Konami describes Castlevania: Lords of Shadow as a reboot for the 25-year old franchise. I'd say it's an unrelated game that borrows the "Castlevania" name. None of the common gameplay elements you'd expect from the series are to be found here, nor does Lords of Shadow star any familiar characters or include recognizable music. The only loose connection is the presence of vampires, werewolves, and skeletons. This action adventure game that's heavy on combat actually has much more in common with God of War than Castlevania. There is definitely fun to be had with Lords of Shadow and it's drop dead gorgeous at times, but Castlevania fans might be left in the dark.
Lords of Shadow introduces us to Gabriel Belmont, a member of a holy order of knights called the Brotherhood of Light. These guys are like the Jedi of Castlevania, protecting the normals from everything that wants to kill and eat them. Gabriel wants to save the world from the Dark Lords, but he also has a more personal stake in the mission: he is out for revenge for the death of his childhood sweetheart.
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Metroidvania this is not. Instead of exploring one large castle you proceed linearly from level to level (although you are encouraged to backtrack to previously unreachable areas once you've upgraded your skills). There is no map and very little in the way of exploration.
Items to find are scarce -- much less than in a typical Castlevania. Instead, Lords of Shadow is about action and combat. There are dozens of combos to unlock and the game is constantly funneling you towards your next encounter with a gang of monsters. All of the button mashing made my eyes glaze over after a while and I felt like I was just going through the motions. There are also many aggravating sections where you're trying to solve a puzzle (many of which are clever) and enemies keep endlessly respawning around you. I found the quiet moments in between skirmishes more interesting and satisfying.
Those relaxing moments you can take at your own pace are often filled with light climbing and grappling exercises that remind me of Assassin's Creed or Uncharted. You scale walls while carefully looking for surfaces to cling to and your trusty Combat Cross can be used as a grappling hook to swing to new heights. These are some of the more enjoyable bits in Lords of Shadow.
Gabriel has an interesting light/dark magic system at his disposal. When light magic is active he will heal himself by attacking enemies. With dark magic he deals extra damage. Fallen enemies refill the magic meter of your choice, but not if magic is active. The system provides a welcome layer of strategy to the button-mashing combat. These magics also come into play in many of the game's puzzles.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow doesn't let you control the camera, which is always a drag in 3D games. For the most part the fixed camera works well enough, but there will be times when you can't see an enemy that is attacking you or you wish you could look around for secrets on your own.
This Castlevania's greatest assets are its dazzling vistas and scenic design. Each level has a distinct look and architectural style, ensuring your eyes will never be bored. Time after time I found myself stunned by the scope of Lords of Shadow's scenery. Just one example of many is when the camera rises above a narrow mountain trail Gabriel is traversing to reveal a towering castle on a cliff in the distance, its spire ringed with vampire bats. The game is filled with great bits of foreshadowing like this. Much of its imagery owes a debt to the Lord of the Rings films. Everything from cave trolls to the Nazgul to giant eagles to the architecture of Middle Earth is evoked here.
That said, Lords of Shadow also has framerate issues. It can drop when the action heats up -- or just during a cut scene. During one cinematic moment the game was literally chugging at just a few frames per second. Gabriel has a useful instant-kill move he can inflict on weaker enemies, but the game freezes for a moment every time he uses it.
The honorable Patrick Stewart lends his voice to Zobek, Gabriel's fellow Brotherhood member and partner in crime, and acts as narrator. Patrick (we're on a first-name basis, he and I) is a master thespian, but here he is stooping to eye-rolling melodrama.
If Lords of Shadow hits the sweet spot for you, I've got good news: this is an incredibly long game. The 12 levels are each divided into as many as eight or nine stages and it will take you 15-20 hours to reach the end. Your first time through a stage you may encounter a roadblock that you can return to later after you've upgraded your skills, so revisiting areas is encouraged. Once you complete a stage you'll also unlock unique challenges that ask you to finish it under a certain time or defeat a boss without taking any damage. Lords of Shadow will be a great investment for those that enjoy it.