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MercurySteam's Hideo Kojima-infused epic offers up a veritable smorgasbord of hack 'n slashery...
Now, before we go any further, there are two things you ought to know about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: 1) it's a reboot and plays fast and loose with the Castlevania mythology. Well, actually, that's a bit of an understatement, as pretty much the only similarities to prior CV titles are that the main character is a Belmont, and it's about Vampires and Werewolves/Lycanthropes/whatever we're allowed to call them these days. It's PC gone mad, I tell you. 2) It's very good, despite the fact that it shamelessly pilfers most of its good ideas from other great third-person action/adventure games of recent times. Oh, and it's really long. OK, so three things. And it's got Patrick Stewart in it. There are four things you ought to - I should just get on with it, shouldn't I?
As mentioned, Lords of Shadow falls into the increasingly fashionable category of 'reboot' and tells the story of a new Belmont, Gabriel, and his quest to defeat the titular Lords of Shadow, whose minions are overrunning the 11th century Earth causing all manner of evil mischief. Still reeling from the recent death of his missus, Marie, Gabriel is tasked by the elders of the Brotherhood of the Light to stop moping around and sort it all out, like some kind of Medieval Jack Bauer. Luckily, he has some help at hand in the form of the mythical Pan and his Brotherhood erm... brother, Zobek played by Patrick Stewart. And you'll be glad to know that, while Robert Carlyle arguably phones in his performance as Gabriel, Stewart - ever the pro - hams it up big time as Zobek who also serves as the game's narrator.
It seems the three Lords of Shadow (Vampire, Werewolf and Necromancer) were formed as the elders of the Brotherhood of Light ascended to the heavens, leaving only the dark side of their souls behind and, according to Zobek, a prophecy tells of a warrior who will take back the lords' power and unite the heavens. Yes, there's a prophecy. There's always a prophecy. Lazy narrative devices aside, the story is handled pretty well with a few twists (one pretty bad, another pretty good) and some interesting characters. While you're unlikely to feel much sympathy for Belmont, despite the fact he's hoping to resurrect his dead wife when all the fighting's done, you will find yourself eager to see where the plot takes you next. Or rather, you'll be interested to see which boss you get to take on next.
See, the boss battle is undoubtedly the game's centrepiece and MercuryStream has done a bloody good job of making the big encounters feel suitably epic. While the creature design isn't exactly original - you'll find yourself laughing/being a bit snooty at the rather blatant nods to Shadow of the Colossus and God of War III, for instance - the battles themselves all play out differently, requiring a combination of skill and brainpower to advance. It's intelligent game design and there are a number of occasions when you thank the developer for throwing in another dimension to the boss showdown, just when you think it's over. Mostly, though, the success of the boss battles is testament to the beautifully balanced combat mechanic at the heart of the game.
Again, there are obvious elements of God of War in the game's combat - from the unlocking of combos via XP points to the relics you collect, which then open up a new array of attacks and abilities - but the developer has included so many dimensions to the hack and slash formula that you are forced to think strategically to avoid getting completely reamed by the combination of foes the game throws at you. Alongside the wide variety of combos on offer, there is a counter mechanic at work as well as a cleverly-implemented focus system which both reward skill and timing. If you continually land blows against your enemies without being hit, you'll fill up the focus meter to the point where enemies will release magic orbs for you to collect during the skirmishes. These orbs can then be channelled into dark or light magic - using light magic refills your life meter with every successful strike against an enemy, while shadow magic increases the power of your blows. The result is that you'll need to balance these magical abilities, using them wisely at the right time. It also allows you to formulate different attack strategies, giving a distinctly customisable feel to the game's combat. Amid all the button bashing, MercuryStream also throws in some quicktime events, which not only add some welcome gore to proceedings, but also allow the developer to show off the sexy cinematics. These QTEs, and most of the game's cutscenes, demonstrate just how pretty the visuals are, as do Lords of Shadow's platforming sections.
Much like Uncharted - ooh, look another great game reference - the fighting in Castlevania is interspersed with a fair bit of climbing and swinging, using Gabriel's Cross/Chain tool, which is basically a grappling hook. In these sections, you'll be treated to a sweeping cinematic of the area to be traversed and, in some of the more spectacular locales in the middle section of the game (think snowy mountain fortress and sunny, green outdoor settings), it's hard not to coo over the visuals on offer. Unfortunately, these parts of the game don't play out as well as the combat thanks to an awkward game-controlled camera which can make judging your jumps difficult and, conversely, the feeling that the game is doing just a little too much for you. Important ledges and grappling hook hot spots glow annoyingly and you find yourself just going through the motions in order to get to the next combat section. Sure, it looks staggeringly pretty at times, but the platforming doesn't offer much in the way of fun. Puzzles are used with similar effect and, although you are given the option to skip them (sacrificing your XP reward), they still feel like an obstacle on your way to the more engaging gameplay sections.
Which brings us to the issue of the game's length, and the possibility of me incurring the wrath of value for money fans the world over. Lords of Shadow is too long. There, I've said it. Now, I know, it's not often we moan about games being too long but, to be honest, it doesn't half go on a bit. Perhaps I've been conditioned by the more recent trend of 10-15 hour single-player games, but by the time I found myself a couple of hours into Lords of Shadow's second disc, tackling puzzle after puzzle and the occasional ill-advised fetch quest, it all started to feel a little tedious and that the game was being deliberately elongated to keep me away from the all important combat, boss battles and story revelations. This is a title which genuinely could benefit from being a little - look, just a little - shorter. After all, there is sufficient replay value to keep gamers busy; the completists will have much to sink their teeth into with multiple magic gems, scrolls and alternate routes included in each stage and, let's face it, Castlevania fans like a wee bit of exploring don't they?
But, it's a minor criticism of a very accomplished action-adventure title and MercuryStream and Kojima Productions will likely win over many gamers with Lords of Shadow. Sure, the purists will moan that it's not really a Castlevania game and some will be horrified by the way the game lifts from other titles - there were a couple of moments when I shouted "you can't do that... it's just cheating" - but it's all made up for by gameplay that offers wonderfully-balanced, intelligent third-person combat and some of the best boss battles around.