FORGET WHAT YOU KNOW about Castlevania; there are only a few elements of the popular 2D side-scroller franchise present in its upcoming incarnation, Lords of Shadow. Konami openly states that this game is intended as a reboot of the Castlevania franchise and exists outside the historical canon (despite the fact that the protagonist shares the ‘Belmont’ namesake of the original Castlevania heroes).
Set in the year 1047, Lords of Shadow takes place in a world where man fears that God has abandoned him. Something is preventing the souls of the dead from leaving the earth, and evil creatures are running rampant. Gabriel Belmont of the Brotherhood of Light (with his rather nifty ‘Combat Cross’ weapon/ rappelling device) has been dispatched to protect the innocent and also to get to the bottom of all the trouble. By defeating the Lords of Shadow, Belmont will restore the alliance between heaven and earth and gain the ability to resurrect the dead. It appears that he may have an ulterior motive,too…
It’s clear that the developers (including, in a limited capacity, Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame) were fairly enamoured with the God of War games. While God of War is far from the only third-person hack-and-slash adventure (or even the first), there are some glaring similarities that I simply cannot avoid mentioning: for a start there are loads of quick-time event boss battles, and at various stages you’ll be tasked with commandeering large trolls or otherwise in order to bash through enemies and obstacles. Many of the puzzles are rather similar, and there are gargantuan stone bosses that you must scale and defeat. They’re even called Titans, for Pete’s sake, and Lords of Shadow doesn’t have the excuse of a mythological Ancient Greece setting to fall back on for that one…
I’m going to posit, however, that this blatant gameplay mimicry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, it’s a winning formula, Lords of Shadow does it extremely well, and for my money it even improves on established hackand- slash conventions in a few areas. Lords of Shadow also has a few of its own tricks up its sleeve. Like those other games, you’ll learn new skills as you progress that will better enable you against increasingly difficult enemies. In Lords of Shadow, you accrue points that can be spent on a wide variety of skills as you see fit.
You can choose certain abilities at the expense of others, which adds a slight RPG element to proceedings. Eventually, you’ll also gain the use of both Light Magic and Dark Magic; while active, the former will regenerate the player’s health with each successful blow landed on enemies, while the latter will deal increased damage. They’ll also open up plenty of additional abilities asyouprogress.
The fantasy setting is a far more engrossing world than those of most hack-and-slash games. It begins with a decidedly Gothic opening level that is a direct nod to the original Castlevania titles. But it’s not long before Lords of Shadow heads into more of a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy vibe. Aside from the fact that protagonist Gabriel Belmont bears a striking resemblance to Aragorn, his quest starts to feel like an epic Tolkien-esque journey. Even the enemies – goblins, spiders and trolls – seem to bear more in common with Lord of the Rings than Transylvanian werewolves and vampires, in the early stages of the game at least. The environment of the first few chapters – the crumbling ruins of ancient temples – instantly reminds of early Tomb Raider games. Eventually, around chapter five, Belmont begins to make his way into vampire territory and the familiar Gothicmood returns…
The visuals are absolutely striking, with beautifully modeled environments and characters and a truly impressive attention to detail. And while at least a couple of the boss battles are similar to those seen in God of War III (the previously mentioned Titan battles), a great deal of the later encounters and puzzles in Lords of Shadow are uniquely clever. You’ll battle a Crow Queen atop a large tower, avoid the slamming fists of a giant ogre in a ruined castle, and even inadvertently engage in a game of hide-and-seek with a cheeky gremlin who steals your items!
It’s worth mentioning that, even based on the preview build that I played, the full game is likely to take some time to complete. I sunk some serious time into this preview and probably only made it through two-thirds of what appears to constitute the full game. Also, it’s fairly difficult – I’m embarrassed to say that I had to dip the difficulty at one point in order to progress, and even the easy difficulty had its moments later on!
Perhaps the major element to carry over from the early Castlevania games is that backtracking with your improved abilities will allow you to access previously inaccessible areas. These are peppered throughout the game’s 50-odd levels (over 12 chapters), and add considerably to the game’s replay factor.
Lords of Shadow threatens to bring some muchneeded depth – both in terms of story and gameplay – to a genre in dire need of rejuvenation. But does it borrow too heavily from established formula? Check back next month for our final verdict!