The other day Frank Lantz from the NYU game center was complaining about the Witcher 2, saying “The 1st hour of Witcher 2 - cut scenes, set pieces, quick time events, and a bit of perfunctory gameplay. Might as well have played LA:Noire. Triple A is becoming a genre unto itself. One I don't have much taste for.” By his description, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow fits perfectly within that same genre.
Lords of Shadow isn’t really a Castlevania game. Or, to use a genre descriptor: Lords of Shadow is NOT a metroidvania game. Instead, it’s a “re-imagining,” using the Castlevania license to provide pretext for fighting vampires and werewolves with a whip.
I don’t like it for the same reasons Frank Lantz didn’t like the first hour of the Witcher. Style in LoS is clearly more important than substance. I spent the first couple hours of the game trying to find the “primary game loop,” which felt like looking for a single brick in a bucket full of LEGOs. Of course, the best way to find out what that is in any game is to think about what you spend the most time doing.
Combat in LoS plays like it does in God of War: swing chains at monsters that come in different shapes and sizes. You can and have to dodge, deflect, and grab enemies, which prevents you from button-mashing your way through the game. Also as in God of War, you get four magic attacks, each one loosely based on abilities in previous Castlevania games (holy water grenade and throwing daggers among them).
A light/dark magic system adds to the complexity in combat. Switching to light magic is the primary way to regain health in the game, as every hit landed on an enemy adds to your HP. Dark magic gives you more powerful attacks and combos. Of course, magic isn’t free, and the primary way to get more is to land varied attacks on an enemy without getting hit, which fills up a magic meter on the bottom of the screen.
The combat system is genius. The designers of the game obviously wanted the player to use all of their abilities, and the magic system encourages players to do just that. If you don’t use different attacks and combos, the magic meter won’t fill up, and if the magic meter doesn’t fill up, you can’t switch to light magic, which means that you can’t gain more health while in combat. You need to think creatively, or else you will lose. When you get it though, it looks and feels pretty cool.
In fact, the entire game looks amazing. I’m not really the kind of person who gushes over graphics, but I think it would be unfair if I didn’t mention it at all. Lords of Shadow is a beautiful game, from the huge-scale environments to the fantasy monsters clearly inspired style-wise by Pan’s Labyrinth or something similar (Pan himself is an important character in the game, and he even looks like he does in the movie). MercurySteam clearly pulled all stops to make this game look beautiful.
Unfortunately, in video games today high production value often means cinema-worship. Enter the cutscene, the quicktime event, massive quantities of exposition, extreme linearity, and Patrick Stewart. While most Castlevania games since Symphony of the Night have focused on Metroid-style exploration and backtracking, (“metroidvania”), Lords of Shadow asks you politely to keep your hands in the vehicle at all times. It feels as though there’s this big beautiful world they spent a lot of time creating, and all you get to do is take the guided tour. Game developers, I don’t want to be a tourist in your world, I want to LIVE in it. The game is two discs long. Ten hours in, I can hardly believe that it’s two discs of gameplay.
It’s not all bad. There are little touches that make the world seem that much more alive. At one point you meet an imp (the game oddly calls it a chupacabra) that takes all your equipment away and makes you play hide-and-seek to get it back. The tone in this section of gameplay is a welcome respite from the holy crusade that is your primary quest. Small encounters like these do wonders for building the game’s mythos.
In the end, my adoration for the combat was not strong enough to fight my distaste for the game’s cinematic trappings. The “exploration” sections of the game were frustratingly linear, and the glowing objects that denoted “secrets” only added to that frustration. Challenge in these sections consisted mostly of figuring out what you’re able to jump to next, which when not highlighted can be a pain in the ass to find. So that’s a lose-lose. The Shadow-of-the-Collosus-Style bosses were impressive, but Shadow of the Collosus simply did it better, and without quicktime events.