Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (X360) Review

The Short

Pros

– Absolutely gorgeous graphics

– The music, while not the usual Castlevania fare, is still fantastic

– Finally a 3D Castlevania game that isn’t utter garbage

– Patrick Stewart narrates and voices a character in the game

– Some of the bosses, the Butcher and Grave Digger especially, are fantastic

– Did I mention this game looks good? It looks really good

– Enemies are difficult even from the beginning and require skill and tactics to defeat

– When you are fully equipped with all the moves, combat is exceptionally complex and fun

– Controls are ganked from God of War, which isn’t a bad thing

Cons

– Game is a six hour game stretched out over twenty hours

– The story, like the gameplay, feels artificially lengthened

– Patrick Stewart’s narrations during load times are well voiced, but the script might be the most melodramatic thing I’ve ever seen

– The combat takes far too long to get good

– Bosses aped from Shadow of the Colossus are such obvious ripoffs the creators should be ashamed

– Has almost nothing in common with previous Castlevania games

– The Dark/Light magic, while a cool idea in theory, is executed so poorly it seems like an afterthought

– The fixed camera angles make combat and most jumps a massive pain

– Almost all the platforming/jumping/swinging feels clunky and poorly implemented

– Puzzles are so easy and stupid you wonder why they even bothered

– While enemies are fun to combat, there isn’t much variety overall

– Quick time finishers are bland and use an odd method of indicating when to hit

Time to steak some vampires

The Long

“The Long” indeed. Let’s get this over with right off the bat: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is way the hell too long. While I’m all for great value in games I buy, Castlevania is very much a six hour game that has had the unfortunate displeasure of being put on a rack and stretched out to last 20-30 hours. Over dozens of subchapters and stages, Castlevania: LoS simply drags on, making the last 1/3 of the game monotonous, tedious, and just not fun. There is too much of a good (or in Castlevania: LoS’s case, “decent”) thing, and this game is a prime example of that. The bad pacing kills this game for me.

Ok, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s get to it.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow didn’t start it’s life as a Castlevania game (just like how Silent Hill 4: The Room didn’t start out as a Silent Hill game. This must just be something Konami does). It was originally just a gothic action game, with Hideo Kojima, famed creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, somehow involved (I still don’t know what that involvement was. Maybe it’s the long, melodramatic story). Early screens made this game look like everything I ever wanted in a 3D Castlevania game: essentially God of War but set in a gothic, vampire-hunting world. It was action packed, it was violent, it had a whip…it was Castlevania, right? That pretty much is Castlevania, eh?

Um. Sure. But Castlevania: LoS is not a Castlevania game. It’s like…a “Western” Castlevania game. Only mediocre.

But holy crap, if this isn’t one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played

So a good thing first: this game is freaking gorgeous. I’m sure some of you just breeze through the screenshots heading for the final score so…whatever, but at least then you’ll see how incredible this game looks. I have literally no idea how they made this game look so incredible on this generation of hardware, and on my Xbox360 no less. Everything is meticulously detailed, from the characters to the enemies to the absolutely stunning vistas the game presents you with, and it is all paired with some great sound effects and voice acting. So, if you bought a new HDTV and really want something to show off to your friends, you can’t go wrong with Castlevania: LoS.

I’m going to just post more screenshots because it looks so fine. 

So beyond it’s extremely pretty exterior, what’s going on in Castlevania: LoS? What makes it tick? Well, it’s essentially a God of War clone, first and foremost, complete with a lack of camera control in leu of using the right stick for a dodge-roll, light/heavy attack combos, grabs, and quick-time event finishers. Which isn’t a bad thing; God of War was a pretty dang good game, and I’m fine with other studios stealing its technique if they do it well. Which Castlevania: LoS does…but not at first.

The game starts out really weak, with limited combos and a combat system that is little more than button mashing and praying you don’t get hit. Probably the biggest problem with the game is enemy stagger: there isn’t any. You can bash enemies all over the place and they’ll just shrug it off and keep coming for you. Gabriel Belmont (aka you), on the other hand, will lose his combo if he so much as gets tapped by an enemy, and with a relatively small health bar this can get obnoxious really fast.

The game has a lot of really awesome, scary setpieces, it’s just too bad they are all padded by hours of boring, repetitive levels

This problem is slowly fixed over the course of the game, where you learn more advanced moves that help you tackle even the hardest of enemies. Which made me wonder: why didn’t they give you more combos at the beginning, and then just have less for you to buy? You’d still get to buy stuff, but the game would be more fun. The reason, of course, is then there wouldn’t be enough stuff to unlock over the 20-30 hour game time. Which means you probably should have just cut the game down to 6-10 hours, started me better equipped, and made a more streamlined experience rather than a long, tedious, obnoxious one for the first 1/3 of the game!

