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)
[caption id="attachment_253" align="aligncenter" width="440"] Remember the fantastic level-based journey that Simon endured in Super Castlevania IV? Neither do most Symphony of the Night acolytes.[/caption]
1. The StoryFor 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 JourneyModern 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.
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3. The PresentationDue to the series' '80s roots, Castlevania has always carried a factor of cheesy campiness throughout its history. Beginning with the very first Castlevania game, with Simon Belmont looking like a Conan the Barbarian clone, fans have come to expect a level of corniness in every game. It wasn't until the mid to late '90s that Castlevania protagonists started looking more the part, with darker personas and outfits that complimented the dark mood of the games.
More recently, however, the series began to backslide into the campier direction, with designing the characters using heavy anime influences that made Castlevania look a little too kid-friendly and less like the dark nightmare the series was conceived to be. It wasn't until Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia that the series would return to a darker visual style.
The reboot, however, decided to do away with nearly every visual element of classic Castlevania, creating an entirely new and fresh world. Perhaps the most striking difference between classic Castlevania and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was the way in which the reboot took all the vital elements of the series and adapted them for a new age.
One of these adapted elements was the iconic weapon, the Vampire Killer. In classic Castlevania, it is a powerful whip that the Belmont clan used to kill Dracula; in Lords of Shadow, it was an extendable barbed chain attached to a cross-shaped hilt. Throughout classic Castlevania, the Vampire Killer was incorporated into the gameplay in a number of ways, from using it to swing from one location to the next, to downing enemies in a number of different ways.
As the classic series went on, use of the Vampire Killer in the games fell to the wayside in favor of other weapons. In Lords of Shadow, it brought the Vampire Killer back, not only as a familiar callback for fans, but as the central mechanic to the gameplay. Gabriel used the whip for nearly everything, from combat, getting around, to taming and mounting beasts, to puzzle-solving. Lords of Shadow realized the Vampire killer in a way that the series was never able to before.
The music of the series has always held on to its late-'80s roots, featuring lots of synthesizers and electronic instrumentation on many tracks in each game. While the games have adopted a more gothic dark-orchestra-style theme recently, the retro flavor of decades past have always managed to cling to the musical score, taking some of the edge off of the series's otherwise nightmare-like scenarios involving taking on the forces of evil.
This was where Lords of Shadow really came through in a big way; the soundtrack for the reboot sounded like you would have always imagined the series would sound. The music was all done by an orchestra and each composition was boisterous, grand, and weighty. The soundtrack had left behind any traces of '80s electronic and rock influences and gave Lords of Shadow's dark journey the monumental soundtrack it deserved.
Lastly, the biggest change from classic Castlevania to this game was the visual style. Nearly every classic Castlevania game has possessed a cartoonish flavor to the visual style, from the character and enemy designs, to the world design. Most of this is owed to Konami targeting the "T for Teen" rating with each game, which meant keeping many dark elements of the series light in order to stay within that threshold. While there was blood in most games in the series, there wasn't a lot of frightening violence or truly scary enemies and locations.
While Lords of Shadow was still tame compared to more violent and scary games of the time, it definitely did not shy away from showing off some disconcerting images or locations. Additionally, the character designs were more realistically styled, with every human character looking like they could have existed in reality, giving the game even more of a darker feeling than before. The push towards realism also helped flesh-out the world of Lords of Shadow as well, with some impressive forested locations and snow castle setting.
Making a radical change to a longtime series is always going to be a difficult task. Fans of the series that have been along for the ride for a while like the series for what it had been doing, and that isn't so bad. However, sometimes a radical change is needed to knock the dust off of an aging series before people begin to lose interest. One such series that has recently been experiencing such stagnation is the Legend of Zelda.
While Zelda is one of the most critically acclaimed series of games in the industry, Nintendo EAD (the studio that develops Zelda) made the mistake of resting on its time-tested formula for the series a little too long, causing many fans to begin losing interest and failing to attract new fans. While Nintendo EAD had made incremental changes to the series overtime, it has been a very long time since the Zelda series elicited response of surprise from its fans.
Konami was keen to this wane in the Castlevania series' fanbase and went to work on figuring out a way to revamp the series, choosing to have its studios go back to the roots of the series to make it fresh again. Lords of Shadow's producer, Dave Cox, even noted that his team referred to classic Castlevania games like the original Castlevania and Super Castlevania IV when they were designing the game. They wanted to do away with the "Saturday morning cartoon" flavor of the series and bring the story and setting into a darker shadow than it had been in. While the release of Lords of Shadow inevitably split the fanbase, there is no argument that fans who had previously fallen by the wayside and newcomers were not enticed to give the game a try.
Perhaps the biggest lesson with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is that sometimes the answer to reviving an ailing franchise is not to endow it with more complexity or take the gameplay into a new direction, but rather to return to the roots of the series and rediscover why people loved the series in the first place. So many video game franchises out there fall into the trap of complacency and not doing much to make a game series remain fresh until it is nearly too late to fix the damage. The constant stream of annual sequels that currently make up the large bulk of the mainstream is the biggest example of this attitude that publishers hold — and continue to hold despite the fact that over the last ten years, we've already witnessed the deaths of many legacy studios and game series as a result of complacent behavior.
While I won't go as far as to say that the Castlevania series is saved from its past troubles, Konami at least managed to give the series a new lease on life for the next few years. While I'm sure there are many fans who would love to return to the Symphony of the Night format that the series had previously clung to with a death grip, it is for the best that the series has made an inroads towards moving forward and refusing to stagnate. For better or worse, the Castlevania series lives to release another game.