The combat shines. The platforming is a pain. But after the rocky start Castlevania: Lords of Shadow smoothed out into a pretty enjoyable experience.
As I suspected, the combat never acquires the button-mashing chunkiness of God of War, or the flair of Bayonetta, it stands in its own right as a unique and engaging system. I’m still not a fan of how much it punishes defensive mistakes. Every enemy attack can be countered by either rolling, jumping or blocking. But usually only one of these will work effectively, and the timing is tight enough and the controls inflexible enough that I always had one split-second guess, with no opportunity for revision, and if my instinct was wrong, I was going to get hit. Rolls can’t be canceled out of. There’s no air-blocking or dodging. Blocking requires centring the left analog stick, and it can’t be uncentred quickly enough to change to a dodge.
But once I got into a rhythm it felt great. Especially against bosses (which are numerous and of great variety) I’d be rolling and going in for a couple of hits when I could, taking advantage of area attacks to jump up and get in a longer aerial combo, throwing in a well-judged block, managing both of the magic meters. It was constantly challenging, but in a way that felt fun, and that felt like I was being rewarded for playing well.
There are a lot of combos, but, remarkably, the enemies are varied enough that a lot of them are useful. There’s a real benefit to being able to crank out the right move at the right time. Something with a wide area for crowd control. Something that’ll get in a couple of quick hits on a boss in between rolls. Something that will get Belmont up in the air quickly to avoid an attack, and then back down just as fast to be ready for the next one. They’re all there. They’re all easy to do. There’s just the freedom and challenge of pulling out a good one for the situation.
I actually want to specifically praise the magic system. At first I thought it was too hard to recover magic – that it forced perfect play to get a long enough combo in to actually generate magic orbs. But it turns out that a block and a counter will pretty much fill the necessary meter, and that most enemies (with the exception of the giant spiders that the game tries to teach countering on) have an attack or two that will be fairly readily blockable. So, instead, we get an interesting and meaningful resource-management challenge. When to spend dark magic in order to try to finish off an encounter quickly, or instead spend light magic in order to heal, or to do neither and try to replenish one of the meters requires split-second decision-making.
There are a few very striking panoramas. Looking out from a snowy, wind-swept cliff onto an imposing, gothic castle. An eclipse over a mass of shattered, barren rocks. Otherwise, the graphics reached the level where they were good enough that I wasn’t thinking much about them, but not striking enough that I was amazed by them. There’s a character-design touch I particularly appreciated. All of the Lords of Shadow clothing with the same sort of red-and-grey design scheme as Belmont, as befits their origin.
The platforming continued to be tedious. Given how tense and engaging the combat was, the platforming should have been brisk and refreshing. Instead, it was slow and finicky. Belmont is just not agile enough to make the platforming fun. The system is fundamentally inflexible. Sometimes moves won’t be available in certain circumstances, as if the game is trying to prevent an errant input from leading to a death. Other times, the game is happy to let Belmont rappel too far down a cliff to his death. It feels clunky and inconsistent.
The few times the game experiments with timed jumps and moving platforms are an absolute nightmare. It really makes me once again appreciate all the little touches that go into making the platforming in a game like Sands of Time work so well. Sometimes it felt like the game sees what I’m trying to do and tailors Belmont’s jump accordingly, but a lot of the time it felt like I was jumping blind, with the game having no regard for where I was aiming.
Actually, awkward and tedious accurately describes most of the game outside of the core combat. There are a number of sections where Belmont mounts and rides one of the enemies. These always control clumsily. There are also times where the game has annoying little leprechaun monsters steal all of Belmont’s upgrades, and he has to seek them out while they taunt him. It’d be one thing if the taunts were accurate, but when the leprechaun screeches “getting warmer” over and over again when Belmont is in entirely the wrong area, something has gone terribly wrong. Likewise, there were a couple of maze levels which would have been bad under normal circumstances, but were excruciating due to the fixed camera.
Likewise, the Titan battles (ie. the Shadow of the Colossus knock-offs) never quite work. Not having a grip-meter removes all the tension from the platforming sections. Instead, in addition to the generic awkwardness of the platforming controls, there is the tedium of having to stop and hold a trigger every few seconds in order not to be shaken off. There’s no sense of danger and no time-pressure. And since the platforming depends on ledges rather than fur that can be climbed freely, there’s not really a sense of exploration, either.
There’s a disconnect between Patrick Stewart’s narration and the rest of the game. Stewart keeps describing Belmont as someone who is desperate and hate-filled and slowly losing his humanity, but that never really comes through in the gameplay or cut-scenes. Sure, Belmont kills hordes of demons, but he always seems focused and on-task, not someone clinging to his sanity. Stewart seemed to be describing Kratos, and Belmont never reached anywhere near that level violent madness. Maybe it’s intentional, and the game is trying to say something about Stewart’s character’s biases, but it seemed very odd to me.
Either way, the story goes off the rails at the end. Joystiq talked about the climax approaching Bionic Commando wife-arm levels of absurdity, and I think that’s apt. And after being fairly abstract in its religiosity, it gets very specifically Christian-y at the end. I don’t think I’d find it quite so alienating, except that it comes so far out of left field and ends up being so much on the nose. And then there’s the epilogue, which really should not be there at all. To jump so far forwards, and skip so much of the story doesn’t make good sense. Even if the intent is to have a sequel that fills in the gap, knowing where that sequel is headed makes it fundamentally less interesting.
So, a flawed game, but an enjoyable one. The combat is great. I love the idea of variety outside of combat, but in this case, the activities on hand tended not to be very enjoyable. And the whole game still takes itself far too seriously, especially given how silly the story gets on a conceptual level.