For Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, first impressions were the secret to ensnaring his prey. Luring in the vulnerable with an innocuous appearance, the Count was a master of mimicry, and so too is MercurySteam’s take on the Castlevania legend in 3D.
The copy is almost flawless. For its first six hours Lords Of Shadow is God Of War III with Greek mythology swapped out for gothic folk tales. Goblins, Wargs, Lycans, a talking horse and giant eagle: all stand in suitably for Medusa and co. Even Belmont’s chained crucifix is a dead ringer for Kratos’ tethered blades, swinging you from ledge to ledge, spinning whirlwinds of fiery death and, of course, staking a claim in the chests of the damned.
It’s almost a shock when the vamps do rear their ugly heads. So engrossed is Lords Of Shadow in the gothic horror realm (a visit to Frankenstein’s electric lab is a highlight) that you wonder if this new developer has forgotten about the series’ legacy altogether. It may be a result of Kojima Productions changing the course of the project partway through its development, but it’s arguably to the game’s benefit that the iconic candle-lit castles are reserved for the final, climactic third. When MercurySteam does get its teeth into Konami’s canon, it doesn’t hold back. Goblins and ghouls are exchanged for winged bloodsuckers and devils, brought to life with a brilliant artistic eye for the gruesome and ghastly.
Platforming and cutscenes are used to break up the hack’n’slash monotony into shards of adrenal joy. Traversing icy death to reach the looming, gigantic castle is a dazzling and foreboding scene: scaling the vertiginous outer reaches is exhilarating, with regular nods to the two-dimensional past framing leaps and swings beautifully. It’s at this point that you realise the opening segment, brimming with an ensemble of brilliantly designed and animated creatures, was just an epic sightseeing tutorial.
Combat, as his Belmont blood prescribes, is protagonist Gabriel’s raison d’etre. With all the items, magic and weapons in his arsenal, he’s a joy to work with. Light and Shadow magic are toggled to either heal or devastate (a similar system to Dodonpachi’s Slaughter and Menace mechanic) and it means that for every medieval maniac there’s a chance to regroup and revive with careful resource management. Combos can run ridiculously long, slicing and dicing gangs of enemies until stunned, before opening them up to a button-bashing finisher.
By not taking any major gameplay chances, Lords Of Shadow manages to get most of the fundamentals right. The camera is an occasional inconvenience, however, with its fixed perspective often rendering you helpless against offscreen projectiles, and the lack of a firstperson mode is a bane in some of the puzzle rooms. It’s forgivable thanks to the range of moves and upgrades at your disposal, though, bought with currency earned from missions and puzzles.
In a structural concession to the Castlevania series, the story is broken up into bite-size chunks, motivated by one of the game’s main incentives: replay value. On first run-through you’ll likely pillage 50 per cent of its treasures, unlocking some gruelling time trials and revealing just how many items you’ve missed. Going back is often the best way to progress overall, particularly on the harder difficulties which demand a fully fleshed move-set and some serious holy-water-filled balls. That cutscenes can be skipped is an acknowledgement both of the need for brevity in timed replays and the fact that the cinematics are a little overwrought.
The numerous scenes of Gabriel strutting through ancient map backdrops are archaic and trite, backed by a grandiose score that frames the brutal meathead as a saint purging an unholy land. While the production is never less than triple-A (Patrick Stewart providing his authoritarian tones for sidekick duties), it’s never truly rousing or paid off with anything more than the usual quota of killing. There are moments of genuine craftsmanship, however, in the marrying of prerendered scenes with in-game action. Mounting one of the many beasts – Wargs being the most burly and satisfying to control – is often rewarded with a snapshot of action, like the scaling of a wall or a leap and bound over a decrepit ruin.
What MercurySteam’s competitors keep in mind is that less can be more in a genre as relentless as this. Clocking in at around the 15 to 20 hour mark for an initial, medium-difficulty playthrough, Lords Of Shadow threatens to test your stamina. The variety of challenges and the curvature of the game’s narrative spine help ease the pain, but it’s nevertheless a relief to reach the home stretch, meaning that the encouraged replays may have to wait for your fingers to properly recover.
Nevertheless, this 3D spin on Castlevania is ultimately a greater success than anyone could have reasonably expected, given its unconventional origins. It’s a vehicle that may win over more action fans than true-bloods, but its plagiaristic tendencies represent a shrewd way of ensuring that the series gets a firm footing outside of the 2D realm where it has enjoyed such success.