Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Hands-On

We go Titan-climbing with Gabriel Belmont in Castlevania's first 3D outing on current-generation consoles.

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When Hideo Kojima unveiled Lords of Shadow last year, he described shifting Castlevania development away from Japan as a means to make the series "more appealing [to an international audience] in the years to come." Development duties, he revealed, had been given to Madrid-based MercurySteam, making Lords of Shadow doubly notable; this is also Castlevania's first foray into 3D for the current console generation. How the prolific franchise has been "reborn" for Western markets won't be fully clear until the October launch, but playing through the first two chapters offers strong hints.

Go for the glowing bits.

This is a 3D action game in the same vein as the PlayStation 2's Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, with familiar Castlevania elements remixed into a third-person hack-and-slasher. But between the PS2 game and this one are seven years of progress, years that notably included the whole God of War series and its various imitators. Lords of Shadow borrows from these and more, drawing on diverse sources, though none more plainly than 2005's Shadow of the Colossus. That game's Colossi have been drafted in as Titans, enormous stone guardian bosses with glowing magical weak spots, of which more later.

The game's hero, the Robert Carlyle-voiced Gabriel Belmont, is a knight of an ancient brotherhood. He rides out in an 11th-century, medieval fantasy Europe that suggests Van Helsing meets Lord of the Rings. It's the End of Days, or so say the pitchfork-waving peasants, with the world plagued by monsters and divine intervention nowhere to be seen. "A storm is coming," concurs narrator Patrick Stewart, who could do gravitas while reading the phone book. Belmont has specific worries, though; his wife has been murdered, her soul caught up in the supernatural conflict and trapped in limbo.

From the first level of the first chapter, a combat tutorial, the Castlevania staples are reassuringly present. Belmont fights with the combat cross, an ornate cross relic with a retractable iron chain--the traditional whip, in effect, for lashing enemies and, later, swinging and climbing. His first foes are equally traditional: werewolves and giant werewolves (lycans and wargs, if you please). Though neither castles nor vampires figured in our extended demo, we're promised they are in the game--somewhere around chapters six and seven of an ample 12-chapter, 20-hour experience.

The environments of the first two chapters, each split into many smaller levels, have a good deal of variety. We proceeded from the tutorial's rain-lashed village besieged by werewolves, through spooky woods, poisonous swamps, graveyards, and underground caverns, on to a lush, near-exotic forest, with hanging vines and waterfalls, a huge frozen lake, and the labyrinthine ruins of a long-dead civilisation. In contrast to the rich, elaborately drawn environments, the paths through them are mostly straightforward and linear, with the odd detour to access a health font or a chest holding an upgrade.

When a problem comes along, you must whip it.

Beyond the snarling werewolves, we did battle with grenade-tossing goblins, giant spiders, gremlins, and trolls--a decent, if conventional, mix of enemies. We're counting on more outlandish nasties later in the game, further along the difficulty curve, and preview screenshots seem to bear this out. The by-the-numbers fantasy monsters, at least, throw the striking Titan bosses into sharp relief. These are the Shadow of the Colossus-like colossi: rocky, ancient, golem-like giants, invulnerable to Belmont's combat cross but felled with a good stabbing in their mystical glowing weak spots. We met the first of them towards the end of the first chapter on an enormous frozen lake--the Titan wading waist-high while we were on the icy surface, dodging blows from his huge stone fists. The Titans must be traversed as much as fought; we rappelled up the Titan's arm while his fist was stuck in the ice, climbed the carved ledges on his arm, and then used the combat cross's chain to swing and clamber to each of its weak points in sequence. We had to hold a button to grip when it tried to shake us off, and dodge out of the way when it tried to grab us, but there's no limited stamina for gripping as in Shadow of the Colossus; you can hang on indefinitely, which takes some of the urgency out of the fight, but also some of the frustration. Similarly, the generous checkpointing doesn't ask you to redo the weak spots you've already destroyed.

Outside of the Titan fights, combat is the stuff of classic action games: a mix of direct and area-of-effect attacks with the cross's chain, mixed with the jump for flashier combos, which are picked up and upgraded over time. The aerial moves are the most fun, letting you whisk enemies aloft as you jump and lash them in the air around you. Dead enemies drop daggers, which are required for Belmont's secondary, ranged attacks. Button bashing, as ever, will get you so far, but blocking and dodging are key at any difficulty beyond the easiest setting, Esquire. (Warrior and Knight are available on your first play-through, with Paladin locked at first.)

