The Half-Hearted Dracula

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Screenshot

HIGH The combat system once all the moves are unlocked.

LOW The first several hours.

WTF Gabriel Belmont's neck is bigger than his head.

Industry pundits often compare the ability to progress in a video game to literacy. If the comparison rings true, then Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is like reading a 600-page novel that only becomes a treat after the first 250 pages.

I compare this game to a lengthy novel because the game is about 20 hours long, a large time commitment that is no sin by itself. However, the first six to eight hours of Lords of Shadow are slow and unfocused, and could be better spent by reading a book, or watching two or three great films. Taking six to eight hours before things "get good" is unforgivable in any other medium, and it should be in video games as well.

Much of the lethargic beginning plays like a doting tutorial, introducing new mechanics and reminding players of old ones by detailing which action button to push. It's a similar problem that plagued the recent Final Fantasy XIII, another high-profile game that took forever for the sum of its parts to click. I surmise the purpose in both is to massage new players into a long-running series while trying to satisfy its built-in audience, but the solution offered is inelegant.

Beyond the button-reminders, Lords of Shadow's first several hours are littered with disparate types of gameplay which oftentimes take inspiration from older, greater games. For example, there are two superfluous magical horse rides that fail to evoke the intensity of God of War II's Pegasus flight. The much-advertised Titan fights rely on quick-time button presses and pre-determined paths via ledges. Instead of the dynamic experiences we were blessed with in Shadow of the Colossus, these encounters come across as rote drudgeries. Worse, all the mechanics I've just mentioned are thrown out almost as quickly as they're introduced.

The game's length is arbitrarily extended even further by having hero Gabriel Belmont frequently sidetracked by silly plot-driven happenstances. Eyes may roll at the contrived mechanic of finding a crank to use for door-opening levers or when the ground crumbles away to dump the player into ancient catacombs, but just wait until the half-dozen werewolves show up time and again to impede progress. Much of the game is conveniently inconvenient.

After slogging through the first several hours, Lords of Shadow finally allows the player to open up more moves, and the fights begin to feel fluid and dynamic. On the other hand, the melee formula isn't quite so simple. At one point, the game introduces "light" and "shadow" magic meters that give attacks healing or damaging properties. Dual meter management is not conducive to drawing new players in, and offers nothing meaningful to the combat system. Despite the dual meters, this combat system is probably the game's highlight. In fact, I would venture to say that it bests even God of War's chain-blade combat. The animation is top notch, and several of Belmont's moves can be linked to devastating effect.

What does all this mean? Basically, once the complete range of mechanics are introduced and the player is given full rein over Belmont's abilities, the title finally blossoms.

For a time-rich audience, I can see Lords of Shadow being well worth the investment. The story may be fairly insipid (something about Belmont's dead wife and cleansing the land of darkness) but there are some great setpieces and rewarding puzzles to help swallow it down. However, this game badly needed someone to tighten the pace. As enjoyable as the second half was, I can't in good conscience offer a full recommendation for something that felt as unproductive as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow did for that first six to eight hours. Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PlayStation 3. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to the game, and it was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, the game features blood and gore, nudity and violence. It has plenty of all of the above, and is not recommended for children.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Dialogue is subtitled, and there are no audio cues necessary to complete the game. A music-based puzzle late in the game generously showcases the notes being played on the screen, to alert the player on musical cues.

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18 Comments on "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review"

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Aphantas
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I agree that this game does take a while to get really since it is really slow in handing out abilities. But this is because of the length of the game something which should have been a little shorter in my opinion. In my experience of it the enemies did not use cheap tactics or attack off-screen as many have complained. To set a an issue straight the “Unblockable attack Spam” is only triggered by continously attacking a blocking enemy which you deserve if you do since you are not harming them in any way, and the battle would last… Read more »
ZippyDSMlee
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Meh LOS is a very tried and repetitive title; its mechanics are not so well polished; its narrative is middling to expected; the camera is just annoying; and I can say the same about Dante’s Inferno and God of War III. These games have no soul and are just mostly “existing” in a sate of high production values rendering no substance at all.

Jim
Guest
First of all sorry about my English. Second, obviously you didn’t like the game. Fair enough. But when reading your -often outlandish- arguments on game’s features I couldn’t get out of my mind the strong feeling you were looking for reasons to present your dislike to us instead of simply think about the game merits and demerits. Said otherwise, most of your statements have a 95% of opinion and a poor 5% of analysis. Just a few examples: 1.- You say ” the first six to eight hours of Lords of Shadow are slow and unfocused”. Fine, but why? As… Read more »
ZippyDSMlee
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[quote=Daan]To be honest the combat in Castlevania is excellent. Like Jeffrey said there are so many moves at your disposal, and as the game progresses you are sometimes forced to improvise and for example improve your blocking. The light and shadow magic work excellent, and they are both very powerful if used wisely. The enemies you face are challenging, if you play bad you will go down, if you play well you can dodge, block at the right time. If you execute a combo on an enemy, the enemy will either be overwhelmed or the enemy takes a few hits… Read more »
Daan
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To be honest the combat in Castlevania is excellent. Like Jeffrey said there are so many moves at your disposal, and as the game progresses you are sometimes forced to improvise and for example improve your blocking. The light and shadow magic work excellent, and they are both very powerful if used wisely. The enemies you face are challenging, if you play bad you will go down, if you play well you can dodge, block at the right time. If you execute a combo on an enemy, the enemy will either be overwhelmed or the enemy takes a few hits… Read more »
jlb1987
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Bought this game yesterday, and have so far played a couple of hours. I’m really enjoying it so far, so if it only get’s better from where I am, I’m really looking forward to the next fifteen-or-so hours.

It doesn’t feel like a Castlevania game, but I certainly wouldn’t mark it lower based on this.

