Ever since Castlevania 64, 3D has been a dirty word for the Castlevania franchise. 3D integration has long been an issue with Castlevania, which has struggled in updating exploration, combat and modern graphics, instead opting to repeat the 2D finesse of Symphony of the Night. However MercurySteam’s collaboration with Kojima Productions has finally produced a great 3D-installment in the series by simply infusing its signature style.
Even so, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is not necessarily a game you look at and think "Castlevania." While the newest title in the series is strongly reminiscent to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, the core gameplay feels all but indistinguishable from games like God of War, Devil May Cry and even Shadow of the Colossus. But behind this lies a good and surprisingly traditional take on Konami's demon-hunting franchise.
For once, though, you're not explicitly hunting down Dracula himself. Instead, your protagonist Gabriel is looking to avenge the death of his wife by destroying the Lords of Shadow, gathering their power, and then trying to resurrect his lost love. While the story isn't necessarily engaging, Patrick Stewart's narration lends increasing tension to each successive chapter.
Gabriel's weapon of choice is the Combat Cross – a giant chain concealed in a crucifix-shaped hilt. Players have access to a familiar suite of light and heavy whip attacks, and can be augmented with new offensive combinations throughout the game. Light and shadow magic add dimension to the fluid combat; Gabriel’s health is restored with each successful attack when light magic is activated and shadow magic makes the whip stronger. Alternating between light magic, shadow magic, evading and blocking is a rush, and the engaging boss fights later on force players to swap tactically.
At times, battles occasionally boil down to quicktime events, and while Lords of Shadow does have the common "mash this button repeatedly" type, it also integrates a new and interesting concept: rather than requiring a specific button press, the game asks you to press any button with a specific timing. It's a small change, but it means you can be watching the action on-screen without waiting to see which arbitrary input the game will make you do next.
Though the bulk of your deaths will likely happen in combat, Lords of Shadow's platforming sections can be incredibly difficult as well. It's as though the developers attempted to emulate the same platforming traits as the early Castlevania titles on the Nintendo. Expect repeated deaths. So while gameplay can be tedious, it will provide a more fulfilling experience to long-time fans of the series. Exploration, on the other hand, is sparse compared to past Castlevania titles. However, Lords of Shadow definitely encourages players to return to previous levels to acquire secrets and upgrades that had been inaccessible before, which does feel like a nod to past entries in the series.
Beyond platforming and combat, the third obstacle in Lords of Shadow is the game's love for puzzles. For the most part the puzzles involve unlocking particular doors or unlocking various platforming secrets. That said, they do break up the pace nicely and the game thankfully gives puzzle-hating gamers a chance to automatically figure out the solution (at the expense of some ability-purchasing experience).
With Lords of Shadow having been released on both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox360, it’s worth noting that the Xbox360 version does have a few framerate issues as well as some cases of freezing. Neither are serious issues however – freezing is sparse and only happens for a few seconds while framerate occasionally stutters when killing enemies. Overall, these do not prove to be a hindrance in any way, simply a few hiccups.
While Lords of Shadow initially feels like a blockbuster knock-off, the game is anything but a generic action game. The few complaints can't withstand its engaging combat and unapologetic march through danger. If you've grown tired of Castelvania's previous SotN formula and hoped to see a beautiful restoration of the timeless quest then you're in for a treat.