Action game tropes are plentiful: there are fonts to top up Belmont's health and magic reserves and medallions which, when filled with collectable gems, permanently increase health and magic capacity. Weapon upgrades collected at regular intervals add to the combat cross, in one case adding a hook to the chain, turning it into a grappling hook gun for swinging and rappelling, and in another case adding spikes to the chain, letting us saw through obstacles. Killing enemies, meanwhile, gives experience points to be sunk into combat move upgrades.

Team Jacob takes a beating.

The magical power-up system was introduced halfway through our demo; Belmont gets a light meter and a shadow magic meter, which must each be filled with neutral magical orbs. These are collected by filling up, in turn, the combat focus meter, which rewards you for fighting with varied attacks and dodging those of enemies; this adds another strategic layer to the combat system, dissuading button mashing further still. Once a magic meter is full, the light or shadow mode can be activated; these are, respectively, a purple, electrical-looking aura that heals Belmont as he fights, and a red, fiery aura that increases his attack power.

The first hours of Lords of Shadow suggest a game with plenty up its sleeve. If it's prepared to follow through on its gradual learning curve and increasingly creative enemies and environments, we'll have an action game to stand alongside the best of them--not to mention a Castlevania game to do the series proud, "reboot" or no. Time will tell, on that count, but Kojima's stamp of approval, as the game's executive producer, should calm the nerves of Castlevania devotees. They, like us, will be waiting until October to lay eyes on Lords of Shadow's eventual castles and vampires.

Discussion

162 comments
jm3811
jm3811

Looks like a rip-off of Shadow of the Colosus.

tbone19762008
tbone19762008

Kojima is the best! Anything he releases will be a instant classic. Cant wait for Metal Gear Rising it will also be another Kojima masterpiece!

fortysix_too
fortysix_too

I predict this game will have a Metacritic avg of above a 9 out of 10. It may also garner a few game of the year awards. There is one preview on the net where the guy played for 8 hours and was still on chapter 3 (out of 12), and he hadn't collected more than 50% of the items for any of the areas! And I don't know why people keep saying this is a GOW clone, because anybody who played the 1st Devil May Cry knows that it came out before GOW, and it actually felt like a 3D Castlevania game at times because of the way you got to traverse this creepy old castle with libraries, hallways, royal bedrooms, etc. So, really, this is the way Castlevania was meant to be all along. This game seems to have way more depth than GOW. There is supposed to be alot of exploration and collecting in this game. They are saying 25hrs to beat the story, plus even more if you wanna get a 100% completion rate. That doesn't sound like GOW to me. I love games like GOW, DMC, and Ninja Gaiden. And I think this game will have elements from them. But, I don't think it will be a complete rip-off like Dantes Inferno was at all. And with my all-time favorite game designer involved, I personally can't imagine it being a bad game. Kojima will not put his stamp of approval on a bad game. Anything Mercury Steam might have screwed up has already been corrected by him, trust me. This game is gonna be awesome.

Dechorus
Dechorus

Looking forward to this. I really hope it's structured like Metroid, with a lot of adventure and exploration, while at the same time having a strong and impacting story. So far it seems like a linear action adventure slash god of war clone (though the strong story seems to be there), but I'm hoping that's just the introduction and the earlier levels. It would be cool if the world opens up later, much like it did with Order of Ecclesia. I suppose time will tell. Though he only played a small role in the production, I hope Kojima's involvement shines through.

evilkear
evilkear

first of all, not every action game is trying to imitate god of war, similar ways of controling an action character have existed for a long time. Just something to chew on, I hate god of war games, but love alot of their 'imitators' (i know i'm the exception, not the rule) just sayin' some other games deserve some respect. also, i'm sensing a new trend in castlevania, order of ecclesia had tons of areas to explore, then when you think it's almost over, you realize you still have a giant castle to tackle. this is the castlevania game i've been waiting for! "metroidvania" was getting a little stale.

studfly
studfly

I just reserved this game, Assassins creed Brotherhood, and D.C Universe online. Im really hoping that this game is good. I loved the original Castlevania on Nintendo. What happened to Simon Belmont????

talyo
talyo

nice game :)

The_Frozen_Soul
The_Frozen_Soul

glad to see Castlevania back... can't wait to play it....

Fed__X
Fed__X

I'm excited. I'd really like to see a Castlevania with HD 2D sprites though. Could you imagine that?

Asheileon
Asheileon

@BloomerNYC Do as I did know so I can find my way back next time kiddy.

alebarr
alebarr

Big Castlevania fan here, I've played them all. Personal favorite: SotN. Those guys have a good opportunity to make a game worthy of Cvania reputation. It will of course look good so I'm just hoping for an awesome Soundtrack and perfect Controls.

