Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Preview
Myself and Asim were invited down to the Konami offices in London not so long ago to get hands on with MercurySteam’s new take on the Castlevania franchise. For those of you who haven’t been following the title, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a third person action/adventure game and a reboot for the series. Hideo Kojima has had a role in its development (albeit a small one), so naturally Asim and I both had high hopes for the title but did it meet our expectations or were we left with an unwanted pain in our necks? Read on for the full preview.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow begins with the familiar soothing tones of Patrick Stewart as he narrates the opening sequence of the game. This is something you should get used to because Sir Patrick returns quite regularly to update you on goings on after each level as well as voicing the main protagonists in-game mentor. You play as Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group of self righteous Holy Knights who protect all that’s innocent and good in the world. In short, Gabriel’s wife has been killed by the Lords of Shadow and naturally he wants revenge. This serves as the initial motivation for your quest but as you progress the plot thickens and things are not as straight forward as they initially seemed to be.
The game kicks off with you (Gabriel) defending a group of innocents from a pack of werewolves (something you might want to get used to as there is a large variety of them in the game). This serves as the tutorial section while the game attempts to get you comfortable with the basic controls. In general the controls are pretty conventional for this type of game. On the PS3 version, tapping square will gives you access to a light attack with Gabriel’s trusty combat cross and doing the same with the triangle button will give you a meaty heavy attack whilst pressing cross serves as the traditional jump button. Tapping light attack quickly followed by jump will give you a standard launch whereas heavy attack followed by jump gives you a “group” launch where you can launch multiple enemies at once. These launch attacks are slightly different to what we’re used to but as they are performed with relative ease, they are a welcome addition. R2 serves as your “do this” (interact) button and L2 serves as your block that can be modified into a dodge using a flick of the left analog stick. Finally, Gabriel also comes equipped with his own set of high precision daggers that you can freely plant into any unsuspecting supernatural creatures head with the help of the circle button.
Combat as you would expect starts out pretty simple and you can generally progress by bashing one of the two attack buttons but it does open up later in the game thanks to the mandatory upgrade system. All of Gabriel’s weapons and skills are upgradable, some for use in direct combat and some that enable you to further your ability to explore the environment. For instance Gabriel’s combat cross eventually gets upgraded with a hookshot ability that enables you to swing around specific parts of the environment like your name was Samus Aran. This ability can then be used in combat with the correct upgrade and enables you to drag enemies towards you Scorpion style (GET OVER HERE!). Although the purchasable skills are pretty varied and unique, I was left feeling that there were not enough of them to enable the player to have their own individual fighting “style”. What this means is you probably won’t get the same freedom of expression available to you in games like Bayonetta but Lords of Shadow is more akin to something like God of War, so in this case this slight “flaw” can be overlooked.
Where Castlevania: Lords of Shadow combat differentiates itself from its competitors is with its light and dark magic system. Killing enemies in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow yields XP for purchasing upgrades but also drops what the game calls neutral orbs. These can be absorbed by Gabriel using specific artefacts that you collect on your travels. Pushing down either L3 or R3 absorbs neutral orbs and converts them into either light or dark magic respectively. Both elements have their own bar that can be activated once filled to a certain point. By hitting L1 you can activate your light magic gauge that depletes over time and rewards you with health for attacking your enemies. In addition to this if you kill something while in this state you will be given additional life energy orbs. To balance things out, enemies don’t drop neutral orbs while in this state. There are effects associated with activating this ability including the opportunity to negate status ailments such as being poisoned. R1 on the other hand activates your dark magic meter which gives your melee a power boost. Skills can be bought for both of these activations that give you different magical abilities. This feature is what pretty much makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow’s combat, you are constantly balancing your health needs and your desire to bring the pain. Eventually after getting far enough in the game you can also activate a “rune” bar that lights up gradually by fighting well and not getting hit. This puts you in a combat focus state that increases the amount of neutral orbs you get for sending those supernatural beings back to hell.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow introduces mounted combat for the first time to the series and there’s a large variety of beasts that Gabriel can mount and use before despatching them in unsightly ways. The ones we witnessed on our playthrough include overgrown spiders, worgans and warthogs to name a few. Each of them has the ability to attack and comes sporting their own individual ability that help you out in various ways. Worgan’s scale walls and can leap gaps Gabriel can’t on his own whereas spiders shoot out silky webs to provide a rite of passage across canyons or pull down obstacles. Gabriel also has his default mount in the form of a spectral horse that appears pretty early on in the game for an on rails riding section where you need to dispatch worgans riding goblins.
“Death” in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is handle quite leniently, one might say a little too lenient. I didn’t make it a habit of dying constantly but the game seemed to checkpoint at every possible turn and even after falling off a ledge the game would place you back at a pretty much identical position with reduced health. It is worth noting that this might have been done for preview purposes, to make sure we got to grips with the main mechanics of the game. It will be interesting to see if the final product is as generous as the preview code, something to keep an eye on.
Make no mistake that while general combat is fun (we never got bored with it despite the 7-8 hours we ploughed into it), the boss battles are definitely the best part of this game. The first two battles borrow heavily from a little known title called Shadow of the Colossus. You may have heard of it? Regardless, in no way shape or form do we condemn Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for borrowing some of the mechanics present in that title because…..Shadow of the Colossus ROCKED! If you haven’t figured it out yet, the general idea of these boss fights is to scale giant behemoths and attack their weak points but instead of giant hairy colossi, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has titans. This is done by holding down the R2 button to cling to the titan and hammering your attack button of choice once in range of its weak spot. Of course they will periodically attempt to shake you off or in some cases just straight out flatten you, so you spend most of your time trying to advance and avoid becoming a pancake or plummeting to an untimely death. In any case the fun most definitely comes from figuring out how to scale these monstrosities and while Castlevania: Lord of Shadows is not quite as clever about it as Shadow of the Colossus it’s still very satisfying and heaps of fun.
