Though seen as iconic in the eyes of a generation, prior to Lords of Shadow, Castlevania was in a partly-retired state. The 1986 sidescrolling classic may be up there in the hall of fame yet, leading into 2010, the series had little to show for itself, continually losing ground to Devil May, God of War, and their ilk.
That’s not to say the franchise had began to stale over the years. Castlevania was no longer a household name but that didn’t stop Konami from experimenting. For a good five year stretch, the franchise found a home on the Nintendo DS, exploring its side-scrolling roots with a new-found RPG twist.
But that’s enough of the history lessons. After sitting on the sidelines Konami wanted back into the big league, snapping up Spanish developer MercurySteam and announcing a full-on Castlevania sequel.
Despite being tagged with all the bells and whistles of a modern-day action game, Lords of Shadow still had a classic feel to it. It may not have been a complete throwback to the series’ side-scrolling glory days yet the pacing, difficulty and level design contrasted what was currently on the market.
Instead of going for the conventional linear affair, MercurySteam opened the game world up a little, introducing alternate paths and a swathe of collectable items. It was also refreshing to see that puzzles were a core part of the experience too, given their backbench status in action games over the years.
Combat, though mostly familiar, also tried to differentiate itself, opting for a more complex system. Aside from regular light and heavy attacks, players were soon introduced to secondary weapons as well as a variety of combos and special powers. When activated, the red power would vastly increase damage output whereas the blue would give attacks a healing property. It was a strange albeit intriguing mechanic with players nominating which power gauge to fill with the neutral orbs dropped from enemies, creating a risk/reward scenario.
Another facet worth mentioning is the production values behind Lords of Shadow. I can’t say I was particularly fond of the story or the characters, myself, though appreciated the top notch voice acting courtesy of Patrick Stewart, Robert Carlyle, and Jason Isaacs. As well as sounding good, Castlevania looked the part too with a surprisingly amount of detail and variety in both settings and the myriad of humans and creatures inhabiting them.
One thing that should be said about Lord of Shadows is that it’s not the most accessible game out there. Now, to those who consider themselves hardcore, this may not be an issue, but for someone who drifts from one game to the other, Castlevania hardly throws you a welcome party every time you return.
The intricate systems and small pool of items alone are enough to test even the more experienced genre stalwart. However, combine that with some of the enemies’ dirty tricks and difficulty spikes and Lords of Shadow can suddenly become a turn off.
Jumping back into the game after a long hiatus, another thing that struck me was the game’s frequent ambiguity, not to mention the sheer size of it. After clearing areas of enemies I often found myself wandering around for a few minutes only to find a hidden ledge or platform that had been under my nose the whole time. Puzzles were just as much of a hassle too. Though some were genuinely fun and intuitive, others felt overwhelming or required too much guesswork.
It’s a solid game and one that has actually aged pretty well yet Lords of Shadow isn’t for everyone. Of course, if you’re a fan of the series or into your traditional action platformers then it will keep you occupied in excess of twelve hours.
Those with less time on their hands, however, may find it a little too deep and maybe even exhausting. Whichever camp you’re in, the original Lords of Shadow is greatly recommended over this year’s flawed sequel.