Let’s not dance around this too much (except watch me dance here).
To understand what is wrong with this game, imagine you are holding a giant iron chain. The links aren’t particularly large, but large enough. Take this iron chain and walk to your closest park or wide open space. In your imagination, have a person stand an appropriate distance away from you, and swing the chain in a whip-like fashion at them, and hit them, perhaps across the face.
Did they move? Two things could happen here.
Situation 1: I know this is in your imagination (not mine), but I’m willing to bet your imaginary victim moved, probably got hurt, and probably is pretty angry at you. It’s OK, because you didn’t hit them in reality, so don’t feel too bad. Just a little bad that you imagined a person for the sole purpose of hitting them.
Situation 2: Let’s say there is something wrong in your brain, and you imagine that as you hit that person, they didn’t move, or react at all. However, at the precise moment of your chain hitting them, the entire world paused, just for half a second, just for you to appreciate the power of the impact of the chain with that person, even though they aren’t reacting at all to it. You might panic a bit, seeing their lack of reaction, and swing madly at them, completely helpless as the chain contacts them, pauses, and they move closer towards you, eventually hitting you back. You probably are not happy to be (in your own weird imagination-land) getting hit.
Situation 1 is probably a decent imagining of what happens when someone gets hit with a chain whip in real life. Situation 2 is what happens when someone gets hit with a chain whip in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Combat, in terms of the exchange of blows in a raw melee, has never been the focus of Castlevania, bossfights aside. In many Castlevania games, the majority of the enemies die in one or two hits from the whip. Those that don’t (Axe Knights) take a bit more work, and they never flinch from your whip because they are strong, and probably wouldn’t flinch no matter what. In Lords of Shadow, that kind of combat is mostly the focus of the game, and nobody flinches till they die.
This seems like it might not be a “gamebreaker” or whatever you want to call it at first. After all, the game lets you dodge, and so what if a basic werewolf takes 15 hits to die and never stops to flinch the whole time you are hitting him, except that…
- …you have no idea when something will die unless you turn on the life meters in the menu, which really is a feature I have only seen in Dynasty Warriors games (and if you are not Koei, copying features from Dynasty Warriors games is not a good move).
- …your special move bars (an overly complicated and pointless “magic” system) are filled by floating magic orbs, which are conveniently generated by completing combos, which any hit from any character will interrupt and reset.
- …you are swinging a giant fucking chain, and maybe things should react to that.
In a game a beautifully rendered as this (really, the graphics are quite pretty, if the art design wasn’t such shit), this lack of reaction is the Action Game Uncanny Valley.
The game is beautifully rendered, possibly its only high point. I’m not kidding either. Wonderful lighting, high poly counts, all the graphical whiz-bang technology you could think of are crammed onto this game’s disc (well, two discs if you are playing on the 360). It’s obvious that someone spent a lot of time getting the graphics of this game to look polished as heck, and they could put so many bullet points about that polish on a PowerPoint presentation that you’d be a fool to not throw money at them, right?
Well, they forgot to hire an art designer to go along with their swanky engine. Yes, the artists of this game put loads of time and effort into the environments, but it seems as though the only thoughts that occurred were to look back and find what the series had before. When I first heard the game takes place in 1047, I got excited, just a little bit. There could be something here, I thought, some new avenue for the Castlevania series to go down. Dark ages architecture, abandoned Roman garrisons in Eastern Europe, something.
Instead, we got Gothic Arches and libraries full of books. In 1047 AD.
Now, I know, Castlevania has always had anachronistic elements. There were cheeseburgers in Symphony of the Night and so on. Sure, no problem. But the thing is, these arches and books, they are in Lords of Shadow because they were there in other Castlevania games, and only because of that. They were in older Castlevania games as vaguely period-related architecture that also was used in a lot of vampire movies. The problem with their use in Lords of Shadow is that, well, this isn’t even close to the right timeframe, and the game is (for the most part) not about vampires.
What the lack of creativity in these arches communicates is the general indifference towards creativity shown throughout the whole game. Just as the art design takes unthinking direction from previous Castlevania titles, the game design takes unthinking direction from numerous other sources. In every scenario of the game, it seems that MercurySteam played an already successful and widely praised other game, and then ineptly copied that game into their own.
