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Konami and MercurySteam's Hideo Kojima-infused reboot of the Castlevania series gets the hands on treatment...
Remember that mystical mask that appeared on Konami and Kojima Productions' E3 2009 teaser site? The one that subsequently led to the announcement of two Metal Gear Solid games and, more importantly for this preview, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow? Well, as we sat down for an extensive hands on session with CLOS at Konami's UK offices, the importance of this mask to the game's story was immediately apparent. Not only was it a looming symbol at the centre of the title screen, but it also cropped up as a recurring theme throughout the four-odd hours of gaming that we were able to fit in during the session.
It was a rare treat then, to get a good look at this much of the game over a month before release. Playing through from the very start, the sheer size of CLOS was clear. Given that we knew little more about the mystery surrounding the mask after four hours (not to mention the many vacant chapter slots on the select screen that remained), we'd suggest that Konami's ambitious game length claims may at least be roughly accurate. Promises of a day's-worth of gaming in the main campaign, stretched out through two discs on the Xbox 360 version, are a sumptuous proposition in terms of content alone. The real question, as always, is whether these 24 hours will be engaging throughout or merely drag on to the point of being wearisome.
That certainly wasn't a problem during our hands on though. On first sights, CLOS might appear to the cynical eye as a God of War clone for all its mythological themes, combat mixed between melee and ranged attacks with a chained weapon of sorts, and the occasional puzzle section to break up the action. That is a little unfair though. In actuality, Castlevania has more in common with THQ's Darksiders, which was released at the start of this year and described as 'God of War-meets-Zelda' by some commentators, mainly for gameplay that tipped its hat to exploration as much as it did combat. And it's this type of exploration that also permeates through Castlevania's gameplay and environments.
Granted, the experience is technically a linear one, but it's a linearity that's been realised through stunningly imagined worlds and a labyrinthine style to the levels. Perhaps it's this that provided a continuous sense of being lost in these fantastical environments during our playtest, not in the frustrating sense that we didn't know where to go next, but in the more immersive sense of being consumed by an epic quest. How well developer MercurySteam manages to keep up this illusion as players plough deeper into the game will ultimately determine its lasting appeal, particularly as the button-pressing gameplay style of CLOS is admittedly a touch well-trodden by many previous titles within the modern hack 'n slash action/adventure genre. With the exception of a rather novel take on timed QTEs, Lords of Shadow's combat does seem to be a fairly basic amalgamation of the sort of thing you might find in more blatant God of War clones like Dante's Inferno.
That said though, we did manage to reach a temporary impasse against one of Lords of Shadow's Colossi that felt slightly different for the genre. It's not that Shadow of the Colossus-style monsters haven't been tried in these types of games before, just that we've rarely come across one that felt quite so much like battling one of Team Ico's behemoths. Besting the beast did present shades of the platform gaming style pioneered by Shadow of the Colossus, while hitting each specific weak point to move onto the next platform section was possibly the most familiar touch. While we only had time to battle through one of these Colossi during our hands on, screens that we've received from Konami do suggest that there are more to come as the game progresses. If this is the case, then it would certainly be a welcome way to punctuate CLOS' mix of more conventional combat and bosses, character upgrading, exploration, and puzzles.
It's after defeating this titan that Gabriel Belmont, the game's protagonist (voiced by Robert Carlyle), comes across a fellow 'Brotherhood of Light' knight called Zobek (voiced by Patrick Stewart, who also voices the story's narrator during load sections). These knights are responsible for protecting the world from evil supernatural creatures and it appears Gabriel's wife was killed by one of them, leaving her soul trapped in limbo. Her ghostly image appears to Gabriel throughout many of the early cut-scenes as he struggles to save her seemingly damned soul. It's at this point that Zobek tells Gabriel that to save her soul they must journey on to bring their damned land back into balance. This includes travelling first to the Land of Lycans (separately), then onto the Territory of Vampires (where they will meet up and fight together), and finally the Land of Necromancers. So, there you have it: werewolves, vampires, and the undead... sounds tasty.
MercurySteam appears to be constructing a solid hack 'n slash experience seasoned well with a hearty dose of exploration to boot. While Hideo Kojima's influence on the game as an advisor isn't necessarily as evident as many gamers might hope (Lords of Shadow's direction, in particular, lacks Kojima's trademark touches), this is still a standout title in its own right and we're eager to get our hands on the full product when it lands in October.