Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Our office closed today in anticipation of the “blizzard.” While we didn’t get snowed in like the news said we would we did get iced in. I figure since the roads are a serious danger right now I might as well do something I’ve been asked to do by several people and haven’t bothered to do yet and that is review video games which is something I used to do over at a few years back but moved away from it as I got involved with politics. So here it goes…

While the game came out last month Castlevania Lords of Shadow is the first game I have picked up in a long time. I also saved up for it because Castlevania, Zelda, Silent Hill, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear and Resident Evil are games which are immediate must haves for me. They are my favorite game series even though Resident Evil continues to burn me by putting out directors cuts editions later… Grrr… Anyhow I was cautious about this new entry of Castlevania because every CV game that has been in 3D has ranged from utterly horrible to mediocre. Nevertheless I have every game in the series to date, even the non-canonical game boy “Legends” and Game Boy Advance “Circle of the Moon,” and the utterly horrible Wii “Judgment,” and the ultra rare “Dracula X” for the SNES, which is just Rhondo of blood stripped of sanity and reason. This series as a whole has some serious pitfalls but always has great music, interesting characters, and incredible artwork even if the game itself has a lackluster story (I’m looking at you Lament of Innocence!”) The game play is also usually pretty solid and getting through the challenging games is usually something of an accomplishment (especially if you actually beat the SNES Dracula X which is much harder than its Turb-Graphics-16 counterpart. I did, by the way…)

The best games of this series are no-doubt the “Metroidvania” installments, installments that combine Metroid and Castlevania for a new experience; Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. Not a single one of these is a bad game, and while the original of this sub-series remains the best all of them rank high amongst critics and myself included.

The past 3D (sans the unpopular N64 renditions) have tried to mimic the Metroidvania, and used Devil May Cry as the template. Now I am only willing to suffer through a DMC game when there is nothing else available. I don’t care what the critics say these games are often difficult to the point of frustration and exhaustion, but they did create a camera and game play system which works quite well, and Castlevania, Legacy of Kain, and even God of War all have borrowed the groundwork laid by DMC all of those other games can be beaten though… Legacy of Kain and God of War did much better than Castlevania which seemed to lack something in the translation from 2D to 3D. I couldn’t tell you what in all honesty, the generic formula was always there but it never quite felt right. Maybe its that we needed something bigger and grander for the 3D experience than what the 2D experience offered. Enter Lords of Shadow.

Normally I object to reboots. They tend to suck the life out of the original product and so far only two series in my mind have successfully pulled it off, Batman and Star Trek (albeit the new one is still not as good as the original, but Star Trek was still entertaining at least.) Even the heavily advertised reboot of Silent Hill was received so poorly they are now advertising it as a “sequel to the bad ending of the original” and the next Silent Hill is being numbered “8” and will go back to the traditional formula… Needless to say I have established rules to help the media know when its okay to reboot.

1) 10 years or more of franchise inactivity, preferably a good 15-20
2) Last installment was an abysmal train wreck from hell and also apply # 1 so that we have the time to forget the last installment.
3) A soft reboot can be done at any time by changing actors, and directors but not tampering with the continuity, or at least not contradicting past movies. (this is the route Sony SHOULD be taking with the Spider-Man reboot but isn’t.)
4) When the continuity has become so convoluted and confused as to be a barrier for new audiences its time.

Lords of Shadow falls under 4, and partially 2. Judgment was the most immediate predecessor and it was a train wreck from hell that makes the Obama administration look good it is that bad. Konami and Mercury Stream and Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear fame) all recognized the continuity of Castlevania had become too bogged down in insanity for the series to continue on, Castlevania fans will know what I mean. As an example some games, in order to make the timeline work, have been removed from continuity altogether, the Vampire Killer is supposed to be the used solely by those of Belmont Linage, and yet how many non-Belmonts have we had? And some of the names… okay only one name bothers me… Leon Belmont? Who named their kid Leon in the crusades?

It was past time to do this. The clean slate and a bigger, grander game than Castlevania has ever had was exactly what we needed. Now a lot of reviewers will compare this to God of War. First, its no where near as violent, second the music is a masterpiece that would be the Oscar winner if this was a movie, the best orchestral music ever composed for a video game in any era ever, period. Oscar Araujo is an absolute genius. I cannot get enough of the soundtrack and I normally hate repetition, in fact I despise repetition but this music is so good I will listen to it sometimes three times in a day before setting my i-pod to shuffle. I even borrowed the “Theme of Belmont” for a video I put together to go after Jim Matheson for lying about Morgan Philpot. I will definitely be using more of these tunes for future You Tube efforts, and if I ever get rich and get to make my vampire movie (which will set out to prove you can make a Mormon friendly vampire saga without compromising on the mythology as Stephanie Meyers did with Twilight) Oscar Araujo is the composer I will higher for the scoring.

More than that this game harkens back to the original Castlevania spirit with a man alone against the denizens of evil with only a whip to defend himself… except the whip has been completely redesigned as a weapon that actually makes sense to use against denizens of evil. We all knew that the Vampire Killer was a magical whip, but the new Combat Cross which replaces it doesn’t need to be magical, it is, by design, holy right out the gate, and with Gabriel Belmont’s faith backing it, it becomes a weapon you would want at your side should you ever have to fight vampires and werewolves, it’s a lot less silly of a weapon of choice than the original whip.

The next thing I liked was the gorgeous graphics. I have never seen anything quite like this. Sure we remember God of War III’s huge worlds, but the game was actually pretty short, and was a world of ugliness, blood and gore. The same is not true of Lords of Shadow’s Transylvania. The world is huge, green, or later snowy, the castles massive and leave you with a feeling that you are overwhelmed, yet you regret leaving your camera at home. The world of Castlevania is surprisingly bright, colorful and beautiful even as the human characters are a little less remarkable. The world around Gabriel radiates so brightly you’ll want to vacation there, just be careful when the sun goes down…

Also unlike twilight it stays true to the most common of vampire legends. Sunlight kills the vampire. But I digress.

The story also is a bright note, although Patrick Stuart’s narration crosses the border of melodramatic on more than a few occasions this is the first time this series have ever taken seriously that this medium can be, and should be, a driver for telling a good story. They succeed, although the ending raises more questions than it answers and does break my rule about never tampering with the identity of Dracula, but the overall product is so amazing I will forgive them. It is a compelling origin story, and for the first time ever when you find out who Dracula is you will cry, not because he’s so scary but because a character you will grow to care for is turned into a Dracula that is sympathetic, and seeing the sorrow that transformation has brought to him will tug at your heartstrings. This Dracula is not evil… not by choice. It’s a very interesting new direction for the Dracula mythology and I am anxious to see where the series goes from here, where as other reboots have forced me to long for the good old days of the rebooted franchise this one has me wanting more of the reboot.

The game is over 50 levels long. It will take you a long time to complete it, so this is not a renter. The developers set out to earn your $60 and they do. The game play manages to avoid feeling repetitive, it balances out action, puzzles and plat forming very well so that you always have something different to do as you move through the game. While I might be heaping more praise on this title than IGN did I feel, as a fan of the series, as a fan of God of War and as a hater of Devil May Cry but an acknowledger of the great foundation it laid I recommend this game to everyone over the age of 18, even girls who think vampires glitter in sunlight. While it is the least violent of the aforementioned games there is one scene involving a vampiric butcher feeding his pet ghouls that will be too much for children.

5 out of 5 stars
Go buy this game so I can get the sequel sooner.

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