Like some of the best video games, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow conceives its world around a hero, obfuscating illogical weirdness with empowerment and an old-fashioned sense of adventure. You might fall off a few cliffs or get trampled by a troll every now and then, but there's no doubting your eventual success. During the course of your journey, you'll get all the training, weapons and abilities you need to best the forces of evil. No jump will ever be too far and no enemy will truly be invincible.
That assured evolution has long been at the heart of Castlevania, which has struggled in recent years to update its balance of exploration and combat, instead opting to repeat it ever since 1997's Symphony of the Night. If you wanted that exact formula to return -- in stunning 3D! -- you're going to be disappointed. But if Castlevania is more than an upside-down castle to you, this will feel like an outing more traditional than you expected.
To me, Castlevania is a long, foreboding ascent up the stairs. It's the feeling of being the only good guy in town, and the only one willing to knock on Dracula's door. Given impetus by grief, and direction from an order of warriors, Gabriel Belmont (note: pretend this is being read by Patrick Stewart) finds himself tasked with eliminating the Lords of Shadow, a trio of villains that may unlock the resurrection of his murdered love. As you might expect, this process involves slaying the entire Hammer Horror catalogue.
Whether you're putting an end to lycanthropes, vampires, ghouls or animated suits of armor, Lords of Shadow's combat never fails to excite -- and never feels like filler stuck between sessions of cinematic spectacle. Developer MercurySteam could probably have coasted on light attack / heavy attack all the way to the end, but instead offers an interesting balance of powers and violent flourishes. Gabriel's chain-equipped combat cross can deliver focused attacks or crowd control, and can be augmented with new offensive combinations throughout the game. Accompanying each new combo is a little pencil-sketched animation -- it's a neat embellishment of the menu, and a terrific visual aid in memorizing the combos.
Enabling Light magic will allow each cross strike to replenish some of your health, while Shadow magic increases damage (magic also augments your sub-weapons, with shadow magic turning your silver daggers into explosive ones, for example). You can choose to replenish either your Light or Shadow reserves by absorbing neutral orbs, extracted from defeated monsters or magical fonts placed throughout the levels. If you've taken a lot of damage in a boss fight, you'll obviously want to steal some health back through Light magic -- but what if your magic reserves are depleted? You'll only be able to beat out some orbs by filling up your combat focus meter, and that means concentrating, landing several blows and either evading or blocking all incoming attacks. There goes your button mashing strategy.
The ferociousness of boss fights in Lords of Shadow impressed me consistently, as did the game's handful of BIG-HUGE Titans, which summon Gabriel's climbing skills and inhuman ability to hold on for dear life. These screen-shaking beasts offer a thrilling climbing challenge, even if, as you can imagine, they feel derivative of Shadow of the Colossus. In fact, one such titan was so similar to Colossus #13 that I felt a tad distracted by it.
To me, Castlevania is a long, foreboding ascent up the stairs. It's the feeling of being the only good guy in town, and the only one willing to knock on Dracula's door.
Distraction is one of the complaints I'd level at the game's puzzles, which are almost placed on a pedestal and highlighted by an informative plaque. There are a few clever, well-integrated puzzles in Lords of Shadow -- including a brilliant one that's literally built around a fan-favorite song -- but a few feel too detached from the environment. Having "Puzzle Solved!" exclaimed every time adds an unwelcome layer of separation between the conundrum and Gabriel's world, though at least he never glances back to see the congratulatory note on the screen.
I won't spend too much time castigating a particular, imprecise tile puzzle (WHAT WERE YOU GUYS THINKING), because each challenge has come and gone before you can really get mad at it. The pacing in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is relentless, with new enemies and mechanics flying by so quickly that it almost felt like some neat ideas were going to waste. I thought taming large beasts and gaining access to a few of their abilities would be a big thing. Nope. Oh, how about this chess-like board game in the castle? Yeah, that's just a one-off.
MercurySteam has concocted an incredible variety of levels too, each one a gorgeous encapsulation of the gothic atmosphere you think you remember from Castlevania's NES days. I know that I walked into a cavern, with a spiraling pathway overgrown with vegetation, and I remember running up a stone staircase, dusted in snow drifting in from a broken window. There was a grimy, seemingly infected swamp, a lonely graveyard of giants ... and I think I rappelled down a steep series of frigid cliffs at some point. Where was this stuff? In what order? I just don't know. (That's a lie, I took notes while playing. I'm trying to highlight the absorbing whirlwind of levels here!)
If there's one problem with this approach, it's that the world feels segmented, and the levels occasionally come off as a little abrupt. It's not a bad tradeoff, though, since it enables a return to any previous level to chase down hidden gems and weapon upgrades, some of which remain inaccessible until you've gained certain abilities. Does that sound familiar, Castlevania fans?
The few complaints I've aimed at Castlevania: Lords of Shadow can't withstand its engaging combat and unapologetic march through danger. Being a hero will never lose its charm, even in a linear world that guarantees your victory. I know, I know -- if you're adamant about the previous formula, then maybe you won't believe this is Castlevania. But if you've grown tired of it and hoped to see a beautiful restoration of the timeless quest, you'll probably be on my side when I say: Guys, I can't believe this is Castlevania.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow purchased by the reviewer and played for roughly 16 hours, until completion.