“What a horrible night to have a curse.”  In Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest that phrase would appear to signify a change from day to night.  And for some reason, big changes, like day to night, were a curse upon the Castlevania series.  The series has adopted minor changes throughout its life, such as using the Super Metroid style maps and incorporating an experience point system, but anytime the series tried to make a major change, such as, let’s say move from 2d to 3d, it’s curse would would rear its ugly head.  A couple of the 3d attempts were mildly decent, the rest were complete failures.  A big reason for that I believe is because the people who were working on the games lost way and forgot what made the Castlevania games so great in the past.

The earlier Castlevania games were pretty much about fighting your way through hordes of classic monsters, such as mummies, mermen, werewolves, and everybody’s favorite, Medusa heads,  lining Gothic setpieces up to the final encounter with Count Dracula.  The first games were pretty much the game industry’s nod to the classic monster movies from the 30’s through the 60’s.  Combine the homage to classic monster flicks with extremely solid and challenging, sidescrolling, fun weapons, and some of the best music ever in a game series, you got yourself some great games.  So, why did the series jump off the deep end when it made its attempts at 3d gameplay?

First off, there was just not enough polish or effort put into the first handful of 3d Castlevania games.  I’ll forgive the developers for bad camera work on the first batch of games due the technology being new, but excessive fetch quests, repetitious buttonmashing action, and tedious backtracking is just bad game design.  Second, the story.  As time went on and the Castlevania series hit its apogee with “Symphony of the Night” the developers started to put over convoluted stories into all the Castlevania games.  I’ll be the first to admit I love a good story in my video games, but when there’s characters I just don’t give a damn about and writing that resembles an anime overdub written by a fifth grader, I just can’t get into it.  Mix this with the problems stated before, you have a recipe for disaster.  Even in the 2d games the stories were atrocious, but the classic and still solid sidescolling gameplay and great boss battles made up for it and kept me coming back.

And thirdly, the monsters.  While the 3d games still had the classic monsters of old, the over use of color palette swapping was rampant.  While there were some cool and interesting monsters in the games they were overshadowed by the tedium of button mashing multiple colored skeletons to death to reach them.  At least throughout the whole life of the series on all platforms the music was consistently top notch.

In 2007 Konami, Mercury Steam and Kojima Productions took a long deep look at all the problems causing the Castlevania curse and then set out to find a cure.  “And did they find one?” you may be asking.  Well, in short, F@%! Yeah!!!  Castlevania: Lords of Shadow addresses every problem the series had when transitioning to 3d and give it a much needed and well deserved reboot.

In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow you play as Gabriel Belmont, the first of the many Belmont’s you may recognize from previous games in the series.  He belongs to an order known as The Brotherhood of Light, a holy order that defends the innocent from creatures of darkness.  The order asks of him to go on a quest to investigate the increase of the evil creatures throughout the land.  He accepts but more for personal reasons other than the Brotherhoods wishes.  The evil monstrosities have recently murdered his wife and her soul is stuck in limbo, he wishes to avenge her murder and also free her soul from limbo.  And here is the first major problem that the developers have fixed wondrously, the story.  I won’t go into any more detail on the plot of the game, but let me say it’s one of the best stories in video games today.  Like the first God of War, the story plays out like a Greek tragedy, but instead of Greek folklore it’s with Christian folklore(ie. Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, ect.) and medieval Europe folklore.  It also gives you interesting and multi-layered characters to get into.  And boy o’ boy, the ending is wonderful, make sure you play this one to the end.

The game does also borrow other things from God of War as well as other great games.  The combat is very similar to the style of God of War.  Attacks and combos are achieved through timed button presses and attack combinations.  At first it may seem to be a button masher, but after the first couple of levels you start to unlock different attack and the deep combat system comes to surface; this is not the type of game where you can get away with using just one combo the whole game, you need to change up your attack strategies depending on the situation.  For example, Gabriel is surrounded by a gang of goblins, you can do a quick direct attack to focus your attack on a single enemy, then do a sweeping area attack to hold the rest at bay for a split second, while the surrounding goblins are stunned for that brief moment launch a rising attack to raise the goblin you’re focusing on into the air along with Gabriel and finish it off, then come crashing to the ground to kill off a section of the mob and finally drop a holy water attack to finish off the rest.  There are also quite a lot of instances where this strategy won’t work so you need to become creative with your combos, and the game rewards you for pulling off combos well.

When you successfully land hits without taking damage yourself a combo meter at the bottom of the screen fills up and when it’s full all the enemies release magic orbs upon each successive attack.  You use these orbs to fill you magic gauges, one for light magic and the other for dark.  When you use magic you are given more combos to dispatch foes with and also perks depending on which magic you are using.  Light magic fills your health bar with each successful attack and dark magic makes your attacks much stronger.  This magic system is a blast to play with and adds an element of resource management into the game.

