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Castlevania is one of the most recognizable franchises in video games. Since the days of the NES it’s had a strong following of fans who appreciated it for its difficulty, its gothic horror atmosphere, and its connection to the classic horror icons like Dracula. Yet, of all the iterations of the series, there was never a 3-dimensional Castlevania game that really shined as a positive entry in the series. The game’s success has remained tied to two dimensions and the recent Castlevania: Lords of Shadow hopes to change that. But does it have enough polish to wipe the tarnished reputation of a 3-D Castlevania under the rug? Or is just a flop like all the others?

Presentation

Starting on the high note, the presentation is definitely where the game is the best. Yes, it’s going to be one of those reviews, because the average gamer knows that if presentation—the most trivial aspect to criticize—is the best the game has to offer in comparison to story and gameplay, then satisfaction is not guaranteed. But the faults in the other sections are to be discussed later.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is one of the best looking games out there right now. In some ways the game looks better than graphic juggernauts like God of War III. The textures on the environments and the enemies, as well as some of the subtle facial expressions really showcase the engine the game is running on. Clothing floats and drifts in the wind and foliage sways back and forth in a convincing, natural fashion.

The attention to detail is impressive with the various items on the main character, Gabriel, changing as he gets more and more power-ups throughout the game. His armory appears on his person in cut-scenes even after returning to earlier levels. Sometimes his equipment will get damaged or break during events in the story as well. Those will then show up broken in the other levels, even in ones already finished, just like the other equipment. It’s a small touch that is much appreciated.

A testament to its style,Castlevania tries to keep that gothic style and atmosphere without sacrificing color. For all those complainers out there who were upset that browns and grays were all that were in video games thanks to the bleak worlds of Fallout or Grand Theft Auto for instance, here is a game that has the dark story and horror-driven atmosphere that is bright and colorful. Even the dark interiors have great shadow and lighting effects that bring out the colors from the dark corners of the room. In other words: it’s a visually impressive game.

The sound is nothing to scoff at either. Sound is superb with terrific voice acting and a powerful soundtrack. The orchestral tunes from Oscar Araujo carry so much emotion and power in every track that it’s hard not to marvel at how this game looks and sounds. Moments in the game would not be nearly as satisfactory as they were without the music to back it up. Each song can go from the epic tension of a life or death situation for the main character to some melancholy slowdown where you can really feel the sadness hidden behind the intensity of the moment, if that makes any sense.

When the music isn’t blasting out the stereo system, the voice actors do their best to tell the story. For the most part, the characters are convincing and the actors do their part well. It’s just too bad they weren’t given better material read. A great deal of what is written for the actors ends up becoming redundant, unnecessary, or just disappointing in certain cases. Patrick Stewart does his typical Shakespearian sound while he narrates the story of Gabriel. But it doesn’t take long before what is being said feels unnecessary because of how it feels like he’s said it all before. It’s just a good thing he does such a good job reading that there wasn’t any desperation in skipping his narration.

Robert Carlyle, the voice of Batman from the old cartoon series is takes up the role of Gabriel, the main character. If there are any similarities between the voices of the two characters, they’re unnoticeable. Carlyle does a great job of delivering his lines with a small Transylvanian-type accent and the voice is relatively soothing to the ear. Once again, it would have been nice if he had better material to deliver though, as Gabriel doesn’t say much throughout the game. What he does say is that of the typical main character who doesn’t know what’s going on. So a lot of questions, “You Lie!”s and “It can’t be!”s. Despite his wife being the reason for his quest, not much is really discussed by Gabriel about her. So despite the talent of the voice actor, not much information about the hero and his beloved is disclosed making him a superficial character that is, at least, rendered well.

Gameplay

So moving towards the downside of the game, in a nutshell, the gameplay is hit or miss. Unfortunately it tends to miss more than hits and makes the experience more frustrating than it ever needs to be. That isn’t to say that Castlevania doesn’t have a history of controls without frustration. The first games on the NES were not without their flaws in control and the experience could be extremely frustrating at times, but not without sacrificing playability.

