: a chain whip that behaves as one would expect. The Combat Cross feels agile, yet substantial in issuing light and heavy attacks. It writhes and snaps like the head of an iron snake. It facilitates aerial combat as much as ground combat with a grappling move that resembles Nero from Devil May Cry 4 more than Kratos. It is a satisfying weapon to yield.

The Focus Meter is the first addition to the combat system beyond the basic whip attacks, though it isn’t immediately useful until the Magic system is handed over. The Focus Meter is similar to the combo systems in Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, in that the player is judged on how well they can avoid attacks. Completing successive combos and executing a “perfect block” – blocking at the exact moment of an incoming attack – increases the Focus meter more quickly. Once it is full, each successive hit of an enemy will produce a neutral magic orb, which are in turn used to fuel the Magic system.

The whip is eventually used in conjunction with Light and Shadow Magic to enhance attacks, but these are not offensive spells. Rather, they are more like the whip upgrade systems in Harmony of Dissonance and Lament of Innocence. Equipping Light Magic attacks will sap health from enemies with each hit, while Shadow Magic will increase damage output. All whip combinations can be enhanced with magic, or new combinations specific to each branch of magic can be purchased. The player can switch between Light and Shadow magic on-the-fly using the shoulder buttons of the controller to maintain the flow of combat. Coupled with the Focus meter, the skilled player will theoretically have a steady supply of magic in most fights.

All magic orbs released by enemies are neutral, and can be used to fill the Light or Shadow magic meters by converting them to the desired type. In this manner, the player controls their supply of magic to suit their style of play. The act of collecting the orbs breaks up the action, and is similar to the balance of offense with orb acquisition in Ninja Gaiden.

Unlike Dante’s Inferno, in which the act of “Absolving” or “Punishing” souls determines the type of orb released, orbs in Lords of Shadow are released for consumption no matter the choice of attacks. The player can assign it accordingly without having to endure a clumsy animation or mini-game that stops the flow of combat just because they want to follow a particular upgrade path.

Combat isn’t entirely free from flow-breaking distractions, however. Lords of Shadow is also sure to carry over one-button finishing moves from its contemporaries. Do enough damage to an enemy and they will be weakened, where they can be finished off in a more dramatic fashion. The difference in Lords of Shadow‘s approach to quick time events is that any button can be pressed after waiting for a glowing circle to focus on-screen. To this end, the button pattern is replaced wholesale with the act of waiting, which is at odds with Lords of Shadow‘s well-paced combat.

There are only three available armor upgrades, but instead of simply providing accessories for traversing the game’s environments they are well-integrated into the combat system. They are also spread out in the game, as each item is awarded after a major battle. The player remains in command of their fighting style, as there isn’t suddenly a batch of new monsters that can only be defeated using Gabriel’s latest acquisition. And the Combat Cross remains as the centerpiece.

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The available Secondary Weapons are more like the traditional alternate attacks in a Castlevania game, such as daggers or holy water. They are further enhanced by using them with Light and Shadow magic. At first, the secondary weapons only seem useful when a distance attack is required. Though once the Holy Water is obtained, it becomes an essential component for any crowd control strategy to keep groups of enemies at bay so that individuals can be engaged with the whip. When enemy toughness increases in the second half of the game, the secondary weapons become a bridge between whip attacks to ensure that whip combos are not broken and the focus meter is sustained.

Dark Crystals are introduced at the end of the second act as items that serve two purposes: they can power some of the old technology that is encountered (usually part of a puzzle), or they can be broken to summon a demon that will exact a substantial amount of area damage. It is the closest thing to a spell in Lords of Shadow, and a strange addition to Gabriel’s arsenal given its structure around the whip. This spell does not merge with the regular flow of combat, as each use starts a brief cutscene showing the demon’s summoning. The designers likely included this attack to allow an escape hatch for unskilled or struggling players, though four shards must be fused together to make one, and Gabriel can only carry one full crystal at a time. In fact, the limited inventory supply of secondary weapons overall deters player dependency on these items during combat, bringing focus back to the whip.

