Lords of Shadow is Konami’s third attempt at a 3D Castlevania game that makes people go “Whooaaa it’s Castlevania but 3D!!!“. Previous attempts were very concerned with feeling like Castlevania–which I thought Curse of Darkness did very well–but with Lord of Shadows they threw this out to make something different. I think is the right approach with a franchise like this, but the problem is that MercuryStream didn’t actually make something different–they lifted a bunch of elements from other successful games and smushed them together. This leaves us with a very derivative game that is tied together with a story that ranges from inconsequential to completely ridiculous.
The platforming elements are lifted from Uncharted, but dumbed down. There is no skill or problem solving involved. You are led from point to point by shiny objects. Rather than looking around trying to find that pesky ledge you need to grab you head towards a highlighted object. When you need to jump from Ledge A to Ledge B you don’t need to find it or aim at it, just press the button. The game does it all for you. The reason the platforming in Uncharted works so well is because it’s a puzzle you need to solve (this is also true in the Tomb Raider titles done by Crystal Dynamics). By taking you by the hand and doing everything except pressing the button for you, the game destroys any fun you normally find in jumping and climbing around a level. In Lords of Shadow the platforming felt the same as pressing forward on my analog stick.
Combat is lifted from God of War when you use the Blades of Chaos, complete with grabbing enemies and tearing them in half when they’re stunned (because it’s so totally bad ass or whatever) and quick-time events. You hit button combos to execute moves that you buy with experience points. It’s good enough, but obviously nothing groundbreaking. Sub-weapons are present and handled in a pretty typical manner, you are allowed to carry X type by default and can find upgrades hidden in various places around the levels. I didn’t use any other than the Holy Water (which acts as an area attack) very often. The hitting things aspect of the game is competent if not world-beating, and other than it being derivative there’s nothing really to complain about outside of my general hatred of quick-time events.
There are a few huge monster style bosses in Lords of Shadow, and they are done in the style of Shadow of the Colossus. Climbing around and hitting the weak points of the enemies is one of the more challenging parts of the game, although it only really comes across as a really fantastic fight once when you fight a giant undead dragon. I found that this battle, done mostly in the air, was executed very well and required much more problem solving than all of the platforming and boss fighting in the rest of the game. It was a really super fun part of the game, definitely the best bit.
Lords of Shadow looks very nice, but unfortunately MercuryStream is very in love with how good a job they did here and a lot of the game is devoted to showing off their achievement. The camera angles are fixed during platforming (a cardinal sin of platforming) and there are lots of sections where you just walk in a straight line for what feels like forever for “look at our pretty graphics” purposes. For an action/platformer there is a lot of downtime. I also want to take a moment to give them props for the realistic rather than basketball breasts they gave Carmilla.
Before the end-game of the title, I am not sure that I could tell you much about the specifics of the story in Lords of Shadow. Your girlfriend (or wife maybe?) has died, you have to go kill the three Lords of Shadow to get a magical artifact and bring her back to life. A buddy of yours from the Monster Killing Corps is traveling with you and some stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and honestly doesn’t matter much happens along the way. If a game is fun enough the story doesn’t really matter all that much unless it’s completely horrible in my opinion. Then suddenly there is a mega twist!!! that comes out of nowhere and is lame and the story goes from background noise to “What the eff is this crap?” Twists are fine if they are set up well but when they are done with no real setup they are pretty worthless. The actual ending of the game after the final boss further spirals downward into crazyland in what I think was an attempt to completely reboot the Castlevania franchise in five minutes or less. It…doesn’t work.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the video game equivalent of a movie that apes popular trends competently but has nothing to say. If you like the elements that are being copied enough, you’ll probably have a good time for a while but it feels like an empty experience once it’s all over. There’s nothing wrong with a derivative game, especially one that is looking towards some of the best out there but when you take great things and make them boring that’s just sad.
Back in the GBA days, Kojima Productions released two games called Boktai and Boktai 2 which used a really annoying Solar Sensor gimmick. In the first game, in order to charge your Solar Gun you had to play outside, and if you ran out of sun energy during a mission you had to run around and avoid enemies. While making the second game, the developers decided that the Solar Sensor was not aggravating enough in the first and on top of charging your weapons it was also how you gathered currency because energy and money were taken from the same pool of solar power.
All this made the games tough to play for people who can’t just go sit outside on a whim during the day. I bought both and while the gameplay was fun I didn’t get very far in either due to the sunlight mechanics. Maybe if I were a non-city dweller things would have been different but I wasn’t going to play through them sitting on my fire escape on days I happened to be at home and the sun was up and bright enough to register with the sensor.
The gimmick apparently annoyed enough people in the North American market to cause Konami to swerve away from calling the gimmick-less DS installment of Boktai “Lunar Knights” in North America. Like the previous games it is fun and involves vampire hunting but unlike them I could actually enjoy the enjoyable gameplay. There is still an energy charge system but it relies on the time of day and whether you are outside or not in the game rather than where you’re actually hanging around.
The twist—it’s a Kojima Production games so a twist is mandatory—that makes this game stand alone from the first two is that it’s not a solo adventure. In addition to the kid with a Solar Gun pewpewing vampires there’s a co-lead character who uses melee weapons and charges moonlight rather than sunlight. He’s a grumpy guy who wants to kill vampires in a revenge mission. You can switch between naive happy sunlight boy and bitter vampire man at will for most of the game, though there are parts at the beginning and end where it’s not possible for story reasons.
Lunar Knights is your standard isometric action game controlled with a d-pad where you occasionally want to punch the game into space because you have to do a lot of maneuvering to face a certain direction, or you run off the edge of a building because you’re trying to go on a diagonal and instead move forward. Combat is relatively easy due to a lockon function so you move towards enemies as you attack them. The damage you take from certain creatures is outrageous, but I am one of those people who hoards health items and it didn’t really affect my enjoyment or cause any untimely character deaths.
After defeating vampire bosses you have to complete a shmupy type mission done from the first person view so you can destroy their bodies in space. These levels are very simplistic and feel like they were tacked on so there’d be something in the game that uses the touch screen.
If you’re hoping for a Kojima story from Lunar Knights, you’re out of luck. It’s straight-forward and clearly meant for an audience much younger than Metal Gear crowd. Good is good, bad is bad and there are no shocking twists or technerds having affairs with their step-mothers at a very young age.
Don’t be turned off because the game was developed to be accessible to kids, though. It’s a very competent fun action game with lots to do and areas to explore. Lunar Knights doesn’t have any glaring flaws, what holds it back from reaching the next level is that it doesn’t do anything notable or better than what you’d find in similar games.