Before going into this Castlevania: Lords of Shadow review proper, anyone who reads my reviews knows that I bring up Castlevania a lot. There are many imitators of what Castlevania offers, but rarely is there any game that comes close to matching its pitch-perfect challenge, beautiful gothic imagery, and charged soundtrack.
Like Dracula, Castlevania as a franchise never dies. Konami keeps it around because it has endless appeal due to excellent level design and satisfying gameplay. By the mid 2000s, the franchise was still going with a trilogy of Nintendo DS games, but it was time for a reboot and for Konami to throw their hat in the ring with a high-definition 3D entry.
When Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came out, there had only been four 3D entries; two for N64 and two on PlayStation 2. While none of them were bad games, there was room for improvement. Did advances in game design and technology help reintroduce this enduring series to a new audience? Find out in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow review!
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed via backwards compatibility)
Release Date: October 5, 2010
Price: $19.99 USD
Castlevania is no stranger to getting remakes or reboots. Castlevania Chronicles was a collection of two remakes of the original game and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System had Super Castlevania IV, which was also a reimagining. With Lords of Shadow, Castlevania aims for its most drastic reimagining yet.
When Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came out, God of War III had already been out for several months in the same year. Kratos’ violent Greek epics were still a proven formula and the boys at MercurySteam took note at the prior entries when developing the next Castlevania.
This was going to be a more combo-heavy action game than the prior 3D Castlevania games, and have a lot of scripted set-pieces to sell the spectacle in trailers. With MercurySteam chasing so many trends that were in AAA games at the time, Lords of Shadow definitely feels of its era. There is very little restraint with anything and the linear progression keeps the gameplay entertaining.
Even the story takes itself extremely serious. Gabriel Belmont is a Templar from the Brotherhood of Light, and the first Belmont in this timeline. Like in prior games, Belmont wields the Vampire Killer, a blessed whip, but in this iteration it is more like a lengthy chain flail.
Gabriel Belmont will not only go on a quest to seek revenge on the creatures of the night that slew his wife as well as potentially dabble in dark arts in an attempt to bring her back to life. Along the way he meets several enigmatic characters; not everything is as it seems and he will find himself battling mythical beasts to acquire the God mask.
Most of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is very light with its plot progression. A lot of the narrative is driven by narration during loading screens, featuring Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame. Most of the information is pure flavor and does not contribute anything to the events. When there are cutscenes, there is an attempt to make the story feel epic.
Getting Robert Carlyle to play Gabriel was casting choice that paid-off. His thick Scottish accent and very solemn delivery makes the character feel weighty and you can tell he relishes the ye olde English dialect. The dialogue has a lot of melodrama in it and hearing this trained theater actor annunciate the material is very fitting to the style Lords of Shadow is going for.
Since the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had come out earlier in the decade, the landscape of fantasy fiction changed forever. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow drops all the classic Universal monsters and Hammer horror influences. MercurySteam opts for a very strong Tolkien flavor to the overall aesthetic and presentation for this iteration of Castlevania.
Gothic architecture takes a back seat to Celtic style ruins and natural landscapes. This is the most nature-filled Castlevania ever and it has some impressive vistas that hold up well for a game from 2010. The POV is fixed, so the designers were able to push artistry in ways that were not common in games from this gen and this also lightened the work load of consoles at the time.
When Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came out, it was a 30 frames per second game and while the Xbox Series consoles are able to boost the FPS on some games; this is not one of them. Sadly, the framerate is locked to 30, even on the latest hardware.
Thankfully, load times are vastly improved. Loading up a level used to take almost a minute when on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, but on a Series S, load times are almost non-existent. Poor Patrick Stewart can’t even get a word in during his narration due to the blindingly fast load times.
It is too bad that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow didn’t get a FPS boost like some other backwards compatible Xbox 360 games. The action does not really call for it, but it would make the narrow window for a parry more manageable. Like a good Castlevania, Lords of Shadow can be challenging and the added fluidity would have made a better experience.
It must have taken a lot of restraint for MercurySteam to not have a single piece of music that homages or is a rearrangement of classic Castlevania tracks. No Bloody Tears, no Vampire Killer, no Divine Bloodlines; instead the music opts for a ambient orchestral score, filled with choir and a lot of brass.
Taking cues again from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy; the composer took lots of musical inspiration from Howard Shore’s style. If you squint your eyes and listen carefully, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow could almost pass for a game based on the Peter Jackson films. It is a very different take from the rock-inspired soundtrack of the classic games, but fits the tone for this new take.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow may not please all fans of this very old franchise. MercurySteam clearly had a vision early on for a medieval action game and the connections to Castlevania seem almost haphazard. Hideo Kojima was brought on mid-development and his input amounted to story notes and a request for a redesign to Gabriel Belmont; ensuring some connections to the series.
The God of War-style combat can be a bit tedious at times since it is more about wide, sweeping attacks and covering the field, while also feeling less technical than a Devil May Cry game. Gameplay gets balanced out by stage gimmicks and exploration, though Lords of Shadow is also guilty of the clichéd “auto climbing” that plagues tons of games in the seventh gen.
The visuals hold up well thanks to the thoughtfully placed fixed camera, which allowed the artists to push the graphics. Things can only be seen from one side, so details in the environment are exceptional. Kojima’s suggestions for Gabriel’s redesign paid off too; he is one of the better designed protagonists that came from a western game studio working in the seventh gen.
There aren’t too many 3D action games with fixed camera POVs being made anymore. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was the last of its kind and while it isn’t perfect, it is one of the better examples of its kind from a console generation that was hopelessly creatively bankrupt.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was reviewed on Xbox Series S using a copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and playable on Xbox One Xbox Series X|S via backwards compatibility.