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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