Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I never thought I'd hate a Castlevania game. I have disliked some of them -- Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance still has yet to hook me despite repeated attempts to play that game, and Haunted Castle is too weird and difficult to rate high on my list -- but I've never outright hated any of the games in the series. I'm a devoted fan and while the series might have stumbled from time to time I still found ways to enjoy everything it produced.
That changed with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a frustrating game that made me rage and seeth and yell at the screen the entire time I played it. There was never a moment during my entire time with the game that I ever felt enjoyment. It was an obnoxious experience, one that I never, ever want to go back and play through again. If Haunted Castle is my low bar for how bad the series can get (and, again, I honestly don't think it's that bad a game), Lords of Shadow makes that game, or just about any other not-so-good entry in the series, look like series-best material. In short, Lords of Shadow is a bad game.
I will admit that I was immediately turned off of the game before I even played it simply because of the fact that this adventure, written and produced by Mercury Steam, threw out all the old continuity to make a completely new series withing Castlevania. The fanboy part of me raged at that idea even though, as a writer, I can understand the desire to clear out all the old cruft that had built up over the years, layers upon layers of continuity that were hard to dig through if you were trying to insert a new adventure into the timeline. As a reviewer I knew I had to set all that aside so no matter how much it bothered me that everything I thought I knew was gone, I decided to come into this game fresh. "I'm new to Castlevania," I said to myself. "What does this series have to offer."
It did not start promisingly. Gabriel Belmont, our hero, is dropped into a rainy town where he has to fight a giant wolfen beast. This is the first set-piece of the game, what players are introduced to right from the outset and, even at the lowest difficulty setting, I was forced to play it three times. That's because this game has an obnoxious combat system that, for the casual gamer, is incredible annoying to parse. Gabriel will go up against the enemies and can beat them down using any number of combos he has at his disposal (while gaining more as the game goes on). His basic moves are smooth and easy to work with and, if all you have to do is wail around with your whip (sorry, Combat Cross) the game isn't so bad.
But the giant wolf-beast isn't a normal enemy. It's one of the many elite bad guys throughout the game and beating it doesn't just require smacking the ever loving crap out of it; you also have to finish the stupid thing off with a Quick Time Event. Wait for the right moment, hit a button, and the beast is dead. And this is where I failed because I apparently suck at QTEs. I'd get lined up and either hit the thing too early or too late (not that the game is all that great at instructing when the optimal time is to hit the stupid button) and the beast would get right back up.
This happened a lot in the game. After this first battle, Gabriel then jumps on a horse and goes barrelling down the path towards... wherever it is his quest sent him next. Honestly, there's just a lot of running around in this game for little reason. Anyway, he's on his horse and to avoid the logs in the way you have to QTE the horse. I sucked at this and fell off regularly, so instead of an easy ride to my next location I had to constantly fight enemies and more of those anoth uber-wolves were around for me to struggle with.
Once I got past this I had to deal with a few more short areas before I came up the big boss for this opening chapter of the game: a Titan. I know these are basically modeled on bosses from other games (like Shadows of the Collosus) but I honestly don't know why. These fights are beyond annoying. You have to climb the beasts (which incolved QTEs) so you can find their weak spot and destroy it (which involves QTEs) all before getting them into their last phase so you can put the finishing move on them (which involves QTEs) just so the boss is defeated. Screw up any part of it and it's back to the previous checkpoint to do most (or) all of it over again. My first Titan fight took two hours and when I was done I wasn't rubilant. I was pissed.
That was when the realization really struck me: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow isn't an action game; it's a QTE simulator that dressed itself up as my favorite series. It betrayed everything I loved about this classic series to create a series of game mechanics I thought we, as a collective audience, had moved beyond a full decade ago. I don't know what game the producers thought they were making but they managed to craft a title that sucks all of the fun out of the room for no good reason.
Playing through Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I kept wondering, "who is this game for?" It certainly doesn't bear much resemblance to the classic games at all. While the original games are hard (they're lovingly known as "Nintendo Hard") they weren't unfair -- the games are tightly executed adventures with tight, steady controls. Lords of Shadow, though, is just a mess -- I could do the same action five times and often get the same result. This happened with the Titan fights where I literally had to retry the same objective over and over again, sometimes with the Titan catching me, sometimes not, and I never could figure out the difference in what I did. Eventually I just had to assume, as in most encounters, the game would do what it wanted to when it wanted to and I was at the whims of its mercy.
The games are also pretty, detailed affairs. Castlevania is know for its setting, with lush halls leading into dark catacombs that then give way to strange and unusual workshops and wild gardens. That same lush atmosphere, though, was missing from Lords of Shadow. Everything in the game is drab, from drab, dark countrysides to same-y ruins and dark, depressing caverns. Nothing about the settings seemed lush or interesting, and none of it had the wild, strange pizzazz of even the middling titles in the main series. The graphics are detailed, sure, but they detail all the same, boring backgrounds over and over again. It's just ugly, in a very finely detailed kind of way.
And then there are the puzzles, which are frustraiting to say the least. More than once I ran up to a wall, or a box, or a clock face, and I had to figure out how to get past, sometimes spending an hour or more back-tracking over and over again to figure out something I missed. Very rarely does the game ever stop to say, "hey, idiot, you've been here five minutes, maybe do this," (not even when you have a companion with you). It just lets you struggle until you either blindly stumble on the solution or just give up and play something else. Time and again over the last few years, as I've tried to play through this game, it's been the latter. I've turned off this game more times than I can count, vowing each time, "this will be the last time I play it."
I don't want that to sound like I kept coming back because something intrigued me; it did not. Nothing about this game intrigued me. In fact, I had such a bad time with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I struggle to even call it a "game". It's a torture simulation given pretty graphics and Triple-A budget voice acting (which, admittedly, is quite good). But the game it else stinks. I hate it so, so much. The only reason I came back to it after the first time I played it was because someone had to review it for this site. That burden fell to me and, time and again, I tried to get deep enough into the game that I felt like I'd seen all that I need to see. Ironically, that first deep dive showed me all I needed to see. Nothing about the game, no matter how far I got, changed my opinion.
Lords of Shadow sucks, and were it not for the fact that there are two more games in the series I'll have to play, I would already rate it as the worst game in the whole series. Ugh.