The God of War influence on this game is probably the largest, and if you paid the slightest bit of attention to the pre-game hype (I try to avoid most of this, but even I saw some of this), you saw the clone accusations flying early and often. And David Cox, producer of the game, would get incredibly defensive, claiming the original Castlevania is as much an inspiration to God of War as God of War is to Lords of Shadow.
What? The line between the original Castlevania and God of War is tentative at best. In terms of story, both could possibly be seen as recontextualizations of previously existing mythologies, but that is a bit of stretch for Castlevania, as it is hard to call old monster movies a mythology in the same way that ancient Greek religion formed a mythology. In terms of the actual mechanics of the game, well, I guess both characters use something whip-like, and can jump. However, the way they use those abilities is entirely different. The way they interact with their environments is entirely different. Hell, they are pretty much entirely different games, and David Cox has no idea what he is saying.
But let’s look at the other side of the equation. Lords of Shadow wholesale copies most of God of War’s basic combat engine, as well as its general lack of environmental interaction (outside of specific areas where the game tells you to interact). Lords of Shadow lifts the “epic” feel right out of God of War. Hell, Lords of Shadow even steals a bit of the plot (Yeah, Gabriel killed his wife too). A quick list, for reference:
- Combat: God of War.
- Bosses: God of War + Shadow of the Colossus.
- Platforming: God of War + Uncharted’s non gunfight parts.
- Puzzles: God of War + Professor Layton or any number of older PC games.
- QTEs: God of War
So David Cox isn’t particularly correct in his analogy. So what? His silly analogy is part of a bigger issue: MercurySteam’s slavish devotion to the trappings of classic Castlevania. Just as the gothic arches and libraries were meant to recall the older games, MercurySteam wants every bit of the game to make you recall every other Castlevania game you have played and hopefully channel your affections for those games into this game.
Since Lords of Shadow is a three dimensional game for the current generation, every part of it had to be made new, of course. Can’t reuse that Rondo of Blood sprite for the thirtieth time in a game that is sans sprites. Can’t use any of those low poly models from the N64 or the PS2, natch. So is it wrong, then, for me to expect something new? Something with some thought behind it? Something that maybe continues the evolution of the series by going in some new direction?
MercurySteam was given a blank slate, and (judging by the relatively detailed and exquisite graphics) a pretty good budget of time and money to do it in. And yet, Mr. Cox and MercurySteam felt the need to slavishly tie themselves to the aesthetics of the series to the point where Frankenstein shows up in 1047 AD, and Gabriel has to have a Vampire Killer whip and has to be a Belmont because those were in the classic games. While these kind of decisions aren’t necessarily bad, when they get in the way of making a good game, they become horrible. They become a crutch, an excuse.
And that is what they are here. Apparently MercurySteam hoped that if they wrapped their game in enough callbacks to the series proper, people wouldn’t notice the horribly derivative game under it all. At every turn, the game tries to remind you that yes, this is actually a Castlevania game you are playing, just ignore how much it feels like God of War. The aesthetic trappings of Castlevania become an unexamined crutch, supporting a game that no one would play without them.
Without them, the game is a poor God of War clone. With them, well, it’s still that, but everyone at MercurySteam hopes you don’t notice.
As if being a bad clone of some of the worst parts of other games wasn’t enough, there’s the story to contend with.
Castlevania has always had a story, but in previous iterations, the story was generally
That was it. Sure, you probably had to do something along the way: resurrect Dracula, get your shit together/back, etc. but your end goal was always the same. Kill Dracula, do it good/fast/hard. Vampires are the enemy, and some other monsters might be stopping you from getting to them, but you will get to the vamps and take care of business. Yet, despite said vampire killing being the overall goal of the whole series (with some minor exceptions), this game is entirely Dracula-free (except in the post credits, oh boy!). You don’t even hear mention of a vampire until about halfway through the game. No, the plot of Lords of Shadow goes a little something like this:
(NOTE: I encourage you NOT to read this, just note how long it takes to explain it. Or read it, your call. It’s not out of anything related to SPOILERS that I warn you about this, as much as the plot of this game is just as dumb, and confusing, and pointless as the rest of the game.)
