Konami’s vampire hunting franchise is as restless as a blood-thirsty vampire. It just keeps bouncing back for more. This new installment is in 3D, which ought to set an alarm bell ringing. Earlier attempts at this transition have failed to work well enough to achieve lasting momentum for the series, which has largely survived on a diet of portable adventures based on the template established by Symphony Of The Night more than a decade ago. Lords Of Shadow appears destined to finally mark a turning point on two counts.
First, its gameplay is fast and frenetic, unlike the N64 games, and the sense of repetitiveness of the PS2 installments has been dispatched like a rotting zombie. In relation to the overall series, the gameplay is closest to the two SNES games and Rondo Of Blood on the PC Engine. At heart, it’s an action adventure with a great storyline bolted on to give purpose to the slashing, swinging and leaping between platforms.
RPG elements have been reduced to simple acquisition of experience points to spend on new moves. Or, you can spend them on solving puzzle elements if you can’t get your head around them and just want to bash more demon spawn with your metal chain.
Second, the game is a totally fresh start, sweeping aside the series’ established canon in favour of a total reboot, though some familiar attributes remain. The lead character carries the Belmont name, wears familiar armour and carried a metal chain à la Super Castlevania IV.
Gabriel’s mission is to resurrect his lost love, Marie, whose life has been snatched away at the hands of a growing evil in Europe. In the first few acts alone, you’ll brawl with werewolves, flee to safety from attacking wargs while riding horseback (albeit on rails), trudge through a swamp and, finally, take on a spectacular boss in a colossal showdown.
The only thing that mars the introduction is the insistence on intermittent pauses to hold your hand as the gameplay is explained. As you unlock more complex sequences of moves, Gabriel can deal even greater punishment to the many ghastly beasts that stand in his way, and a little further into the game you can combine it with a limited supply of magic.
Using these moves isn’t just a case of remembering what to press. You must also keep a close eye on enemies’ movement patterns to lash out and roll out of their reach before they can retaliate. That’s one aspect in which the game could be stronger. A basic whip and roll strategy suffices for many enemies, and it’s too reliable against several of the game’s bosses, even when your magic has run out and you’re unable to top up your stamina.
It’s not essential that you master every move, but it helps if you at least power up the basic moves so that they build to harder strikes at the end of a chain, and so you can unleash a few of the most brutal moves in quick succession before rolling out of your opponent’s reach.
The climax of the longer boss fights include some of the most enjoyable Quick Time Event takedowns we’ve encountered. By the time they occur, you’ll need the relief from growing fatigue, but you can’t kick back to feast on the cinematics. Do that and you’ll miss the on-screen prompts to press or tap buttons and deal a deathly blow.
One thing to be thankful for is the abandonment of a massive inventory. Stockpiling potions to revitalise your health in the midst of a boss fight is no longer an easy way out. The heat is on if your energy gets low as the only way to replenish it is to deftly step closer to your enemy and risk taking a killing blow that will send you back to the last automatic save point.
Secondary weapons are in light supply, too, although one of them – dark crystals – delivers a total pasting to most enemies with little intervention on your part. But you can only carry one such crystal, and you have to collect four individual shards to make it. The only way you’ll get through is to really get to grips with smart moves.
For the most part, the game’s level designs are superb. They’re divided into twelve chapters of differing length. Though some chapters are as short as two levels, the quest is still quite long, with many secrets to discover. So much, in fact, that by the time we ploughed through the game on the normal setting, our saved game data didn’t even rank at 50% completion.
Yet you shouldn’t equate that to a short main adventure. We played solidly over a weekend and two evenings to get through it, racking up close to 20 hours of play on the normal setting. There’s a harder setting, too, and another above it that’s locked until later.
For dedicated fans, this game is a delight of unlockable extras: in-game moves, trophies and a collection of beautiful concept art and illustrations. Breathtaking scenery illustrates Gabriel’s journey. Many moments nod towards the visual spectacle of epics such as The Lord Of The Rings, with huge vistas spread out in the background, ruined remnants of ancient civilisations, and plenty of the series’ trademark castles illuminated with creepy lighting. Iconic level themes have been retained, perhaps most notably the Clocktower, a real success of the N64 games, which is better than ever before.
There’s plenty of new stuff here, too. Some of it is understandably familiar and could slip into the realms of the generic, but Castlevania stamps its mark with a wonderful art style, interesting camera angles and fantastically orchestrated music.
The score’s standout moments recall the majesty of Howard Shore’s work on The Lord Of The Rings and John Williams’ eerie compositions for The Empire Strikes Back, which instill tension as Gabriel explores dank caves and the calm quietness of ancient ruins.
On a few occasions, the camera angles are set too far back from where Gabriel can roam, which leaves you with a detached feeling in some instances. At the other extreme, the camera doesn’t always pull back far enough when enemies are attacking from further into the foreground than you can see. But you never feel trapped by these circumstances. If you’re finding yourself penned in, you have the freedom to roll or leap to safety further into the centre of the arena.
Konami has implemented controls so that if the camera angle changes as you’re fleeing from an enemy, you don’t have to stop for a moment – the direction in which you’re pushing sticks for a bit longer so you can run to safety or continue a long dash before leaping over a chasm.
You could point the finger and accuse Castlevania of pinching gameplay ideas from sources such as Uncharted and Prince Of Persia (there’s a lot of climbing and swinging) and the action of God Of War, but these elements were already present in earlier incarnations. It’s as true that Konami has simply not pieced them together so well before.
The reboot is the best thing to happen to Castlevania since Symphony Of The Night. Our few niggling complaints are exactly that, and we hope it can pull off an equally grand story a second time around to keep this version rolling for some time to come. The post credits sequence suggests it already has that well in hand. Castlevania’s future has not looked this bright in years.
Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow is out now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and is available from the Den Of Geek Store.