maanantai 17. tammikuuta 2011

REVIEW - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (2010)

Genre(s): Action
Released: 2010
Available on: PS3, X360
Developer(s): MercurySteam, Kojima Productions
Publisher(s): Konami
Players: 1

In 2008, a Wii game called Castlevania Judgment was released. At the same time, Konami had employed a Spanish developer, MercurySteam, to work on a medieval action game heavily influenced by God of War, dubbed Lords of Shadow. Just a while later, a total of three bombs were dropped. First of all, Kojima Productions - known for a video game franchise I probably don't need to mention by name - was hired to assist MercurySteam. Second, it was going to be a Castlevania game, starring Simon Belmont and more or less another remake of the very first game, released in 1986. The third one came last: it was instead going to be a total reboot of the whole franchise, starring an unrelated Belmont, a holy knight fighting against a formless evil to avenge the death of his wife. That's when a majority of fans backed off. Although Castlevania might've been in dire need of a reboot, leaked bits and pieces of the storyline as well as the games looks showed that Lords of Shadow was going to take a whole different form than what people wanted when they saw the brand name gracing a new game's cover art. Lords of Shadow is a moderately good game, but it's not Castlevania, and as far as gameplay is concerned, I think we've seen all of it before... done better, at that.

I'm gonna stick this cross so far up your ass you're gonna...

Robert Carlyle : Gabriel Belmont
Natascha McElhone : Marie Belmont
Aleksandar Mikic : Pan
Sir Patrick Stewart : Zobek
Grace Vance : Laura
Richard Ridings : Cornell
Emma Ferguson : Claudia
Eve Karpf : Baba Yaga
Adrian Schiller : Abbot Vincent Dorin
Sally Knyvette : Carmilla

The dead are walking the Earth due to a force only known as the Lords of Shadow casting a dark spell that prevents the souls of the deceased from ascending to the Heavens. Gabriel Belmont, the most antisocial, but also one of the most talented combatants of the Brotherhood of Light, sets out on a journey to untie the knot and avenge the recent murder of his wife Marie - who has also become an apparition. Not only are the Lords of Shadow responsible for her death, they are also connected to an ancient relic that holds the power to bring Marie back to life.

I don't want to sound stubborn, and I sure as hell don't want to sound like a purist, but the first thing that slaps me across the face about this game is that it's in 3D. This time, it's more of a Castlevania-related thing when it comes to the atmosphere, not a stab at the gameplay. The game is definitely playable, no doubt about it, but the more you advance in the game, the less it feels like Castlevania and the more it feels like there's a checklist of cliches, made cliches by games like God of War, its sequels and Shadow of the Colossus. The storyline's pretty good, I've got to admit, but it all plays out so familiarly. In Shadow of the Colossus, you could ride down a valley and really glare at a gigantic rock monster that spun over three whole TV screens with your mouth open before saying to yourself "I've got to fight that thing? Fuck it, I'm outta here!" In this game, a colossal titan smashing through a yay-thick lake ice from the beneath and pounding his mountain-sized fists at you doesn't really make that much of an impression any more. Neither does the way you're supposed to kill him - climb the dude and stab these highlighted runes on different parts of his body. Sound familiar?

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a reboot, which means that MercurySteam could've done whatever they wanted with it, but in my mind, they could've easily dropped the Castlevania title and rename the main character Gabriel Marlboro or something. The game wouldn't have turned out any better, but at least it wouldn't have to be criticized for not being a true Castlevania game. Reboot or not, the name Belmont, some familiar locations and an almost unrecognizable adaptation of "Vampire Killer" are not quite enough to make old fans feel comfortable. The only thing that really ties the game to the rest of the series is that it's HARD - surprisingly difficult for a game released since checkpoints started to light up on five-second intervals. That's it for criticizing Lords of Shadow as a Castlevania game. Let's look at it as an action game.

We've seen better graphics squeezed out of the PS3. Apparently there's more weight on making the environment look epic and feel "endless" instead of polishing each and every edge of the overall look. In my opinion, the game doesn't look that much better than the HD versions of the first two God of War games. Just a little bit more dynamic, perhaps, but the camera lies just as fixed and the game doesn't have a true "wow" moment, while God of Wars have plenty of them. Was kind of expecting one throughout the whole game, but it never came to be. In turn, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a longer game than any God of War - much, much longer.

