Monday, April 7, 2014

Castlevania’s Search For It’s Soul

As a franchise, Castlevania has been in some very rough waters. It’s DS trilogy didn’t sell well, despite being great games, and the series had been losing steam quickly. It needed a shake up. It got the shake up in the terrible Castlevania Judgment for the Wii. It was a fighter game, that by all measures, stank on ice, but its ending was an interesting one. You see, you are made to fight a time distortion, one that kind of erases everything, or threatens to. It completely throws the timeline off track in a way similar to the Star Trek Reboot. After beating it, I knew a reboot was inevitable. Enter Lords of Shadow.

Lords of Shadow was phenomenal. Naturally its antagonists would call it a God of war rip off, but I could argue that God of war was a rip off of Castlevania’s Lament of Innocence, a formula which began there, but Lords of Shadow perfected. You travel through forests, swamps, castles, alternate dimensions, and at the very end, Gabriel Belmont defeats Satan, returns to the castle, is turned into a vampire and becomes Dracula.

Normally I despise when people take the Dracula history and tamper with it. Vlad Tepes Dracula was a real person. True that the vampire lore surrounding him was an invention of Bram Stoker, but that is who Dracula was, the Voivode of Wallachia, Romania. I am a purist when it comes to my Dracula lore. I find him simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. A man so evil, who was so cruel, and simultaneously saw himself as God’s chosen always makes for interesting history. Yes Castlevania’s treatment of Dracula in the past has been lackluster. The original timeline reinvented him as a man named “Mathias” who betrayed the Belmont family to the vampire Walter Bernhard. Mathias, and his motives were not well detailed, and he was an uninteresting re-envisioning of Dracula. I hated it. However, Robert Carlyle’s performance as the doomed Gabriel Belmont gave me a character that I felt sorry for. Someone who I was rooting for, thus when he became Dracula, I accepted it.

It’s a new timeline where anything can happen. Mirror of Fate (Lords of Shadow’s immediate successor) introduced a new version of the Trevor/Alucard/Simon Belmont saga, one where Trevor doesn’t just switch out with Alucard when pressing select, but is tragically doomed to literally become Alucard, following in his father’s footsteps. This development surprised no one, but added yet another layer of tragedy to this new vision of Dracula.

Now we enter Lords of Shadow 2, the conclusion of the rebooted Castlevania saga. Dracula awakens centuries later after vanishing from the world of men. He makes a pact with his former enemy, Zobeck (Death), to lure out Satan and destroy him once and for all. Yes, you read that right, Satan. Unlike Final Fantasy, which made God the enemy in it’s most recent installment, Castlevania has remembered that the world’s ills and evils stem from the father of lies, so it is your duty, once again, to lure him out and destroy him once and for all.

Dracula has to regain his powers, which have been dormant for centuries. Thus, the game forces you to do some stealth missions, which, I admit, are not as well done as the other Konami stealth game, Metal Gear Solid, but puts an interesting twist on it, allowing you to take on the form of a rat, or possess enemies to move forward. This element is fun at first, but as you do get more powerful later on, you start asking, “why can’t I just take that guy out?” This is especially true in a boss fight later in the game where the first phase is a frustratingly cheap and difficult stealth mission, followed by a ridiculously easy boss battle which had me screaming at the TV, “Why didn’t you let me take him down in the garden?!”

Much of the game has Dracula shifting between the modern day Castlevania city (built over the ruins of Castle Dracula) and Dracula’s memories of the old castle, where he encounters former friends and foes alike, each with their own interesting, and often tragic backstories. I was annoyed in Mirror of Fate, which introduced us to the Toy Maker, but never let us actually encounter him. He makes a brief appearance, enough to let you know he is up to mischief, but then he vanishes. Here, we get to know his backstory, one that involves Walter Bernhard, and loosing one’s humanity. You meet a younger version of Trevor Belmont, who appears both as a child, and as a White Wolf, and fills the role of the archetypal sage. An interesting take, considering most sage roles are reserved for old men. Dracula is re-introduced to his ill-fated wife as well. All the while, having to face down monsters created by his own blood, and his own inner evils.

The story has been unfairly maligned by critics, I love it. It is the story of a man who falls from grace trying to do the right thing. Who falls hard, but because of the love he has for his family, he fights tooth and nail to rise up again as an agent of goodness. I also loved fighting Satan. He does not appear as an antagonist in video games often, but as a Christian, it always feels good to put that spoiled brat in his place. This game includes several Christian themes; falling from grace, repentance, redemption, and the importance of family. It may be the most Conservative game of the year, but it’s not without its problems.

First, for a family focused story, it is ironic that it is bloodier than hell. Much more so than the first game. It also includes a truly diabolical sequence where you are playing as the blood starved Dracula who finds himself locked in a room with a young family. It’s not just a video sequence you watch, but one that requires button inputs to proceed, forcing the player to feed on a helpless father, mother, and child. Like the mall scene in Call of Duty Modern Warfare, this sequence was too much for me, and I wish it did not require active participation. I know we’re playing as a vampire. I have no problem commanding Dracula to feed on demons, or even naïve crusaders, but a helpless family?

The camera also spends much of the game zoomed too close to Dracula’s back to allow you to see much of the scenery. It backs off for action, and platforming elements, but often discourages exploration but obscuring your view with Dracula’s back.

The PS3 version also has numerous moments where the anti-aliasing fails, jagged edges run amok in this otherwise beautiful game. And speaking of the game’s beauty, the castle is glorious, but the city is pretty typical of a post-apocalyptic game. The game also lacks the forests, swamps, and catacombs of yore, making the game’s environments much less diverse than before. The game also features an open world model, as opposed to it’s predecessor’s level based model.  I prefer the previous game’s levels. The open world dynamic does little to encourage you to retread old waters, aside from that there are plenty of inaccessible items that you could go back for, but just continually moving forward will net you enough power ups that backtracking isn’t necessary. What’s worse, is that there are a ton of visible items that could be easily gotten if they gave you the double jump ability earlier in the game, instead it’s one of the very last skills you get. You could, in theory, go back for those clearly visible items that were out of reach, but you are so close to the end, why would you?

That’s not to say that Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t fun. Its combat is a blast, and even lets you increase the power behind your weapons this time. Finishing moves are much easier to execute, and you are not bogged down by those annoying Quick Time Events than plagued the first two games. When you beat a boss, you are treated to a spectacular cut scene of Dracula’s ultimate triumph. Still, I enjoyed the structure of Lords of Shadow, and wish that they had stayed with it, instead of going open world. Open world is great, but doesn’t work for every game series.

With all its problems, the game is a lot of fun to play. It’s story is deep and meaningful, and wonderfully conservative. It’s worth it to own this game, even if it is not as good as the first one.

7 out of 10 (Good)

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