Gabriel Belmont belongs to some Order of the Whatevers, a holy order dedicated to being a holy order. His wife is dead, and he heard he could resurrect her if he followed some prophecy from his order. So he goes and meets Pan (who looks way too similar to Guiermo del Toro’s Pan) who says he’s gotta kill the Lords of Shadow, get some mask pieces from them, and then resurrect his bride. Patrick Stewart is also in Gabe’s order, and follows him around, narrating his exploits between stages. Gabe kills some Titans (big fake Colossi) on his way to the land of the Lycans (yeah, MercurySteam watched Underworld). He meets a mute girl who can talk with him telepathically and her giant metal knight golem buddy. He falls asleep, and kills the mute girl in his sleep by knifing her in the chest. He kills the enraged golem and takes his gauntlet. In the land of the Lycans, he kills a lot of the werewolves, and the werewolf king/lord of shadow, who tells him that all the lords of shadow are just the bad halves of the creators of the order, and the good halves went to heaven. But in killing the lords of shadow, Gabe will also kill the good halves, thus killing something that is already in heaven (or something). Gabe wants his wife back, so he kills him anyway. Then he goes to the land of the vampires, a gothic ice castle, and does his thing to the vampires there, which includes playing a shitty dumbed-down battle chess with the daughter of the main vampire. OK. He gets some angel wings from the female vampire lord of shadow, and more mask. The wings only let him double jump because they are too old and worn down to fly any more. Then he finds out the last lord of shadow is death, and he does to fight Death. On the way, Pan morphs into a metal angel knight and challenges Gabe to a fight to prove…something. Gabe wins, and goes to fight Death on top of a giant mountain of floating rocks (from any Panzer Dragoon game). On top of the mountain, Gabe finds a giant flying Titan (even though the girl with the golem told him the last Titan was dead). For completionist’s sake, he kills Flytan, who magically (for no reason) drops the last piece of the mask. Once Gabe puts the mask together, Patrick Stewart shows up, and shares that he is Death, and was making Gabe kill women to further his quest, so Gabe would get the GOD MASK, and Death could become God. Death also has a mask, that he made Gabe wear to control him, or something. Well, Death gets the GOD MASK, but then DOUBLE PLOT TWIST Satan shows up, said he was manipulating Death, sets Patrick Stewart/Death on fire, impales Gabe, and grabs the mask. Gabe goes to the sorta afterlife, except it isn’t the afterlife because somehow Patrick Stewart/Death made it so souls couldn’t go the afterlife, and all the girls he has murdered bring him back to life to fight Satan. Gabe fights Satan (with some Dragon Ball Z QTEs) and wins. Gabe throws on the GOD MASK, gets to see his wife is alive, but she can only kiss him through the God Mask, so he says it is an illusion. Wifey grabs the GOD MASK and flies off to heaven. Gabe starts to cry. The game zooms in on Death’s mask on the ground. Roll credits.
But wait, there’s more!!!:
After the credits, a cloaked man walks into a cathedral and punches through a wall of the cathedral. On the other side of the wall is a big open circular tall room with statues of Castlevania bosses in it (not any of the bosses from this game, mind you). The cloaked man just floats up to the top of the room where there is a throne. A man sits on the throne, but we only see his glowy eyes. The cloaked man says something to the guy on the throne, calling him Gabriel, and we realize the cloaked man is Patrick Stewart/Death again (despite having been burned to disintegration by Satan while Stewart was in his true DEATHFORM). The guy on the throne says “EU SUNT DRACUL!” (see, Dracula is in this game! Really!). The light reveals the throned figure is Gabe, except he is all vampire-y with no shirt and lots of angst. Stewart says “Satan is getting his army back together, and only the two of us can fight him”. Gabe says “No dude, fuck you, because of you my wife is dead and I can’t actually be alive or dead motherfucker” and DBZ warps behind Stewart and starts sleeper holding him. Stewart then chucks Gabula through a window and BIG REVEAL the whole thing is taking place in modern times. Gabe lands in an intersection and cars stop around him and people gasp and of course it is raining because it has to rain for a scene like this. Patrick Stewart jumps down and says “Hey, I can cure that immortality thing” (he is Death and all that) and Gabe rage yells at the skies and disintegrates in a puff of smoke. The camera pulls away, and a big glowing sign over a store that says DOVCHE, which (because in Latin, V’s are U’s) says DOUCHE. GAME OVER
Did you read all of that? If you didn’t, good for you. It really is the most uselessly convoluted plot since whatever the last Final Fantasy game was. And it just wouldn’t stop, the entire game. Castlevania games have always been rather sparing with the story and the cutscenes, but not this game. Not at all. There are cutscenes at every stage of the game. Even the platforming sections give you a cutscene sometimes, in case you ever thought of being lost, and the blinking ledges weren’t enough to tell you where to go.