The music has changed a lot, it doesn't have any classic Castlevania spirit in it. Bits of classic Castlevania music are "included", altered so heavily you wouldn't recognize them if you weren't the composer. "Vampire Killer" is indeed included with the rest of 'em, but as a sort of a tribute and it's almost unrecognizable - it's actually a part of a puzzle, so its appearance is that much more subtle. Mostly, the soundtrack (composed by MercurySteam's Oscar Araujo) consists of classical music, which ranges from epic battle music to simple, solemn flow. Not bad, but a little too familiar and nothing out of the ordinary. The voice acting is very professional, which is no wonder since we have Robert Carlyle doing Gabriel, and Captain Jean-Luc Pic... sorry, Sir Patrick Stewart as his very "seanconnerian" mentor Zobek, plus the gorgeous and talented Natascha McElhone as the ghost of Gabriel's wife Marie. Most of the characters speak in old, broken English, which is well articulated, but why all the unnecessary melodrama, I wonder? Stewart also does the narrative of the game as Zobek, and the narrative comes in after each level. A few times I found myself saying out loud: "God damn it, Stewart! This isn't a radio play, this is a game! Settle down!" Sometimes it really feels like these guys are getting into their roles a bit too much. I'm not a theatre critic, but I'm a watcher, a listener, and most of all, a player. I'm easily distracted by things that don't belong.

Got to admit, he has a lot more classic Belmont
in him than that anime freak they've got standing
in for Simon these days.
Let's start describing the game on a high note and point out what does separate it from 99% of the action games coming out in the modern times - stages. There's a set-up remotely similar to Uncharted here - Uncharted is divided into chapters, but those chapters begin and end as you continue your journey which never breaks. Each stage in Lords of Shadow is different, and in the beginning of each one your path to the previous stage is completely cut off. This set-up could be seen as a total opposite of open-world gameplay, which is more than prominent today, and I think it's a nice change. Each stage can be revisited at any time by choosing it on the world map. Oh yes, and I almost forgot: Lords of Shadow has chapters as well, 12 in all, which are all comprised of several stages (2-8), and they end upon you passing a certain point in the storyline. This chapter/stage thing is not that different from vintage Castlevania, if you think about it hard enough. "Stage 1, Block 3." Chapters can be seen as stages, and stages as blocks. See? I'm trying!

Let's lay low then, and talk about the plagiarism. That checklist I mentioned should almost be included as some sort of a bonus memo. Playing the game, you will certainly pick up stuff that has been seen before in some shape or form in every other action game that has emerged within the last ten years, not just God of War or Devil May Cry, or Shadow of the Colossus, which is so blatantly recycled that one would think Konami is in cahoots with Sony Computer Entertainment to promote their upcoming Ico Collection. There's also a bit of Uncharted - the climbing's pure Nathan Drake-ism, with worse controls though - a bit of Batman: Arkham Asylum, and a pile of Legacy of Kain thrown in for good, gothic measure. The game is diverse, for sure, but there are very few things that are totally unique about it.

Another low point is the control scheme. Gabriel's movement is very sensitive, which turns out a serious problem during extensive platform jumping. Especially in the case of moving platforms. This is an issue that Konami apparently noted from the start, so falling down a chasm doesn't kill you - it simply devours a good deal of your health, as long as you have health left. Way too much weight is put on abusing both analog sticks. They are pressed down to replenish your two different mana meters. Naturally, you can't move while absorbing mana, and it's mandatory to keep sucking those balls (wow) in boss fights in which it's even more mandatory to keep moving all the time and getting ready to dodge or counter your adversary's attacks. It's simply not comfortable. What's even less comfortable is to constantly mash the trigger buttons. They're needed for dodging, countering, gripping and every other combo in the game. Meanwhile, many fine buttons go to waste, buttons you would gladly unleash hell on. 36 stages down I found myself wondering if my poor Sixaxis controller would survive this ordeal - luckily it did. The general controls are very hard to master, and the combos... well, you're very easily stuck on executing basic attacks. You have to think fast, there's no time to start reminiscing how that one combo that would help you greatly went when there's a mad cook lunging a set of cleavers optimized for cutting human flesh at you.

