Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a game of contradictions. Its lead character, Gabriel Belmont, finds himself equipped with great combat abilities and more than enough special skills to combat the forces of evil and avenge the death of his love. But for the player, it's almost overkill--a good portion of Belmont's unlocked special skills are only truly necessary when solving environmental puzzles. Similarly, Lords of Shadow is an astoundingly beautiful game filled with expansive views of a broken world dotted with solemn waterfalls; sinister forests; and decaying, ancient cities. But, you won't be exploring much of these locales because the game is very strict about where you can go and how you can get there, delivering only an illusion of freedom conjured by a combination of invisible walls and platforms just out of reach. As these and other facets of the game continually butt heads, it becomes clear that Castlevania is largely a mishmash of mostly incongruous ideas taken from some of gaming's finest moments. And it's those very same moments--previously seen and played in other games but well executed here--that ultimately define the game but sadly strip it of an identity to call its own.
That isn't to say the game fails in giving these moments context within the Castlevania universe as constructed by Lords of Shadow. In fact, the story does a reasonable job in setting things up and explaining why Gabriel Belmont fights massive titans, as well as hordes of werewolves, zombies, vampires, and other mainstays from the vintage horror assembly line. As a member of the Brotherhood of Light (a holy order of knights), Gabriel sets out on a quest to retrieve an item that can potentially bring the dead back to life--in this case, his murdered wife. Of course, to find the item, he first has to learn where it is and how to get to it. Eventually, Gabriel runs into a character named Pan, resembling the mythological creature of the same name, who tells him that he must venture to the lands where the Necromantic Wars took place to retrieve his prize: the God mask. It just so happens that these lands are also infested with lycans (werewolves) and vampires, which are agents of evil from the Necromantic Wars. Meanwhile, the forces of good have long since collapsed, with only scant traces of their once massive and proud civilization lying in dust--their defenders, save a few functioning titans, fallen and scattered into pieces. Gabriel presses forward and ultimately discovers new allies, the origins of the Lords of Shadow, the Lords' involvement with the Brotherhood of Light, and the true nature of the God mask.
It's a rich universe, to be sure, but Lords of Shadow rarely ever uses it as more than background filler. In other words, most of what is described of the world comes in the form of notes from an in-game bestiary and narrated text displayed at the beginning of a level. While Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame) does a fine job of speaking these lines, they rarely elicit the same kind of connection to the world and its characters as the game's cutscenes do. The problem is the majority of these worthwhile expository sequences occur near the beginning of the game and at the very end, leaving very little meat in the middle of the sandwich that is Lords of Shadow's story. Sure, there are bits and pieces throughout that deliver explanations for boss characters and the like, but the most important character is almost completely neglected. More specifically, there's a significant stretch of game where it seems as though Gabriel has fallen completely mute--an unfortunate occurrence for a potentially good character and a great voice actor (Robert Carlyle).
To be fair, producing an abundance of character-driven story sequences doesn't automatically make for engaging character development, but the desire to see more should count for something positive. And to its credit, Lords of Shadow never implements (or even needs) cutscenes as a balance for lack of content because, it's a surprisingly long game with dozens of levels that present a solid challenge. On normal difficulty, without being too compulsive about discovering hidden items or completing special objectives, the game takes about 15 to 20 hours to beat, and that time is peppered with good and bad experiences. Those good moments are usually quite entertaining, but the bad moments are just downright irritating. One aspect floats between these two extremes, however: hand-holding.
Having a tutorial-like structure at the beginning of a game--something that eases you into the experience and gets you comfortable with what you can and can't do--is not the issue. Indeed, in the early parts of Lords of Shadow, the helpful messages at the top of the screen serve their purpose, helping you navigate ledges, open locked doors, and complete other environmental puzzles. But then they appear in the third level, the fourth level, the fifth level, and further into the game--giving hints in areas that only require the slightest bit of thought. Ultimately, these breadcrumbs and their ubiquity convey a lack of faith in not only the game's ability to present a logical solution or path, but also in your ability to find those solutions within a reasonable amount of time. Along those lines, actual puzzles (mechanical devices that require some brain power to complete) have solutions that you can purchase, which sends a similar message. It's all quite odd because Lords of Shadow is at its best when these scenarios are solved on your own terms, without such aids. These occasions lead to some trial-and-error gameplay that can be frustrating, but thanks to a rather generous checkpoint and death system (for example, falling into pits only takes off some energy), it's never so egregious that it overrides the sense of reward for completing a difficult task.
Granted, there are also those moments--with or without hints--that are completely infuriating, and it's not because of difficulty spawned out of cleverness but, rather, difficulty spawned from Lords of Shadow's own limitations and shortcomings. It can be anything from a ledge or enemy partially obscured by the game's fixed camera to a timed puzzle that requires Gabriel to deftly move in a way he obviously wasn't intended to move. After all, his default walking speed is more like a sprint, so navigating a series of electrical fields with slight taps of the analog stick presents more than its fair share of issues. Sometimes issues stem from situations where Gabriel has to use a special ability--like a powerful punch--to move an object. While that special skill may have moved a similarly weighty object previously, the very same attack may be useless against this new object for no practical reason, other than a shoulder seems to have the magic touch and a fist does not. Actually, there's almost a superfluous aspect to Gabriel's special abilities--those granted to him upon receiving sacred items from fallen enemies. It's immensely frustrating to struggle with a seemingly simple puzzle for far too long, only to realize that the key is a particular ability you used only once more than six hours ago.
It's a testament, then, to the unabashedly God of War-inspired core combat mechanics in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow that they're as good as they are despite the needless depth and confusion created by the relics found later in the game. Armed with his combat cross whip, Gabriel performs two different kinds of attacks--short but strong, and sweeping but weak, strikes--that he can use in conjunction with jumps (for aerial combinations), throws, as well as rolls and blocks (for counters). These attacks are then mixed and strung together, creating flurries that either work to great, bloody effect on his opponents or merely give Gabriel a brief respite from an onslaught of blades, claws, and fangs. Additionally, as Gabriel ventures further, he also acquires subweapons in the form of daggers, fairies, holy water, and a crystal that unleashes a suitably odd--and very naked--creature capable of wiping out most enemies with a single hit. These items are never meant to dominate a fight as they are to supplement Gabriel's skills against specific kinds of creatures. Daggers, for example, can kill most low-level werewolves with a single shot. In that respect, they work quite well, and there are opportunities to increase the number you can carry by finding hidden chests. This is the only reason to revisit levels if you're not interested in meeting new and seemingly arbitrary goals upon completing a level for the first time.
Additional attacks for the combat cross and subweapons are available for purchase as you make headway toward the land of the vampires and earn more currency by defeating enemies and solving puzzles. Some of these moves are more useful than others, so it's entirely possible to get by with just purchasing one or two and never looking at the skills menu ever again. Despite even that, Lords of Shadow maintains a quality combat engine because its enemies and bosses provide a good, fulfilling, and often memorable challenge. They require manipulation of Gabriel's strategy in a way that utilizes nearly all of his basic skills and items. This same sensibility works its way into the magic system and its source of energy.
Gabriel has two kinds of magic at his disposal--one type, when activated, heals him when he attacks enemies while the other type inflicts more damage with each blow. In most instances, weaker enemies present a prime opportunity to gain some valuable health because their defenses are minimal, but stronger enemies will give more health if you have the skill to inflict a lot of damage before they start blocking. Both forms of magic can be recharged either by finding statues and absorbing orbs of energy or by defeating enemies while a special meter at the bottom of the screen is completely full. Charging this meter requires you to engage enemies in skillful way--dodging and attacking without ever getting hit causes orbs to spew from enemies.
When magic is introduced in Lords of Shadow, it feels forced; it's almost like another idea being thrown into a game as part of a kitchen sink mentality to create a game that appeals to everyone. But it does end up working well in conjunction with the combat system, especially during boss battles when you have to be careful with how and when you use magic. To be perfectly clear, however, there are two types of boss battles in Lords of Shadow. One type is against incredibly strong foes (namely, the Lords of Shadow) where victory requires not only a clear strategy, but also a strong knowledge of what Gabriel can and can't do because these boss foes simply aren't stupid. The other type is a dramatic titan battle where Gabriel maneuvers his way up the appendages of a massive creature to find its weak spots and take it down. It's quite a blatant takeoff of Shadow of the Colossus, but Lords of Shadow pays proper tribute with its own intense and memorable versions of that formula and surprisingly adds its own spin, playing up Gabriel's ability to use his primary weapon as a grappling hook.
If anything, these confrontations with the hulking titans are also some of the most visually impressive portions in a game where awe-inspiring scenery is already plentiful. It's almost a shame that Gabriel runs so fast because there are times when it becomes necessary to stop and appreciate the amount of effort that went into the great span of environments in Lords of Shadow, whether it's the fallen empire of Agartha, a dilapidated castle, or even the murky swamps. Even the tiniest of details, such as the mist from a waterfall or a setting sun are cause for praise. It's just a beautiful game. As for the character models, Gabriel looks fantastic, but it's pretty clear that secondary characters, aside from bosses, weren't given as much attention and look rather bland in comparison. It's also worth noting that while the PlayStation 3 version maintains a steady frame rate, the Xbox 360 version occasionally hiccups during action sequences and cutscenes.
But no matter the version, another impressive aspect of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is its soundtrack. While most fervent Castlevania fans will probably be disappointed by the lack of grandiose references to music from the series (they're there, but relatively subtle), the epic score fits perfectly well with the game's locations and what's occurring onscreen. The only issues that arise are the frequent playing of the main battle song (which triggers when Gabriel gets into a fight) and the fact that there just aren't enough tracks to give each stage a unique tune--perhaps understandably so, given the sheer number of levels. Nonetheless, it's one of the few areas where Castlevania successfully carves out its own identity from the games that obviously provided its inspiration, but it's still surprising that the game doesn't borrow from an abundance of great source material from its own background. Other aspects of the audio, such as voice acting, are also well done with even minor characters giving good performances.
All of this leaves Castlevania: Lords of Shadow in a position where it takes bits (and sometimes chunks) of ideas from other games to reboot a classic series for a more contemporary audience. Those core ideas are what make those games good, and fortunately they're also what make Castlevania: Lords of Shadow good. And, to the game's credit, it takes more than a bit of skill to make all of these ideas gel together in a way that doesn't produce a disparate train wreck. Still, it's not without obvious faults. The combat is great and the boss battles are quite memorable, but it degenerates when those core ideas clash--when Castlevania ignores what it does so well (action) for the sake of creating a more diverse experience. The problem is that diversity ultimately adds nothing notable except for shallow adventure elements and frustration. It's a good start for a series in need of some new blood--so to speak--it's just unfortunate so much of it comes from other games and not an original source.