Castlevania:Lords of Shadow

In 2009, J.J. Abrams dared the unimaginable with Star Trek; travelling back in time to the origins of one of the most beloved Sci-Fi franchises and kicking out it’s foundations, reinventing it from the ground up with a new hard-boiled tone and even going so far as to make Spock’s race an endangered species. Any grumblings of discontent from Trekkies and traditionalists was immediately shunted aside by the realisation that this was probably the best iteration of Star Trek since Picard arrived on the scene with The Next Generation, and was probably just what the creatively stagnating franchise needed. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow performs a very similar feat with the canon of videogame’s longest running and most heavily populated franchise.

Whilst previous 3D versions of the series exist, Castlevania on the N64 and Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (up to this point the earliest game in the series chronology) on the PS2, they have never been as well received as the classic 2D vision of the game, which crafted explorative platforming into a high art. But over the years, much like those on its massive gothic architecture, cobwebs had started forming on the game’s core story element: members of the Belmont clan are fated to an eternal battle with the immortal Dracula who is killed only to resurface a century later. The act of repetition is built into the game’s very foundations, so the series was certainly in need of a new direction, and, in spite of doubts inspired by Konami’s odd choice of third party developer, Mercury Steam, Spanish creators of ill-fated Jericho, it sure as hell got one.

Lords of Shadow not only ups the ante by providing an utterly gorgeous next-gen reboot of the series visuals, but couples this with an irreverent attempt to rewrite the very essence of the drama by revealing the true connection between Belmont and Dracula, which comes in the game’s head-spinning post-credit sequence. Gabriel Belmont, its protagonist, is the first of the now legendary bloodline; an orphan raised by the knightly order the Brotherhood of Light, who has chosen for himself the name simply for his “love of high places”. Gabriel is a beautifully drawn character and there is a delicious sense of heresy playing as him, because of the way his backstory casually underpins two decades of narrative.

Gabriel is sent by the Brotherhood to defeat the Lords of Shadow after a spell has apparently separated Heaven and Earth, trapping the recently slain in Limbo, including Gabriel’s own wife, Marie. But when Gabriel discovers that the artefact in their possession may be the key to bringing the dead back, he develops his own motive for the quest and becomes driven solely by love, which “blinds him to all things, even reason itself” as we are informed in one of the pre-level texts, sonorously intoned by Sir Patrick Stewart and penned with suitably gothic excess. Stewart plays Zobeck, a mysterious Knight of the Order who oh-so conveniently appears to turn up at just the right moment. Meanwhile Gabriel is voiced by Robert Carlyle, who single-handedly makes the case for quality casting in games by lending an incredible degree of nuance and humanity to the role; preventing Gabriel from becoming yet another action-hero meathead and separating him from his nearest competitor, Kratos.

As a third person, combo-driven action game with a fixed camera, the comparisons to God of War are unavoidable and often glaring. However, unlike the equally derivative Dante’s Inferno, Lords of Shadow still manages to be its own game through strong story-telling and a fluid combat system that favours timing and strategy, making it more closely resemble Bayonetta. Also, like Bayonetta, the game is split up into several chapters, each of which can be revisited with fresh powers to unlock new secrets or simply to face the trials that are unlocked after the first playthrough. Some may find that this fragmented approach jars the continuity of the game (one thing God of War III managed so brilliantly, if not characterisation, was in designing the entire game as one huge puzzle) but it certainly offers excellent longevity.

Then there’s the central mechanic of light and dark magic, which heals or delivers increased damage respectively, and can be activated at the press of either shoulder button, opening up new combo opportunities. It’s an elegant device that in the higher difficulties sees you alternating between the two colours like the ship in Ikaruga, and really sets the game apart from others in the genre.

Aside from the obvious God of War comparisons, there’s another game that Lords of Shadow closely resembles, most obviously in the occasional boss battles with huge Titans. Clambering over a creature the size of a mountain and holding on for dear life when it tries to shake you free; it’s impossible not to think of Shadow of the Colossus, and dream of that HD remake that’s not far off now. Lords of Shadow also shares some key story elements with Shadow of the Colossus in that they both feature protagonists hell bent on bringing back their dead loves, whatever the cost.

Few games possess such a sense of the epic, helped partly by one of the best scores since Vagrant Story, a sweepingly dramatic composition by Óscar Araujo, performed by the Bratislawa Symphony Orchestra that manages to be epic and melancholy all at the same time. Lords of Shadow isn’t the most original title and it does have some minor flaws – annoying contrivances like the Chupacabras creatures who steal your powers at specific points, a rather far-fetched plot-twist or two or the fact that the bodies of your fellow knights can be improbably found leading right up to the final encounter – but as Gabriel himself gains redemption, all can be forgiven for a game that makes such a grand statement.







2 responses to “Castlevania:Lords of Shadow”

  1. nozzle avatar

    Thank you, Dean. Sounds like this is a bargain even at full price.

  2. Riki avatar

    This game blew me away and I really didn’t expect it to, since I hated the demo. But its gorgeous and huge. Easily the best game I’ve played this year. Gets my “Dead Space: Unexpected Gem of the Year” award!!

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