“CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW COLLECTION” (Game Review)
Most long-running game series (SUPER MARIO, FINAL FANTASY, etc) avoid the potential hazards of a strong “mythology” by keeping it simple (Mario is good, things that he can stomp on are bad) or starting from scratch every time out (save for Chocobos and guys named Cid). Other series, such as CASTLEVANIA, haven’t had long-term goals in mind when they were designed, but kept expanding on the initial storyline, resulting in a complicated “canon” that can scare off new fans, while also decreasing the appeal for older fans who’ve grown tired of trying to make sense of its narrative (RESIDENT EVIL is an even bigger offender of this). Some folks at Konami agreed, which is why LORDS OF SHADOW is not only a completely standalone affair in terms of CASTLEVANIA lore, but also planned to be a definitive open and shut trilogy that will wrap up with LORDS OF SHADOW 2 in 2014.
Wait, huh? A trilogy ending in part two? It’s a bit confusing, but the middle part of the story is dubbed MIRROR OF FATE and was available on the 3DS, a bit strange considering that LORDS OF SHADOW wasn’t available for that system. Seeking a need to make the whole story clear to those who do not own the portable system (including yours truly), Konami has released the LORDS OF SHADOW COLLECTION, which offers the 2010 game, its two DLC add-ons, a port of MIRROR for us console lovers, and a demo for LORDS OF SHADOW 2 that teases some of the gameplay tweaks that are in store. Having missed LORDS the first time around (ironically, because I figured it would be impenetrable to someone like me, who hadn’t played a series entry in over 15 years), the collection was a godsend, getting me all caught up for what looks to be an even better sequel, and will hopefully start a trend of “mini-franchises” that don’t overstay their welcome, but have enough installments to fully flesh out the world they create.
Set about a thousand years ago, LORDS OF SHADOW tells the story of Gabriel Belmont (voiced by Robert Carlyle), a knight from the Brotherhood of Light whose wife Marie had recently been killed. Thus, he is moody and very much up for letting off steam by killing things. Marie was done in by a creature that spawned thanks to the actions of the titular Lords, who have caused a rift that affects Heaven and Earth alike, giving him a personal agenda as he makes his way around the country in order to stop them. The plot actually sounds like something out of a later season of SUPERNATURAL—which makes Gabriel’s physical similarity to Jared Padalecki all the more distracting—but as with most games of this type, it doesn’t really matter what the story is (especially since its big “twist” regarding who is pulling Gabriel’s strings is painfully obvious right from the start) as long as you understand who to aim your weapons at. Patrick Stewart’s narration in between levels can usually keep you up to speed if you start getting a bit lost, as well. But don’t let the presence of Hideo Kojima scare you. It’s never as baffling as his METAL GEAR SOLID games, and it does have some interesting ideas, especially regarding how the Lords of Shadow were created in the first place. Additionally, even if it borders on VAN HELSING territory at times, I quite enjoyed how the narrative managed to weave in so many types of monsters/villains. Even Frankenstein plays a part eventually, along with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, chupacabras (!), spiders, and a dozen others, each with their own weaknesses and attack modes to keep the combat consistently engaging.
Oddly, what it doesn’t have much of is castles. Gabriel spends most of the 15-20 hour game campaign in wide open areas; even when structures are present, he finds himself on their exterior more often than not, scaling the walls and swinging from their towers instead of heading inside for typical CASTLEVANIA scenery. It’s not until the middle chapters (of 12, with two more from DLC) that you’ll feel like you’re in one of the old NES games (albeit in a three-dimensional world), and before long you’re back outside again anyway. The scenery is often quite striking, often offering a more visually appealing feast than you might expect from a game in the series, but I still couldn’t help but feel it was another game that got turned into a CASTLEVANIA during the last stages of production. When I see a candle in a CASTLEVANIA game, I expect to be able to whip it and maybe get some health for my trouble. Here, nothing happens.
And that’s one of the game’s red marks. Health can be awfully hard to come by, especially as the game nears its conclusion. To heal up, you can either find a Life Fountain that will completely refill your life bar, or use your Light (defensive) Magic during battle and absorb health from your enemies. Of course, this decreases your MP, which can be refilled by a different kind of fountain, or you can get a few precious orbs from killing an enemy… as long as you’re not using your light (or Shadow/offensive) magic when you land the fatal blow. So you’re constantly using one type up to refill another, though if you find a hidden Life, Light, or Shadow crystal you can get a free refill, and every five you find of each kind will extend the length of the meter permanently. Some of the crystals are inaccessible when you first encounter them however, requiring you to come back once you’ve gotten a new skill (such as the Seraph Shoulders, which give you a double jump ability) and extending the time you spend with the game in a slightly artificial (but practically necessary) way.