In this particular instance there were a couple options when it came to the gameplay. Play it on normal and become bored by the fighting being too easy and frustrated by the platforming, or play it on hard and get an irritating challenge out of the fighting while being frustrated by the platforming. The obvious choice was to play it on hard in an attempt to get back the challenge of the older titles in the franchise and at least keep it interesting.

Perhaps a mistake in some respects as death was constant and swift. However, it did help in noticing the various strengths and weaknesses to the combat. It forced the utilization of all the different moves Gabriel had at his disposal to avoid death and the constant frustration of restarting. Moves that didn’t seem overly impressive or interesting at their outset suddenly became extremely useful in facing stronger enemies toward the end.

For example: there is a move Gabriel gains where the player may leap directly over his opponent and follow up with some attacks before the enemy turned around. This wasn’t useful at first as most enemies were fast enough to turn around quickly and prove the whole venture pointless, while the big and slow ones were often too big for Gabriel to safely leap over. But there were the select few creatures at the end where this skill was extremely valuable in accomplishing the job. It’s a nice touch for a game when the move list becomes a valuable tool rather than a gimmick.

All too often in action games, skills go forgotten or unused because they serve little purpose. Even God of War suffers this fate with weapons that aren’t useful enough to serve any role other than some crappy alternative to the already effective chains. Gabriel’s main weapon is never replaced; it gets improvements that serve more for puzzle solving than anything else. His side weapons and moves for his main weapon are what change. For the most part, there is a fine balance of power spread throughout the game to make it feel like everything fits. Daggers are useful against werewolves, while fairies to so many other creatures serve as potent distractions. Holy water might as well be a hand grenade (reference intended) and the purple crystal is the “clear the room bacon saver.” With this and a plethora of moves that all serve their own roles in both effectiveness and style, Gabriel seems like he has the right amount of stuff to make it through the journey without overpowering the competition.

It’s too bad the simplest move of all is what the system relied on most for players to survive. Counter blocking was often made useless by faulty programming that brought about cheap deaths and frustrating restarts. Gabriel’s hitbox was constantly fluctuating, which is what made the combat so frustrating at times. It was a good thing that he could heal as he fought because one swipe from a lycan was enough to take down half his health on tougher difficulties. Sadly, the swipe didn’t have to be complete in order for damage to be taken either.

In a game where so much of the combat and its rewards rely on the counter attack feature from blocking, it becomes very irritating very quickly when the timing cannot be matched simply because an enemy has killed you before he even swung his arm. The game wants players to time their blocks properly because it leaves the enemy weakened and gives up power-up orbs crucial to staying alive in a fight. But so much of the deflection ability relies on luck that the game forces players to be too defensive to progress if they want to avoid getting hit. Unfortunately each enemy had their own unblockable attack that would tear right through that guard and render that defensive strategy pointless.

It didn’t help either to have a respawn system that was confusing and unforgiving. Should the player die, one of two things would happen: Gabriel would go back to the previous checkpoint of the level with all his amenities and equipment stocked as they were for that point in time, or he would be revived right at the spot with the same amount of equipment and magic as the time of death. Oh and his health would be deducted as well.

For whatever reason, death wasn’t a big enough punishment for failure, so the developers thought that the best method of making the player not want to die is to make it even easier for him/her to do so after dying once. This brought about a vicious cycle of frustration in the frequent deaths before being forced to go back to an earlier checkpoint. It was like having a fake continue that only served to tease and taunt the player. Every time death came, it felt like the game was saying: “Better luck next time, you’ll need even more of it for this next run.” It often became more advantageous to just restart from a checkpoint where Gabriel had more health and equipment than waste time fighting an uphill battle from a more recent “continue” spot.

