Reviewed by Ste Carter
Format: Xbox 360 (also available on PlayStation 3 and PC)
Developer: Mercury Steam
Rating: 16 (PEGI)
Format: Xbox 360 (also available on PlayStation 3 and PC)
Developer: Mercury Steam
Rating: 16 (PEGI)
Konami seem to have had somewhat of a rush of blood to the head; releasing two big games in the same week. This is very unusual indeed, as most publishers wouldn't want two games competing directly against one another but Konami may welcome ‘in-house' rivalry between titles. Promise can be found in this too though, as it shows that their creative juices are flowing, and judging by the initial quality of both games, then long let it continue in this pattern. Konami's leading franchise, Metal Gear Solid (MGS), obviously shadows their other produced titles but living in the shadows of such a great series like this isn't a bad thing, as the skills acquired could be transferred to other titles. As appears to be the case with both the new Pro Evolution Soccer, and the game in question here; Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. There is a major link between Konami and Mercury Steam, as Kojima Productions have been lending a helping hand and keeping a watchful eye over the production stages of Lords of Shadow. Surely then, this shows how far Konami are willing to go in order to bring the series back to life and once more into the limelight, as opposed to being overshadowed.
This is a 25 year old franchise though and it will need to re-invent some of its old style and quality shown back in the days of 16/32-bit consoles. The latest iteration sees a new producer in charge of production, David Cox, which could be a risky strategy as he appears to be new to the Castlevania series. On the other hand, he could have some fresh ideas with which to revert the series back to its former glory. Improved graphics wont hide the fact if, should Konami do so, they re-tread old grounds and not rejuvenate a once excellent franchise. There is a very broad appeal for such games as this, Hack ‘n' Slash come Adventure, as titles like God Of War (GOW) have shown when developers get the formula just right. This is also a potential downfall for Mercury Steam as some games tend to borrow too much from leading titles such as GOW and get branded as cheap wannabes, so whilst inspiration is welcome, ripping off isn't.
Avid readers of gaming sites and publications will have been expecting this game for some time now as it's been in development for the last few years, which would make many hope that Lords of Shadow would have been paid some much wanted love and attention. Previews have hinted at its potential greatness and how it could be one of the understated game of the year candidates. But as stated above, fancy graphics aren't enough to win audiences over anymore; they need something to get their teeth into, and with two discs (on the 360 version) to trawl through, then gamers could well find themselves digesting this one for some time.
The views sold the property
Mercury Steam waste no time in showing off their, quite frankly, very detailed cut-scenes and the love they have shown to Lords of Shadow. To kick things off you're treated to a dreary scene of rain, thunder and an appearance by a few Werewolves, which all seem to mix very well together. It would be asking too much of a developer, and the console itself, to produce in-game graphics that reflect that of the cut-scenes' standards but Konami has pushed the boat out and they do their best to offer top notch graphics all round. Top notch they are too; foliage sways in the breeze and is full of colour whilst every vista will require you to stop and admire, not only the beauty of the scenery, but also the developers commitment to drive themselves this hard to produce a game that will stand out amongst the crowd. Something that will have likely been pushed by Mr Hideo Kojima, creator of the MGS series, as he has lent a helping hand to Mercury Steam throughout development. That's not to say, however, that his influence can be found in every section of the game as he took more of a back seat this time around, as opposed to leading his own MGS team, and merely offered advice and guidance to a group he evidently saw potential in.
The team have clearly gone to great effort to make every feature suit its medieval style; fonts reflect calligraphy and menus are styled as books, pages turning when you move to the next menu screen. This makes your experience feel more like an adventure as each stage of the game is recorded in the journal, whilst a transcript is read out at the opening of each chapter, reminding you of events that happened previously. These chapters, further showing the developers' commitment to Castlevania's atmosphere, are read out to you by Patrick Stewart, a very suitable addition indeed with his deep voice.
In the background, you will also hear a music score that is so suitable, you would expect it to be from a blockbuster film. Every time your situation worsens, a high pitch theme will sound out which heightens the drama and tension. Contrasting this, is when you're wandering through an area clear of enemies, the music score makes you feel relaxed and allows you to take in what's surrounding you. The rest of the audio, such as voices and beast noises are crystal clear and don't feel out of place. The main character, Gabriel, has a soft but commanding voice which is to be expected from any strong leading man, whilst the other characters you interact with have voices which reveal an air of wisdom about them.
Castlevania meets Uncharted?