It’s a good system in theory, but there’s a problem with the execution: the game’s liberal checkpoint system might leave you severely underpowered for a boss fight or tough skirmish. Almost all bosses have at least one checkpoint during your fight, so if you use up your magic early on and then trigger it, you won’t have much of a chance against the villain once you die. This forces you to replay the entire level and be choosier with magic usage. With some levels being quite long and/or involving tricky platforming sections, replaying one just in the hopes that you’ll get to the boss with a better magic supply isn’t exactly fun, and almost feels like mandatory trial and error gameplay. It didn’t happen too often, but even once is too often to basically force you into replaying a level because you assumed there would be a place for you to heal up. (There is the possibility of earning back some magic by landing a “perfect block” during an enemy attack, which spawns a bunch of magic orbs, but most bosses attack only with unblockable moves anyway.)
Otherwise, it’s a damn enjoyable game that does a fine job of balancing combat, puzzle solving, and platforming, so you’re never overwhelmed by extended periods of button mashing or over-exerting your logic skills without any monster-killing release. All three areas are challenging without being cheap or inspiring much frustration, though some of the platforming sequences are a bit hindered by the fixed camera angles (95% of the time they’re fine… it’s that 5% that’ll get you fuming) and Gabriel’s rather large jumps and movements; trying to navigate around deadly blades (in Frankenstein’s castle) is a bit more challenging than it should be since he seemingly shifts 10 feet with every button press. There’s also a music box sequence that requires precise timing through a series of traps. You have a time limit on top of that, so that one misstep can result in losing the ability to finish the sequence at all without starting over. Luckily, these moments are few and far between, and success will feel that much sweeter.
But this is a “Collection,” so what else do you get? The two DLC chapters (“RESURRECTION” and “REVERIE”) are fine, with two really great puzzles in the first that are better than any faced up until that point. The final boss is the toughest battle by far, though; I eventually had to drop down a difficulty level to beat him after dying for a 30th time. They are rather short however, and the cliffhanger of the first sort of forces you to play the other, which must have been frustrating to gamers who got them when they came out, as DLC is usually a pick-and-choose type affair.
As for MIRROR OF FATE, it’s a side-scroller (with 3D graphics) that’s more in line with the games of yore, as original hero Simon Belmont (Gabriel appears as well) makes his way through a castle with several platforms spaced perfectly apart, endless rooms that house a variety of not-usually difficult foes and the occasional (much tougher) boss, and things that you won’t be able to reach the first time you see it. It’s an enjoyable (if somewhat slight) throwback to the entries I’d play on my original NES, albeit with much better graphics and more options than the 8-bit system’s 2 button controller could offer.
With LORDS OF SHADOW 2, the existence of which being the reason for this collection to be released in the first place, I like what I saw during its rather brief (30 minutes) runtime. For starters, it seems that the “Magic Fountain” mechanic has been removed in favor of slowly regenerating magic bars, which is a fantastic idea. The game is still challenging (having magic doesn’t make you invincible, after all), but you can’t find yourself “stuck” or unprepared as long as you have a place to retreat to and not get hit for a while. The other big change: the camera, which now defaults to a traditional third person view and is controllable with the right stick, zooming out for battles and platforming scenes to give the best of both worlds. In other words, it seems they’ve addressed the issues with the first game and kept what works (light/shadow magic, the mix of several game styles, etc), which should result in an even better experience.
I should point out that all of the extra content isn’t actually present on either of the game’s two discs, so if your Xbox isn’t connected to the internet you won’t get much use out of this release. Printed on the game’s manual are four codes, one for each “extra” (the two DLC chapters, MIRROR OF FATE, and the sequel demo), along with a trial for Xbox Live in case you are connected but don’t have an XBL account. I’ve got to dock the game a point for this. Not only is this information barely visible on the packaging, but it also forces you into taking up hard drive space to get use out of most of your purchase’s content. The Xbox 360 is nearing the end of its lifespan, and thus it’s safe to assume that many gamers have already filled up their drive (especially if you never upgraded to the 250g model) and thus don’t have 4-5g of free space, forcing them to delete other games/add-ons to make room. It seems all of this stuff could have been put on a third disc, and strikes me as little more than a cheap way to keep players from trading the game in when they’re done with it (as the codes would be useless). Luckily, achievement score fanatics, such as myself, won’t have any reason to get rid of it anytime soon. The game doesn’t make it easy to get all 1000 points, and beating the game on normal difficulty and purchasing all of the special moves will only net you about 350.
Series purists weren’t all thrilled with some of the story’s reveals and twists (especially considering the identity of Dracula) but again, this was designed as a separate narrative from the others. This makes sense; if a new Dracula movie were to come out today, no one would be upset that it didn’t follow in line with the Bela Lugosi series, or NBC’s boring show with Jonathan Rhys Myers (who, incidentally, was asked to voice Gabriel before Carlyle was chosen). All that matters is if the game satisfies on its own, without the burden of 25+ years of games (too many to count) on its shoulders. I’m happy to say it does; it’s a bit longer than it needs to be (the entire “Witch” portion is an unnecessary diversion) and, again, some of the platforming sequences require a deft touch that doesn’t always come naturally to Gabriel, but it’s a solid, challenging adventure that never bores. As long as you got the hard drive space, the COLLECTION package offers plenty of value—the current retail for all of this stuff separately would be around 65 dollars, whereas this set (which includes the LOS 2 demo that is unavailable otherwise as of this writing) is only $39.99. You can put that extra dough toward the sequel for when it hits in February of 2014.