I’ve tried. I’ve tried so very, very hard. But whatever I do, however I see it, in whatever light and whatever mood, Lords of Shadow can only serve to sour my mood and make me froth at the mouth. But others seem to like it, and like it a lot. Time for me to state my complete case. Spoilers ahead…
I more than like Castlevania. I’ve liked it since the NES days, when it was no more than a simple two-dimensional platformer with cheesy tunes and a nice beat. I lived with it through the SNES era, as it tried to be more open ended, and through the PS1 and handheld eras, where it flourished and helped coin the genre of “Metroidvania”. Heck, let’s get this out of the way. I actually would even defend Legacy of Darkness on the N64 – sure, the game itself was a bit creaky and woolen, but it served it all up with a helping of extra cheese, which overwhelmed what would have left a slightly bitter aftertaste of dodgy platforming segments and wonky collision detection.
But here we are. Lords of Shadow, the most recent Castlevania game to shore up the series in the 3D world. And I’ve realised – I hate it. I hate it more than I can say.
But, seeing as this IS a blog – and, more importantly, my blog, – say I shall.
You see, my main problem with Lords of Shadow is when you deconstruct it down into its base components, you start to see a game that isn’t all it wants to be, and doesn’t have the soul to really give life or passion to the artificial bones that make up this homunculus. So let’s pull it apart piece by piece, shall we?
The first thing we’re going to pull apart is, effectively, the main body of the game – the combat system. The combat system is the game effectively, and is a generic 3D X-Y-Z-plane brawler in the same sort of cortical and nervous system as God of War, and lesserly Devil May Cry. These games pioneered and refined this sort of thing (forgetting Bayonetta usurped Devil May Cry’s throne), by adding huge combos, ratings systems, RPG and upgrade elements and, of course, upgrade systems. Throw in orbs, and you have effectively the recipe for a really good combat system.
But you see, Lords of Shadow fails here because when your whole game, or at least three-quarters of it, is based on the actual combat and, lesserly, the combat set-pieces, then you have to make sure that there is no possible way that anyone can throw any blame at the combat system itself. It has to be taught, tight and flow. It cannot be fiddly, open to abuse or allow for camera angles and boss models to impede and infringe on that. The player must feel like they are in complete control – and I never felt that. That Gabriel Belmont, the main character, kept getting caught on the scenery, behind boss models and the camera getting spazzy a little too often just makes it feel like they put the games visual style over the practicalities of you, as a player.
Speaking of which, let’s touch upon the visuals.
I will concede that the graphics and art design of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is achingly pretty. It really is and I have no qualms with people defending that aspect of it. It is pretty. It’s gorgeous, in fact. But I argue this to you – that in today’s modern world of gaming and technology, that graphics themselves are an increasingly redundant argument. This is an era where 90% of games look visually stunning to behold, where the bare minimum for gaming is 720p and we’re fast approaching the era where 1080p will eventually be the standard that we hold onto. The basic middleware solutions available are capable of producing some seriously potent visuals, and the budgets being thrown about ensure the very best in graphic and virtual design teams. So really, are we really intent on selling Lords of Shadow based solely on its visual splendour? I mean no offence here but I expect my games now to be pretty as standard – I don’t expect a game to visually “surprise me”, unless it’s really truly bad. As a result, for me there is a need to get beyond that original “Ooh, pretty!” reaction and look for something a little more tangible than mere looks.
So, two things out of the way. Let’s take on the story now – well, what there is of it in any case.
You see, Lords of Shadow uses an awful lot of dialogue to set up what is, in fact, a pretty basic plot of a mans revenge over the death of his wife, following a rumour of a method that may bring her back from the dead and discovering his own destiny is entwined in this adventure. That’s it. That’s your main story. There are a few basic nuances and exceptions – chiefly among which is the little girl vampire, Laura,
Little girl vampires have been slightly overbaked it is true, but in Laura the game hits a particular nerve in me. She’s not as deformed as the rest, she’s not as dominated by thirst as her kin. She’s a curious little mite, spiteful and yet with that same sense of childish innocence that betrays her. She’s also the only character in the game I felt I could sympathise with, relate to, and she doesn’t have a key role, She’s a curiosity wheeled out a few times to add spice, and yet she steals the game.
As for the rest, it’s a case of ticking genre cliche checkboxes – young woman who can’t speak but magically has telepathy? Check. Hero with a dark secret? Check. Old guy who practically screams from the off “I am actually evil!”. Check. There isn’t anything in the story that elevates it – aside from Laura and her star turn, although it wasn’t particularly hard for her to steal the show when you look at it. I mean, you know Sobek is kind of evil from the off – and you know quite early on that Gabriel is the one who has killed his wife and others. Gabriel has the personality of a piece of Brie, Sobek is about as interesting for the most of it as a lump of coal and the other bosses don’t really hang around long enough to make an impression.