The currency of Lords of Shadow is experience points gained with each kill, which can be used to purchase new combinations for base whip attacks, or Light and Shadow magic-enhanced ones. The amount of choice here in comparison to Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta and even God of War is limited, but it makes Gabriel’s overall repertoire more manageable for those that want to learn and make the most of the combat system. Some combinations can be upgraded more than once, and the experience hoarding approach doesn’t work well with this system. When the game indicates “More skills Available” it doesn’t mean they are immediately visible. It just means the upgrade pathway to that skill is unlocked, requiring some mandatory investment of experience points to see what is available. However, due to the limited set of skills, the risk is low for players that worry about optimization of their character build. The Chapters in the game are structured in such a way that they can be revisited upon completion to gather more experience, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect that every skill can be purchased by the end of the game.

When the Magic system is introduced, the player is given a meager supply to work with. Light and Shadow must be used in bursts integrated with regular whip attacks. There is no one skill that bypasses everything without penalty. The player must still block and dodge in equal measure with attacks or they will take damage. Hitting buttons quickly will not work, and arming magic buffs at random will only drain the supply of magic faster. The player is therefore forced to learn the application of each whip attack to maximize the benefit to the Focus meter. This encourages depth in combat strategies so that by the time the magic supply increases in capacity there is no dependency on it, which ultimately creates a more balanced system.

For most players, dodging will be a reflex instead of blocking. This will allow a comfort level to be developed for offensive attacks prior to learning to block properly as the Focus meter becomes more important. Unfortunately, in Lords of Shadow the dodge action was mapped to a button chord – the Left Stick and the Left Trigger.

Maybe there were three mistakes, after all. Mapping the dodge/roll function to a button chord is difficult to perform while under heavy assault, and occasionally mutates into an offensive combination by mistake. This leaves the player open and interrupts the flow of their attacks. While acting like a natural extension of the block (the Left Trigger), it is still awkward compared with the convention established by God of War. Even stranger is the lack of function mapped to the right stick in the game. The dodge button mapping wouldn’t be as noticeable if it wasn’t so essential to any combat strategy.

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To accommodate the acquisition of player skill, combat is more forgiving in allowing time to execute combinations, and through natural pauses from the game’s use of the “press any button” quick-time events. This is not a punishing technique-based beat ‘em up like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, though the influences of these games are more recognizable in Lords of Shadow than in God of War and its imitators. Dante’s Inferno did not allow for player reaction time. While there are plenty of offensive attacks to choose from in Dante’s Inferno, it was not necessary to learn them to succeed – the player could always fall back to the infinite supply of overpowered Beatrice Cross projectiles. Similarly, the generous magic system in God of War does not explicitly encourage exploration of melee combat, though it is not as obtrusive.

The combat in Lords of Shadow is the centerpiece of the game. It has been balanced between blocks and counters, dodging and offensive strikes. At first, enemies will appear scarce in number to the quick learner. The tempered difficulty curve obliges with stronger enemies in similarly sized groups with greater variation between unblockable and blockable attacks to explore the full depth of available combat strategies, allowing the player to fully grasp the system and appreciate its dynamics.

Of course, players are free to attempt button mashing in Lords of Shadow. It might even work for the first few hours of play, but certainly not for the duration of the game. This approach is a mistake, and a waste of the player’s time – a hard lesson that the game provides early enough so this strategy can be corrected. The player is directed into building combinations, blocks and counters, and to predict enemy movements and “tells”. Successfully landing combinations of attacks will also assist in filling the Focus meter to replenish magic during a fight. Combat in Lords of Shadow encourages active thought, not passive muscle memory, and provides immediate reward for this behavior.

Once the main features of the combat system are earned by the player in Lords of Shadow, the system asserts itself. Over the course of the first four chapters of the game, the player has grown accustomed to relying on the Focus meter and balancing Light and Shadow magic with whip attacks. Techniques and combinations have been built up around these abilities.

And then the Chupacabras comes.

Far more devastating than the wandering blobs that would steal Link’s shield, the Chupacabras takes all of Gabriel’s abilities and he must be captured to get this equipment back. The Chupacabras appears three times in the game, but one instance in particular stands out.

At the beginning of the fifth Chapter, Gabriel chases the Chupacabras into a Goblin encampment, complete with a rampaging giant warthog. These enemies have been encountered many times already. Except this time, Light magic is not available to restore health, and Shadow magic cannot be used to deal more damage faster. The player must adapt quickly.

