Monday, February 28, 2011

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

For the past two months or so, the only game I’ve been playing other than Apollo Justice and LittleBigPlanet 2--the former of which I finished a couple weeks ago and the latter I’ve only been playing on and off--is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. And at many points I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Lords of Shadow represents a reboot in a series that I’ve never so much as dipped a toe in. As much as they dress it up, the story premise is fairly basic: evil has descended upon the world, and it’s up to you as Gabriel Belmont to squash it, but Gabriel’s real goal is the revival of his love, Marie, who was murdered by creatures of the night. To achieve this, he’ll need the God Mask, which has been broken into three pieces. Each of the pieces, however, is held by a Lord of Shadow. Conveniently, the Lords of Shadow--who each rule over a major race of evil, such as werewolves--are the ones responsible for the current state of things; killing two birds with one stone, I guess.

But really, I’ve come to think that this is all just a front. An excuse, if you will, to not only visit all kinds of locales, but to kill the various fantastical creatures residing in them, and look as awesome as possible while doing it. And do all this you will. Consequently, this is also where Lords of Shadows’ strengths tend to lie.

Combat is not atypical of the likes Dante’s Inferno and Bayonetta, both in style and mechanics. However, LoS definitely places itself in a higher class of difficulty without straying from its fantasy setting. Though the game encourages precision and finesse not unlike what’s required in, say Ninja Gaiden, it possesses enough cinematic flair and outright brutality to make the likes of Kratos proud. The gimmick introduced is that of Light and Shadow magic, each represented by a small bar on the left and right corners of the screen, respectively. Activating Light Magic allows you recover health with each hit you make, while Shadow Magic increases damage output. Furthermore, each also has it’s own share of powerful techniques that can only be used while one or the other is active. For example, with Light Magic you have many moves that are defensive in nature, such as the Holy Cross attack, which projects a wide stream of light so intense it not only dazes opponents, but rapidly damages them the longer they’re caught in it. Shadow augments the strength of many of your normal techniques (like turning normal daggers into flaming, exploding ones) while introducing new ones like a powerful shoulder charge that allows you to dash a short distance near instantly, knocking aside anyone or anything in your way. Both Light and Shadow magic can be enabled and disabled on the fly, in the middle combat. This gave me a nice feeling of control as I could change the flow of battle instantly depending on what I was using at the given moment.

To restore your magic, you have to collect magic orbs. Sometimes these are dropped when you kill enemies, but the quickest way to regain magic in the middle of combat is to simply play well. Consecutive hits dished out without taking damage add to a meter at the bottom of the screen, which, when full, make enemies drop one orb each time they take a hit; naturally there will be a a lot of orbs lying around soon enough, if you keep up the assault. The effect is shattered, however, the very next time you yourself are hit, discouraging simple button mashing.

Finally, you have an assortment of secondary consumable items used to varying effects. Throwing daggers are quick and represent a fast way to do ranged damage. Faeries will distract enemies. Holy Water functions like a grenade, and is especially devastating against vampires and undead. The magic crystal, when broken apart, summons a powerful demon to do major damage to anyone in the vicinity.

Gabriel’s weapon of choice is the Combat Cross, a unique, holy weapon granted to him for his excellent combat performance within the Brotherhood to which he belongs. The Combat Cross is, in it’s basic form, literally a large holy cross (actually kind of like a sword hilt without a blade). However, the tip secretes a long chain which Gabriel can use to..wait for it..whip enemies with. Aha! A whip! Of course.

Enemies come in a quite a variety, and Gabriel often has a unique way of dealing with each and every one of them, regardless of their size, ferocity or stature. The majority of the opponents you’ll encounter offer themselves up for a more brutal finisher after they’ve lost a certain percentage of health. Though our hero will sometimes use his weapon to finish the job (like staking vampires with the sharp tip), I’ve noticed Gabriel has a preference for killing a given creature with its given choice. One boss fight, for example, ends with Gabriel cutting off the arms of his opponent, and then running him through, all with his own blade. What I’m saying here is that the enemies don’t disappoint, and neither do their demises.

Other than combat, you’ll frequently come across platforming and puzzle sections. The platforming is competent, and certainly enjoyable, as it gives you a chance to really take in the gorgeous graphics and environments. At times it’s fairly reminiscent of Uncharted (and, to a lesser extent, Assassin’s Creed). Despite all this, however, the platforming sometimes managed to feel like filler to me, especially compared to the more intense moments in the game presented by the combat. I also found that a minor lack of consistency, with you being able to perform certain movements only at certain times in the game. Think Enslaved and you you’ll have the right idea, though it’s not that bad.

I’ve never really been the type of guy who enjoys puzzles, and I must say I understand even less why developers insist on putting them into action games, of all things. Why, after completing an epic boss battle, would I want to settle down for a brain teaser? The answer is I don’t want to do such a thing. …That said, the puzzles in Lords of Shadow are actually fairly amusing and clever most of the time, even if they are a little to plentiful for my tastes. Fortunately, all of the puzzles are seemingly optional, as you can opt to have the answer revealed to you, at the cost of the reward (which is usually a mild helping of XP).

Lords of Shadow is a surprisingly lengthy adventure. The game is about 11 chapters long, with each chapter spanning as many as nine levels (though more commonly they range from 3-6 levels). And yet, despite this, variety is truly the name of the game here. As you progress, you’ll collect all sorts of upgrades and items (such as the aforementioned Light and Shadow magic abilities, and various upgrades to the Combat Cross), in addition to a hoard of XP from defeated enemies. You can use the XP to buy new combos and also extra artwork. The game throws new experiences at you every chance it gets, to the point that you’ll eventually stop being surprised and just be looking for what new and interesting thing you’ll get to do next. The beginning of the game turns into an epic chase through the woods on a unicorn, fending off invading Wargs. After that, you go on to fight enemies some 50x your size, tame various creatures into mounts, and even engage in a fun variation of chess. All across what seems like a dozen different locales, including an enchanted forest, an abandoned city, Frankenstein’s lab, and the insides of a music box. This is one game that doesn’t try to stick to a single formula.

What finally compelled me to really want to try the full game out after playing the demo wasn’t really the gameplay, however. It was the presentation; the production values. This just reeked of a game that had a lot of time and resources flowing into it. Right off the bat, you see the book format of the pause screen and main menu, complete with narrated chapter prologues and cool little animated sketches exemplifying the various combos you could buy for use ingame (like those flip book sketches that used to be all the rage). You see the village, in the middle of a rain storm, terrorized by a giant Warg. You see a stranger, Gabriel, approaching, drenched in the rain. It’s just all so immersive. But a package like that isn’t complete without a well-composed soundtrack, and Oscar Araujo delivers, with a set of sweeping orchestral scores that give depth to nearly every moment in the game.

I don’t know how it compares to previous games in the series, but to honest, I no longer care. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a quality title that invites you to follow Gabriel on one of the greatest journeys of the year. My only qualms with it are the questionable ending, and the way you are forced to pass many items by, even if they are in plain sight, simply because you don’t yet have the equipment necessary to obtain them. Fortunately, going back through earlier levels isn’t entirely without merit, as each level offers a “trial”, or optional objective you can try for. Overall, however, there’s a lot to like about Lords of Shadow. 9.0/10

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