Without a doubt, Castlevania is one of the most venerable franchises in gaming, but like so many others, it never really made the transition over from 2D to 3D with much dignity. Everyone always felt it could be done, and MercurySteam agreed, which is why they started working on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow with some assistance from the legendary Hideo Kojima. The result? Arguably the best 3D Castlevania, and something for them to firmly build on.
The story centers around a warrior named Gabriel Belmont, who despite having the same surname as all the other Belmonts from Castlevania, isn't related. That's because Lords of Shadow is seen as a reboot of the franchise, it's not part of the original series' canon.
Earth is in a dire state and is under siege by the powers of the Lords of Shadow. Fearing the worst, the Brotherhood of Light, send Gabriel to try and resolve the situation - they feel that he is the best fit as his wife was killed at the hands of the Lords of Shadow. He also meets another acolyte called Zobek along the way who serves as the game's narrator.
In all honesty, the story felt very flimsy for quite a lot of the game. Zobek does a narration before each of the game's levels and it's very full of fluff. He'll talk about how Gabriel is really struggling with everything, yet there's been nothing in-game to really suggest this. For example, he shows remorse for killing something and in Zobek's next narration he's talking about how Gabriel is showing no remorse. It feels as though the story is trying to be forced upon the player, but with very little to back it up. If Gabriel had have acted differently in-game, or there had have been more reaction in-game to what was going on, it would have probably been much more convincing.
Having said that, while the story does feel light throughout most of the game, the ending makes up for it all - it's detailed, lengthy and somehow makes up for all the deficiencies that came before.
The gameplay in Lords of Shadow is fairly standard, although it didn't need to be this way. Gabriel can do standard straight attacks with his crucifix and he can do more area of effect focused moves, which do next to nothing. It's possible to unlock new combo attacks which involve button combos, or holding down buttons to achieve maximum effect, but due to the nature of the game, performing these often isn't possible. It's like the game fights against itself. It gives players awesome moves to try out, but none of them are really practical against anything over than the weakest enemies.
The same also applies to the game's other combat mechanics. It's possible to dodge, block and counter. However, most of the time players will find it's easiest to dodge, even though the other two are more beneficial. That's because a lot of enemies have unblockable attacks, some of which come in quite quickly. The timing required to counter means it's something you have to prepare for, so if you prepare to counter and they do an unblockable, you take considerable damage. It's not difficult against the earlier enemies as their patterns are easy to get down, but towards the end of the game, it's easier to just dodge, get in a few strikes and repeat. There literally isn't much more time for anything else.
One element that does add to the combat though, is the magic. It's something that is very applicable in almost ever sense. Gabriel has access to both Light magic and Shadow magic. If he attacks with Light magic, successful hits will restore his health; if he attacks with Shadow magic, he will do considerably more damage. They're toggle effects though and later on, players are charged with using the correct magic against the opposite source - it's good fun. It also adds an element of strategy to the combat as you have to manage resources. On top of this, Gabriel learns various moves to supplement these powers, but again, performing them in combat often isn't feasible - they look great though and are more often than not involved in puzzle solving.
The combat is only one aspect of Castlevania, the others are platforming and puzzle solving. And as much fun as the combat often is, the platforming and puzzle elements fall a bit short. Maybe it's partially because players get their hands held too much these days, but some of the puzzles can be a bit frustrating purely because they aren't explained. There are quite a few examples where players are expected to perform actions to solve puzzles, but they've never once been told prior to that moment that the actions could even be performed.
Other times, they need to interact with something that isn't that obvious, which can be because the slightly glimmering object blends in with the background scenery too well. The puzzles themselves aren't that bad, they can just get a bit tedious and instead of promoting a sense of satisfaction for completing them, they promote a sense of relief.
The platforming elements are again a mixed bag. They're severely hindered by the fixed camera, which, as expected, comes with the age old problems of what happens to the controls when the camera shifts. It's something that older gamers will be used to, but newer ones may not be so tolerant. Especially when they're running up to perform a jump, only for the camera to change so they end up flying in the wrong direction.
The elements that unlock throughout the game are fun to play around with, and the platforming right near the end of the game is rather fun - aside from the camera of course. However, there are some other points where the design is a bit baffling. For example, when using Gabriel's crucifix as a grappling hook. If the player goes too low Gabriel will just fall and die, instead of stopping. There are also some conflicting controls with regards to climbing. Sometimes, for example, pressing down makes Gabriel climb down, others you need to press down and jump. But there's no real explanation for either variant, so Gabriel will sometimes just fall off when there's nothing below him.
Presentation is one element where there are no complaints. The game probably isn't the best looking game out there, but it's way up there with the best. The locales and the lighting are perfect. Special mention should also be given to the sound team. Oscar Araujo has done a fantastic job with the game's orchestral score - making it not too powerful, but not too underwhelming. It's noticeable when it needs to be and the main motif is very present even if players aren't aware of it. The sound effects are also sublime throughout the game - nothing feels ripped from elsewhere or unnatural. It means that the overall effect is one that's completely immersive and just running around aimlessly is, in its own way, exhilarating.
The game also has some impressive voice talent, with Robert Carlyle being joined by Natascha McElhone and Patrick Stewart, who plays Zobek. In-game, these voices work extremely well.
The game is pretty lengthy; it has twelve chapters and they take around an hour each to complete. However, it's only when completing the game that the real fun starts. On the World Map, each level is assigned a percentage score of completion and it's possible to get 110 percent on each level. Percentage can be gained for completing on different difficulties, finding hidden items and completing special objectives which are only available second time around. It's going to keep players busy for a while, that's for sure. There are also some more fun elements present, such as Gabriel's ability to wear Snake's Solid Eye - amongst some other Metal Gear references. One for the fanboys, that's for sure.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a game that's frustrating to play, not because it's bad, but because it has a ridiculous amount of potential and this potential was only delivered in fits and starts. The puzzle and platforming elements could do with a lot of refining and the combat seems to sometimes hinder itself. However, Lords of Shadow is a great reboot and offers a fantastic platform to move forward to the next game.