Sunday, 24 October 2010

Review: Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow (PS3)

Lords Of Shadow isn’t really a Castlevania game. Of course this should have been apparent to anyone who watched any of the pre-release trailers of this franachie reboot months ago, although it isn’t until you actually pick it up and play do you realise just how far off it really is. Konami’s latest actually takes more inspiration from the likes of God Of War and Devil May Cry than say past Castlevania titles. Though it does have a heightened awareness of adding additional complexity to the combat, whilst creating more expansive, thought-provoking puzzles, which both make it feel like a reboot of the franchise than a whole new separate entity.

But even feeling a little bit like a separate entity is no bad thing, given the previously mixed track record of Castlevania games in 3D, and Lords Of Shadow clearly marks the first time the franchise has ever felt so accomplished in its move to the third dimension. The stellar voice acting work and cinematic presentation is tightly bound together with an intriguing script, blending seamlessly with a tough, and sometimes unforgiving, but always fair stab at intense visceral action, always requiring you to be utterly focused to really reap its rewards.

At times it feels like LOS really knows what it needs to be doing to bring the series up to date, out of its shadowy niche confines and into the mainstream limelight. The combat for example, and relatively linear level design are two such areas, which not only make LOS more accessible, but also a more succinct, controlled experience.

Unlike past Castlevania games, LOS doesn’t allow for any real freedom of exploration. You are simply shuffled along a linear path, with the occasional branching segment here and there often leading you to a dead end, or back to an interconnecting point earlier in the stage. Each chapter consists of a series of levels which you are expected to plow your way through, hacking past anything that stands in your way without much to deviate you off that plan. Puzzles break up the lengthy action sequences, and a small touch of Uncharted style platforming provides the game with some more relaxed moments in which to take a short rest break.

Most of your time spent in Castlevania will be battling the many hordes of enemies that are vying for your blood; the standard series fare of werewolves and skeletons are joined by ogres, trolls, and giant titans who bare more than a passing resemblance to some of the lavish creatures found in Shadow Of The Colossus.

Combat then, is the single most thing you’ll be preoccupied with in Lords Of Shadow. There are plenty of enemies that are in need of dispatching, and a whole host of techniques at your disposal to do this. It’s an initially simple, but altogether satisfying part of the overall experience, despite wearing a little thin after countless skirmishes across a multitude of landscapes.

Like in God Of War, Castlevania uses the basic two-button attack strategy common in games of this ilk. You have two melee attacks, both conforming to the fast/slow, weak/strong blueprint laid down decades ago - and it’s from mixing these where your combos and subsequent move sets come from - along with a single ranged strike; often quick, but decidedly best used as a last resort.

New moves are obtained whilst simply playing through the game, and killing every foe that stands in your way. While advanced moves - ones that deliver far more damage, but take longer to execute - need to be bought via the use of orbs dropped by downed enemies. The system in LOS is remarkable similar to that of DMC in terms of how new moves and combos are actually obtained, and very much like Dante’s Inferno and GOW with how they are executed.

This means that combat, for the most part, is not only familiar and really easy to get into, but also contains quite a bit of depth to keep you satisfied. And this is especially true when you consider the wealth of upgrades and additional skills that can be unlocked and bought throughout the game.

Not long after starting out you’ll gain the ability to grab hold of enemies, extracting extra weapons from them, and even using some of the larger ones as mounts; being able to ride and control them, thus allowing you to reach parts of the environment that are not otherwise traversable, along with delivering some serious damage to anyone left in your wake. For the most part, these creatures are usually only needed in specific situations, and the game directs you into riding them as and when they are required.

The same can also be said of the various extra abilities you gain through your quest. Most are given to you to complete a specific task, and after this is complete you rarely need to make use of them again until another specific situation arises. Perhaps annoyingly, you might find that you need to use a skill you haven’t performed in a few hours of gameplay, thus forgetting that you had even had it in the first place. Although later on, the game starts to make use of the various abilities on a more regular basis, even if this in it self feels like battles are being somewhat padded out.

Ultimately this can make the combat feel quite repetitive. As you only really need to make use of a few key moves and abilities, much of the additional stuff becomes lost, or discarded by the player until the need arises. Even against the game’s lavishly designed bosses; huge in nature and epic in scale, most simply have you repeating the same strategy in order to take them down, bar one or two additional moves changes mid-way through.

There are times when things are a little different. Some of the bosses, like the giant titan you fight against near the beginning of the game, take inspiration of the likes of Shadow of The Colossus. Seeing you scaling up and around it, having you hold on for dear life whilst attempting to stab out its weak point, is an epic exercise in thoroughly thrilling gameplay. But if only more encounters throughout the game were quite as exciting.

Delving a little deeper into the combat, and you find your already potentially large skillset being expanded via the use of magic.