The whole user interface is God of War mixed in with the much anticipated dose of unique. The health bar is presented in the upper left corner of the screen, and it's maxed out with Life Gems. In the lower left corner, we have the Light Magic bar, which is maxed out with Light Gems. Light Magic allows you to regain health with each successful strike - very, very fundamental in the late stages of the game. In the lower right corner, we have Shadow Magic, which is maxed out with - surprise, surprise - Shadow Gems. Shadow Magic allows you to perform some incredible combos and different feats outside battle, but you are more vulnerable to physical damage while you have the Shadow Magic active. In the upper right corner, there's a spot reserved for stage-specific key items and prompts to read the different scrolls left behind by Gabriel's brethren, who have fallen while trying to do his job before him. The scrolls are usually clues to the storyline, but they also work as clues for destroying certain enemies, and keys to solving the many puzzles in the game. All of the different Gems in the game are found on their corpses, too - sometimes, they're hidden more than well, naturally. In the bottom center of the screen is a Focus Bar, which is, to my knowledge, a completely unique invention. The Focus Bar fills every time you perform a successful counterattack, or manage to maul your enemy enough without getting hit even once. Once it's full, every successful strike will yield a Neutral Magic Orb, which you can then suck in by using the left stick (Light Magic) or right stick (Shadow Magic). Again, it might sound like a fool's errand, but believe me, even if you don't really need any sort of magic at first, you WILL. You will need it so badly that some stage-specific challenges, dubbed the infamous "trials", require you to beat stages, including boss stages, without using a certain type of magic. The trials have brought seasoned players to their knees, so you can just imagine how hard they are.

Uh... I'd really appreciate your input, Wander!
The more the game progresses, the more you might see classic Castlevania in it, although it still might not really feel like a Castlevania game. Gabriel's primary weapon is the Combat Cross, which isn't really a formal name for it. It's a cross, and it's used for combat - I don't think Gabriel's Brotherhood ever gave it a name. It will gain a very familiar nickname as you make progress. I was going to say I won't spoil anything, but I guess I already did. The secondary weapons are half vintage Castlevania, and half unique. There's a limit to how many certain type of weapons you can carry at once, and the limit can be maxed out by finding and emptying the many Brotherhood Arks in the game, usually available via a certain upgrade to your abilities - hence the constant possibility to return to any already beaten stage. The Holy Water and Throwing Daggers are weapons we all know from the days of yore, but then we have a bunch of annoying (but naked, mmm) fairies that are there to literally annoy and distract the enemy, and the Dark Crystal. The Dark Crystal is a very curious weapon. You can carry only one at a time, and even that one you need to assemble from four pieces. There's a reason for this weapon being so hard to obtain; it unleashes a powerful summoning attack, that kills most enemies in the game regardless of their health, and drains a great deal from even bosses. In other words, it's an essential weapon to have along if you have doubts about your skills.

To return to the controls and general feel for a bit, there are a few more low points, but a high point as well. The one high point according to many - I don't really have an opinion one way or the other - is the fact that most QTE's in the game can be executed with any action button, as long as the timing is right. This is praised because in most games, you find yourself concentrating more on the buttons than on what's actually happening on the screen. The lowest of the low points is the fact that Lords of Shadow dons the most awkward camera angles ever; I spent half an hour trying to figure out how to get ahead in two very simple stages, just because the camera was set so that I couldn't see the only route I could take, it looked like a dead end from my current view. In both cases, I finally found the correct paths by pure accident by just running around in circles. The on/off grappling system is also a bit awkward to those who have grown used to holding the button down as long as you want your grip to last.

