The Castlevania franchise has been ferried across almost every platform imaginable during the last three decades, ceaselessly shedding its skin to suit whatever happens to be voguish in the contemporary video game climate. And just as 2003's Lament of Innocence was an unabashed replica of Devil May Cry's pioneering battle dynamic, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a cocktail of Uncharted's wall-scaling heroics, Batman: Arkham Asylum's close-quarters-combat chains, and Shadow of the Colossus's behemoth bosses. Once again, though, the producers have executed these borrowed ideas with aplomb, and have tweaked these already absorbing mechanics with enough original touches to avoid any nauseating similarities. When the protagonist is aping Nathan Drake, for example, he uses his Combat Cross to hook onto elevated objects and swing or rappel to navigate the treacherous terrain. Moreover, there are instances where Gabriel, a descendant of the Belmont clan, the franchise's fictional vampire-hunting dynasty, must mount his foes and employ each of their unique abilities to further his quests. Giant spiders can weave bridges of web, giant wolves can jump longer distances, and giant—yes, everything is giant—warthogs can be used as battering rams. Even though these oversized beasts are exploited fleetingly and to achieve very basic goals, conveniently placed just before you need them, it's a nice touch that keeps the action fresh between the epic boss battles.
Lords of Shadow is also notable for compromising the series' gothic roots. Rather than limiting the player to roaming murky forests or being cooped up in byzantine castles, our hero explores a string of delectable vistas. There's a stunning level of detail to each environment, with waterfalls running down the mountainous regions, ornate statues littering temple ruins, and verdant woodlands swelling with life. It's such a shame, then, that the game feels so linear. Konami seem to discourage exploring these environments, using obtrusive fixed-camera angles that point toward the next objective rather than flaunting their picturesque landscapes. There are no rewards to be found in the nooks and crannies of the game's lush surroundings beyond the pleasure of simply gazing at them, which unfortunately promotes hurrying through each screen with the almost patronising help of on-screen hints: Interactive elements are crudely illuminated, and points where Gabriel can swing or rappel are indicated by glowing blue circles from which the camera pivots. Despite some rewarding puzzles toward the final third of the game, for long stretches the player will feel as though if they follow the simple on-screen instructions they will breeze past any obstacle.
As is the norm with fantasy adventures, the protagonist must develop his ethereal powers and assemble his inventory of monster-mauling armaments as his quest unfolds. Experience points unlock new combinations to use in battle, and before long a chain, hook and a stake can be augmented onto the Combat Cross to make for more varied skirmishing with the bounteous waves of enemies. The hand-to-hand combat system is simple to grasp, combining simple recipes of close-quarters and range attacks on the ground or in the air, with the option of snatching your foes for QTE takedowns also at your disposal. Lords of Shadow's mêlée warfare is afforded more depth with the introduction of light and dark magic, a system which players must use accordingly for the benefit of their journey. Light magic replenishes Gabriel's health with every monster he disposes of, whereas enabling dark magic inflicts more damage with every blow and is best stockpiled for the more resilient adversaries. The journey strikes a comfortable balance between the platform elements and the action sequences, with neither feeling needlessly prolonged or monotonous.
With Hideo Kojima (the fêted creator of the spellbinding Metal Gear Solid series) aiding the writers in a consultative role, Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart on board as voice actors, it's clear that Konami have invested a lot of effort into the game's story. And after a sluggish start, combing the land taking on faceless titans where Gabriel is practically mute, the plot begins to take shape with our protagonist struggling with his inner demons as the dark magic he wields begins to taint his soul. Though it's little more than your standard gothic fantasy yarn, it proves engrossing enough, and is wrapped up with a cunning plot twist at the death.
The Castlevania franchise has finally made a successful foray into the 3D adventure, then, even though Konami have conceded some of the series's key staples in doing so. But regardless of how faithful it is to the dark and mysterious template of its predecessors, Lords of Shadow is a fantastic instalment which ranks among the best console adventures to be had this year. A pinch of Uncharted, a dash of Arkham Asylum, a smidgen of Shadow of the Colossus, and voila.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Publisher: Konami. Developer: Mercury Steam. Release Date: October 5, 2010. Platform: PlayStation 3. ESRB: Mature. ESRB Descriptors: Blood and Gore, Nudity, Violence. To purchase, click here.