Another great game Castlevania: LOS borrows is from “Shadow of the Colossus”.  If you’re not familiar with “Shadow of the Colossus” it’s pretty much a game where the entire game is about defeating gargantuan colossi, climbing on and running all over the gigantic monsters to defeat them, they were battles of epic proportions.  Castlevania uses the inspiration of that game to create some stunning boss battles where you need to climb, run, and slash your way to victory all upon a gigantic monster.  Just wait till you need to fight the skeleton dragon, that was one of the most fun boss battles I’ve encountered in a long time.  And like almost all the other Castlevania games, the non-SOTC inspired boss battles are a blast to play, requiring a little thought and lots of quick reflexes.

The game also takes inspiration from the Prince of Persia series.  You need to guide Gabriel through levels with strewn with perilous cliffs, crumbling castles, and old forests requiring lots of fancy footwork, death-defying swinging and acrobatic climbing abilities.  And graphically these levels are gorgeous.  This is the type of game you show off you nice new high definition T.V. off with.  The colors are plentiful and vivid, the architecture of the land is twisted and beautiful, and all the characters and monsters are splendidly animated.  All the landscapes reminded me much of the movie “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Guillermo Del Toro(which took a lot of inspiration from Salvador Dalí, so I guess I could say that the game is heavily inspired by the art of Dalí).

Like the way that the first games monsters took inspiration from classic movies which in turn took their inspiration from classic folklore, Castlevania: LOS’ monsters and charecters also take their inspiration from said classic folklore.  There’s werewolves, skeletons, and vampires(not the classic Dracula style ones, but more vicious bloodthirsty ones, think of that book/movie “I Am Legend”); and going even deeper there’s classic folklore mainstays such as Baba Yaga, Pan, and the Titans.  And all these monsters and characters are beautifully animated and superbly modeled.

There’s also a puzzle solving element to the game too.  Some are environmental puzzles like in “The Legend of Zelda” and some are brainteaser puzzles.  They fit the game nicely to give you a break from the action and something to think about adding more diversity to Castlevania: LOS.  The only problem I had with the puzzles is that some make you think real far out of the box and once I had to finally give in and check online for the answer.  Luckily the game gives you the option to bypass certain puzzles at the cost of some of you experience points.

Lastly, there’s the music.  There’s quite a change from Castlevania’s more Gothic rock/metal orientated soundtrack.  LOS keeps some the Gothic elements and adds an epic orchestral score, composed of an 120 piece orchestra, that really bring life to the cut scenes and especially to each level.  Leaping over a cliff while outing scores of monsters with a backdrop of a chilling sunset is just pushed over the edge by the grandiose music.  The voice acting also deserves special mention.  The voice actors really get into their roles and bring a lot of life to each of the games characters.  As a bonus Capt. Picard, err, Sir Patrick Stewart, voices a character in the game and gives a wonderful introduction to each of the games levels and narration to many cut scenes.

And like my thoughts on it, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a long game.  Expect to put in at least 20 hours into a bare bones fast playthrough on normal mode.  The Xbox 360 version comes on 2 disks to give you an idea how big the game is.  And after you finish the game, you unlock 2 harder difficulties and each level has a unique challenge to partake in, such as kill 30 goblins with their own bomb(much easier said than done).  There are also hidden power ups and upgrades to be found.  You definitely get your money’s worth with this game, and it can be found rather inexpensive, I got my copy for about 26€ off of Amazon UK(and free shipping within Europe!!)  I’m currently playing through going for all the challenges and also playing the hardest difficulty, and let me tell you, the highest difficulty will challenge even the most jaded action game player.

So, in closing, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is an outstanding game and comes highly suggested to all owners of an Xbox 360 or PS3.  Mercury Steam really put lots of fresh air into a staling series and completely redeems 3d Castlevania’s.  They remember what made the series great, awesome monsters and solid gameplay, they pay homage to the classics like the originals did, and they also add their own personal touches to it making for a very unique game, all while keeping the feel of the originals.  There a couple minor setbacks, such as minor platforming issues and some invisible walls, but you don’t even notice or remember them when you step back and see the whole picture.  I ask of my readers who are interested in video games to pick this game up if you have the slightest bit of interest in it or the Castlevania series in general, the more sales would make for a bigger chance of a sequel, and I would love to see how well they can hone and polish this reboot of one of my all time favorite game series, Castlevania.  Thanks for reading, and if you’ve played it, let me know what you thought of it.  Peace!!!

guillermo del toro