We help Gabriel Belmont cheat death in Mercury Steam's Castlevania reboot
Castlevania has made a kind of stuttery start on the current generation of consoles. The return of Symphony of the Night on Xbox Live Arcade was a very welcome surprise but it was followed up by the sketchy multiplayer title Harmony of Despair which shook stock fans of the series. This cast a bit of doubt over the franchise as a whole and meant that the next title would be make-or-break for Konami.
Gabriel squares up to an ancient Ice Titan - an early hint of the battles to come
With that in mind Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is another big gamble for the series. As the first Castlevania game to be presented in 3D many thought that Konami would develop it in Japan so that they could keep a close watch over the progression of the new title. Instead Konami chose to entrust Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to rookie Spanish developer Mercury Steam in a bid to bring some fresh perspective to the franchise. However, they weren't totally let off the leash as Konami also engaged Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima as creative consultant for the title to make it the best that it could be.
Mercury Steam, instead of trying to emulate the impressive creation that was Symphony of the Night, instead chose to reboot the series with a sumptuous high-definition makeover that would hope to win over the fans with their take on Konami's gothic opera. The resulting game is a colossal and epic adventure to the very brink, so that the Hero can save the land from a malevolent evil and resurrect his beloved from the clutches of death. Hideo Kojima's fingerprints are all over the game with the depth of story and the crisply executed cutscenes evoking memories of the finer moments of the Metal Gear Solid series.
The game begins with the hero, Gabriel Belmont arriving at the gates of an ancient forest seeking the help of an ancient god known as the Guardian of the Lake. The Guardian can help Gabriel enter the spirit realm to gain clues to what is behind the growing evil in the land. There, in the pouring rain, Gabriel must begin his journey by taking on a pack of werewolves that have overrun the village by the forest gate. This is by way of a player tutorial and it introduces the simple yet flexible combat dynamic that will make up a considerable portion of the game. This sequence works very well as an introduction to the game giving players a chance to learn the combat and movement controls without the usual tiresome pause an patronise approach that many games take these days.
In fact everything about this game is designed to suck you in and keep you fighting and adventuring to the bitter end and beyond. This begins with the inimitable voice of Sir Patrick Stewart providing the game's narration. His voice resonates comfortably with the dramatic tone of the game and proves once more that inspired voice casting can really lift a title. Sir Patrick is not the only Scotsman to grace Castlevania with his vocal skills. Gabriel Belmont is voiced by the diminutive Glaswegian star Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting's fame.
Take that, giant poison-spitting spider!
In many respects Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a very standard adventure blending impressive fighting sequences with a combination of platform-puzzles and a good old gaming mainstay in the form of a key hunt. The game's combat sequences are based around three basic attacks, jump, block and dodge moves. Gabriel can wield his chain weapon very effectively to either focus his attacks on one enemy utilise a circular attack to take out surrounding attackers or use daggers either singly or in a hail of throwing daggers. As the game goes on you can collect points to allow you to add to or improve the strength and area of Gabriel's combo attacks. In between fighting off the hordes of werewolves, vampires and giant spiders, Gabriel will find some time to scale cliffs, traverse bridges made from spider webs and swing across chasms as he goes through his quest.
In the midst of all the action is a tight control system that is responsive and intuitive enough to allow you to get more invested in the action. The combat does occasionally feel like God of War but Mercury Steam has tried to sidestep the obvious comparisons between Kratos and Gabriel's chain-related fighting styles by introducing their own take on the quick-time-events. Instead of flashing up a steady stream of buttons to press Castlevania uses a time-based system where you can press any attack button as long as you do it at the correct time. This timeframe is shown using a large but shrinking circle centred around the same portion of the screen. When the large circle shrinks down so that it is inside the smaller circle it is time to press the button. Get it right and you will execute a move, these scale from a nifty kill on a bog-standard minion, to a fantastic finishing move on a boss. This is a really refreshing change from the standard quick-time-event and it opens up the game to players with less finely-honed reflexes.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has a great sense of scale. It is a potentially massive game. Each small chapter contains extra details that can be accessed later on by playing through the level again when you have improved Gabriel's skills and tools. Each level also has multiple paths to completion meaning that replaying the levels to find the extra goodies that Mercury Steam has hidden away is much less of a chore than with other games.
One of the biggest hang-ups Lords of Shadow has is the camera. All the levels have a fixed camera position that changes depending on where you are. Nothing else is mapped onto the right thumbstick which leaves it feeling very redundant. At the same time it is begging to be used for something even if it was just to lean the camera around giving you better view of Gabriel in some sections of the game. For what it's worth this is a very minor complaint and it does little to detract from what Mercury Steam has accomplished with here.
lt's not all about slaying monsters you know...
Mercury Steam has achieved something very impressive with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. This is a successful and highly entertaining reboot of the series but, more than that, Mercury Steam has managed to move the game out from under the large shadow of Hideo Kojima. Kojima's influence is apparent but it falls short of being the defining feature of the game. The fledgling Spanish studio has made Castlevania very much their own and created a beautiful and epic new entry into the series that is capable of engaging both the diehard fans of the series and newcomers alike.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Defeating the Ice Titan on the Lake of Oblivion is an engaging nod to Shadow of the Colossus and an exquisite portent of what to expect from Lords of Shadow.