Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a seriously muddled game, on almost every level. It’s an attempted reboot of the classic Castlevania franchise, and it’s very clearly an attempt to modernise the series and bring in new fans – but it’s also very clear that the people tasked with developing it had no idea how to accomplish such a thing.
What they ultimately did was just copy other games. The core gameplay is straight out of God of War, down to specific details like your main weapon being a chain, quick-time events to kill monsters, sections where you jump on top of enemies and ride them, etc. On its own, this would probably have been fine – God of War was a defining game of the genre, and there are certainly plenty of clones of it out there that are still perfectly fun in their own right, if not especially original (see this year’s very cleverly-made Marlow Briggs for example). The problem is that the game attempts to bolt all sorts of disparate elements on to this core. Early on, there’s a boss fight that is straight out of Shadow of the Colossus, to a shameless degree – to make matters worse, it’s not only very badly implemented and frustrating to play, but it also serves absolutely no further role in the game or story. The explanation for the fight is literally that the ‘golem’ is just there, and because it’s there and you’re there, you have to fight. Moments like this are scattered throughout the game, making it feel like the developers just looked at a list of popular games from the last 5 years, and copied things at random, with no understanding of what made those games successful in the first place.
No better are their attempts to hold true to the traditions of the franchise. The typical Castlevania is a 2D action platformer, focused on non-linear exploration. Along with the Metroid games, Castlevania spawned an entire genre along these lines, the so-called ‘metroidvania’, that continues to be popular to this day (a recent example being the excellent Guacaemelee). Lords of Shadow is, in the vein of God of War, completely linear, but tries to still incorporate some of that non-linear exploration that fans expect, in the form of branching paths and the ability to replay levels to find secrets you weren’t able to access at the time. It’s awkward, and ultimately the worst of both worlds. The branching paths, instead of leading to secrets and side-areas, tend to just be alternate routes to the same end points, which is confusing and frustrating – more than once I back-tracked to see if I’d missed something, only to find myself walking in a big pointless circle. Replaying levels feels like a waste of time – you still have to go through all of the content you already played in order to get to the secrets, so it seems less like exploration and more like pointless padding out of game time, in a game that’s already sorely over-long and badly paced.
Even the art-style and setting feel patchwork and disjointed. In theory the game is set in medieval Europe, with references to real world history and locations, and heavy Christian influences. In practice, it’s an inconsistent fantasy world, where one second you’re fighting tribal goblins and looming trolls in a festering swamp, and the next you’re exploring seemingly Aztec ruins. The clash is seriously jarring – those Aztec ruins, for example, are actually the ruins of an ancient, technologically advanced European civilisation…or something. It’s a perfect mess of conflicting influences – the backstory of Atlantis mixed with the visuals of Mesoamerica, in the middle of Dark Ages Europe.
The religious influence is especially bizarrely handled – the characters are very overtly Christian, talking directly about God and using crucifixes, holy water, and other symbols of the Church. At the same time, they to go out of their way to avoid mentioning or depicting Jesus Christ himself, for reasons I couldn’t figure out. A relic clearly intended to be a piece of the True Cross, for example, is referred to as being ‘from the crucifix of a martyr’ instead, as if they were afraid of offending religious groups by the mere mention of his name. The religious elements butt up horribly against the fantasy setting too. Its mixing of Christian mythology (the central story is that a spell has been cast that has sealed Heaven off from humanity, leaving Satan free to do whatever he likes) and Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy (Satan’s response is to summon up goblins and trolls, and so the monster hunters turn to the nature god Pan for help, inexplicably) is hugely jarring at every turn. Half the time it feels like a generic fantasy story mis-appropriating religious elements in the attempt to gain false gravitas; the other half of the time it feels like a religious parable cloaked in random fantasy elements to seem cool and relevant to kids. In reality, I don’t think either feeling is accurate – I think it’s just a grab-bag of concepts put together by people who didn’t understand the significance or aesthetic of anything they were shoving together.
I suspect that a lot of these setting problems are probably legacy problems for the series as a whole – I’m not hugely familiar with Castlevania‘s larger lore, but any franchise that’s been going that long is bound to have developed a tangled, non-sensical canon. Surely, though, the whole point of a reboot is to shrug off such nonsense and start again fresh, with a clean, refined setting. Otherwise, what was the point of rebooting the story at all?
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a Frankenstein patchwork of conflicting ideas at every step along the way. It’s a shame, because there are good elements there – parts of the combat system especially, if cleared of clutter and more tightly implemented, could have been very interesting indeed. It’s a shame that the developer’s desperation to capitalise on ‘modern’ gaming trends lead them to the game being such a baffling mess.