Castlevania. In many languages, the name roughly translates into “Bad-Ass Side-scrolling Adventure”. The foundations of many past & present 2D gaming experiences fall within the Transylvanian walls of Dracula’s 8-bit castle. And while the magic worked in pixelated worlds, it never quite translated into the third dimension. E3 brought us a hopeful new game, looking to break that streak. Our hands-on time revealed an interesting conundrum:
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the best 3D Castlevania game, though it doesn’t always feel like one.
The scenery, the environment, the characters of Lords of Shadow are all inherently Castlevania, right down to the triumphant return of the Belmont family and their stable of weapons. But something doesn’t feel quite right, as if the game, fun and exciting as it is, was built as different experience with a Castlevania decal applied on top.
The game’s 3D design is reminiscent of Devil May Cry 4, with the first area I played — a tutorial town infested with werewolves — set in just a few areas and specific camera angles. The rain is pouring around Gabriel Belmont, the new protagonist called in to thwart the attack, with the moonlight dancing off of puddles and the rain-soaked ground. Extremely atmospheric, and with the limited camera control it sometimes felt like a pre-rendered scene. The rain purposefully hid some characteristics of the werewolves, with only their blood-red shining eyes visible at times.
The werewolves all appear similar and move in a predictable way: wait, wait, wait for the attack, dodge (with a flick of the left stick), and strike back with the whip. Gabriel automatically locks onto the enemies, providing a method to mimic the precision of the attacks in the 2D games. Should the whip flail wherever I want it to, it may be nearly impossible to strike the werewolves. It is almost like playing a tiny QTE, but it works.
After a few rounds of werewolf murdering — and with an explosive toss of the cross, it definitely feels like murdering — a giant werewolf leaps over a wall onto the scene for a mini-boss battle. Completion of this relatively simple fight, a tutorial meant to showcase specifically how to dodge and strike, lead to the next scene, a chase on a horse through a chilly forest. And, more giant werewolves. Also available was the ability to upgrade weapons and skills along the way, designed like an unearthed tome with a truly giant list to work through.
Though the game looks beautiful and plays extremely well, it seems to lack some of the staple touches that made classic Castlevania so wonderful. Namely, I miss breaking boxes, candles, and the straightforward and consistent progression of the 2D games. Lords of Shadow seems like several (exciting) scenes strung together, with nothing really screaming uniquely “Castlevania” at me. It almost, almost, feels like God of War II with Vampires. This is possibly a fault of the short length of E3 demos, so playing the full game during it’s Fall release will hopefully correct that.
Nonetheless, it’ll be an exciting romp through Europe of the 1800s, especially with exploding werewolves.
[images and video courtesy Konami]