For the past decade at the very least least, expertly crafted 2D Castlevania games feel as if they’ve never stopped coming. Any memory of a slightly lesser title in the series is perpetually shafted by the outright excellence of its immediate successor, and the franchise boasts the kind of fanbase that, in both size and level of enthusiasm, would be the envy of any publisher. But the sense that those two visual dimensions were in danger of defining Castlevania has only toughened with time.
So despite the recent (excellent) Harmony Of Despair, the time is clearly right to see if the franchise can cut it in three dimensions. Lords Of Shadow isn’t the first 3D Castlevania – Castlevania 64 got there over a decade ago – but it’s easily the best to date, and is every bit as polished, involving and gratifyingly taxing as any other series entry. The 3D PS2 releases were quite well-received, but those two N64 games (the first game was followed by a prequel called Legacy Of Darkness) were actually rather underrated and unjustly dismissed by the hardcore. Lords Of Shadow definitely won’t face a similar reaction.
Because this is quite possibly the action game of the year. Many people may have expressed worry after the first gameplay footage was released – in which it appeared, purely because of the prevalence of the combat, to be a rip-off of God Of War or Dante’s Inferno – but the game’s first hour slowly settles you into the realisation that the combat makes up for less than half of the core gameplay. Even to describe it as an action game is a trifle misleading, because this is much more of an adventure; albeit one that features some robust and rewarding combat mechanics on top of it.
The game does begin quite loudly, with an emphasis on action and Patrick Strewart’s grandiose, faux-Chaucerian narration, but before the opening sixty minutes are up everything settles into its own very appealing little groove. The script quickly abandons most of its portentousness and starts to lead a coherent and compelling plot into play, and the action steadily takes a back seat to platforming and puzzling. The story is refreshingly sedate and uncomplicated, and although it’s anyone’s guess as to where this tale fits into the Castlevania timeline, only obsessives are going to let that stifle their enjoyment of it.
What impresses most about Lords Of Shadow is how refreshing its thorough lack of chivalry is. There’s no map, no hint or waypoint system and no save-slot system of any kind either. The primary piece of each platforming route is highlighted in the same way as it was in the likes of Uncharted or Enslaved, but here it’s only ever that very first piece that’s accentuated, and manoeuvring around walls and buildings now involves a great deal of trial and error, as well as the occasional blind leap of faith. It is, in essence, entirely old-school, and there is no hand-holding whatsoever.
The combat also reveals hidden depths rather quickly. Unbroken combos assist in filling up a Focus Meter that rewards you with neutral elemental orbs, which power your light and dark magic meters. Although this magic can be used in conjunction with other special moves (which you can purchase via a branching menu system that is available between levels) they fundamentally involve making a choice between replenishing your health (through combat) with light magic, and beefing up the power of your attacks with dark magic.
Endlessly flitting in between these two spells – which you’ll have to do constantly during boss battles on the harder difficulty tiers – is immensely rewarding, and requires mucho concentration and perfect timing. The timed counter/block move is also a joy to pull off, and is definitely worth mastering early, because you’re definitely going to need it later on. All of these elements are as fluid as they are fast-paced, and for all its speed and general busyness, Lords Of Shadow definitely stands as one of the out-and-out best looking videogames currently on the market.
As well as being a commendably lengthy game (particularly for this particular genre) the level of quality never dips, and none of it ever feels like the work of a team creatively treading water. Some of its sharper elements may have been borrowed from other recent (landmark) videogames, but they’ve been arranged with such tact and inventiveness that it never once feels derivative. Lords Of Shadow is an almost faultless reboot, and the recently announced sequel can’t come soon enough.
Watch the Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow Trailer here: