What's in this Castlevania: Lords of Shadow trailer? The more appropriate question might be what isn't? Werewolves, faeries, vampires, angels, giant chess boards, giant eagles, giant giants -- even the grim visage of Death makes an appearance. It is absolutely the nuttiest and most awesome thing you'll see today. Lords of Shadow is going to be a great game and, more importantly, a great Castlevania game. The MercurySteam and Kojima Productions collaboration offers everything you'd want from a modernized Castlevania adventure: platforming, puzzle solving, and, yes, even some backtracking and exploration, with a level of polish that catapults it all into a sublime experience.
At Konami's "Boot Camp" event, I was able to spend time with a near-final version of the game and play as much of it as I wanted to. This wasn't a cleverly cut demo reel, highlighting the game's best moments. This was the full game -- all I had to do was press the Start button. Immediately, I was drawn into the world through the powerful soundtrack, beautiful graphics and the spot-on narration.
As the game begins, the solemn protagonist approaches a rain-soaked town besieged by werebeasts. He's not as flamboyant as Kratos or Dante, but no less deadly. The game immediately throws you into battle against the beasts as tutorial on the basic mechanics of the game. It's no surprise that comparisons to God of War have been made: Gabriel's whip feels a lot like Kratos' Blades of Chaos. With Square, Triangle and X performing the same functions as in Sony's brawler, it's very easy to get a feel for the combat. (There's even a counterattack that works just like GoW's Golden Fleece.) But it's not just the combat that invites comparison to other games. The violence is no less graphic and gruesome than in God of War.
As I fought the horde of beasts in that initial arena, I was impressed -- the combat was fast, fun, and thanks to some meticulous camera work, exhilarating. But could Castlevania aim higher than "polished God of War clone"? My concern grew as the narrator explained how Gabriel arrived at that village. His wife, Marie, had been murdered by an evil spirit -- and he was on a quest to get revenge. Wait, didn't we already play this game? Wasn't it called Dante's Inferno?
Thankfully, it doesn't take much longer for the game to unveil its depth. After a few more action-packed set pieces, the gears drastically shift. Gabriel visits a swamp, filled with branching paths and hidden areas. Scattered throughout these stages are corpses, each holding onto a note, detailing their (failed) quests to find specific artifacts. These notes not only offer some flavor text, but slowly describe a sinister backstory, revealing a larger tale -- much like scanning does in a Metroid Prime game. In classic Metroidvania style, item hunters will want to scourge through the levels to find all the power-ups hidden throughout. "Come back later when your skills have improved," an on-screen message will say of certain areas that require a specific power. Ah, now that sounds more like Castlevania.
In two hours, I was able to complete one and a half chapters (about a dozen levels), and rarely did a level pass without Gabriel learning something new, or unlocking a new tool. The Grappling Hook, for example, adds depth to both the platforming and combat portions of the game. In combat, you'll be able to jump, latch onto an enemy and thrust with a powerful kick. In platforming, you'll be able to climb to new areas, and wall-run, Tomb Raider style. (In one level, you'll have to jump off a ledge, grapple before falling to your doom, and swing around a corner, and jump for another ledge.)
In Chapter 2, Gabriel unlocks Light Magic, which allows him to regenerate health by defeating enemies. By pressing L1, an aura surrounds him, and a combo meter appears on-screen. With each successive hit, the combo meter will increase, rewarding players for battling with style. Later on in the chapter, he'll learn how to take control of beasts and use their abilities to his advantage. For example, you'll be able to take control of a boar in order to knock down a heavily-fortified wall. Or, you'll use a spider to create a webbed bridge for you to cross. There's also a branching level-up system, which allows you to learn new combo moves with the XP you earn from defeating enemies. It's hard to imagine the kinds of abilities Gabriel will learn in the remainder of the game's twelve chapters!
Lords of Shadow does a great job of balancing the variety of gameplay it has to offer. As in God of War 3 and Shadow of the Colossus, there's no shortage of jaw-dropping moments or enormous bosses. The game's first boss is a twenty story-tall Ice Titan, which you take down by climbing its body and smashing its weak spots. Immediately following that is a rather tense puzzle that has you both literally and figuratively switching gears.
It's rare for a game to overwhelm me, but that's exactly what Lords of Shadow has done. Two hours in, I know I've barely scratched the surface. Lords of Shadow is the 3D Castlevania game we've all been waiting for.