In what is a rather long time in the world video games, I remember how unconcerned I was about playing Lords of Shadow back when it came out. I wasn’t particularly keen on the direction the franchise was headed in yet at the same time I wasn’t really cursing Konami out for their decision like others were. Like a few other intellectual properties – like the various Mega Man spin-offs and the now defunct Wild Arms series – I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t interested in following the games anymore or that they had outlived their purpose to me and their respective owners. As superficial as some will find such a decree, the phrase “God of War clone” was all needed to hear back in 2010 in order for Lords of Shadow to fade from my gaming radar. Despite dismissing the game with such erroneous haste, Mercury Steam would get around to producing a Castlevania game that would arouse my interest a few years later.
Earlier in 2013 Mercury Steam and Konami released Mirror of Fate for the Nintendo 3DS. While the game was still heavily focused on the gameplay that was founded… er “borrowed” by Lords of Shadow, Mirror of Fate cleverly intertwined elements from the previous types of gameplay the series had cultivated. The castle and the surrounding areas took a bit of influence from previous Castleroids and the combat (especially the boss battles) took a page from the “old-school” titles with their emphasis on learning enemy patterns. I honestly found it to be a very enjoyable blend of where Castlevania had been and where it currently was. Unfortunately, if the sales figures and incessant whining on message boards wasn’t enough of a clue, Mirror of Fate’s fate is cloudy at best. I know the upcoming 360 and PS3 HD release will help a bit by expanding the game’s user base (something the 3DS may have limited) but I’m not expecting any miracles by far. Still, as much as I enjoyed Mirror of Fate I was definitely interested in knowing what happened prior to the opening (or third chapter) of that game. So I put aside my reservations and popped Lords of Shadow into my PlayStation 3.
Now I wish I could say Lord of Shadows beats back that negative stereotype that it’s a God of War clone when it comes to its gameplay… but I can’t as I got what I was pretty much expecting. Almost every facet of the game is lifted from somewhere else. We’ve already covered the subject of combat, but finding scrolls on dead soldiers is something the Metroid Prime trilogy already did to great effect even though I’m fairly sure they weren’t the first to use such an effective storytelling tool. However, when you do look at the combat in Lords of Shadow, I can’t help but be reminded of 2003’s Lament of Innocence. I know there are those that will argue until they are blue in the face against the argument that these games are similar but the main difference is the degree they bank on this influence. Now, I know you can’t really say that God of War influenced Lament of Innocence since God of War didn’t exist at that point, but that style of combat became so synonymous with that franchise that it’s a relationship most people make these days. The combat in Lament has moments where it does feel like God of War but the game manages to reign those tendencies in before it loses its identity as a Castlevania game. The opposite scenario holds true for Lords of Shadow because you can’t really lose an identity when you’ve never really had one. This is why I respect Lament of Innocence’s gameplay more than Lords of Shadow’s. This doesn’t make Lament the “better” game but it is the more honest of the two despite its faults.
Of course, in bringing up the “striking” similarities Lords of Shadows shares with God of War, we should probably cover Castlevania’s previous source of influence: the Metroid series. It’s not a question of IF but WHEN someone will point out that Castlevania has “borrowed” things from other franchises before. This is undoubtedly true, but there is – at least in my eyes – a very big difference in how Castlevania went about adopting those previous elements. The non-linearity and map system Castlevania adapted from Metroid was incorporated into the series “quilt” with much more tact and grace than anything in Lord of Shadows can lay claim to. Add to this the general idea that as Castlevania was carrying on the Metroidvania style Metroid itself was kind of breaking away from that mold with some of its games.