Anyway, good review… I look forward to seeing where I agree with you and where I don’t, Gene.

Gene P.
Guest
You make a good argument, except that classic literature that doesn’t get good til the later parts usually has good writing at the beginning. LoS not only didn’t have good writing, but as I already said, disparate gameplay components that did not add up to something greater by the end. Slow-burning good literature does reward you later, but that’s because of the investment into character and scene setting you made earlier. I had no such feeling with Castlevania. I do not think I was overly dismissive. I gave the game a 5.5, which is better than middling. I thought less… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Yeah, I would have scored it lower. I’m a longtime CV fan and the game left me disappointed and unhappy. I think it’s pretty, but it doesn’t really feel like Castlevania at all, the combat never felt as refined as it should have been, and the whole thing just comes across like a soulless attempt to graft gameplay elements from other popular franchises onto this game. Easily my biggest disappointment of the year.

ZippyDSMlee
Guest
[quote=Jeffrey Matulef]I could write a very long defense of the game, but I realize so much of it comes down to personal tastes, so I won’t bother. The one thing I did want to defend though is its combat. I thought it was stellar. Dark magic was only useful as a last resort, but having to string together several successful attacks to build up your “focus meter” and regain light magic — the only way to replenish your health mid boss battle — was brilliant. Certainly a better solution that GoW’s arbitrarily placed health chests, and it ensured that you… Read more »
Jeffrey Matulef
Guest
I could write a very long defense of the game, but I realize so much of it comes down to personal tastes, so I won’t bother. The one thing I did want to defend though is its combat. I thought it was stellar. Dark magic was only useful as a last resort, but having to string together several successful attacks to build up your “focus meter” and regain light magic — the only way to replenish your health mid boss battle — was brilliant. Certainly a better solution that GoW’s arbitrarily placed health chests, and it ensured that you could… Read more »
Anonymous
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I would actually argue tons of “classic” literature only “gets good” after hundreds of pages. And certainly some movies have a slow burn that climaxes in a stunning ending. Not that Castlevania: LoS is necessarily a classic, but saying that it is “unforgivable” to have a slowly paced game is a little presumptuous. You are of course free to mark it down for bad pacing, it’s your review after all, but if it’s a (for example) 25 hour game and over 18 hours of it are good, that’s not an awful ratio. If a 50 episode show had 12 bad… Read more »
ZippyDSMlee
Guest
Just finished off res and CV a few days ago so here are my rants. Res is such a safe game it goes from an average of 5 to a 4 just because its that’s bland, sure you can call it a Gears of war clone it’s not so much hurt be copying its themes of monologue by non of the main charatcers for the main narrative, enemy coming from the ground,ect,ect,ect, a bit of mutant biological and hitech,ect,ect,ect but it just comes off being aseptic and placid the more you play it, kinda like Damnation only without the wired… Read more »
Kayin Amoh
Guest
I have to admit that Castlevania was one of my biggest disappointments of the year. This review and others indicate that the game improves as you progress – I’d actually argue the opposite. The moves you unlock are consistently pointless, the enemy’s combat intelligence never rises above that of a freshly unearthed turnip and most of the battles feel like wars of attrition more than anything else. Enemies are damage sponges, often extending boring QTE cutscenes just because… well, God of War did, didn’t it? The puzzles are uninspired, the platforming can be imprecise, the story’s a yawnsome trudgefest and… Read more »
Hades
Guest
I just started chapter 4, so I’m exactly in these first 6-8 hours and I must say, I’m having a real good time wir LoS. If these are the worst of the game, I’m really looking forward to what’s still waiting for me. The story isn’t great, in fact it’s the weakest part of the whole package so far and I can’t really remember anything of it besides the basic facts (I set LoS aside some 4 weeks ago and have invested the little time I have for gaming at the moment in Demon’s Souls), but here I don’t really… Read more »
Gene P.
Guest
Mike, wow you would’ve scored it lower? I had a pretty decent time toward the end. The final boss was a disappointment though. The sequel-bait ending even more so. Crofto, the visuals actually left me unimpressed. Although pretty, the tech didn’t impress me because everything is very linear, with invisible walls galore. I’ve been more taken with details in “Red Dead Redemption,” or even the physics in “Uncharted 2” another linear game. WIth Castlevania, I still thought GoW3 looked better, and was more inventive with its visual tricks. Nothing in Castlevania struck me as hard as Kratos’ fight with Poseidon… Read more »
Mike Bracken
Guest
One of the areas where my opinion differs from Gene’s is in that statement about the combat. I don’t think LoS’ combat beats GoW on any level. Hell, I don’t think it’s better than Dante’s Inferno. I found LoS’ combat at best sufficient — but there were many instances where it didn’t satisfy me at all. Part of that is attributable to an absolutely fucking awful camera system (that allows enemies to attack you from offscreen — always fun!), but most of it highlights the main problem with everything in this game: it tries to copy all these things that… Read more »
Crofto
Guest
I’ve only played the demo and watched a few videos of this, but – along this review – the impression is certainly that the story isn’t doing much in LoS. That’s a shame because I’m even then more unwilling to put-up with 5-8 hours of drudgery, even if it ultimately leads to proposed GoW-beating combat. What I will say is that the game’s presentation of sound and visuals is absolutely incredible. I would definitely highlight it as a game that shows the capabilities of current consoles, so it’s a shame you didn’t say anything about that. I know it’s more… Read more »
Mike Bracken
Guest

Great review, Gene. I just finished the game Tuesday night and was getting ready to write about it as well.

I’d not score the game as highly as you did, but that’s just a personal preference thing. I came away from the experience very bitter about most of it — as it’s another shining example of why Konami shouldn’t even bother trying to make 3D Castlevania games.

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