Though “adapting” really means returning to the character’s state at beginning of the game. It feels incredibly unwieldy – unfair even. Except this is the game’s way of reminding players of the importance of the combat system that has been built up to that point. If the player has developed enough of the whip’s advanced non-magic attacks, there is no reason why this sequence should be a problem. Once the relics are regained, there is a renewed appreciation for what Mercurysteam has created in Lords of Shadow‘s combat system.

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The design of the boss encounters is one of the best features of Lords of Shadow. The exceptions are the massive Titans: clearly inspired by Shadow of the Colossus they are outliers, and a very awkward addition to the game. Even when taking the story at face value, their existence in the world that has been established is of little importance. Furthermore, after fighting two Titans in the first third of Lords of Shadow they aren’t seen until again until the end of the game when Gabriel visits a Titan graveyard and fights a final battle with what could easily pass as a giant dragon skeleton. These encounters attribute some half-hearted legendary status to the Titans, but instead they manifest as a series of very clumsy homages to Team Ico.

In stark contrast with these indulgent departures, every single fight with a boss character in Lords of Shadow is logical, fair, and reinforces the combat system with Gabriel’s growing repertoire of combinations and special attacks. The fights are all structured so that combat can be approached as it was in regular encounters. That is, hinging on the player’s skill at reading the tells for unblockable attacks, and interpreting the responses to Light and Shadow magic9. The boss characters are neither damage sponges like the obnoxious setpieces of Dante’s Inferno, nor are they “puzzles” to be solved by using a specific attack or prescribed button sequence like in Darksiders and the God of War series. Some of the fights are multi-stage, but still allow the full breadth of skill use for any play style to overcome each new form of the boss. The increase in difficulty for each encounter comes from stronger, faster or more complex attack patterns – such as unblockable or magic attacks – but they can all be avoided, blocked or countered with the same complement of abilities as regular encounters.

It is essential that the Focus meter is used in these fights to maximize the use of the Magic system. Landed strikes increase the Focus meter as in normal encounters, but to accelerate this process it is better to do a perfect block at every opportunity. Maxing out the Focus meter in these fights provides a dependable reserve of Magic, allowing more flexibility in attack and health recovery strategies.

Despite the freedom encouraged by the structure of these encounters, all of the fights have checkpoints. This significantly diminishes any sort of tension built up in the fight, and is an indicator of the lack of confidence in player skill by the designers. It shows that they did not feel their encounter was balanced enough to allow the player to survive it without dying, even though the tools have been handed over to survive these encounters indefinitely. There is no special attack that must be performed to win. The “any button” quick time events are used at the end of the fight, but this is more to display an involved cinematic showing the defeat of the boss. The contest has already been won.

It is during the fights with the boss characters that the combat system galvanizes itself. After surmounting the normal encounters leading up to these battles, forming a successful attack and defensive strategy should be second-nature; gauging the enemy’s reaction to each whip strike should provide adequate information to develop a suitable combination to counter them and emerge victorious. The rewards for capitalizing on the combat system are sensed immediately. It is a devastating disappointment to learn that the fight with Satan isn’t so much about combat, as it is navigating a bunch of Light and Shadow magic concentric circles. While immensely satisfying to bombard him with the whip while weakened, it wasn’t a very challenging fight for the climax of the game.

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Lords of Shadow is the new Castlevania for as long as Konami resists returning to the old canon. As was the case of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia, a reimagining is only successful if sales are able to support the loss of the old character and themes. The release of The Forgotten Sands earlier this year shows how quickly these ventures into new territory can double back10.

Lords of Shadow distinguishes itself not through the rewriting of Castlevania‘s history, but its restoration of melee combat as a central theme. Besides the obvious influence from their contemporaries, Mercurysteam went back to a Castlevania before the character leveling, item hoarding and exploration styled after Metroid. Recent Castlevania games may have drifted away from the whip and the original focus on action, but Lords of Shadow defiantly asserts itself in the lineage of video games to bear the Castlevania name.

With the fervent praise surrounding God of War III, Sony Santa Monica are so confident with their position in the third-person action genre they assume that spectacle alone is an acceptable improvement to a series that has remained mostly unchanged since its first installment. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow shows that when a developer’s fate as an imitator has been decided, they have nothing to lose except the unfounded criticisms from those that have fashioned God of War into an unassailable representative of the genre.