*ahem*

This only annoys me because I see the potential for the fantastic here. The combat near the end strikes the perfect balance of difficulty and skill, and you feel like you finally have the tools necessary to meet these foes on equal ground. But through most of the game before it it just doesn’t feel that way (unless you grind for XP). You always feel just a step underpowered, which makes even regular enemies (which never flinch, remember) seem like a massive, obnoxious chore. It isn’t fun, and it isn’t refined. It’s just frustrating.

I’m digging that dude’s beard

This same frustration continues on with the story that, like the combat, has all the trappings for greatness but somehow falls completely flat. Gabriel Belmont is a sad man: his wife is dead, and the only way he can bring her back to life is to kill the Lords of Shadow, a bunch of jerks that are…well, jerks. The plot actually sort of reminded me of Nier, where your main character slowly becomes more and more bloodthirsty. As a player you don’t really notice (you are just always killing dudes), but when side characters point it out you realize exactly how far you’ve fallen. In Nier it’s subtle, dark, and almost missable (in other words: perfectly executed). In Castlevania: Expository Dialogue R’ Us, everybody makes sure to point it out frequently, both in game and during the narrations during the load screens.

And don’t get me started on those…just…don’t. They are voiced by Patrick Stewart, who is totally and unquestionably awesome, but the stuff they make him read is just…monotonous. It’s melodramatic, expository, and bland. Seriously, I wonder if Patrick Stewart – who is a quality thespian, to be certain – would have to leave the soundbooth after a session to just go outside and laugh (or cry) at the sheer absurdity of the stuff he was reading. It’s like the game really wants this to be an emotional, gripping tale, so it makes sure to constantly remind you how emotional and gripping it is during every single load screen. It’s bloated, poorly crafted, and doesn’t really pick up until the very end which – hey! – is just like the combat. Fancy that.

But this game looks so freaking good urrrrrggghhh

There are a bunch of other intricacies to the game that are worth mentioning. You get both light and dark magic to equip on your whip, which either heals you or deals more damage, respectively. It’s a nice boost in battle, but it seems tacked on to both the narrative and the combat, so I felt kind of like a cheater when I completely crushed bosses using straight dark magic. Several of these bosses are really good (the Butcher boss was so excellent I actually reloaded the chapter immediately after beating him so I could replay it again), while others are chores to get through. I just wish they came more frequently; again, cutting down most of the filler (of which there is plenty of me lurching slowly through bogs, killing weak useless enemies, or doing awful platforming) would have fixed that a lot.

The platforming is horrible, all of it. The fixed camera angles, which are barely passable during certain fights, make gauging distances and whip-swings almost impossible. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I died due to a mis-placed jump or button press, all of which I do believe was the game’s fault. It would be fine, except (as I’m going to keep saying forever during this review) there is way too much of it, and it drags on to unbelievable lengths. Look at God of War. Most of it’s climbing and swinging was automated, and it only happened very infrequently and during epic set-pieces. Castlevania: LoS just does it as filler for everything, making it both frustrating and overbearing.

Then you have these things.

Randomly interspersed in the game are massive titan bosses, which are literally the same as Colossus bosses from Shadow of the Colossus. You climb a big beastie, doing some basic platforming while holding a “grip” button. You climb to a weak point (while still trying to keep grip as it shakes you off) and stab it before moving on to the next one. Literally, Shadow of the Colossus. These are fun, I suppose, even if they aren’t particularly unique. To be completely blunt they feel tacked on to a game that didn’t need anything extra tacked on. But hey, at least they look incredible.

Smash stupid werewolf Jacob in the face.

The music is also great, falling away from traditional Castlevania riffs of guitar and kickin’ bass lines for more orchestral and vocal pieces. Castlevania is pretty famous for its music so this change might turn some purists off, but I thought it all sounded really good and actually got a copy of the soundtrack I liked it so much. So there you go.

This song is particularly excellent.

Overall, even if you think of Castlevania: LoS as not a Castlevania game, it still has so many problems it is hard to simply turn a blind eye. The combat takes too long to get fun, the story is an overdramatized mess, and it seems to steal the best parts of other games without figuring out why these were the best parts.  The platforming is horrible, the fixed camera angle sucks, and the whole thing drags on and on. I really wanted to like Castlevania: LoS, and for a good while (between the 1/3 and 2/3 mark) I really did. It’s just too stretched out for its own good; had they tightened up the experience and kept all the things that made it excellent (the advanced combat, the good bosses, the graphics, the music) this would have easily been a game comparable or even better than God of War, and certainly a worthy start to a new series. As it stands, the game is just too bloated for me to recommend, unless you have a great deal of patience.

Were I to give it a star rating, it would be a toss up between two or three. But since I did have about six-eight hours of pleasure during the 30 hour experience, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt with a three out of five. Again, this game has so much potential, and everything to make an excellent experience is there, it just wears out its welcome so quickly I couldn’t help but get frustrated with it.

Also, the game doesn’t even have friggin’ Dracula in it. So how the crap did they get away with calling it a Castlevania game? Urgh.

But, if nothing else, this game can rest knowing I still think it’s pretty on the outside. Really pretty.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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