I had what might very properly be called a love/hate relationship with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and given that the rest of this article is likely to get a little ranty, I think it’s important to note that there is a “love” part nestled in there as well (see it? It’s right before the backslash). I’ve always sort of had a soft spot for Castlevania games in general; I didn’t even think Curse of Darkness and Lament of Innocence were all that bad. Admittedly, though, the series does seem to be at its best when it’s concentrating on the side-scrolling, 2d style that brought it to prominence to begin with, so even though it passed through the hands of the World’s Most Adorable Man, Hideo Kojima, I couldn’t help having a few reservations from the beginning, which… well, they were partially justified.
1. The Yuffie Syndrome– There are few things I dislike more as a gameplay device than having your hard earned powers/weapons/doo-dads stripped away just so that you’re weaker while you go and traipse around to try and get them back. While not the first game to do this by a longshot, Final Fantasy VII is the one that always pops into my mind here; in order to get Yuffie on your team, you must endure her stealing all of your materia first (and I always question whether it’s worth it, but in the end, I always cave and do it anyway). Lords of Shadow doesn’t just do this once–oh no, that wouldn’t be nearly annoying enough. Instead, you are forced to contend several times with creatures called chupacabras who take your relics and powers away–here’s the kicker–just for fun. Because they can. Never mind that you have to fight off werewolves or zombies or whatever happens to be in the area without half of your stuff in order to catch the little bastards and choke them into giving it back up, they just want to have a rousing game of hide-and-seek. To make matters worse, they scream taunts at you while you’re tracking them down based solely on how close/far away you happen to be at any given time, so if you’re in the area and solving a puzzle to unlock a path to their location, they will only register that they’re practically right in front of you and will yell the same four lines of dialogue the entire time. YES, I UNDERSTAND THAT I HAVE FOUND YOU. PLEASE SHUT UP WHILE I REDIRECT THESE LASERS. If only there were an option to beat the crap out of them once you find them. Or a chupacabra genocide minigame. I’d love that. There’s also a boss fight towards the end of the game that does largely the same thing, but after the chupacabras, the level of annoying there was barely noticeable.
2. Star-Studded– Well, at least they didn’t spare any expense when it came to the cast. The game’s protagonist, Gabriel Belmont, is voiced by Robert Carlyle, with other major characters played by Patrick Stewart, Jason Isaacs, and Natascha McElhone. Frequently, when games cast well-known actors who aren’t strictly voice-actors, there’s a danger of them sounding stilted or simply wrong in their delivery, because this isn’t their normal field and they’ve been cast purely for name recognition. Fortunately, these folks are all seasoned and/or talented enough that it isn’t an issue. In fact, lest I sound like I feel that they only just escaped being horrible, I should clarify: I really enjoyed the voice acting, particularly from Robert Carlyle (and of course from Patrick Stewart, who is now paired with Morgan Freeman on the list of people I want to narrate my life). The only real complaint I have in this area isn’t the actors’ fault; during larger fights, Lords of Shadow falls into the trap of only having a few lines of dialogue for an enemy to spout which are consequently repeated until you just want to defeat them to shut them up. Even when you’re not fighting the character in question, this can get annoying; I mentioned the chupacabras above, and a couple of characters during fetch quests also feel it necessary to put their two cents in repeatedly if they think you’re not doing their bidding quickly or efficiently enough. I’m looking at YOU, Baba.
3. Huuuuuuge Tracts of Land– Oooooookay. It’s time for me to get into the biggest bitch I have about Lords of Shadow. First off, let me say that the designers really outdid themselves graphically. The game is lovely, and the scenery really lends it a sense of scale that I think is incredibly important to the story they’re telling. But what the FUCK is with the camera angles? If you’re going to make a game that does not allow the player to adjust the camera, that’s fine, but if that’s the choice you make, you really, really need to make damn sure that the camera goes where you need it to go and shows what you need it to show. Platforming was frequently made more difficult than it needed to be because the camera was too busy proudly displaying the lovely mountains and ruins to notice that Gabriel couldn’t see the next ledge to which he needed to desperately cling, and the camera during combat was nothing short of atrocious. For a game that relies so heavily on dodging and countering, and particularly one that likes to throw large numbers of enemies at you at a time, having a camera that not only cuts the enemies off-screen but sometimes even cuts YOUR OWN CHARACTER off-screen is simply inexcusable. In addition, since the camera isn’t fixed, but rather follows Gabriel around as it sees fit, some of the finer points of the puzzles which must be solved throughout the levels are made much more difficult than they need to be. This was by far my least favorite part of the game, and something that I’ve heard almost universally from others who have played it as well. If there’s a direct sequel, I really, really hope that they do something about the camera. Really.
4. Choose Your Own Adventure– Lords of Shadow features a relatively standard advancement system–well, not really standard for Castlevania, but one which will likely be familiar to players nonetheless. As Gabriel dispatches enemies, he earns experience points, which can then be used to unlock combo moves and upgrades that he can then use during his adventure. While this sounds like a great idea in theory, I found that, similar to when I played God of War, no matter how many combos or new types of beatings I was able to bestow upon the slavering horde, I pretty much always stuck with the same damn thing. Sure, there were times when something specific might be called for, but in general, the amount of dodging and quickness of foot that is required to make it safely through any given area means that attempting to pull off a fancy combo often results in getting your face gnawed on. Or at least, it did for me. It’s entirely possible that my own lack of skills was what made this feature kind of unnecessary, but still, I tended to get along just fine without much other than my cross-chain-whip-thing and the most basic forms of light and dark magic. I kept unlocking other stuff, but I really didn’t use it that much, honestly.
5. Warning: Here Be Spoilers!- No, seriously. If you haven’t finished the game and you don’t want me to spoil it for you, skip the next paragraph, because I’m gonna spoil it hardcore. Go ahead. I won’t be offended.
All gone? Okay, then. So, what’s the one thing you can pretty much always count on to be somewhere in a game that bears the Castlevania name? Dracula, right? I thought so too, so I was full of theories from about Chapter 5 onward about how Zobek was Dracula (I mean, he was clearly going to be evil somehow), and kept waiting for him to reveal himself. When the end of the game was a fight against not Dracula, but Satan himself (which was pretty cool, actually), I was a little disappointed, but I was still waiting. One would think that you can’t really backtrack from Satan to Dracula, but I still harbored a little bit of hope that he might show up after all. And then the credits rolled. Not a bad story, I thought, but was it really Castlevania? Yeah. It is, it turns out. After the credits, you find out that not only was Dracula in the game…. you were actually playing him all along. Yup, Gabriel Belmont turns out to actually be Dracula. In essence, this is kind of an origin story, which I thought was really, really cool, and I didn’t even see it coming. The ending quite intentionally sets up for a sequel, and I for one will definitely be looking forward to it when and if it happens; even considering the issues I had with this game, I had a good time overall, and that ending was just the punch I needed to keep me wanting more.
For those of you who skipped the last paragraph, here’s all you really need to know. Castlevania yay! Now go play it.