This was especially the case after a few too many tumbles off misleading cliffs and edges. Despite the game’s brilliant art direction and stunning presentation, the linear path was hardly ever clear. The few times in God of War or Uncharted where it seemed like the character could “make that jump” or “climb that wall” but couldn’t were nothing in comparison to how Lords of Shadow was set up. So many invisible walls and misleading cliffs that looked like another path, only led to death and frustration. This simply made the combat more intolerable when finally reaching the next mob of enemies with all health diminished from annoying deductions.

It is hard to describe on paper, but essentially there are many cliffs or paths that are blocked by nothing but invisible walls. Small sections of gardens that seem completely accessible, but for no reason, cannot be reached. Areas below a platform that seem like a reasonable drop but lead only to death are made even more misleading by identical situations in different levels that allow Gabriel to traverse the terrain. There are serious inconsistencies in the programming that make the platforming the most tedious part of the experience. It really shows how much tightening is involved in good camera direction to prevent misleading paths. Games like Uncharted use good camera control and subtle tricks to help players know where to go; techniques Castlevania could have benefitted greatly from. The use of the camera is an example where fun is sacrificed for the sake of making the game look good. Had the camera been in a different, perhaps less artistic angle, certain paths wouldn’t be so needlessly deadly.

Story

And now for the section that was perhaps the most disappointing, simply because it had the least to offer in the end. Presentation was beyond impression. Gameplay was annoying and mindlessly enraging at times, but not without its rewards. Story meanwhile, is an example of how something could seem so interesting and unique at first, but just fizzles off into obscure and bizarre drama without much rhyme or reason. If you watched the debut trailer for the game, you might see where the high expectations came from.

[embed:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y8F0dQM1DI ]

The story starts off interesting enough. The main character, Gabriel Belmont, is on a journey to find some answers, peace, and a little vengeance for the death of his wife, Marie. Gabriel holds no genetic relation to the Belmont family of the other Castlevania games as he was an orphan left on the doorstep of a holy order of knights and given the name. Basically that means that there isn’t much he has in common with the other games so don’t try and figure the game into the timeline because it’s not all that important. 

Before the journey gets very far, Gabriel finds out that there might be a way for him to resurrect his wife. After a few encounters with some major characters like his fellow knight Zobek and the mysterious Pan, Gabriel finds out that he must find the Lords of Shadow and defeat them to claim the pieces of the mask they hold. Only with the power of the mask will he be able to see his wife again.

Or that’s what Zobek claims. In fact, everything that is disclosed to the player is very vague and without much evidence to support it. The reason for Gabriel’s journey, the possible power of the mask, and origins of the Order of which he follows, are all given in a way that feels like the whole story isn’t being told. This would be an effective method of keeping the story interesting if it wasn’t so prevalent the whole way through. Nobody and nothing seems trustworthy, including the main character. This is only an effective and interesting way to tell the story if there is still some truth to hold everything together.

Without some flat, honest facts to keep the story grounded in whatever reality the developers made, the lies and deceit just float about and make it difficult to become attached to anything that’s happening in the story. You know there’s a twist or two or three coming and it takes away some of the impact when they divulge the information you likely already guessed. All that does is make the experience seem melodramatic, at best.

Despite the effort put into the narration prior to each mission, what is said never really rings through in the game. Gabriel is described as this great man with a dark side. He’s supposedly enraged and vengeful the whole time, to become the Anakin Skywalker of Castlevania. Yet in all the cut-scenes he doesn’t come across as the tidal wave of rage everyone portrays him as. His death blows for the bosses and enemies are certainly stylish and creative enough to compete with Kratos of God of War, but Gabriel comes across as sullen and subdued. He doesn’t have many people to speak with, and when he does it never seems like rage is behind his voice, just sorrow or disbelief.

**Spoilers Ahead. If you wish to experience the story for yourself but still want an opinion on this game, skip ahead to the Conclusion Section for a final verdict**

Speaking of Kratos, the developers took more liberties from God of War than simply the combat. One of the more disappointing features about this game was how the story ended up playing out. It’s unfortunate that expectations were made higher when a certain magazine said that Castlevania had one of the most surprising twists in a video game in a long time. However, of the several “twists” that were at the end, none were surprising or well orchestrated. This was a failure due to poor storytelling and plot manipulation throughout the entirety of the game.

