The Castlevania series has been an interesting one to track due to the number of changes done to the formula. Specifically in how the series has had such trouble making the move to 3D while the 2D action adventure games thrived. So far each 3D Castlevania has been a letdown in some area and with Lords of Shadow; this is one of the worst games I’ve played in awhile.
Rise from the Dead:
At this point it’s hard to tell exactly what the mythos of the Castlevania series is outside of Dracula being evil and the Belmonts trying to stop him. So Konami decided with Lords of Shadow to reboot the series taking us back to the original Belmont: Gabriel. Who after his wife was killed by supernatural forces, he takes up a quest to restore light to the world and defeat the bad guys.
Lords of Shadow was an attempt at distancing the game from previous Castlevania games, both 2D and 3D and feels more at home in the God of War series compared to Castlevania. Combat is handled with two main attack buttons: direct and area, a limited special attack and of course blocking.
As you go through the game, you’ll unlock magic powers that can be turned on at will, granted if you have enough energy. Light magic allows you to heal while you strike enemies while darkness magic does increased damage.
Experience is earned by fighting enemies and unlocks upgrades in the form of new combos and supplementary abilities for your light and dark powers. There is light puzzle solving and collectibles hidden in each level.
In fact, the developers intend on you to play each level at least twice as an unlockable challenge becomes available after finishing a level. The challenges vary and can be anything from defeating X number of enemies or not healing. The other reason was taking inspiration from the 2D “metroidvania” titles with secret areas that require specific upgrades before you can access them.
Konami was definitely throwing everything they had into Lords of Shadow to make it a success, even hiring veteran actors Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart to voice the main characters.
But for all the time and money spent on Lords of Shadow, instead of getting an original game we have one that seems to copy popular games in the worse way.
The problems with Lords of Shadow stem from poor gameplay and work their way out from there.
Starting with combat, the game’s two button combat system was very generic with only a few attacks that could be considered combos. The combat just lacks that sense of rhythm and flow that other action games have such as Ninja Gaiden or DMC.
Enemies swarm the player and range from small trolls to giant werewolves and so on. The camera has an issue of zooming a bit too far out, making it hard to spot enemy tells. This is important because the game features a counter system where blocking at the right moment will leave the enemy vulnerable to damage.
Not being able to see when the enemy attacks however makes it very difficult to counter. Speaking of the timing for countering, it felt off as there were times where I either missed it or the game picked it up even though it seemed like I was too late. Enemies had an annoying habit of being able to dodge out of combo chains leaving you to chase after them.
As we talked about, the designers intend on you playing through each level twice, but the level design was just poor. Despite taking place in large environments and outside, the levels felt small and constrained. There’s no sense of geography and it was easy to get lost.
Many levels have multiple paths just for the sake of hiding an item or upgrade and giving the player something else to do on the next trip. But after the first few levels, I lost the desire to repeat them.
And before I forget, there are a lot of levels in Lords of Shadow. The developers seemed to have gone in the direction of making the game feel like an epic quest by putting in a lot of levels.
However most of the levels serve no gameplay or narrative purpose and feel more like busy work in the grand scheme of things.
In fact, a few levels literally end with the player moving through the environment, no epic fight, no grand puzzle but a simple transition. A few times I let out a “that’s all?” when a level ended abruptly.
The storytelling used in Lords of Shadow is borrowed from titles like Dark Souls where the majority of the back-story and plot are left explained via logs found as opposed to cutscenes. This unfortunately has the effect of making the Castlevania plot all the more convoluted as the game references different creatures, wars, factions etc, but doesn’t do anything to tell the player why they’re important unless you dig through the constantly unlocking message logs.
The only thing that helps you make sense out of the game’s narrative was Patrick Stewart providing the narration before the start of each level. And as I mentioned that a lot of the levels are busy work, so does the pacing of the story stop dead as well.
As a counter example, when playing DMC despite the over the top story, you always had a sense of what’s going on and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Every level had both a gameplay purpose and a narrative one and despite being far shorter, provided a more fulfilling experience.
The moment when I realized that Lords of Shadow was in trouble came at the first real boss fight with a giant titan that could have been at home in Shadow of the Colossus. In fact the fight has you performing the same exact strategy for one of the Colossus fights. But instead of letting you find your way around, the game takes over and just lets you go through mini cutscenes between each weak point as opposed to maneuvering around the creature.
Instead of trying to copy and paste from other action games in an attempt to get away from Castlevania.
The developers should have used these action games as an example, not a template to create something different.
With the best example of that being the original Darksiders which was really a combination of The Legend of Zelda and God of War, but with enough originality to stand out.
With word that a sequel is in full swing, it will be interesting to see if the developers can hit the target with it instead of missing the point.