Welcome to Underrated, a column that takes games that are arguably underrated by fans of the game’s series and examines why they might not be as bad as you have heard. I’ll go through the reasons why people may not like the game and reasons why the game deserves more praise than it gets.
When I first heard the news that Konami was attempting to do another 3D Castlevania game, I was none too excited. Historically, Konami has had a difficult time trying to bring the series into a 3D format in a manner that is satisfactory. Even today, most Castlevania fans prefer the 2D presentation and format of Castlevania games over any attempt at a 3D one — a preference that has been much warranted over the years.
Konami’s first 3D Castlevania was Castlevania on the Nintendo 64, a game that was very much Castlevania in spirit, but was very unrefined and lacking in execution. The game wasn’t unplayable or horrible, but it did not prove to be a strong argument for moving to 3D when compared to its brother game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Symphony of the Night showed gamers why, during a time when the gold rush to 3D gaming was red-hot, 2D games were still relevant and would continue to be. Inevitably, Castlevania on the Nintendo 64 faded into obscurity as following Castlevania entries continued down the branch started with Symphony of the Night.
This is not to say that Konami didn’t give 3D Castlevania another shot. Not long after, they would release Legacy of Darkness, Lament of Innocence, and Curse of Darkness, all of which improved on Konami’s initial effort on the Nintendo 64, but none of them managing to transcend the heights (or even approach) most of the series’ 2D iterations.
Most of the issues these games had boiled down to dull aesthetics, repetitive gameplay and level design, and somewhat difficult controls. For as refined as Castlevania had become in the second dimension, Konami couldn’t quite figure out how to successfully move the series to the third dimension in the way that other developers managed to do during the ’90s and last decade.
With such a rocky track record, its easy to see why I, and many other Castlevania fans, were apprehensive about the idea of another 3D Castlevania. To make this pill even harder to swallow for some, Konami also announced that the game would mark a reboot of the series, wiping the board clean of its previous lore built-up over two decades.
When the game finally came out, it received better reviews than it had gotten from any previous 3D release, much to my surprise. However, most vocal Castlevania fans were not on-board with the final product, disliking Lords of Shadow‘s lack of relation to previous Castlevania games and its departure from the storied gameplay formula of Symphony of the Night. But is the game really such a disservice to Castlevania or could it, perhaps, be the closest to classic Castlevania that the series has been in a long time? I think the latter is true and here’s why:
(minor plot spoilers ahead)
1. The Story
For anyone following Castlevania, it’s no secret that the story Konami developed over time was slowly spinning out of reasonable control. What started as a simple story of a warrior clan’s duty of destroying Dracula ended up becoming overly complex, with tons of protagonists, Dracula’s endless resurrections, and a nebulous thread tying it all together that only the most hardcore could begin to grasp (which is par for the course, considering that Konami also publishes the Metal Gear series).
By the time Lords of Shadow was announced, the series had long overstayed its welcome concerning Dracula’s endless reincarnations and resurrections, and all of the different people and groups involved in putting him back to rest every time. Lords of Shadow did a hard thing by hitting the reset button, but it was a necessary move in order to put the focus back on the Belmont clan and the struggle between light and dark.
Having decided to reboot the series, it would have been easy enough for Konami to redo the original Castlevania with some flair and make it again about Simon Belmont going to Dracula’s castle and destroying him and his minions and called it a story. However, they decided to rewrite the book on Castlevania and add a twist that I though was extremely interesting for how subsequent games might play out.
To start with, the game is an origin story of sorts, going into how the eternal struggle between the Belmont clan and Dracula started. The story follows the first Belmont, Gabriel Belmont, as he journeys across the land to kill three people known as the Lords of Shadow. One is a Werewolf, one is a Vampire, and one is a Necromancer. Gabriel sets out to perform this task in order to obtain a relic known as the God Mask, a mask of great power that he believes will revive his murdered wife.
Eventually he completes his task and acquires the God Mask, but discovers that he had been deceived and that the mask doesn’t have the power to bring his wife back. Worse things befall him soon after and, after everything’s over, he himself ends up becoming Dracula, the Vampire lord. It was well-executed and was a great way to bring humanity to a character that, for every other game in the series, had largely been one-dimensional. Furthermore, it introduced a villain that was even greater than Dracula himself — Satan — marking the first time in the series that a villain over Dracula had been introduced.
Lords of Shadow‘s story is simple enough to be easily followed by anyone, yet it twists the story just enough to be interesting and promising for future entries. It’s a departure from the classic formula of Dracula vs. Belmont and friends, but its a much-needed refresh on a story that had began to stagnate over time.
2. The Journey
Modern Castlevania fans have been taught to believe that classic Castlevania started on the Playstation with Symphony of the Night, with the game’s introduction of dungeon crawling and backtracking such as was seen in Super Metroid. However, this is not the truth.
Classic Castlevania was built around level-based progression, going from point A to point B to complete a level and then moving to the next. It was also built around platforming challenges and predetermined skirmishes with specifically placed enemies. Symphony of the Night-style Castlevania games almost completely drop the platforming challenges and enemy placement is not as important. Furthermore, much of the skill involved in overcoming the game’s enemies in pre-Symphony of the Night Castlevania is removed in the “Metroidvania” formula due to the level-up format the games adopt (“Avatar strength”).
So when you hear a fan claim that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is nothing like Castlevania, they are wrong, and here’s why. To start with, the game’s flow is almost exactly like the original Castlevania and Super Castlevania IV. You start the game at point A on the map and you work your way to point B. There’s little backtracking involved or returning to a level you’ve already been through to get something you couldn’t before. From the first second to the last hour, it’s pure new content with little fetch questing or backtracking to fluff the game time.
Another thing that Lords of Shadow returns the series to is skill-based combat. While you can upgrade your combos or learn new abilities overtime, you don’t have a set of stats that grow every time you gain a certain amount of experience. The game forces players to learn how to effectively fight and how to use every asset available to them in order to survive. Unlike Metroidvania games, level-grinding to beat a boss is not an option. You either develop the necessary ability to win or your journey ends there. Lastly, Lords of Shadow brings back the platforming challenges that have been largely absent over these past two decades or so.
One major thing that I was charmed by with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was the storybook motif. Hearing Patrick Stewart (the voice actor for one of the game’s supporting characters) narrate the prologues of each chapter really lent a grand feeling to the game, making each chapter Gabriel went through feel weighty and just as important as the chapter before. Additionally, it made the game as a whole feel like one cohesive journey, from start to finish.
Visual aides, such as the hand-drawn map of the game’s world between chapters and the illustration seen at the prologue of each chapter strengthens the J.R. Tolkien-esque feeling of the game’s presentation. Even though the flow of the game is level-based, it definitely captures the epic feeling of open world games such as The Elder Scrolls with Mercury Steam’s superb backdrops and camera angles.
Make sure to check out page 2!