When Patrick Stewart narrates “these are dark times” you can pretty much assume that he’s not referring to the time of day and that he’s referring to evil, pure and distilled, into the types of monstrosities we’ve all come to expect in a hybrid medieval-fantasy setting. We’re talking werewolves, vampires, goblins, orcs, and yes, even the undead. For the bad guys at least, these “dark times” Patrick Stewart refers to are a matter of perspective, because their line-up reads like a greatest hits record or a once in the lifetime gathering of bone crushing talent, much akin to a huge music festival or in this case an orgy of violence, featuring a large number of thick skulled creatures. OK, so pretty much the same thing.
So right from the outset the odds are clearly stacked up against poor old Gabe Belmont, who, armed with a chain that comes out of his overly sized cross and some daggers he straps around his waist, attempts to take on the three Dark Lords and all their minions, single-handedly. Not exactly the smartest of moves, and perhaps the Brotherhood that Gabe is a part of, could muster up some sort of army to help him out but his motives aren’t exactly all that noble. Instead of embarking on a quest to save humanity or even going forth into the abyss in the name of saving the life of his loved ones, Gabe is trying to bring his dead wife back from what we’re assuming to be hell. Because trying to bring his wife back from heaven would be kind of a waste of time, and a little selfish.
Apart from the name Belmont and a main character wielding a chain as his main weapon in dealing with nasties, from the outset there isn’t a lot of similarity in Lords of Shadow to what people usually associate with the Castlevania franchise. In fact after the suitably rainy gothic introduction players will spend the first few hours traversing some of the most beautifully rendered vistas they’ve ever laid eyes on. From lush green forests and huge waterfall adorning cliff faces to overgrown stone structures teeming with life, all lit perfectly in what feels like a perpetual sunset, players will feel like they’re on vacation in Middle Earth. The music also takes on an immediate epic feel with fanfares, and sweeping orchestral melodies that add a certain weight to the somewhat overwhelming visuals. As the bright vistas conjure up comparison to more traditional English fantasy than vampires, ghouls, and large castles soaked in perpetual rain, coupled with goblins, wargs, orcs and even fairies - at first this feels a lot like Castlevania: In Name Only.
As for the gameplay itself, those looking for a counterpart the more recent handheld Castlevania titles that blended light RPG elements with Metroid style exploration, will quickly find out that Lords of Shadow shares more in common with earlier Castlevania titles in terms of action, and more recent hallmark titles like God of War, Devil May Cry, and other ‘three word’ game titles. Apart from using the whip to dispatch enemies and climb walls, probably the biggest thing the game has in common with earlier Castlevania titles is the difficulty. This is a game not to be trifled with, as it’s not afraid to let you die repeatedly and relentlessly all the while forgetting to top you up with health assuming that you were born with a predilection to button press your way from dodge and block, to counter and combo, in the same way you know that “food goes in here” when you’re shovelling a large pack of Doritos into your mouth.
The first NES Castlevania titles were similar tests of player endurance, but at least here you have the option to lower the difficulty when needed, but it still doesn’t shake the feeling that balance-wise the game’s difficulty is often the result of not-so-great design. For example having a checkpoint system mid boss battle only to die and then re-spawn with half a health bar and no light or shadow magic seems a little harsh when the only other option is to re-start the entire level. Second to that the game loves to throw numerous quick-time events at the player especially during the climax of a boss battle that if missed restores an unfair amount of health to the boss, leaving players with no option but to fight the last third of an epic battle, again. But for action purists that love a good challenge Lords of Shadow will deliver them on a silver platter, as the game features an unusually long story, covering pretty much every location imaginable, but one that only truly finds it feet once it decided to live up to its namesake and dive head-first into vampire territory.
Broken up into Chapters and then levels the story in Lords of Shadow follows a storybook outline that benefits greatly from some pretty great narration by Picard himself, who introduces each level in such a Shakespearian way you simply have to keep playing. In fact it makes the loading screens almost something to look forward too, which is a crazy idea in its own right. And once the story kicks into high gear and players are scaling and exploring huge castles, the game becomes a lot of fun and consequently Lords of Shadow feels like a great addition to the franchise. Somewhat flawed but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.
But the experience of playing and enjoying the game benefits enormously from the high-production values and often breathtaking visuals and art direction. At its core this is an action game with some light platforming and some even lighter puzzling, and every immediate inclination you may have to explore a vast cavern or Enchanted Forrest will be met with invisible walls, a static camera, and strictly linear pathways. This is something you’ll either get over quite quickly or simply leave you pining for a world as open to explore as it is great to look at.
Sure there is some backtracking there if players want to go back to earlier levels and find hidden treasures and so forth, but the total lack of exploration in the flow of the game makes this aspect feel like an afterthought only there to appease the needs of the modern ‘feature-obsessed’ gamer. In the end this helps keep the quite long and well structured story and gameplay tightly focused on combat, which like all titles of this nature gradually becomes more complicated as new moves are acquired and purchased between levels.
There’s nothing that Lords of Shadow does that feels all that new or fresh, but what it does offer in terms of recognisable gameplay elements and features are implemented quite well with the focus here placed squarely on being a large scale epic. Not only in terms of story but in giant boss battles that feel like you’re fighting a sentient skyscraper and large castles to explore that feel like they were built for creatures that even giants would consider, well, giant. The musical cues are also quite grand in their introduction during cut-scenes and bombastic during hectic battles, and the voice work by a few seasoned actors, like the aforementioned Patrick Stewart and the somewhat underused Robert Carlyle, is also quite good. So for anyone looking for a solid action game that foregoes the exploration and depth of the recent handheld Castlevania titles, Lords of Shadow comes highly recommended.