Asheileon
Asheileon

The old games for NES had more feeling then this yoke :(

baxwam
baxwam

omg i just found out that this game is coming out in oct 5 im pre ordering this!!!

DbzJohno
DbzJohno

This is going to be one sweet game to play on Halloween.12 chapters and 20 hours of gameplay!!! I'm really looking forward to playing this game. This game looks a million times better than the Nintendo 64 flop that they made. Well done guys, Well done.

F-14-D_TOMCAT
F-14-D_TOMCAT

"--of an ample 12-chapter, 20-hour experience......" This looks like it will be an awesome game and the 20 hour campaign should offer an epic adventure.

sharpest1
sharpest1

These young kids these days don't even know what Castlevania is !!! I've been playing C-Vania since the reg.Nintendo day's ! My personal Fav. C-Vania game of all time is Simon's quest Castlevania 2 for nes ,but I feel that Castlevania has lost a lot of it's momentum since it's early predecessors ... Hopefully konami does the title some new justice ! I'm a Big,big Castlevania fan and personally can't wait for this game to hit the shelves ! I just hope its as good as it look's !!!!!!! ....

Oldyoat554
Oldyoat554

Castlevania on a Third Person View like this has failed before cough*N64 version sucked*coughcough...but the rest were awesome, and I have high hopes for this one. Personal favorite: Super Castlevania IV

faisaltm
faisaltm

every castlevania game is epic. I've played all of them and they all have the same gloomy theme on them and the same monsters (mainly wolves and vampires, guess that's what this series is about) and the stories of the games were also beautiful and worth it. love this game, I saw a trailer in one of the game stores in here, I totally drooled while watching the epic graphics. The dialogue, characters and facial expressions were almost as clear and as sharp as Metal Gear Solid 4. love it *nods*

N4Red_NYC
N4Red_NYC

i never played Castlevania, I always heard of it of course. Yet, I was not curious enough to play it. This game looks epic though. Like I have said over and over again this winter and next year I will be broke in the game department on spending.

abdu99
abdu99

this game will be legendary!

crabapple87
crabapple87

I dont get why people seem to hate this game. I think it looks pretty good.

Martyr_of_Wrath
Martyr_of_Wrath

@Liam Eibach, from what ive read so far it doesnt seem like the titans are going to be to hard to beat. unlimited stanima, generous checkpoints,and clearly marked waekpoints. the rest of the game, titans and all, will be utterly and completely awesome.

titloco
titloco

Castlevania games allways is super but not for nintendo 64

younglinkx
younglinkx

until i see actual gameplay and not screenshots im going to hold off on actually getting this game when it comes out.

coco83
coco83

I´m so gonna get this game, i just love Castlevania

SavoyPrime
SavoyPrime

October is just around the corner. I can't wait!

gmnecros
gmnecros

This is gonna be a kickass game. Still missing Alucard, though.

capmantay14
capmantay14

Sooo looking forward to this one! I played all of the 3D Castlevanias (yes, even the crappy Nintendo 64 one), and this one will be AWE-SOME!!!

Mickleohb
Mickleohb

"concurs narrator Patrick Stewart, who could do gravitas while reading the phone book" Great line

Liam_Eibach
Liam_Eibach

These people can take as long as they want... I just want a really kick-a$$ Castlvania game to play. My one request to the devs is; please make it a challenge...please!!

P_R_E_Y
P_R_E_Y

@Elann2008 A game that takes too long to come out is only a good thing. There have been too many games that have been rushed out simply due to hype and to get some units sold... and the game sucks due to being under developed. Plus this is the first castlevania to go 3D in this scale. They want it to as good as the older ones. That cannot be rushed.

Elann2008
Elann2008

This game has been tracked for such a long time. I mean, come out already.. I am starting to get really annoyed by games that take too long in development. The hype is running low.

kenmanius
kenmanius

This game has a lot to live up to as far as 3d action gaming goes when put side by side with games like God of War and Bayonetta. Hopefully its not something that's just good enough to please the Castlevania fan base if you know what i mean. Graphics and art direction look astonishing though.

Gorephanage64
Gorephanage64

I pre-ordered the collector's edition of this game about two months ago at my local gamestop, I have been a life long castlevania fan and I think this is going to be the best ever! this will also bring people back to the franchise and for die hard fans this will keep you up all night jacked up on red bull for months to come! Gamespot needs to quit teasing me with these previews!