Demo Driver 8: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (#98)
The Castlevania franchise has been in an odd place as years have gone by. It has produced a lot of classic games over the years, lots of stuff well worth playing, and it’s one of the few franchises to pull of a wholesale genre switch successfully. It’s been good, by and large. Sure, not every game has been a thunderous success, but there’s a sense of continuity just the same. And there’s a conscious effort by the people in charge not to just turn Castlevania into a franchise of the same thing every few years – see also the mention of a wholesale genre switch above.
At the same time, one wonders how many stories you’ve really got about shaggy dudes going off to fight Dracula in a big old castle over and over.
I commend Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for what it’s trying to do, totally. I commend it for being a reboot, I commend it for once again trying to reinvent the series in terms of gameplay, and I can’t say that it’s doing a bad job, exactly. But I can say that it’s a game which would have been better served had it come out three years earlier or so, and I can’t say it sports a particularly good demo. Even if it does feature Sir Patrick Stewart.
For starters, I mentioned when discussing Unmechanical that your demo should really extend for at least half an hour. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does this only if you count “playing through on difficulty levels” and “trying to re-do sections” as being distinct portions of the game to play, something I generally do not. Otherwise, given generous spans of time dedicated to listening to Captain Picard reading dense and overwrought narration, the demo clocks in at a still-remarkably-thin 20 minutes, and that’s with perhaps eight minutes of actual play in the mix.
Some people have a great deal of anger at the early parts of a game featuring lots of narration; I am not one of those people. But I don’t think a game should usually count that narration as time to spend playing the game and seeing if you like it, y’know? I’m fine with narration, and when it’s done well I outright love it, yet it’s still not really the same as playing the game.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint – it’s not as if you need a whole lot of time to figure out what the deal is with the game anyway, particularly if you’ve made your way through God of War or Darksiders or any number of other gamers that do more or less the exact same thing that Lords of Shadow does.
On its face, this isn’t a bad thing. I adore Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but that was also based on a game that had been released several years earlier called Super Metroid. It did all right. Rebooting the series into an action almost-RPG-style setup is a pretty solid logical leap for the franchise, and I support it. But unlike its antecedent, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is not representing a genre that more or less doesn’t exist in other games. When Symphony of the Night came out, it was strikingly unique if not original, because the only game that worked quite like that was Metroid and maybe Blaster Master. Lords of Shadow, meanwhile, exists in a world where a lot of other games have done the same thing with varying degrees of competence.
This is not to say that Lords of Shadow does what it does poorly, mind you. Saying it’s competent would sound painfully close to an insult, but that’s about where I wind up. It definitely places an emphasis on blocking over dodging attacks, which makes it run slightly counter to my tastes in the genre, but I wouldn’t say it’s artless or incapable. A bit too many closed arenas for my tastes in the demo, but that could very well be a function of the demo rather than something true of the game from start to finish.
If it’s not going to distinguish itself by gameplay, though, it could pull it together via narrative. So what’s there? Well, you play as Gabriel Belmont, a big shaggy white guy who snzzzz…
Whoops, sorry. Gabriel Belmont lost his wife and snzzz…
Uh. Okay. Let’s try again. It’s a time of darkness and danger for snzzzz…
Remember how I said above that there are only so many times you can do this same basic story before it starts feeling old? Part of why Symphony of the Night is such a (deserved) classic is because it turns the whole formula on its ear – rather than playing one of the Belmonts, you’re playing as Dracula’s estranged son, retaining that same central antagonist of the series with a twist on the overall alignment. Lords of Shadow, unfortunately, just comes off as yet another game about a dude in the throes of manpain because a woman had to be fridged for a plot motivation.
It’s just boring. There’s nothing offensive here, but that’s because you never work up the emotional investment to feel much beyond boredom and tedium. It’s the same story you’ve seen hundreds of time, and I’m pretty sure this was half of the plot of God of War. (The other half being dudebro wish-fulfillment.) I expect a game in the franchise to be a baroque and kind of operatic affair, but this feels less like a proper reboot and more like running through the motions again.
Certainly there are far worse games to play if you’re in need of that third-person action hit. The game pretty much requires a controller, but I won’t hold that against it. There’s nothing here that inspires rage, but neither anything that inspires want, either. It’s just what it is, by the numbers, at the end you’ll fight some dudes and finish watching the plot unfold. All right. Neither inspiring nor disappointing.
Which in and of itself is disappointing, I suppose. There’s more that can be done here, and the result is just kind of eh. I’m not mad, but I’m not happy either. I’m just left with a generic game of smashing monsters, and you know, I think we can do a little better.