Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflections: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow first captivated me with the teaser trailer that was released back in 2009. While I must confess that my only real exposure to a Castlevania game is having played and beat Circle of the Moon on Gameboy Advance, and a brief excursion on Castlevania 64, I was nonetheless excited to dive into a three-dimensional gothic fantasy brought to life by Kojima and company (of Metal Gear Solid fame). Having played through the entire campaign, and also completed a good portion of the optional challenges and such, my lasting impression is one of mixed feelings; for every great step forward, a small trip occurs in the process, and for every traditional Castlevania-themed element, an attempt to alter the proven formula causes more than one facepalm. While Castlevania is an enjoyable game, and many of its flaws will be overlooked by folks who haven't had much exposure to the third-person action/adventure genre, veterans will likely be irked by a handful of minor, but constant issues.

Castlevania gets a lot of things right, let’s first establish this fact. Being a single player-only game, the spectacle of the settings often inspires awe and the visuals never disappoint. Enemies are present in sufficient variety that I never felt like I was killing the same enemy the whole game over; literally dozens of types of monsters impose and provide unique challenges in different combinations and settings. The game is broken up into thirteen chapters, and every chapter is subdivided into between two and nine different missions. The scope and length of the game are massive, and this is a thirty-to-forty hour commitment just to see the story’s resolve. From beginning to end, Castlevania is quite a spectacle of a game.

The story is a tale (it is a tale only because it is narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart) of Gabriel Belmont and his struggle against the Lords of Shadow and their evil dominions, which are encroaching on peaceful lands. In the hope of bringing his wife back from the dead, and driven by revenge, Gabriel runs headlong into the various lands under evil dominion to kick all kinds of ass, and be miserable all the while. While most games that require thirty or more hours for a playthrough will provide a handful of twists, changes in destination, stunning revelations, and a handful of characters, Castlevania delivers a disappointing narrative. From the beginning, it is a large-scale fetch quest. While I am not adverse to linear narratives in my video games, this story is a plain, one-dimensional vanilla-flavored quest game through a tour of settings inspired from horror and mythological literature. Even the last chapter of the game, in which all manner of wild and hidden truths are revealed to the player (as per usual with Kojima games) does little to justify the monothematic campaign which takes itself so seriously. I would have much preferred that a narrative be less emphasized, because it is adequate for an adventure game but is constantly being forced upon the player.

From the lowly goblins and werewolves of the early stages, to the persistent and aggressive vampires that populate the last quarter of the journey, Castlevania is not lacking in enemy variety. Castlevania has an amalgamation of monsters, both from mythology (vampire, chupacabra) and original creations (Black Knight, Crow Witch), all operate with unique behaviors and attacks. Boss battles are always exciting, often excessive, usually challenging and rarely disappointing. As one who often starts games on the hardest difficulty available to me from the outset, a handful of levels and bosses were truly challenging; many requiring more than one retry! Shocking, I know.

Grand mountain ranges, giant castles, gloomy swamps and bridges against sunset backdrops are just a sample of the settings in which Gabriel will do battle. As I previously highlighted, this game is grand in scale and gorgeous at many turns. Castlevania really delivers a sense of dread as I approached certain enemy strongholds, traversing a frozen bridge to a massive cathedral. Gloom and hopelessness became apparent when I emerged from a portal into a deadly swamp, and met an ancient witch. The mystery of a giants’ graveyard evoked my curiosity. Shigeru Miyamoto has said the most important part of making video games is the link between the developer and the player, and I must say that the fellows at Kojima Productions certainly know how to impress with scenery. While the aesthetic appeal of the game as a whole can not compensate for the shortcomings of the gameplay and story, the environments stand alone as some of the best, if not the best of any game I’ve played.

Castlevania’s gameplay is like finding a hair in a good bowl of pasta. For the most part it’s good and satisfying, but having just pulled someone’s follicle out from between your teeth really dilutes the rest of the meal. On paper, Castlevania has everything that a good action/adventure ought to: combat, a unique fighting mechanic, platforming, puzzles, and some light RPG elements for some upgrading. In execution, however, it stumbles in a few places, barely saving itself from a complete faceplant.

