Friday, June 7, 2013

Frustration: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Lords of Shadow

Later on this year Konami will release Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 to finish the Lords of Shadow trilogy. Yes, 2 and trilogy. Castlevania: Mirror of Fate appeared on Nintendo's 3DS and is the stopgap between LoS and LoS2. I feel now is a perfect time to do a retrospective of Lords of Shadow, an experimental and divisive game in the long running franchise.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a frustrating game to like and play. It is a miracle that Metacritic tallies up around a low and high 80% for this title. Let me clear this, it's not because of the reboot thing, but it's partly because of the reboot thing. The franchise was in need of a fresh injection, Symphony of the Night can only be riffed for so long. Harmony of Despair looked to be where the series was headed, more of a downloadable focus. What we were given was Castlevania done by fans of God of War.

There has been a trend pointing out games are too complicated with their controls, and Lords of Shadow should be a poster boy of that cause. Let’s tackle the big fish first, the number one problem with Lords of Shadow is the controller. The game uses too many buttons! Seriously, every inch is used to do “something” in this game. The start button brings up the main menu, but so does Select. Select is the game menu and Start is the menu, menu? Some of these moves are less apt for combat and are done for the puzzles, except these puzzles are few and far between; meaning a memory lapse is sure to happen at a simple to complete puzzle.

Regarding the actual fighting system, there are normal attacks and sweeping light attacks, with a block and a jump button on the side. Ok. Then the shoulder buttons are Dark and Light magic, which changes the combos. The left trigger button needs to be held down for the Relic powers to be used, and the right trigger button grabs and interacts with objects. O yea, the control sticks must be pressed down to absorb the magic that enemies give off. Great. Not to mention all these buttons get changed if you’re riding on a horse or hanging on ledges or swinging around.

See how confusing the base gameplay is? There is too much going on! Seriously, how does Mercury Steam expect players to remember everything? Most tutorials are within the game’s opening minutes, they’re to make sure players are on the same page as the game, because some of those control schemes can get pretty wacky. Lords of Shadow has tutorials throughout the game!

I won't mention the fun discrepancy that some prompts freeze the screen for five seconds, and others take place right away. The second one is usually done during a fight. Cute.


No need to be harsh, change can be tough, so let's move off that subject. There are plenty of ways to show this is a Castlevania title. Vampires and werewolves is a little broad, how about the bosses. Remember that Frankenstein's Monster has always been a staple, well Gabriel climbs into Frankenstein's tower and fights... a giant electrical scorpion. Another looming problem of the game, it doesn't even use staple enemies to reference. Subverting expectations is all fine and dandy, but give us Castlevania fans a morsel or two at least. Giant spiders and giant trolls do not cut it. The enemies chosen are forgettable at best.

An argument can be made for the Lords of Shadow's soundtrack, it is absolutely amazing. Fantastic in every sense of the word, although hardly any classic tunes are remixed. The highlight comes when Gabriel is shrunken down and put into a music box, where a clever version of Vampire Killer plays in the backround. Too bad the actual level is poorly designed with awful camera placement and frustrating restrictions on traps. When a good point pops up, at least three more bad ones take place.

Games are all about illusion, illusion of story, illusion of freedom, and illusion of choice. Lords of Shadow is terrible at the illusion. Mercury Steam developed as if this is their freshman project. Every action must be the action the game wants to take place, playing any other way is treated swiftly with death. This can lead to many, many maddening moments. Take this for example, I'm climbing over a number of gears. As I'm scaling with my whip I notice a platform right below me. Probably have to go that way I think to myself. The drop itself is maybe, five feet. Instant death. Nope! the game says, I didn't want that to happen.

I wish parts like the one just stated were rare, but they're not. Whether done by poor direction, or controls, or errors on part of Mercury Steam, it all adds up to a less than stellar experience. A shame, because Lords of Shadow features some of the most amazing art direction this entire generation. Literally each level has so much character and atmosphere that it pushes you along.  This game has no want for bland textures.

What should have been one of this generation's most imaginative titles, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow falls flat. It fails to give series fans any comfort, and fails new players by giving them a hodgepodge experience. Mercury Steam can be a top tier studio, but they stumble more than they rise to the occasion. Sorry Lords of Shadow 2, I may be avoiding you around release.