Early on you gain the ability to use both light and dark magic, and this brings some strategy to the table. Light magic is regularly used to regenerate your health, whilst dark magic delivers extra damage to enemies from your attacks. You have separate gauges for both, and each one gets filled up by collecting orbs released from fallen enemies. The crux is that in order to gain orbs from them in the first place, the killing blow of your attack must be made without magic enabled, thus making you think about how, and for how long you use magical abilities at any one time.

Coupled with that, is yet another gauge situated at the bottom of the screen. This shows your focus. The more you dodge and block enemy attacks, the more this builds up. And when full, each additional hit releases an orb, which can then be absorbed and used to fill up your magic gauges during combat. The use of both magic, normal attacks, and maintaining focus makes the usual button bashing seem a little more interesting.

Skill is required to really take advantage of LOS’s multi-faceted, but quite simple combat system. Although at the same time it does constantly keep you immersed, and pretty focused on what you are supposed to be doing – there’s no time for a brief gander at some of the games exquisitely designed architecture, and beautifully imagine vistas while trying to bring down a hulking giant of beast intent on extinguishing the last essence of your life.

However, with so much going on, with so much in the way of upgrades, new moves and abilities, LOS almost overwhelms you with options. Granted, the basics are the core part of the experience, but there’s far too much in the way of occasional rarely used moves, useless upgrades, and added abilities. It can be a real pain sometimes trying to remember which does what, and when. That said, they do keep the game from feeling fresh; hours in you are still learning new stuff, quickly adapting to new challenges every step of the way.

Outside of the huge array of combat options at your disposal, Castlevania: LOS is a pretty linear, and tightly directed adventure. Most of the game takes places on very narrow paths with very little in the way of additional exploration. However it also encourages you to come back to certain areas when you have powered up your skills, whilst also providing one or two diverging paths in which to take. A lot of the time these lead to short dead-ends, or are roundly connected with the main path, although still give the impression that your playing field isn’t quite as narrow as it may first seem.

In many ways LOS copies its blueprint strongly from GOW. The linear nature of the experience is only toppled by the game’s expansive use of puzzles, which are far larger in nature to that of other similar games. It’s these segments which feel most like Castlevania in this regard. Some of the puzzles you encounter are rather tough, whilst others are only initially so, requiring you to use past ideas in a new way , or a move which you obtained earlier in the game to unlock its secrets.

A heavy dose of Uncharted style platforming also expands upon the puzzles, and linear nature of the gameplay as a whole. It is a mostly automated affair, with only certain walls and surfaces being climbable, and jumping off a ledge the game doesn’t want you to is rarely possible.

While I did enjoy the relaxed nature of traversing the environment, engaging with the lavish surroundings, the game’s camera tends to hinder your progress. As it is static, and placed in such a way as to direct the flow of action, it certainly doesn’t help when certain angles are difficult to judge, or when vital parts of the environment are obscured off-screen making a few leaps of faith unavoidable. This starts off to be a minor quip, but becomes irritating fairly early on, especially when you try and backtrack through areas you’ve already been to find the last key to unlock the entrance to the next stage - you often end up running off an unseen edge to your doom.

Of course having a fixed camera allows the game to show off its thoroughly accomplished graphical make up. Home to some of the most detailed, and downright impressive visuals seen this generation, environments and characters are beautifully rendered, taking inspiration from past Castlevania games, God Of War and Shadow Of The Colossus. Hardly original it would seem, but highly impressive given the overall scale and polish of what is on offer.

Sadly, the game’s framerate is rather poor as a result, with constant slowdown well below the targeted 30fps, often going down as far as 15 – 20fps in some situations. Whilst not being a deal-breaker, the increase in imput lag is wholey undesired, and the combat never feels quite as fluid as it should as a result. On the plus side there’s no ugly screen-tearing present, and despite the regularly severe drops in smoothness Lords Of Shadow is still an extremely playable affair. Just maybe not quite as polished as it could have been.

Castlevania: LOS perhaps marks the most successful entry into 3D for this series, although it is also clear that this wasn’t originally meant to be a Castlevania title at all. Fans expecting long and detailed areas filled with multiple paths and plenty to explore will be disappointed, whilst those expecting a linear action game with plenty of button bashing, and some sizeably grand puzzles will be mostly satisfied. Occasionally, the game does feel rather repetitive, and the beautiful visuals are let down by a mostly far away camera, and a poor framerate, although these elements don’t completely tarnish the overall experience.

As a whole, the linear levels, the near constant barrage of new stuff to learn, and the deep, thought provoking puzzles gel together the separate elements of Castlevania, separating it from other titles that it so unashamedly copies from. There’s also no doubt that the whole thing feels like its ripping off countless other games. And it does, pretty obviously in places. But the way in which the developers have done this puts LOS on a higher pedastal than lesser contenders.


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