Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a surprise. If you are looking for a modern take on the classic vampire-slayer franchise, you will be surprised. If you think it’s nothing more than a God of War clone, you will again be surprised. And finally, if you think it’s only good for one play through, you’ll be – guess – surprised. 

With this latest instalment, Castlevania is reborn in to a 3D action gaming space. Indeed, while developer MercurySteam has bought the series back to its roots of vampires and other nightmarish creatures, this latest endeavor strips away nearly everything we know about the much-loved IP. Sure, you’ll find the same enemies, but you’ll face them in a new way. And, the main character is still out to kill as many dark and devilish ghouls as possible, but he comes equipped with a fresh batch of interesting weapons and magic to wield. 

It’s almost impossible to connect this iteration of the game with previous versions, and perhaps it would be best if the series just started anew. However, it still sports the Castlevania moniker, and with it comes that familiar whiff of nostalgia and for many, a healthy dose of preconceptions. This time around, the plot centres on hero Gabriel’s quest is to resurrect his deceased wife; naturally, things aren’t going to be an easy ride, requiring a fair amount of beast slaying before our hero can accomplish his goal.

Once you dive into the game, you’ll see that this is a dark tale, albeit told in a refreshing manner. It feels fresh, in large part, because of the combat. Of course, while initially feeling inspired by a certain God of War – and it certainly is – once you unlock upgrades to your Combat Cross, you’ll see the game’s true combat potential shine through. You’ll use two buttons for sweeping or heavy attacks, string together easy combos, throw daggers and unleash ridiculously powerful spells. Combat includes QTE-events, boss battles (more on that later) and epic encounters that rival some of the greatest moments in recent action games.

The game not only plays fresh, it looks crisp and clean. Sure, there are the occasional visual hiccups that we find in just about every game, but overall you’ll play through jaw-dropping vistas comprised of wintery mountains, ruined forests, and much more. Indeed, if there are any complaints about the visuals, it’s that there is almost too much action to see what’s going on in the background. For instance, we started to slow down about the second chapter. We realized we were blazing through the game’s shorter levels, without really glancing at what was going on around us. When we witnessed the beautiful snow drifts and flakes that appeared to fall through the screen, we knew we found something worth looking at.

The soundtrack is also beautiful, capturing the strings and deep sounds of an equally dark tale. After a while, the music starts to repeat a bit, especially during combat sequences, but that’s just fine with us as it sets the perfect mood for fighting werewolves and the various beasts you’ll come up against. Meanwhile, boss battles have a strong resemblance to Shadow of the Colossus, such as climbing on top of giant stone beasts or slaying Lycan chiefs. Even if these boss battles are reminiscent of other great games, we loved fighting through some of the more epic moments. Keep in mind, the game is exceedingly tough and will test your skills to the limit. Sure, at the beginning you can get by on just slashing your way through countless enemies, but venture past the first few levels and you’ll quickly have to learn how to dodge, throw a dagger, and use magic effectively in combat.

And, thus brings us to a shining moment in Castlevania: the magic. The game mixes light and shadow magic to give the player greater freedom with how to progress through each level and each battle. Light magic essentially restores your health pool with each successful attack, while shadow magic enhances Gabriel’s strength, turning him in to a true killing machine. Of course, you’ll need to fill up your magic bars, one for each set of magic, by stringing together successful attacks without taking any damage—also known as the focus ability. This can be tricky, and again requires a bit of skill to get down.

Of course, all isn’t perfect and the perhaps our biggest gripe with Castlevania rests in its desire to mimic a certain PlayStation 3 masterpiece. Yes, the game attempts to steal a bit of climbing and platforming from Uncharted. There are moments when it works, but many more moments where it doesn’t work. Too often the camera gets in the way, making in nearly impossible to see where you are supposed to advance. What’s worse, in our opinion, is that you can’t really climb everywhere—there are specifically laid out places for Gabriel to climb around, meaning if you can’t figure out where you are supposed to climb, you’ll have to waste some time looking around because you won’t be able to advance.

The game also borrows heavily from both God of War and Uncharted in the puzzles department. But, since you have the ability to revisit past levels, you’ll find that the puzzles are enhanced the further you progress—essentially by gaining additional abilities, you can go back to old levels (skip the intro cutscene) and solve puzzles or reach locations that were otherwise unattainable. In terms of game length, Lords of Shadow drags on slightly, clocking in at a meaty 20 hours or so. It’s not that it’s too long, it’s that there are too many redundant tasks dotted throughout, such as pulling familiar levers and slaying countless monsters over again. Still, the game’s greatest strength is the fact you can play it over and over again and experience something new each time. Unlike other games that make you bump up the difficulty to try something new, or give you a reason to play it again, you can go back through any previous level and try to go about it a new way, finding new treasures, and seeing previously unlocked areas.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is as close to perfection in a vampire killing game (oh, and you’ll have to wait until deep into the game to do any of that) as you’ll find. While it shares little in common with its predecessors, it’s still a lot of fun to play and a worthwhile experience for any Castlevania aficionado and hardcore gamer alike. Sure, it won’t blow your mind, and you may find too many resemblances to other PS3 games in the genre, but you’ll likely walk away with a feeling of accomplishment. And, what’s best, after you walk away, you have so many reasons to take a step back into this compelling fantasy world and see what else there is to explore.



The Final Word

Castlevania is reborn into a 3D action game that borrows heavily from some of the PS3's greatest hits. However, with so much to experience, thrilling boss battles, and plenty of replay value, it's well worth the investment.