The many puzzles in the game switch between retarded (as in extremely easy) to very hard ones which demand a good eye and sense for the butterfly effect - in this case I mean one certain puzzle. There are three circles with a bit of bridge jutting out. You need to form a complete bridge by using the three circles, and there's a limit to how many moves you can make. Turning one of the circles will turn the next one to the opposite direction - for example, if you turn the center circle, all the circles will turn. I suck at these kind of puzzles, that and the limit's why I regard this particular puzzle the hardest one in the game. The solution's always the same, though, so now I've memorized it after completing its trial. This kind of puzzle is why I never really got into The Incredible Machine in elementary school, while all my friends were playing it. There are a few puzzles like it in the later stages of the game, but without the annoying limit. In turn, many puzzles can be solved with a simple case of trial and error, which makes them very easy. It's kind of funny to gain something like 2000 EXP for a puzzle that took you about five seconds to figure out. There's also a chess-like minigame, which looks really hard to win, but actually, there's nothing difficult about it. It's not very fun, either. What's unique about all the game's puzzles is that you can quit them any time you like and unlock their solutions from your travel book. However, since solving a puzzle grants you EXP, it should be no surprise that cheating doesn't.

The travel book's a must. It's Gabriel's journal on EVERYTHING. Brotherhood scrolls, enemy stats, their weaknesses, combos, the specifics of each enemy you can mount and use to your advantage in combat and the field (God of War III-check), everything. In addition, once you have cleared a stage, you can check how many special items you missed in that particular stage, and the specifics of the unlocked trial. If you have some extra EXP, you can buy artwork from each stage paying a fairly small EXP fee. What would you do with artwork, you ask? Well, gain a Trophy/Achievement, what else?!

Hmm. An engravement of a cross. Shaped just
like mine, sized just like mine. Pro'ly nuthin'.
The thing that keeps a lot of young players going, I reckon, is the fact that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a simple game to plat. I seriously don't mean it's easy - I just mean that there are no random or ridiculous Trophy or Achievement requirements, it's all what you'd normally do if you'd be trying to beat the game to 100%. As tradition goes, 100% isn't enough for a Castlevania title - 110% is needed in every stage to completely beat the game. The extra 10% comes from beating a stage on the Paladin difficulty, which will hand you your ass on a plate again and again. If you're not completely devoted to the game, you will have a very hard time. The friend I borrowed this game from platted it in just a few days, but he's a very stubborn Castlevania fan. We've had many verbal fights about how this review should turn out - I hated the game at first, to tell you the truth. In time, it started to grow on me, but I must say, I'm still not totally pleased with it. Besides, I just beat God of War III for the first time, which makes Lords of Shadow's shameless thefts from Sony's flagship series even that much more obvious to me. This friend of mine never really got into God of War, so until he does, I won't blame him for praising this game and dissing Kratos' epic journey in turn. But, back to the topic, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - praise be to its difficulty and length. Almost 30 hours of gameplay is very rare in the action genre these days. Also, we can't forget the extra challenge brought on by the trials and finding all the hidden stuff. The harder difficulty settings bring in another few points to the overall challenge.

All in all, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a good play, if you just can't get enough of 3D slashers. It fails to live up to its obvious influences - although I must yet again declare I never really got into Shadow of the Colossus for some odd reason - but it is a good game. Not really an essential Castlevania title, and even less a unique game when it comes to the modern action genre, but definitely a solid experience I'm sure many people will find downright fascinating. I hope that if and when this game spawns its own ridiculous amount of sequels, that MercurySteam would come up with some more original ideas and try to make the game a little more approachable to nitpicking 'Vania fans that are into subtleties, such as myself. And, if they bring Jean-Luc back, they should give him a couple of 'pams before each recording session.

Graphics : 8.0
Sound : 7.9
Gameplay : 7.5
Challenge : 9.4
Overall : 7.7


GameRankings: 82.92% (PS3), 82.65% (X360)

Gabriel's final character design was one of advisor Hideo Kojima's most essential inputs to the game's final form.

Gabriel's crimson armour with golden decoration was designed after Simon Belmont's attire in the cover art of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.

In the Japanese version of the game, the Chupacabras' faces are designed after that of Hideo Kojima. The Solid Eye and Solid Snake's bandana from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots are unlockable items.

There are many references to the original Castlevania series, as well as other game franchises. One that I personally found most intriguing was that a fallen Brotherhood knight has written a scroll lamenting the death of his two friends, Brother Bernard and Sister Laverne. The scroll is signed by "H." - Hoagie. Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie are the legendary trio of protagonists in LucasArts' classic point 'n' click adventure game Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle.

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