So given that I give more props towards what the series did with the influences that lead to Metroidvania, I’m sure some will think that I’m one of those fans “who can’t let it go” and “feels Symphony of the Night is the best game in the franchise.” Well, I hate to burst their bubble (no I’m not) but I don’t fit into either category. As a game I really do enjoy Symphony of the Night but it has definitely entered the realm of overrated works… and after like seven (?) games in the same style it was time for a change. However, the fact is people don’t want change and they don’t realize how damaging stagnation and flat-out stubbornness (in the form of fanboyism) really is when it comes to an opinion. Again, I don’t think the gameplay of Lords of Shadow is the answer. It works on the most basic level – and it worked much better in Mirror of Fate where the shift to 2D covered its origin’s tracks – yet this is not even the main draw of this soon-to-be trilogy. Such a concept is rather alien to the Castlevania universe because, for the most part, the gameplay WAS the meat and potatoes of the experience. This is still true in the Mercury Steam games to a certain extent but there’s another element that has (thankfully) encroached on its importance and that would be the game’s narrative.
This is another area where fans have a little trouble letting go. As was stated above, the gameplay of Castlevania has always been the main draw… the story not so much. I know some will say that Aria and Dawn of Sorrow “mixed things up” as far as this goes but it was still pretty bare bones. Lament has some rather important moments (keyword: moments) but again it was still far away as far as a real involving narrative. Lords of Shadow goes a long way towards mending this deficiency but – there’s always a but – ends up revealing other, related problems. When you consider that the levels are rather short you may think that you’ll complete the game in a handful of hours like most action games these days yet the amount of levels per chapter really adds up quick and ironically slows the game down. Some might see this as a good thing and typically it would be like slowing down and savoring a good meal. Unfortunately, you can’t really “savor” much of what you’re given storyline wise in Lords of Shadow because the game is often stingy with its revelations. This makes a lot of the levels feel like filler and ultimately makes you appreciate the shorter stature of the previous games. About halfway through the game I was really beginning to question my commitment to the game which is usually the opposite of how I feel. Usually by the halfway point I’m compelled to devote more and larger chunks of time to complete a given game… this wasn’t the case with Lords of Shadow.
Then there is Lords of Shadow’s battle with telling rather than showing. A very significant portion of Gabriel’s emotions are told to us second hand by actor Patrick Stewart. There’s actually a very good reason as to why the game takes this approach (it doesn’t seem to be the result of not wanting or being incapable of having more cut scenes) but when I’m listening to Mr. Stewart I can’t help but think how much more impactful the emotions Gabriel wears on his face would be if I could actually see them. To be honest I can’t really heap to much blame on the game for this as I can think of some other games that are far more guilty but then we’re not really done with Lords of Shadow’s narrative either as the ending solidifies it’s worth and underachievement.
Those who have seen the ending to Lords of Shadows know it comes in two parts: the obligatory “happy ending” and the “delightfully rude revelation that destroys the previous events” part. It’s definitely a bitter ending that makes me very interested in Lords of Shadow 2 but Mercury Steam kind of screwed up here as well because you kind of need to know what happens in the one DLC packs to understand what lead to the condition of a certain character. This is why I feel Mercury Steam and/or Konami (I can’t remember which party it was at the moment) referred to the DLC as a “mistake.” I know that apology was probably focused more on it being rushed and overpriced but they really should be extend it to leaving certain details out of the core game. Then when you tack on the fact the ending seems to set up the third game and not the second (???) the questions still persist. The closing video is definitely cool but is a mess at the same time.
However, given all the above, is Lords of Shadow worth playing? The answer is a somewhat hesitant yes… but at the same time the game points out that Mercury Steam needs to get to a point where the gameplay has its own identity. Mirror of Fate was step in the right direction (it definitely felt more like a Castlevania) but going 3D again – and open world – will be a real test. I really would like to see Lords of Shadow 2 end the trilogy on a strong note, a much stronger note than this game. I know some will find my final grade for Lords of Shadow to be quite low yet the game (and the first sequel) come with a glimmer of hope. Regardless of how Mercury Steam’s work on the franchise comes to a close the series will undeniably take some influence from it and realize some new potential. One can only hope those stonewalling these games out of loyalty to the previous titles will learn something as well, but that’s something I wouldn’t hold my breath over.