'Castlevania: Lords of Shadow'

Mention the name "Castlevania," and many memories start to stir: Dracula's monolithic castle looming above its explorers, a labyrinthine interior fitted with secret passageways and deadly traps, the crack of the Belmonts' whip. Since the stellar "Symphony of the Night," the "Castlevania" series has consistently produced top quality games time and time again, and has become almost synonymous with action-exploration 2-D gaming.

Where the series had often failed, however, were its ill fated forays into the third dimension. "Lords of Shadow," the latest installation to the "Castlevania" franchise, finally conquers 3-D gaming while adding a double espresso shot of action to a series that had been suffering from stagnation.

After the brutal murder of his wife, Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, is charged with the task of uniting the powers of the Brotherhood founders in order to bring humanity salvation. To do this, Gabriel needs to track down and defeat the Lords of Shadow, who are scattered in treacherous, remote corners of the land. Using his combat cross, a whiplike cross with a retractable chain, Gabriel will have to fight his way through hordes of hellspawn, navigate narrow passageways and negotiate mountains paths.

From the moment you boot up the disc, you will notice that "Lords of Shadow" is simply a beauty to behold. Developers MercurySteam and Kojima Productions have created a visual tour de force that is not limited by the "Castlevania" series' penchant for dark, gloomy castles. Aside from the expertly crafted castles (this is a CASTLEvania, after all) Gabriel's world features lush jungles, murky bogs, icy lakes and so much more. "LoS" packs a stunning amount of levels (two discs long on 360), and with each having its own unique layout and assets, the amount of visual work put into the game is nothing less than staggering.

It wasn't long into the game that I came to the realization that "Lords of Shadow" did not merely want to modernize its gameplay -- it wanted to become just like the popular action titles of today. Everywhere you look in "Lords of Shadow," you see something that feels straight up ripped off from another game: the combat cross, and combat in general are straight out of "God of War," and you could say the same of the climbing and grappling, which feel like a dumbed down "Prince of Persia." One could make the argument that those mechanics naturally lend themselves to action platforming and are not indicative of plagiarism, but when Gabriel encountered a Titan and had to climb up its body, destroying magical runes along the way while holding on for dear life ("Shadow of the Colossus"), my eyes began to roll.

This isn't a "Castlevania," I kept telling myself. It appeared as though Konami had sold out its beloved franchise by copying every single successful game mechanic of the last three years, right down to a kitschy story about a guy with a dead wife having to kill gods. There wasn't even a castle until halfway through the game, for crying out loud.

While my hatred for all things "Lords of Shadow" burned strong initially, as I progressed through the game, a transformation took place. The combat system, which felt like a bland hack and slash adventure littered with boss fights utilizing overly predictable attack patterns began to open up. Gabriel can purchase new abilities and skills as the game progresses, allowing the player to fight on his own terms: bloodthirsty players could gift Gabriel new attack combos and heavier hits, while the defensive minded player could concentrate on counter moves (which activate after well timed blocks).

These additions turned combat from a chore into a treat. While every encounter could be handled with the same attack over and over again, utilizing wide range of skills allow the player to take out enemies faster. Equally important are Gabriel's secondary weapons (knife, holy water, fairies, and dark crystals) which can damage enemies, distract them, or even take out an entire room in one blow.

Combat isn't perfect, however. "LoS's" fixed camera angle is not always conducive to fighting, especially when you are located in an area where the camera continually cuts back and forth. Even when the camera allows you to perfectly see Gabriel, the player will often be hit by off screen enemies, leading to some annoying deaths when fighting enemies with high damage attacks. Oh, and one more thing: Can we abolish quick-time button events at the end of boss fights? A number of time consuming fights in "LoS" are capped with timed button presses that, when failed, either kill Gabriel instantly, or knock him all the way down the Titan's body. Seriously, that's got to stop.

While navigating "LoS's" linear levels doesn't require much skill or precision, the climbing segments serve their purpose as a way to break up the action while simultaneously showing off how absolutely gorgeous "LoS" is. Spicing up the platforming is Gabriel's ability to wrangle up a number of hellish creatures to jump great distances, scale walls and more. Nothing says I'm a badass quite like strangling a giant spider until it shoots out a bridge of web for you. Additionally, "Lords of Shadow's" puzzles (ranging from painfully easy to head-scratchingly difficult), often made me forget that I was constantly moving in a straight line.

Once I had finally gotten in the swing of things, even "Lord of Shadow's" story began to pick up. While the latest "Castlevania" tale is rife with cliches right down to the final boss having a looooong evil monologue, the story is interesting and filled with just enough twists to keep a player engaged. Doubly important is the fact that the game doesn't revolve around just the vampires. While it felt like a sin at first, I've got to admit it was a pleasure to explore such locales as the crumbling ruins of the Lycan city, a sleepy wood and the land of the dead. By reducing the vampires to a minor role, LoS brings to its audience a much more fleshed out view of the "Castlevania" universe, which was much appreciated.

Again, what "Lords of Shadow" pulls off is neither new nor ground breaking, and a similar experience can be had in many other games. However, once I was able to look past the things that "Lords of Shadow" wasn't doing, I was finally able to appreciate what it does bring to the table: solid combat, excellent platforming, and a decent story.

So, while I believe that "Castlevania" die-hards will be turned off by the series' new direction, "Lords of Shadow" is definitely worth a try, and for any fans of action gaming, this game is a sure winner.

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The Saboteur

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Video Games: 'Castlevania: Lords of Shadow'

Article: Copyright © Tribune Media Services