To add variety to all the monster dispatching, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow throws in a healthy amount of platforming and puzzle solving. Whilst they are most welcome, none of the puzzles will strain your brain (hey, that rhymes) too much. The majority of them revolve around collecting items scattered around an area but there is a healthy amount of pillar shifting and lever pulling available too. When you do stumble upon a puzzle that requires a bit of thought the game provides you with a hint system to help you on your merry way, although using this means you forfeit the XP you would normally get for completing it. This as it turns out is very useful as a few of my fellow journalists were having a tough time figuring out one particular puzzle (not us though because, well, the GodisaGeek team is awesome).
Graphically, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is gorgeous and is definitely a contender for best looking game on any platform, consoles wise anyway (a title that currently belongs to Uncharted 2 as far as the GodisaGeek team is concerned). Textures, lighting, detail, architecture…..it’s all there and looking fabulous, at what seems like a solid 30 frames per second.
It’s a shame then that the fixed camera kind of ruins things to a certain extent. If you going to take camera control out of the players hand then you need to get the positioning spot on or it doesn’t work and sometimes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow gets it horribly wrong. At times the camera can hamper your directional sense and makes it less than obvious as to where you need to be headed. My other minor gripe is that this game is filled with such graphical splendour that it’s a shame that some of it passes you by due to the camera and its positioning. At times I found myself trying to manipulate the camera (to no avail) out of habit to try and get an eyeful of the wonderful scenery.
The games menus and GUI are well presented, I particularly liked the little drawn animations displaying what each purchasable move and upgrade did. While this is a pretty trivial matter it reduces the possibility of you purchasing a skill after reading its description only to find that it sucks ass. It would also appear that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a pretty lengthy game as a glance at the world map would indicate that there are at least 12 chapters with each one containing up to 9 levels. There doesn’t seem to be any set length for the levels either as some were quite long whereas others were rather short in contrast.
With so many fantastic titles hitting stores this October it could be relatively easy to overlook Castlevania: Lords of Shadow but we highly recommend that you don’t if you’re a fan of the genre. If solid combat, great bosses and gorgeous graphics are what you look for in a game this will be right up your street, alley or wherever else you can think of.
A SECOND OPINION (ASIM’S VIEW)
Honestly…..I never expected Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to be this good, it just blew me away. At first glance it would be very easy to dismiss the game as a God of War clone but that would be doing MecurySteam and Konami a major diseservice. It certainly belongs in the same genre as Sony’s masterpiece but the introduction of light and dark magic is what sets it apart from the competition. As Aaron stated, these two aspects really do make the combat great. This was most apparent during one of the later boss battles (one only I managed to get to, might I add) where you are almost forced to use both the light and dark magic to defeat the enemy. This would be a negative in most games but it’s actually a plus for Lords of Shadow as it is just so superbly implemented.
Sure, the combat might not have the depth or variety of something like Bayonetta but that is not what Lords of Shadow is aiming for. Saying that though, I have to disagree slightly with my colleague in regards to not being able to craft your own fighting style. How you choose to use light and dark magic in combat defines your style. For instance, a player using dark magic all the time would most probably have an attacking style whereas someone who prefers to use light magic more would have a style best described as cautious. Again, probably not as in depth as Bayonetta but you can definitely forge your own style if you wish to.
Even though they have been mentioned already, they must be given some praise again. The visuals in Lords of Shadow are the best I have seen on any of the current consoles. Yes, that means better than Uncharted 2 and Gears of War 2. No screenshots or video can really do the visuals/graphics justice, you have to see the game in action yourself to truly appreciate how good it looks. That same sentiment also applies to the boss battles, they are just awesome. Exhilarating, exciting, pulse raising…..these are just a few terms that could be used to describe them. The only game that can match these battles in terms of pure epicness is the wonderful Shadow of the Colossus.
Story wise, Lords of Shadow starts off quite slowly but gets really interesting as you progress the various levels/missions. You start off with the whole revenge aspect but soon enough, it expands into something bigger and keeps you hooked from that moment on. Also, the differing ways in which the story is told is something that should be commended. You have the narration from Sir Patrick Stewart, story book cut-scenes and regular cut-scenes; all of them are fantastically produced and represented in-game. Is this down to the Kojima influence? Hmm, we’d certainly like to think so.
Any niggles? Well, like Aaron, I think the camera could do with a bit more work. I don’t think it is terrible by any means but at times it does hinder you when you’re trying to solve a puzzle or make a difficult jump. I’m going to agree with Aaron again (it had to happen sometime) and say it would be awesome if the player had control of the camera, just so you could pan around and take in the wonderful visuals that the game so masterfully displays.
Rebooting an established franchise or series is never an easy thing to do, you’re almost on a hiding to nothing. As a developer, all you can really do is create a title you think people will enjoy and hope it pays off. Well, with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow the folks at MercurySteam appear to have created a rather special action/adventure game. Many will dismiss it as a “God of War clone” but it really is much more than that. Bottom line is, if Lords of Shadow lives up to the quality shown in the preview code then you can add another quality title to your shopping list for October.