Friday, May 2, 2014

Video Game Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

So it seems that very time I walk into my local GameStop store lately I'm assailed by advertisements for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Play as Dracula! Fight Satan! Whoo! So on a whim I decided to give this series a try. I bought Lords of Shadow 2 and the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Collection which came with the first game in the series, as well as both of the DLC chapters for said game and a download code for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate HD, and decided to play through and review them.

In the interest of fairness I should confess: I have experienced this particular game before. I watched my brother play this game years ago and was disappointed by the linear, simplistic nature of it. (I even eventually came up with a nickname for it: Casualvania.) But far be it for me to judge something based only on such a limited experience.

I should also mention that I'm a huge fan of the Castlevania series, but in the name of being fair, I'll hold off on comparing this game to its predecessors. We're going to be fair, here. Maybe too fair, honestly.

So, let's start with this game. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow set out to re-invent the Castlevania series, with a shift in focus away from exploration and RPG stylings and towards combat and storyline. Sounds good, so let's talk about those.

Right off the bat we see that combat in this game is a carbon copy clone of the combat from God of War, complete with combos and quick-time-event finishing moves. But hey, God of War was fun, right? If it ain't broke, don't... yeah, I'm sorry. I'm not buying this fairness act either. Let's start over.

Combat in Lords of Shadow is shit. It's drawn out, tedious button-mashing. This shouldn't be much of a shock; as I said before, this game's combat draws heavily from God of War, which was a very button-mashy kind of game. This problem is compounded by a lack of ability to upgrade your attacks and the fact that almost all enemies have enormous pools of health for soaking damage, turning every battle into a chore.

But what about story, the other focus of this game? The story is... not much better. It's melodramatic and cliché, and full of one-dimensional characters most of whom die horribly within minutes of you meeting them anyway. All of this will be introduced to you in boring narration and cutscenes that are entirely too God damned long. (It shouldn't shock anyone who is familiar with that series to know that this game was made by the same people who made Metal Gear Solid.)

And no, I know that story was never one of this series' strong points, but at least characters were cool in the other games in this series. Don't get me wrong here; as I mentioned in my review of Loonatics Unleashed I don't mind an alternate continuity story changing things as long as they do it in a way that's cool. So if they really wanted to re-imagine the hero of Castlevania 64 as a villain that's fine, but making him completely generic and one-dimensional is... less so.

It doesn't stop there. The game takes Brauner, the tragic villain from Portrait of Ruin, and makes him a generic, personality-free bat monster. Fan favorite villain Death is back as... a HUMAN SORCERER of all things. Dracula appears only in the end credits sequence (because this game is already trying its hardest to be a movie, complete with shaky-cam even, so it might as well have an end credits sequence too, right?) where it turns out (spoiler alert in case you've been hiding under a rock) the main character, Gabriel Belmont, was a pre-vampire Dracula all along!

Except, wait, why? The game ends with Gabriel saving the world, defeating his demons (literally), gaining forgiveness for his many sins, and most notably NOT becoming a vampire. This game has done absolutely nothing to earn this plot twist, and don't you dare bring up the two DLC chapters when you're defending this shit because this end credits sequence came BEFORE them.

KR Rating: [3] MEDIOCRE

To be fair, the game does get a bit better the further you get, at least insofar as learning more powerful combination attacks making combat a bit quicker. Unfortunately, it never gets to a point where it can be called good, and even more unfortunately, it doesn't matter.

I've tried to avoid comparing this game to its predecessors, but it really can't be helped. I won't sugar-coat it: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is an unwelcome attempt at "re-inventing" a series that was, to be totally honest, just fine the way it was. The result is a mess of unoriginal ideas that throws away everything that made the series unique while adding little to nothing of value.

Gone are the imaginative enemies, replaced with generic bat-like vampires and snarling werewolves, several varieties of giant animals, trolls and goblins... yawn. The game does take a few brief stabs at giving us something interesting like burrowing zombies that throw their heads at you, or the giant titans which were clearly stolen from Shadow of the Collosus. Sadly these are too few and far between and only ever appear once each anyway.

Gone is the iconic gothic music, replaced with generic "moody" tracks that you probably won't even notice. There's exactly one moment where the game teases you with the old style music, in a level with a music box, and then never does it again.

Gone is the quick and fun combat, replaced with endless, boring button mashing.

Still, I do still intend on playing and reviewing the next games in the series. So look for part two, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate HD next week.

Annotation From A Week Later:

As I mentioned in my review for the sequel, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate HD, one thing I regret not bringing up in this review was that this game was not developed as a Castlevania game. I decided to mention it here both because it should be brought up, and to make a point about it.

The game was first conceived as a new 3D Castlevania game, but Konami didn't want it to compete with Castlevania Judgment so they quickly re-worked it as an original IP, titled simply Lords of Shadow. The only real carryover between this game and Castlevania was the whip-like weapon the main character uses, and the fact that it involves fighting monsters.

However, somewhere near the end Konami decided that the game wouldn't sell without a big name attached to it (probably because it's an awful game that's mediocre at best and shitty at worst) and so gave it a half-ass facelift. They gave some of the characters Castlevania names, threw a few Continuity Nods into the narration (like referring briefly to the Combat Cross as "Vampire Killer," the whip from Castlevania), and tacked on the aforementioned out-of-left-field end credits scene, and called it a day.

This information certainly explains a lot of the bad things with this game, but it doesn't excuse them. If anything, it kind of makes me want to take another point OFF of the game's review score, but I won't.

What I will say instead is that, if the game had been developed with the intention of being a Castlevania game from the very beginning, it might have been much better. I'm not just saying that as an underhanded way of saying "they should have given us another regular series game" either. No, I'm totally fine with them creating an entirely new alternate timeline for this game.

The biggest problem that Lords of Shadow had, I think, is that they just didn't have any ideas. As I said above, enemies are bland and characters are one-dimensional. If they had developed this game with the intention of making a Castlevania game, they would have had all the ideas they needed already waiting for them to draw from.

For example, let's look at two of the worst characters in the entire game: Brauner and Olrox. They're two brothers who became vampires and are lieutenants in the service of the vampire queen, Carmilla. You know what? I'm actually totally fine with that. What I'm not fine with is how generic they are. Their personalities can be summed up as "rar, I'm going to kill everyone because I'm evil" and their designs are just generic bat people with swords.

But those names carry with them a wealth of inspiration. In Portrait of Ruin, Brauner was a tortured artist who developed a magic that brings paintings to life. In Symphony of the Night, Olrox was a sophisticated former master of the castle who had powers similar to Dracula's.

Why not go with that? Give these two some uniqueness. You could still have them be brothers. You could still have them be servants of Carmilla. But they would at least have been INTERESTING servants of Carmilla.

But of course, the problem is that they just didn't have that inspiration. They didn't develop these characters as Brauner and Olrox. They developed them as Generic Vampire Lieutenant 1 and Generic Vampire Lieutenant 2, and then pasted the names on later.

If there's one thing worse than a terrible game, it's a terrible game that honestly had real potential that was just totally squandered. And if there's one thing worse than that it's a terrible game that has no ideas whatsoever, which never should have been made, and which had the name of a great game slapped onto it so that the creators could make a buck.

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