And in the end, what does all this story add up to? I say nothing, and I mean nothing at all. Not a damn thing. I couldn’t muster an ounce of emotion for Gabriel Belmont, couldn’t even feign surprise at the plot twists. I only really enjoyed the omni-present over-acting of Patrick Stewart because it fits the theatricality of the series, and because it is omni-present, so I might as well enjoy it. Actually, the final scene, when he is in his true DEATHFORM, Stewart hams it up so perfectly, and his character model moves with just the right levels of over-dramatic intent, that I couldn’t help but giggle. Yes, giggle. The big scene of this game, and all it draws forth in reaction is giggles. But they were enjoyment giggles, I must admit.
Again, though, what does this have to do with Castlevania? Nothing at all. In fact, even before the game hit shelves, there were numerous explanations of it as something existing outside of the main Castlevania timeline. So again, why, if something has so little direct connection to the main series, is it even part of that series? Couldn’t this have just not been called Castlevania, had a bit more thought put into its design and story, and maybe have been a decent enough game on its own? Well, that isn’t what happened, so asking those kinds of questions will get us nowhere, but that this game even makes me think of those ideas says something not-too-flattering about it.
It’s hard not to notice the big Kojima Productions stamp at the beginning of this game. In fact, I knew Kojima’s company was working on this thing long before I knew MercurySteam even existed, even though by all accounts the Spaniards are the main developer. So what role did Kojima and his people have in all of this?
Who knows? It’s not “A Hideo Kojima Game”, for what that is worth. I like to think they merely put a stamp of approval on it, acting as some judiciary committee for Konami. Someone at Kojima productions sat an played through this game exactly once, and ended up saying “Yeah, this is worthy to be a Castlevania game”.
It’s important to note that Kojima Productions didn’t make any of the other Castlevania games.
But it is also important to note that Kojima Productions did make Metal Gear Solid 4. For all of its failings for many people (not me, to be honest), Metal Gear Solid 4 tried really hard to invoke the history of the entire Metal Gear series in its five chapters of bizarre story. The game worked to constantly bring players back to what they had seen in the series, and possibly make them re-examine what they saw. However you look at the game as a whole, it’s pretty clear that the game was designed as an explicit act of nostalgia and possible recontextualization for the series. And (to me) the game did this pretty well.
So why didn’t Kojima Productions try to guide MercurySteam somehow into doing something similar for Castlevania? Lords of Shadow tries to reference the series, but the references never get past the “oh hey, there are werewolves here too!” level. Lords of Shadow never makes the player think about what makes Castlevania games part of the Castlevania series. Like so much of this game, a missed opportunity.
So I am forced to believe that in some other way, somehow, Hideo Kojima and his people approved of this tripe. I only hope it is with that joking, sneering tone (the same tone Kojima embeds in so many of his own games) that this game got approved. That whoever that poor person at Kojima Productions was who made it through this thought “Yes, this is what the people need to be put through.” Whatever crime I as part of the game-playing public may have committed, my penance has been served. Forgive me now my gaming sins.
Or maybe Kojima Productions just wanted a paycheck. Money is good for a few things, after all.
So in the end, what do we have in this shame of a game? A chain whip hitting a face, and the face not reacting. This game is that whip, and I am not reacting to it (overly long reviews complaining about it aside (I am obviously reacting)). A series with its origins in two dimensions has stumbled yet again into three, only this time it did it with such a big budget and decent names attached that it can’t possibly fail. While it lost some of the charm the previous three dimensional Castlevania games might have had, it gained critical acclaim, because in the end, budgets + names = good reviews. And there’s so much obvious money at work here that a sequel is inevitable.
But hold steady, any of ye dear Castlevania fans who can see this game for the rotten pile of recycled ideas and directionless meandering that it is.
At least it isn’t canon.