There is no series I have spent more time with over the years than Castlevania. Irrespective of whether I’m running through Wygol Village, Climbing Dracula’s castle, or the trudging through the contents of Portraits of Ruin’s paintings, Castlevania games have always had this unmatched ability to draw me in and keep me fixated on the (usually tiny) screen. Whether it be the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude to the games’ designs, or the fact that I’d much rather spend my time with the more intimate experience handhelds afford, Castlevania has been the rock that I have consistently leant on to remind me not only why I like games in the first place, but why they still have a place in my increasingly busy lifestyle.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow threatened all of this with a great big revamp that swapped sprites for sexy polygons, and the more traditional side scrolling exploration aspects of games past for a more action packed and linear affair. Simply put, developer MercurySteam’s take on the classic series is a thoroughly different beast to what the game became after Alucard’s adventure in Symphony of the Night (SoTN). Instead of exploring one huge sprawling castle, you’re set loose on a level to level affair that takes you from forests, to snow covered abbeys, to a Vampire-ridden castle. Combat-wise things got an overhaul too, with the game drawing strongly from other contemporary third person action games, with area and direct attacks from the game’s one weapon being able to be chained into devastating combos to decimate all manner of supernatural abominations. If the folks at Konami wanted Castlevania wanted to be modern, then Mission Success. The game looks, feels and plays like a modern action adventure game, and would satiate the desires of most fans of the genre. Including this one. It is Castlevania reimagined.
But dig below those superficial things, like the pretty graphics and the complex combat system, and you’ll likely find that underneath those beautifully realised Lycan and the plethora of viscera flying across the screen at a rate of knots, is an authentic take on Castlevania’s traditional gameplay. The powers you gain throughout the game pave the way forward, albeit in a more linear manner, and the more traditional level-based structure of the game allows you to go back and open up new areas and secrets with your newly gained powers. While it doesn’t deliver quite the same satisfaction as the likes of Super Metroid or Castlevania’s own kin, it is nice that the developer thought about ways to incorporate the series’ signature design elements in a way that doesn’t compromise its modern and remixed designed. And if you actually think about it even the post SoTN entries, while they were ‘open’ to the extent that you could move between areas freely if you had the means to do so, that really was just a way to compartmentalise the game and force the player to progress through the game via a set path. Even if that path was very wide. Lords of Shadows’ path is certainly more narrow, but it saves the same purpose.
The same goes for a lot of the game, really. While there is only one primary weapon, supported by a well-balanced combo system, secondary weapons are implemented incredibly well into the game’s combat system, making them a real highlight of combat encounters and incredibly satisfying to use. My one major criticism of the game is that it doesn’t use any sort of item system similar to those used in the past – but because the developer has thought of clever ways to give the player the same level of control over how they approach combat, it is ultimately a moot point. The game’s dual magic system, allows players activate light and shadow magic with modifying effects on weapons, and combined with purchased combos and moves, really personalise how they approach combat. So while it is a rather combo-heavy game I never found myself falling back on old faithful combos to get myself through. Again like classic Castlevania there will never be a shortage of fodder, but its those instances where you’re taking on those formidable series stalwarts such as a Black Knight or an Axe Armour one on one that Lords of Shadow really shines.
Even the environments don’t step that far away from the best in the series. While the traditional Vampire Castle you explore around halfway through the game is a clear highlight, there is never a dull moment as you make your way across incredibly varied locations and environments. From swamps, to forests through icy-villages, and even to a graveyard of larger than life Titans, one of Lords of Shadow’s greatest strengths in its art design is really able to shine through. It is a beautiful, beautiful game, and with its fixed camera, the developer really puts its all into crafting an incredibly cinematic and breathtaking experience. While purists will argue that Castlevania is best when its is based in one area, it always felt slightly contrived to me that one castle would have such an incoherence in theme or interior design. After all even the Lord of Darkness himself surely would like matching rooms?
Lords of Shadow doesn’t look like a Castlevania game. But it is the closest Konami have come to evoking the spirit of the series in three dimensions. The structure is linear, but gives the player the freedom to jump between levels. The combat is more complex but is smattered with enough duals that invoke those memorable encounters with classic enemies in previous games that it retains the feel of Castlevania. And thematically while it takes itself far more seriously than previous games, it still has that super slick period-gothic look that for me has always been a big draw for the series. It is as Castlevania as one could expect with a huge leap forward in technology, and while it manages to catch up with action-adventure contemporaries, it still has maintained enough footing in the series’ roots to make it a worthy and appealing prospect for anyone who has found love in the series before, regardless of what its detractors have told you.