It becomes apparent rather quickly in the story how this game was meant to be different, but fell into the same trappings that many games do when they accidentally become cliché. The game was never meant to be a Castlevania game. In fact, aside from the name Belmont, the weapon that Gabriel uses, and the fact that there are werewolves and vampires in the game, there really is nothing that could tie the games together.

The nice way of putting it is that the developers were trying to break out on their own and make their own version of a Castlevania game. But, if anything, the name feels tacked on for the sake of getting people to say the name again. The connections and similarities the games share are so loosely tied that its easily overshadowed by its own design, it might as well have stayed whatever game it was going to be before they decided to change the name.  But all the surface touches like making the character a Belmont or slapping Hideo Kojima’s symbol on the cover was not going to help this disappointment.

No, this game made the same mistakes as so many others and some new ones for good measure. There were actually quite a few characters that were introduced only to die shortly thereafter. It wasn’t that it was desirable for them to stick around, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to get a different perspective on the world and Gabriel than what was narrated by Patrick Stewart.

The most we get in terms of character building is based on what Patrick Stewart tells us at the beginning of every mission. But by chapter 3 there really is no point to him talking about Gabriel anymore because all he says is relatively the same; paraphrasing it sounds like: “Gabriel feels so guilty… He’s so depressed… He’s so enraged… He has no fear of the coming threat.” Statements like these are in practically every chapter’s opening up to the end.

Any hints as to what will happen next that are disclosed in the opening narrative are extremely obvious whether intended or otherwise. Sometimes it works well in preparing the player with an anxious atmosphere prior to entering a level. For instance, a level that references Frankenstein in its opening narrative leads to speculation of what dangers Gabriel will face in the level. But other details, like having Zobek talk about how he’s been following the whole time, would have better been left as something for the player to interpret.

**ONCE AGAIN SPOILERS**

So yea, Zobek is the Antagonist of the game. *Play dramatic music.* Shocking? No, not at all. He’s the final Lord of Shadow for Gabriel to kill, and he’s orchestrated the whole journey for him to travel, before the game even started by using some magical powers to manipulate Gabriel into killing his own wife. Surprising? Nope. Lo and behold, Gabriel is a good man who was manipulated into doing foul deeds and has thus brought about the rewards of the villain’s “elaborate” plan. Elaborate is a term best used loosely because all that happened was a good man hoping to bring back his dead wife with a magical artifact. What made Zobek single out Gabriel as his pawn? He’s good with the combat cross (whip) and he’s determined.

Keep in mind that all of this, ALL OF IT, is disclosed in the cut-scene prior to the final level. Zobek’s identity, Gabriel’s crimes he was unaware of, the purpose of the journey are all told to Gabriel as though he were James Bond with a laser pointed toward his crotch. Nothing sucks out the energy and anticipation of the story like straight up telling the player everything. Why let him/her find out through investigation or subtle storytelling when it can all be given at one spot in a lengthy monologue. It’s positively infuriating.

It’s also extremely disappointing. The game is at least 12 hours long with some significant time to spend grinding or put into replay value. To have all this brooding and so little given to truly drive the story, why save it all for the end? The writers gave Gabriel a little information along the way with twists like how the Lords of Shadow were born from the dark sides of the saints who founded the Order. They also told him how their deaths would mean the deaths of the ascended saints. Yet players never see the saints nor is there any reason for players to care what happens. Just like the side characters that die too quickly, the villains serve little purpose other than a mild roadblock. They talk and divulge information that players are supposed to believe, but without any proof. And they also serve as a reason to use the ever cliché line: “We aren’t so different, you and I.”

And to say that Gabriel is so dark and hellbent with the rage burning inside him, there is no moment where it seems like that will boil over and take him to the dark side and become the Darth Vader of the game. Instead it’s already happened in the past when he killed his wife, which leaves everything completely anticlimactic and stale. Even the surprise final boss did nothing to spice up the end.