Rather than relying on empty posturing, Mercurysteam has created a video game that brandishes its combat with purpose. Despite their attempts to deepen the experience with familiar voice actors, well-tread plot points and trivial interactions with the game’s environments, the combat in Lords of Shadow emerges as its most remarkable element. Lords of Shadow exploits the use of the whip, creating a combat system that allows players to develop their own approach to each encounter. Most importantly, the combat system does not suddenly disappear when confronted with the boss challenges at the end of each chapter. Combat in Lords of Shadow is substantial and engaging enough to carry the burden of the rebirth of a well-known series, undeterred by the distractions that have been built up around it.

Lords of Shadow delivers a combat system that provides depth for the skilled, and enough easy flourishes to keep novice players entertained without feeling like they are hammering buttons reflexively. The challenge of Lords of Shadow is in the constant struggle against muscle memory; realizing there is a combat system that does not conflate accessibility with a lack of challenge. And so when Satan falls and the closing movie reveals Mercurysteam’s uncomfortable plans for the newly established Castlevania timeline they may not have the mindshare of the faithful, but they have certainly earned the right to lay proper claim to the bloody throne of Kratos.

  1. In fact, at E3 2009 it was simply called “Lords of Shadow“, with no Castlevania branding, to prevent it from overshadowing Castlevania: Judgement for the Wii. Right now it sits with a respectable average metacritic score of 83% for Xbox 360, and 85% for PS3.
  2. GamesRadar goes so far to suggest that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will “help this series rise from its grave” in their review
  3. As if three dimensions were necessary for progress! Subsequent to Symphony of the Night, the Castlevania series was stuck in a limbo between dimensional perspectives as it struggled to find the most appropriate direction for the game’s design.
  4. I responded to the demo in the same way, falling victim to the game’s first impressions. I’m glad I pursued it further. In this regard, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is this year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Refer to “The Video Game Demo: advertising catalyst or legitimate demonstration?”, September 2009.
  5. You also fight Death in every Castlevania game. But not this time.
  6. The “soft face” was one of Kojima’s creative suggestions. The original design of Gabriel Belmont’s appearance was a grizzled visage that Kojima thought young American audiences would have a hard time associating with. Not me!
  7. I’d suggest reading my full breakdown of the game in Dante’s Inferno: The Wretched”, May 2010.
  8. After the ridiculous minigame in Devil May Cry 4 I despise any action game that includes a form of chess as a means of delaying progress. Let me fight things!
  9. You can turn on damage “ticks” on the GUI in the Options menu. This became indispensible.
  10. Especially in light of an upcoming film adaptation using the original character design!
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2 Responses to The Whip Asserts Itself in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

  1. Ian says:

    Excellent piece! Your critique of Lords of Shadow is both elaborate and extremely well rounded as you draw comparisons to its predecessors in the third-person action genre as well as its predecessors in the Castlevania series. Among many of the elements you’ve listed, I’m glad to hear that the combat skills you develop throughout the game do not go mysteriously absent during boss fights.

  2. Finally! Someone willing to defend to Lords of Shadow; it received quite a few praiseworthy reviews from good sources like Eurogamer, but outside of that the gaming community itself seems to have reacted with cries of making Castlevania generic. I think I may be the only fan of the series who not only was okay with the final product, but loved it enough to consider it one of my favorite games of 2010 (even if it didn’t draw my attention enough to have me replay it.)

    It’s most definitely a Castlevania game to me, in that it involves a dude with a whip who must fight creatures of the night and a host of assembled genre monsters in a Gothic setting and utilize his ability to platform. If only the musical style was more diverse, it’d be perfect.

    After all, one has to recall that Symphony of the Night was derided back in the day as “Metroidvania.” That term wasn’t used kindly, either, as it is now. So back in the early 90s, one producer found it useful for the series to mimic Metroid, a then popular series, and now another producer decides the series should mimic God of War, a currently more popular series. And hey, to make this loop even further the studio behind Metroid Prime decided to change it to a first person game and that also made people flip out about making it generic.

    It is also seems to have suffered similar problems to Darksiders, where people don’t realize that the God of War method of combat and the Legend of Zelda style gameplay are not really things coined to a particular franchise name but are really like sub-genres of games. Thankfully, no one called Gears of War 1 a “Resident Evil 4 ripoff.”

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