Firstly I would like to say that this review contains important spoilers and I would recommend not reading it if one hasn't finished the game.
Secondly I would like to adress the problem of the derivative nature of the game. When I first saw this game in motion one thing struck my mind, the same thing that everyone is constantly shouting, and that being a God of War clone. Combat looked similar and so did some platforming sections so I dismissed the game right from the start, but did promise myself that I will give it a shot because of the heavy fantasy influences, Castlevania lore and it being an action game, a genre which I really love. What did I think of it, now? Well, let's see..
Story: Even if I warned readers of the potential spoilers I won't retell the story because it would be so lame of me. Instead I will say the premise is simple. The player takes the role of Gabriel Belmont of the Holy Order and goes on a quest to purify the land of dark beasts that shadow the world. As the game goes on, he finds out he must kill the 3 lords of shadow so that he could not only cleanse the entire world but bring back his beloved wife, Marie. There are some plot twists, here and there, more obvious or not but as a whole, the story hits the right notes at the right times making the game a believable tale.
Graphics: I have played many great looking games and these revolve around the names everyone knows (including GoW III) and I can safely say Lords of Shadow blew my mind with what I saw, but not because of sheer power of the graphical engine or stellar textures but because of something more dear to me, artistic direction. This game has the most breathtakingly beautiful levels I've ever seen in a videogame and the diversity of it all is simply staggering. Every scenery is unique and it comes with it's unique enemy type and judging from the 45 creatures that are present, you can only praise the amount of work that went into crafting this game. The only negative which I can point out here is a sometimes low framerate, considering the big budget of the game but it's nothing of vast importance for me, it doesn't break the fighting nor the platforming, but it's just THERE.
Sound: It's needless to say voice acting it this is the best I've heard in any game, ever. Not only because of Patrick Stewart, but also the rest of the cast, especially Robert Carlyle which gives Gabriel this strong resonance which I haven't felt before in a main character in an hack/slash game without feeling the need of growls and screams ala Kratos. The music fits what the game portrays beautifully and with all honesty I loved the OST of this game. Some rearranged classics tucked in there but it would have been great to hear others like Bloody Tears, even tho I predict they will be featured in the future.
Gameplay: I will split this one in 4 parts - Combat, Platforming, Puzzles and Boss Battles.
- Combat: While apparently it comes off as a GoW clone, I say to all those which think this that it has no resemblance to GoW's battle system at all. The Combat of the game is more strategy focused making the player adapt to the situation he faces and to play agressive or defensive by circumstance. Taking the Vampire Killer/Combat Cross aside, the combat is more infused with NG than anything else. Then you have Light and Shadow magic which have their own effects, either health regen. based light or hitpoint enhancer shadow. But magic can't be used for free of course and that's where the focus meter comes in play and by far the best mechanic not only of this game but of all I've played. When not using magic you have the chance of brawling expertly without being hit and build your focus meter, and when this meter hits maximum potential every hit from then on will spout neutral orbs. It's up to the player to choose if he absorbs the orbs for either light or shadow magic but if he activates them, the meter will fade and the key only lies in finding the perfect balance of filling the meter and using the magic appropriately. There are also sub-weapons, besides the Combat Cross, such as silver knives, fairies, holy water and dark crystals and Gabriel can also block, evade and counter. There are also special abilities to use such as movement enhancing boots, wings which act as a double jump, and a gauntlet which can be devastating if used right. All of these elements sum up a very solid fighting system which is neither rudimentary nor overly complex. It is just right.
- Platforming: Despite the media backlash of this segment of the game, I found the platforming in LoS very good. The grapple points were better done than in GoW, and everything had it's own take on the matter not feeling copy/pasted or too reminiscent of other games. What I also enjoyed in these parts was the fact that the game didn't held your hand or hinted you on where Gabriel should go next like in Enslaved or Uncharted for example.
- Puzzles: I have to say I really enjoyed these. They really make the pacing of the game and didn't feel tedious one bit. I particulary enjoyed the directional one where Gabriel has to hit different colors that match directions so that he can reproduce the path onscreen and of course the music-box.
- Boss battles: If there is one thing I must complain about is the derivative nature of the titan boss fights. Not that they are bad like everyone seems to make them or boring because I actually found them quite atmospheric and cool but the fact that they are copy/pasted from Shadow of the Colossus without the puzzle elements. But it's not the first game to inspire itself from SOTC (Darksiders) so I can pass over it since it reproduced them in the most original way and the best also. The non-titan bosses are really a blast to play and every one of them is impressive in it's own way. From the Black Knight to Cornell or the Crow Witch, every boss fight felt meaty and not so scripted like in other titles. If we're talking bosses, I can't help but applaud MercurySteam for their design choice of the last boss which instead of cliche-mega-big-bad-boss made a human-like appearance.
Another complaint which seems nauseating and overused is that LoS doesn't have what it takes to be a Castlevania title. Well I always ask myself, what is a Castlevania game? It certainly isn't a 2D platformer, nor an anime vampire killing fest since vampires belong to the land of Transylvania, where Vlad Dracul used to rule (I love my history). Tell you what, Lords of Shadow defines what Castlevania is all about and for the fanatics, it really does resemble one of the dearest CV games I've played, Super Castlevania IV (and also Simon's Quest) .
There are barely negatives in my review, and aside from some framerate drops which don't concern me that much and some copied titan battles, the game hits me in all the right places so I can't help but praise it for the work and effort of this underrated developer. The visuals, the notes, the storytelling, the feel and most importantly the meat of gameplay make this not only my game of the year but the most solid game I've played since Playstation 2. The only thing that got me thinking is the epilogue sequence and if the setting happens to be true, I will feel somewhat dissapointed but I have faith in these guys.