Other Castlevania games had their own surprise boss battles where the main protagonist was defeated only to have the lord of vampires show up and make the entire game seem like child's play. Dracula’s presence in the series cannot be disputed and though his role as surprise final boss was less surprising as time went on, he would have been at least a more appropriate choice than what was given in this game.

In place of Dracula is the mastermind who used everyone for his own whims. Gabriel the pawn to the puppet, Zobek the puppet to the puppet master, and the puppet master was none other than the snake that whispers doubt in the minds of men. Somehow, Lucifer is the ultimate villain of the game. There is NOTHING throughout the entire game to prepare players for the fact that you will be fighting the lord of Hell. His appearance is out of nowhere and he kills Zobek before you even fight him. The final Lord of Shadow whom you’ve been chasing the entire game, whom was the reason for Gabriel’s quest, dies before you get a chance to wail into him.

And Lucifer—or Satan as he likes to be called in this game apparently—doesn’t bring about the end as quickly as one would expect after the lengthy monologue of Zobek. No, with his presence, he brings forth an abundance of biblical vernacular and subject matter that was hardly present throughout most of the game. With the fantasy setting and vague references to God, the impression is just “A Faith” not one that is of the same world the players inhabit. Suddenly He becomes crucial to everything Gabriel is fighting for and even is somewhat involved in Gabriel’s victory. It’s all very jarring and confusing to have a game go from just having hope and faith for something unbelievable to happen, to using the power of God to defeat Satan. Bet you didn’t think a Castlevania game review would end up at this subject matter.

But wait! The game doesn’t even end with the defeat of Satan. Players are treated to a buzzkill ending where Gabriel gets to see his wife one more time (even though she’d been legitimately appearing throughout the game) because he has the mask of shadow. Then she goes away, dead forever. And Gabriel promptly cries before the credits start to role. After the credits are done, a high definition video plays that obviously was influenced by Interview with the Vampire. Guess what? Zobek isn’t dead after all and neither is Gabriel, for that matter. Guess what else? They’re in a contemporary time with cars and skyscrapers. How can Gabriel be alive? Because he’s a vampire now!

The two discuss the return of Satan and his growing army with plans to take over God’s kingdom. His first stop is going to be Earth, naturally, and it’s up to the two “heroes” to stop him, for some reason. Does this make sense to you? If you have played the game or just decided that you wanted to see what happens in this review, do you think this sounds ridiculous? It’s an entirely different game than how it started, so in terms of a twist you don’t see coming there is some truth to it. But that doesn’t make it a good one. It’s simply confusing and pointless.

Conclusion

When looking at making a game the most important part to consider is the gameplay. Without solid, fun gameplay, there is no point to playing a game. Castlevania does this well enough to keep it playable but not engrossing enough to make the experience truly memorable. At the bottom of importance is where presentation belongs. A game could look gorgeous but without good mechanics there is no point; Castlevania has this in spades. Then there is story, a close second to gameplay in terms of importance. Story is what ties everything together and brings motivation to progressing further. A game can be fun, but without a good story, even solid gameplay is not always enough to keep players coming back. Regardless of how silly the story could be—like a portly plumber rescuing a princess of fungus from an oversized fire-breathing turtle—what is the point of going on a long journey if there isn’t some sort of reward at the end?

Castlevania had all the set up for an intriguing storyline and seemed like it had the potential to break away from the typical Castlevania storyline with deep, conflicted, and enthralling characters. And while it succeeds in having very little to do with the familiar Castlevania story, it fails in being anything new, interesting, or coherent for that matter.

In a nutshell, it was a disappointment. It wasn’t a terrible game and, for some, it has the potential to be a lot of fun. But with high expectations and such potential seeming squandered, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow only barely pulls the series out of the 3D it has been stuck in. There is still a desire to dive back in, but not one strong enough to get past the current apprehension.  Hopefully, with the imminent sequel and the DLC, the series can finally be able to stand on its own in the third dimension.

7/10

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