Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to,” so I’ve no doubt he’d be as impressed with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow as I am. Blending elements nicked from a lengthy list of titles with a campaign that’s just as long, visuals that are batting in Uncharted 2’s league and superb voice and audio work, MercurySteam/Konami’s latest action adventure title may just prove to be the sleeper hit of the summer.

Leaving behind any and all relation to the previous games in its franchise, Lords of Shadow follows the journey of Gabriel, a member of the ancient Brotherhood of Light who has fallen into the rather unoriginal dilemma of having his true love murdered and his entire mythical universe overrun with Dark Lords and their nasty minions. Keen on bringing said true love back to life and vanquishing evil in general, Gabriel must plough his way through hordes of werewolves, vampires, goblins and their ilk as he journeys through a ridiculous number of levels, locales and upgrades to save the day.

Combat is built around strong direct attacks and weak area attacks which can be chained and upgraded via an interesting skill tree of moves. As Gabriel progresses he’ll unlock Light Magic which allows for healing during combat and Dark Magic which boosts damage, and these can be combined into numerous combos with different attacks and relics picked along the way.

Most scenarios can be fought through with only a handful of these combos and the genre-staple button-mashing frenzy, but more serious players will find that specific strategies are crucial on the higher difficulties. The enemy AI is more cunning and evasive than the foes found in Lords of Shadow’s cousins God of War, Dante’s Inferno and Darksiders, and players will need to think a bit about how to spend their magic energy and which moves to use and when during more hectic encounters.

Boss encounters are particularly impressive, especially those against the massive Titans (even if they are a little too reminiscent of those in Shadow of the Colossus), and some of the tougher enemies can even be mounted (no, not like that) once they’ve been beaten into submission; it’s pretty cool being able to smash through enemies on a giant warthog, shoot webs from a massive spider or scale walls atop a hulking werewolf-type critter.

There’s also a fair bit of puzzle solving going on, and these sections provide a decent break from the maiming action with a variety of conundrums to keep gamers guessing. Hidden gems to enhance Gabriel’s magic are scattered around every level, and finding these not only amp up abilities but allows players to revisit levels and enter areas previously inaccessible. This provides a massive amount of replay value to Lords of Shadow, and even if you choose not to be obsessive-compulsive and trek back to collect every possible upgrade you can expect to log at least 15 hours of play time before clocking the game. (Those with OCD are looking at around 4 or 5 hours of extra fun, and even more if you’re brave enough for the higher difficulties.)

On the technical side Lords of Shadow is an absolute jaw-dropper: locations range from dark castles to lush jungles, twisty caverns to creepy swamps, and each is so beautifully rendered you’d be forgiven for thinking you were playing an alternate reality of Uncharted 2. The scenery is grand and often epic in proportion, and it’s all made even more awesome by some crisp and detailed textures. Small touches like mist from waterfalls and stray birds and animals also help make for some very rich environments.

Completing the ambience is some fantastic sound design, and you’ll definitely want a decent surround sound setup to appreciate all the work that’s been put into both the sound effects and the musical score. Slightly disappointing though is the voice work; yes, I know it said it was superb earlier on, and it’s not that it’s bad quality by any stretch, but I found both Patrick Stewart (playing the narrator) and Robert Carlyle (playing Gabriel) both very forced and a bit hammy for my taste. It’s also somewhat jarring to hear Stewart’s Yorkshire accent in between Carlyle’s Scottish lilt and various supporting characters’ American twangs, but at least it’s done very professionally.

A couple of frustrations cropped up though which knocked Lords of Shadow down from an otherwise exemplary rating. The fixed camera takes some getting used to as fans of the genre (myself included) are likely to repeatedly flick the right stick around in an attempt to pan the camera, only to find that it remains frustratingly immovable. This is usually not a problem but there were several scenes where I found Gabriel stuck in a corner unable to navigate a way out, or one particular boss battle where I battled to deflect a Titan’s oncoming attacks because I simply couldn’t see them.

Also of minor annoyance are the split paths that some levels can take, and if Gabriel goes too far down one possible route it often becomes impossible to backtrack and explore the other one. Most levels will need to be revisited if you’re after all the upgrades, but I did tire of feeling paranoid about missing something crucial because I didn’t explore enough.

These niggles become largely irrelevant though when you look at everything else that the game manages to get right. Incredible graphics and carefully considered audio are cherries on the top of a long (or should that be tall?) and multi-layered cake, and despite being derivative considering that most of its elements have been done in other games before, Lords of Shadow packages everything together into an experience all its own that doesn’t feel at all like a big, blatant rip-off.

The combat is great and more varied than a lot of other God of War knock-offs, and Gabriel manages to feel like more of an earnest hero than Kratos with his maligned rage or Dante and his excessive pathos. Tack onto this enough game time to keep you occupied for almost three times the length of any of the aforementioned ‘inspirations’ and you’ve got a terrific action adventure that should definitely be part of your summer gaming experience.

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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow