A different Castlevania experience, but also an enjoyable one.

User Rating: 9.5 | Castlevania: Lords of Shadow PS3
The reins of Castlevania have been entrusted in the hands of Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima and Spanish studio Mercury Steam, and it runs much deeper than the changing of the development guard----it is a stand-alone reimagining of the franchise with new innovations, new characters and a new, established story. While it risks alienating current Castlevania aficionados, it is also quite the refreshing experience; deserving of a chance to prove itself among both longtime fans and newcomers in equal measure. Despite some minor issues, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is one of the finest games you'll play this year.

The world of the early 10th century faces the end of days. Mankind stands on the brink of death, believing their benevolent God to have abandoned them, not knowing that the alliance between the Earth and the Heavens has been shattered by an evil incantation wrought by a mysterious dark order of sentient beings known as the Lords of Shadow. The restless souls of the dead wander in a harrowed state of purgatory, absolved of their eternal peace, and the unfortunate ones that still yet live are hunted mercilessly by an insurgence of unholy creatures. It is here the player fulfills the interpersonal journey of Gabriel Belmont; member of the Brotherhood of Light, who has been sent to investigate an ethereal message from the restless shade of his recently murdered wife Marie for a clue that may lead to humanity's salvation. He is also encouraged by the slightest hope that the mysterious God Mask, an artifice of incredible power held in fragments by the Lords of Shadow, will restore her to the mortal coil. Walking the moors of a devastated land, driven by revenge for the loss of his beloved, and armed with the Combat Cross (a subtle variation of the Vampire Killer), Gabriel must not only struggle against the encroaching forces of evil that threaten the very sanctity of the world, but also contend with the seething demons, insatiable murderous tendencies and a frighteningly plausible inner darkness that dwells within his heart and suffocates his very soul.

Sprawled across fifty stages divided by chapters, Lords of Shadow departs significantly from previous games, diffusing away from the series' established story line in an entirely new universe. But that doesn't necessarily mean it has entirely forgotten the benefactor from which it draws numerous, oblique references; ranging from eponymous nods to games like Simon's Quest, Legacy of Darkness, Lament of Innonence and even Portrait of Ruin. Yet, the foremost influence lies within Super Castlevania IV; a Super NES title that has served as a deliberate resource for much of Lords of Shadow's development cycle. The Combat Cross is the subtle incarnation of the Vampire Killer, and it is even explicitly referred as such on several occasions in the game. A multi-functional cross with a chain attachment affixed in its holt, the Combat Cross can not only brutally dispatch the unsavory evil hordes that stand in Gabriel's path with a few well-placed lashes, it also serves as a grappling hook for when Gabriel must scale steep cliffs, swing across wide gaps and jostle down walls and other surfaces; almost similar in vein to the functionality of Simon Belmont's whip in Super Castlevania IV. Given the appropriate upgrades that you'll run into during the course of your quest, the Combat Cross can even do away with solid obstacles blocking his path towards valuable secrets and rewards, as well as tame wild beasts for him to take advantage of before ultimately strangling them to death at his helm and call. This gives Lords of Shadow a much more elaborate wealth of different methods introduced during combat and platforming situations, and makes for a truly memorable, rewarding experience.

When dispensing of enemies, Gabriel will possess experience points that can be spent upgrading the combo strike capabilities of the Combat Cross, thus further strengthening his destructive potential. You'll gain access to new combo attacks that can be performed in mid-air, on foot and even after a successful defense; all requiring different button combinations to pull off effectively. Many of these attacks may take some time to get accustomed to, but sure enough, they can prove invaluable during difficult boss fights and when you are hopelessly encroached upon by surrounding enemies. Also, Gabriel can locate useful items that will increase his health and magic meter, as well as the aforementioned upgrades to the Combat Cross---among other things.

When the Combat Cross alone isn't quite enough, Gabriel has a few other tools at his disposal. The sub-weapons from previous Castlevania games return in the form of Holy Water and Daggers, as well as new items like Fairies (which distract enemies before dying) and an omniscient Purple Crystal that calls upon the powers of a horrific demon to obliterate anything and everything within its radius. Unlike the sub-weapons of Castlevanias past, these tools serve a greater strategic purpose, proving useful when fighting specific enemy types. For example, Lycanthropes can be easily killed (or heavily damaged) by their weakness to thrown daggers, and you can stun Vampires temporarily by means of Holy Water. Gabriel also possesses the ability to summon both Light and Dark magic. Pressing the corresponding uppermost shoulder buttons, he can imbue the properties of Light magic to heal his injuries with every attack, and call upon the insipid nature of Dark magic to deal the added hurt on enemies. Because there are no life-giving pick ups to be found anywhere in Lords of Shadow apart from the Healing Statues that can only be activated once per use, which is rather disappointing, the restorative properties of Light Magic are a relative godsend. Furthermore, you can refill both Light and Dark magic reticules by cleverly pressing the corresponding analog sticks to absorb them in their respective categories, and this can be done by two means; Magic Statues interspersed throughout the world, and orbs that you can expunge from your foes, but only if you raise the Focus Meter at its fullest for each consolidated strike and not getting injured. Knowing these worthwhile opportunities firsthand can mean the difference between life and death, but so long as you stay sharp, there's no challenge you can't overcome.

And what worth is a Mature rated Castlevania game without cinematic kills? To that end, Lords of Shadow fulfills these to their brutally violent utmost. Using the R2 button when the moment arises (i.e. when an enemy gives a flashing indicator) Gabriel will tap into his murderous rage and utterly tear most enemies to shreds with either his bare hands or by means of the sharp end of his Combat Cross. Visual cues will prompt the player to press any button at the right moment to successfully implicate the attack move, oftentimes killing his enemies instantly. Sometimes, you're asked to do this more than once, and it is a requirement for finishing off major bosses, but complete success will guarantee the final nail in the coffin. (And failure, likewise, will guarantee the nail in yours.) Unfortunately, one of the more annoying aspects of some cinematic finishers is the prompting to repeatedly press a determined button as fast as you can. Although these are simple to pull off, they're mostly tedious exercises of repetition. Still, no matter how its done, you will be treated to a glorious, interactive cut scene that gives you a glimpse into the frightening capabilities of Gabriel Belmont.

Lords of Shadow also draws inspiration from other games as well---one of the more obvious examples is Shadow of the Colossus on the PlayStation 2. During the course of his journey, Gabriel must contend with enormous, screen-suffocating giants appropriately known as Titans---ancient monstrosities of an era long forgotten. As is the case with the source material it borrows from, Gabriel must determine a sensible strategy in scaling these gargantuan abominations. Fortunately, there are visual cues that crop up which demand the use of your Combat Cross and the R2 button. You must then find and destroy the magical Runes that animate the creature, but these walking mountains aren't in any mood to make things easy for you. These epic, mind-blowing Titan battles are perhaps one of the more defining and exciting moments in all the game. My only true regret is that they are disappointingly few and far between.

Visually, Lords of Shadow is a beautiful game with an incredible amount of detail and a diverse art style. Though it deviates from the series canon, these environments pay a well enough homage to the franchise all the same. Invisible walls hurt some aspects of exploration, and an uncooperative camera can make some platforming situations like leaping from wall to wall or scaling down steep cliffs via Combat Cross a difficult affair, but nothing near game-breaking by any stretch of the imagination. The music is also worth noting for its movie-quality orchestrative style, though fans of the series may be disappointed with the absence of familiar songs. Voice overs are well done, especially Sir Patrick Stewart, who not only voices the character Zobek, but also narrates the bulk of the game with a trademark vocal pipe that will surely send chills down your spine.

Lords of Shadow is an enormous adventure, spanning well over 20 or so hours to complete. You can even revisit completed levels to tackle unlockable challenges and unlock even more surprises as well as seek out items you may have missed. But through it all, it is a visceral, immersive gameplay experience that borrows many elements from other games; delicately interspersing them into a package that ultimately defines itself as a worthwhile endeavor for longtime fans and newcomers. Whichever side of the fence you associate yourself with, you owe it to yourself to delve deep into these shadows, but be forewarned----once you do, there's no going back.