Let’s start with a comprehensive understanding of the battle system, and the light/shadow magic mechanic. As is expected from a Castlevania game, the main dealer of death and pain is a whip, or as it is dubbed here, the “Combat Cross”. As a melee weapon, the Combat Cross has a naturally impressive range, and the combat proceeds at a steady pace, and all connecting attacks slow the action for a fraction of a second, which is barely noticeable. Anyone who has played and enjoyed any entry from the God of War franchise will feel right at home, as Gabriel’s whip is reminiscent (but not a duplicate) of Kratos’ Blades of Chaos, another whip-like weapon. Admittedly, the brawling in this game doesn’t feel quite as air-tight as it ought to (considering the speed of enemies’ attacks and movement) but this is no real dealbreaker. Light and heavy attacks are absent, instead replaced by straight and area attacks, which perform exactly as indicated. Area attacks are weaker but effective for crowd control, which straight attacks may only tag one or two enemies at a time but are the real damage-dealers. Rapidly tapping, holding, and directional modifications via control stick are all present for mixing up the input commands, and produce heavy, pounding attacks, pop-ups, dash attacks and the like.

Additionally present, but with less influence, are specialty item attacks. Daggers are the standard projectile weapon, holy water has an intense grenade effect against most enemies, faeries serve as distraction as they flutter about an arena, and dark crystals are the rarest and most effective of specialty items, as they deal a lot of pain to every enemy on screen with a summoned demon. Daggers, holy water, and faeries are more effective against certain types of enemies, and the log book, accessed conveniently from the pause menu, effectively tracks these weaknesses to keep the mixing-and-matching to a minimum; all that is required of the player to discover which item an enemy is most susceptible to is to defeat just one. Also noteworthy is that there is no shortage of resupplies on daggers, faeries and holy waters, so their use is encouraged.

Light and Shadow magic really set Castlevania apart from other third-person action games. Light magic, when activated, replenishes Gabriel’s health with every melee attack that connects, and Shadow magic deals extra damage, and each magic has a special effect on specialty items. The magic meters are charged and spent separately from each other, triggering magic is assigned to each bumper, and collecting yellow orbs to charge magic is assigned to L3/R3, the stick buttons, which works well. Three ways exist to accumulate yellow orbs: killing enemies, breaking destructible elements of the environment, and hitting enemies while the Focus meter is fully charged. Early in the game, before magic capacity upgrades are acquired, the orbs from fallen enemies will do just fine to keep the magic meters charged. However, around chapter four when the enemies become more aggressive and the player’s magic capacity is two to three times what it started out at, charging the Focus meter becomes crucial. Charging the Focus meter means blocking just before an enemy’s attack will land to intercept and stun them, or landing several hits in a row (around 12-20 of weaker attacks, 2-5 for stronger ones) from the Combat Cross without being hit. Once it is charged the yellow orbs start flooding in. This makes the ability to block and dodge effectively and link together many attacks imperative, and it really requires a lot of focus from the player (pun intended). Charging and maintaining Focus is one of the most daunting difficulty curves in recent memory. With only one or two health-replenishing stations in any given mission, Light magic usage is crucial, while Shadow magic is an accessory that’s nice to employ for some extra oomph when you’re seriously laying the smack down.

The combat in Castlevania, as previously mentioned, is entirely functional. However, it doesn’t shatter any barriers. While the special move store is full of techniques with simple button combinations, most of which perform a unique attack, there was little incentive to deviate from one standard straight combo, one combo to repel nearby enemies, and the heavy attack series. Not that I was too lazy to learn other moves, but many of them are simply inapplicable in the most appropriate situations; dodging, intercepting and blocking make most crowd-control techniques instantly obsolete because more threatening enemies fail to flinch when they are struck, and most of the magic-enabled attacks are not worth the sacrifice in time that is required for execution. Also, and this may be more of a personal complaint, but the fact that getting hit while a magic is activated seems to eliminate the point of Shadow magic; if the idea behind Shadow magic is to deal extra damage for a brief period of time, the Focus meter ought to remain in place during Shadow magic regardless of whether or not I’m getting hit. The fear of losing my Focus caused me to really refrain from using Shadow magic a whole lot, because I was very hesitant to get aggressive.

The camera is fixed about 90% of the time, and works well. Camera angles are either fixed or on predetermined routes for just about every room in the game, and works extremely well; rarely did I find myself struggling for control with a reckless camera as I do in many third-person games such as Ninja Gaiden. Occasionally an enemy would retreat outside the range of view of the camera, and I would be caught waiting for its next attack, but these occurrences were rare.

The puzzles are arguably Castlevania’s strongest point. A good blend of traditional tile and lever puzzles mixed in with new, unique puzzle formats deliver some of the cleverest and most challenging puzzles this side of a Legend of Zelda dungeon; the pendulum and the music box puzzles in particular really stand out as unique challenges, and were all the more satisfying to conquer. Seasoned players may complain that the option to auto-solve the puzzles detracts from the challenge of the game (at the expense of a reward) but it simply exists as a means to make the already daunting game a bit more accessible to less experienced players. I solved every puzzle in the game without ever using a skip, but I will confess that a few of them really tempted me to opt out of it (I’m looking at you, Dr. Frankenstein’s tower…)

The platforming segments, while they are a great means to explore the gorgeous world and appreciate the elegant art of numerous vistas of the game, have much to be desired. Jumping, mobile platforms, pillars, scaling and rappelling walls are welcome distractions from scuffling with the game’s horrible monsters, but sadly fell way short of their potential. While the presence of platforming elements had me excited when I first started the game, the linearity and tedium of the movement in general put me out of good spirits. Climbing is slow and tedious, and is a real test of patience because scaling and maneuvering about a wall typically consists of a linear path that can be seen from quite a distance. I understand that franchises like Mario, Ratchet & Clank, and Mega Man have refined my taste for platform action, but finding redeeming factors in Castlevania’s mostly monotonous platforming is tough. Instead of spending my reflexes and curiosity, platforming portions simply examined my tolerance for boredom as Gabriel Belmont swung and sidled through ravine after ravine, ruin after ruin. As much as I wish I could say that Lords of Shadow relieved my bloodlust with challenging jumping, climbing, and swinging, I just can’t give it that credit; the best part about these interruptions is the opportunity to appreciate the scenic views.

Assuming the player is able to complete this gigantic quest, plenty of replay is available. Four difficulties and stage-specific challenges are present for those who really enjoy this game. The challenges range from mundane (complete a level without using Shadow magic) to intimidating (kill ten enemies in a row while under the effects of poison). In traditional Castlevania style, many upgrades and items are unattainable due to ability-related restrictions (behind walls, high ledges, etc) and can be paid a visit after upgrading to secure them. The mission-based layout adds some extra tedium to the backtracking process as each mission must be cleared for the upgrade to save, as opposed to the alternative open-world format which allowed a player to gain access to the upgrade after acquiring the appropriate ability.

All in all, Castlevania is a solid game. If you are a fan of the franchise I can’t promise that the departure from open-world castles will please you, nor the completely flat narrative, but the game is at least worth an investigation if not a purchase. Gamers who are new to third-person games will find a lengthy adventure awaiting them, with a good blend of action, adventuring, treasure hunting, and clever puzzles. While the lack of narrative development and hordes upon hordes of enemies will sometimes wear you down, this is a solid game that is easy to jump back into after taking breaks; believe me, I beat it over a period of five weeks. The game is functional, variety is present, and this is a grand timesink of a game if you are desperately bored, but I just can’t recommend it to the seasoned action/adventure player.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow receives a C lettergrade.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mandatory Update

Checking in to let you all know the skinny on my latest virtual endeavors, and my plans for future reviews and features.

Currently playing:
- Dragon Age Origins, on a second character
- Battlefield: Bad Company 2, eagerly awaiting Vietnam expansion
- Borderlands, leveling up a soldier-class character so that I needn't use my Hunter for Claptrap Revolution

- Hotel Dusk: Room 215, a unique puzzle-mystery game for DS
- Pokemon Pearl, because I gotta catch 'em all
- The World Ends With You, which I just started and played briefly
- Contact, an Atlus RPG although it's beginning to push my patience's limits

Since finals week is really kicking my ass, I'm guilty of not only a shortage of written material, but also gaming time in general. However, Christmas Break is fast approaching, and I will have an explosm of articles for your reading pleasure soon!! I would love to acquire the hardware necessary to produce video reviews, so hopefully my budget will allow for some exploration within that medium, assuming I can afford it.

Watch out for:

- Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
- Borderlands
- Dragon Age: Origins
- Halo: Reach
- Battlefield: Bad Company Vietnam expansion
- Hotel Dusk: Room 215
- Contact

Also, I'll be doing an article on hype within the industry for MyIGNer leidyGaPa, and how it affected the reception of Castlevania: LoS.

- I'm considering doing a "Retro-Flection" in which I conduct a review of a game from platforms/generations past, and analyze how it holds up to today's standards. I would start out with the original Half Life for PC, and also possibly Streets of Rage 2.
- An article on how our age of entrance into gaming culture, and exposure to high-quality games of certain eras affects our perception of grandiosity and scale. The first thing that comes to mind is that most people born between 1986 and 1990 identify either Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy 7 as their favorite game; I will record my speculations on this and similar trends.
- The Nintendo DS, Wii, iPhone, and other unique platforms that use their own conventions to create memorable experiences, and why publishers oughtn't force first-person shooters and ports onto these platforms.

That's all for now. See you soon, assuming I survive until Saturday...