If the story isn’t much cop then the voice acting does nothing to redeem it, and the sad thing here is Lords of Shadow spent a good sum of money on celebrity voice acting. The otherwise fantastic Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later and The Full Monty) brings a tiny, almost David Beckham-like voice to Gabriel, one that never once fits or works. Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show, The Other Boleyn Girl) is cast as his dead wife and doesn’t get nearly the kind of time to flex her acting chops. And Sobek – and the majority of the game – is voiced by Patrick Stewart. Yes, he of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the man with a voice that defines the very term of “Aural Ear Sex”. Throughout the game, Patrick Stewart sounds bored and restless, as if even he couldn’t quite get into or buy the frankly laughable script he’d been given – he genuinely sounds as though he is bored. Heck, if Mr Stewart is bored then it’s always going to show through – and trust me, if Patrick Stewart can’t make something sound interesting, then you’ve got a sods chance in hell of getting any credibility back.
The real killer is that it isn’t that the game is bad that gets me, because it’s not. It’s worse than that. It’s average. Dull. Boring. Without character.
You see, the real reason I hate Lords of Shadow is that despite the promising name, it’s actually in and of itself a mostly forgettable affair that wasn’t initially designed to be a Castlevania game. It transpires that this gothic action was intended as something else originally, but ended up with the Belmont name thrown in there as some kind of justification of slapping the name Castlevania on the box. It bears no relation to Castlevania of old or recent history, it doesn’t feel right. It’s a Gothic action horror that without the Castlevania tag would have been all but forgotten by now, but with it inspires others to run to its defence in a predictable and yet surprising flurry of activity to try and paint it as good as God of War. Sorry, but it isn’t. And frankly, I’m insulted that anyone could dare to compare the games.
(edit 29th July 2012 – Apparantly this was meant to be a Castlevania. Not sure if that makes me happier or sadder, but here’s the correctional bit!)
Lords of Shadow is an exercise really in how to not tell a story – too much dialogue to say absolutely nothing – and an exercise in how to copy games but do nothing with those ideas. From the combat system to Shadow of the Colussus-style bosses, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before – and usually, in much better games. If they had tried something new – even if it didn’t work – then I’d accept its validity. But it doesn’t, it’s just a bland mess of already done ideas that congeal into a textureless, flavourless mass of utter beige.
And in today’s world, that is simply not good enough. Bad games are remembered for being bad and good games are remembered for being good, but boring games don’t – and shouldn’t – be remembered. The difference with this one is that it has attached to it a moniker that makes it impossibly hard to ignore, or forget – even though you’d want to. That, for me, is a cardinal sin that cannot be forgiven under any circumstance.
Tainting a brand with an average game isn’t unheard of, Silent Hill did it with The Room. Take away the Castlevania moniker, much like the Silent Hill example, and it isn’t that at all. It’s an illusion, like Clark Kent and his glasses – the minute he puts them on, no-one recognises him. Takes them off – he’s Superman! Same deal but in reverse – take off these big series monikers and you simply wouldn’t be able to defend them as they are. We are shepherded into buying these games by a simple and convenient lie – the brand on the box.
Some people will do their best to convince themselves it tastes even better than before, chewing slowly with a funny expression on their faces. Me? I’m not nearly as sentimental. It’s a boring, dull, average game that isn’t especially hard, isn’t especially well acted, isn’t especially well written, has some dodgy camera work and has no real reason to replay it other than to open more chests and tackle more challenges within its borrowed but not especially well utilised combat system. It’s everything Castlevania isn’t and shouldn’t be.
The sequel might be interesting – the Lords of Shadow ending sequence is worth finding on YouTube and does suggest that Lords of Shadow was a set up for a sequel, a condition of the game they wanted to make. But they have to work very hard to convince me, and others like me, that they are the best people for the job of bringing Castlevania into the realms of 3D and the realms of modern consoles and handhelds, which can absolutely do more if they get the right ideas going for them.
They’ve been beaten to the market, of course. Dark Souls, from From Software, is already a polished, refined and very successful 3D Metroidvania game. It tells a story without excessive dialogue, it’s visually stunning whilst being tremendously understated, it’s firm but fair in combat, it sounds great and whilst the voice acting isn’t much better, it’s kept to a bare minimum in a harsh, lonely place filled with the weird, the wonderful and the wicked. It is, I’d say, the TRUE heir to the Metroidvania Throne right now.
Over to you, Kojima Studios. Prove us wrong. I double dog dare you.