The scenery has been mentioned before, but the variety of the scenery has not. Initially, it may seem a little boring in terms of gameplay and not much happening, but I challenge anyone not to find the detail and clarity of each area astonishing. When the camera pans out, you can see things such as birds nestling on cliff edges whilst the entire panorama has been detailed, as opposed to just the area where you play and neglecting the background. Although, when the camera pans out it can seem a little too distant, as you can lose yourself amongst the scenery, then walk off the edge of a staggeringly high cliff. A sense of height, depth and fidelity is always evident throughout Castlevania, no matter where you are as every section of the game has been given a lot of attention. The frame rate can drop on rare occasions, which you can forgive with the sheer scale of the whole game, and does not ruin the overall experience. To find a game that pushes the technical ability of the 360, you would have to look in the direction of titles such as Final Fantasy 13, with its equally amazing graphics.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow appears to have a slow start in terms of story, with a greater focus on action, which has been done on purpose to keep those Hack ‘n' Slash fans happy but it could alienate those who like a good story to back the gameplay up. It's not until you get past the hour mark that you find out why you have actually set out on this quest and who Gabriel actually is. It transpires that the gods have abandoned the mortals and in doing so, all sorts of demons and nasties have been unleashed upon the world. Step in Gabriel who has been given the task of restoring order by re-establishing peace with the gods and is also upon a personal quest to release the unsettled souls of those that have perished at the hands (or claws) of said beasts, including his wife. Needless to say, he's not very happy and is out to seek vengeance on whoever or whatever is responsible.
Those who've played Castlevania as a 2D side-scrolling game, will probably be wondering how a new 3D, 3rd person angle will suit the series. In answer to this; very well, it opens up new opportunities to broaden its appeal through a better, more rewarding combat system. There are plenty of combos to keep it all feeling fresh, fluid and never a chore. Initially, the attacks are kept to a basic level; the ‘x' button will perform close ranged attacks, whilst ‘y' will give you a sweeping wide ranged assault. Just hammering each button is not the way forward though; mastering button combinations will unleash more powerful attacks that are suited to specific enemies. These attacks are performed with your standard weapon, the very imaginatively named combat cross, an extendable holy crucifix which is powered up at regular intervals throughout the game in places such as tombs of fallen holy knights. Along with the cross you can still have old staples of the series such as throwing daggers, which need collecting from breakable scenery and downed foes, eventually light and shadow magic which heal and enhance attacks respectively. In terms of actual weapons, you don't get that many new toys to play with, but you can upgrade the combat cross's combos at the close of each chapter which give you more complex and powerful attacks.
*Puts on best Sean Connery voice* "Shocking"
The overall combat experience is very rewarding as you never feel like your attacks are too powerful, or under-powered and a detection system that copes well despite the number of enemies on screen at one time. You will come across many of the same enemies wherever you go, but this is no bad thing as there's plenty of variety when it comes to boss battles and beats which you can mount in order to harness their powers. When it comes to the scale of many of the bosses, think back to games like GOW and Shadow of the Colossus, and you won't go far wrong, these games being clear inspirations/rivals for the dev team and the overall graphics of these battles stand up to those that GOW can offer.
It's evident that the creators have put thought into mapping functions to specific buttons, for instance, blocking is usually an action that gets neglected by many gamers as it's too tricky to time correctly mid-combo. Evading attacks is a doddle here and is vital in many situations when you become outnumbered by adversaries, blocking an attack one way then rolling away to outmanoeuvre your enemy. The overall control of Gabriel feels a bit light, with the change of direction taking a split second longer than it possibly should, very picky but it can be a little tricky to manoeuvre. Like the old games, Lords of Shadow looks to create a game which could be played several times over without seeing everything that there is to offer, with areas locked until your powers and abilities reach the required level. Contradicting the older titles in the series though, is the fact that this game doesn't play out in castles for the majority of the time, instead you can be seen leaping across deep ravines and scrambling up monuments, in a similar fashion to Uncharted 2.
To say that this game is huge is an understatement; it's probably one of the biggest games you'll come across without stepping into full-on Role Playing Game territory. The first sight you'll see of a major tower/fortification only signifies around one third of completion, despite how long it feels you've been playing for. In reality, it could take around twenty plus hours for the average player to complete if they delve into exploration here and there and go in search of many of the collectibles scattered round the world map. Longevity is further encouraged by the game reminding you that you can come back to certain areas once your skills allow you to reach those restricted areas. But this is not an un-enjoyable twenty hours; it's lean and everything you do will feel relevant and worthwhile, especially since certain collectables will see your health bar boosted.
It's hard to see how a game of this size could get any bigger through Downloadable Content (DLC) but it's even harder to think that there won't be any DLC in the shape of challenge packs or new weapons etc. One thing is for sure though, it's very unlikely that any form of multiplayer will be added to Lord of Shadow as it would seem out of place and quite frankly, unnecessary.
To be fair she looked better in her online picture
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a cracking game with some brilliant vistas and stunning gameplay, that I feel most people will miss out on as they will overlook it, possibly even because they've already spent their hard earned pennies on the last edition of Pro Evo released in the same week, which would be a great shame. As with many games these days, it hasn't received much publicity or media attention but the high quality of the title speaks for itself, and always delivers when it comes to the basic elements. Yes it does take a while to get going and extra moves and abilities seem to come at too long intervals, but they are entirely worth the wait and keep you asking for more, which is what Castlevania of old always achieved. Tie this in with a wealth of exploration and some excellent combat, this makes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow an essential purchase for new and old fans of the series alike.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
- Beautiful scenery
- Intuitive controls
- Satisfying combat
- Masses of exploration
Transylvanian Pet Shop
- Very slight drop in frame rate on occasions
- Sections where it can be tricky to manoeuvre Gabriel