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Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
by Greg Mengel

Linear, story-driven, and visually breathtaking, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a strange incarnation of a classic franchise. Taken as a whole, it's a title filled with head-scratching contradictions. On one hand, it paints a beautiful Gothic landscape that feels true to Castlevania. On the other, it features gameplay alien to the Castlevania of yore. It has talented voice actors, but their talents are used to further an uninspired plot. For every major pro found in Lords of Shadow, there are a handful of minor cons that make judging the game a challenge.

The biggest problem many reviewers have had with Lords of Shadow is its loose faithfulness to the series from which it heralds. Though rooted in the fertile soil of the Castlevania universe, this Belmont-starring adventure only sporadically feels like its predecessors. For much of the game - as you traverse enchanted forests and scale wintry mountaintops - it's easy to forget that you're posing as a member of the Belmont clan. More than once a friend came into the room as I played and watched the screen, confused, before finally asking "Isn't this supposed to be about a game about Dracula?"

"Yes," I always answered, myself not totally convinced, "yes, it is."

Intro music.

Another noticeable change in Lords of Shadow is its linear, stage-oriented design. If you haven't played a Castlevania before, allow me to summarise why this is strange in five words:

Castlevania belongs in a castle.

Balderdash and poppycock! Most Castlevania games, shockingly, take place in Dracula's castle - a chaotic, demon-constructed 2D labyrinth which the player can explore freely, moving in and out of rooms to their heart's content. Specially-obtained powers gradually allow you to enter new wings of the stony manor, such as ballrooms, sewer systems, or the occasional portal to apocalypse. Each room is a Ghostbuster's dream, filled with a Gothic menagerie of shades, wraiths, and poltergeists for your vampire hunter (usually a Belmont) to whip, bless, and douse with holy water until the sin-filled beasts return back to the fiery chasms from whence they came. This design, often referred to as Metroidvania, has been a staple of the Castlevania franchise since 1987, when Simon Belmont had his quest. It is the very foundation of the design of the series. When people think Castlevania, they think non-linear 2D vampire fighting... in a castle. Like so.

Cue Mercury Steam, and its outrageous plan to produce a Castlevania that turned the design of the series on its head/ass/backside generally. Linear stages. 3D. More rails and less Magellan. Such changes ruffled thousands of feathers in the Castlevania fandom. "Fair enough, some people aren’t going to like what we’re doing and we accept that," lead designer Brian Cox remarked in response, "but generally what we’re trying to do is bring the fans with us... there’s no point in going back and making the same game again – the point is to make a clean break and move forward with the series."

Middling music.

Controversy aside, the gameplay in Lords of Shadow is surprisingly good. Something about the way Gabriel moves - hacking and slashing in a third-person landscape - seems true to traditional the way Belmonts have interacted with their haunted settings throughout the series. This referential nature of movement and attack abilities (a nod of the cap to 2D Castlevania adventures) make them feel deeper than those of a Kratos or Dante. It's partially the setting that gives them credence; a world of morbid characters and hauntingly beautiful environments that periodically reaches into Castlevania canon. Aesthetics like those found in the 'Music Box' level (shown in the video below) help to reminder players that Lords of Shadow is, in fact, a fruit plucked from the Castlevania tree.

Great as its visual aesthetics are, Lords of Shadow's new-look narrative failed to impress me. Without spoiling anything, it explained too much. Every third sentence uttered is either a groan-inspiring cliché or blatant exposition. The clichés I can forgive; I even enjoyed the pure corniness of some of them. But as far as exposition goes, part of why I love the Castlevania series is because it rarely tries to explain its ridiculousness. My favourite games in the series - Circle of the Moon, Super Castlevania IV and Symphony of the Night - are connected to deep lore, but do not revel in them it like Lords of Shadow revels. Though it does reinvent the series, I'm unsure whether the narrative direction of Lords of Shadow is going to lead the franchise in a direction I'd like to go (beat the game and you'll see what I mean).

Taken as a whole, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a solidly-playable game with better-than-average gameplay and a beautiful world to explore. It's by no means terrific, but it's not bad, either. If you're a fan of the series, it's worth your time. Just tread warily, and watch out for the flaws.

What Lords of Shadow does best is intangible: it paves the way for the future of Castlevania by restarting the franchise at year one. If one is put into production, a sequel could mix the freedom of exploration found in older Castlevania games with the 3D hack-and-slash combat and gorgeous environments of Lords of Shadow. If they can combine those concepts into one spectacular product (and if they lay off pummelling gamers with the exposition bat via plot), then Mercury Steam can feasibly create one of the greatest games of our age.

So harken, hardcore Castlevania gamers, and take these words well: play Lords of Shadow, but do so with an open mind and tempered excitement not for the game itself, but for its children and grandchildren to come.

Exit music.

8/10 [?]

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- Greg Mengel

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