Friday, September 3, 2010

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Hands-On

At Konami's Gamer's Nite NYC event, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was clearly the star of the show. My impressions were that Konami, developer Mercury Steam and Kojima Productions are sending notice that in the right hands, the Belmont lineage is going to be just fine as a big-budget, highly cinematic action game experience. Everything I saw, heard and played on both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions was extremely high quality and extremely worthy of the Castlevania name. Yes, the game riffs on Shadow of the Colossus, the God of War games and a few other titles, but there are also visual and stylistic influences from Guillermo del Toro and some familiar Kojima storytelling elements that make the game highly engrossing right from the opening scene.

Right away, Mercury Steam's incredible artwork comes to life though what looks like an in-engine cut scene that sets up the tutorial level. The amazing thing about the graphics is the overall high level of detail and how seamless the transitions are from cinematic to gameplay. Gabriel has to fight off a massive werewolf before it can make a meal out of a small group of villagers trying to assist. Here, you'll learn how to lock onto an enemy, dodge attacks and use certain objects in the environment when prompted. Simply whipping away at the wolf only got its health down to a certain level and the only way to actually kill it was to grab a long broken post and impale the beast as it made a leap for a Gabriel snack. Timing is key in this and the other boss battles that followed in later stages - this isn't a mere button masher by any means.

The next area was a deadly forest inhabited by bomb-tossing gnome-like creatures who could be taken down with whip attacks or by picking up thrown bombs and slinging them back. There were also hazardous water crossings where staying away from poison gas clouds and a lurking underwater nasty were keys to survival. The murky pools not only slowed Gabriel down, if one stayed in them for too long, poor Gabe would start to sink until a warning message appeared on screen. If he wasn't safely on shore a few seconds afterward, let's just say he's not much of a swimmer. Dying here only sends you back a short few steps, but it was best to pay close attention to ripples in the water and time your way through the slime as quickly as possible. Given that Gabe moved through the muck like... well, someone moving through muck, this part of the level made one realize that the game's pace wasn't going to be all-action all the time.

After the water areas (and some off-path exploration that led to a few hidden items) there was a bit of very cool platforming to do across some perilous rock columns. Here, the camera pulls back to allow for some side-scrolling nostalgia with a bit more fanciful navigating options. Once over the jumps and swingy bits, there was a second boss to face off against that was a tad more challenging than the first. In this case, the best strategy was to get close, hit fast and hard, then leap away before the creature got to swing.

The end of the fight was a quick time event that required precise timing as there were no onscreen button prompts. Instead, two circles appear on screen and you'll need to press an action button as one circle goes inside the other. It's a bit tricky and if you fail, the process needs to be retried. Taking down this brute without dying a few times was tough for a few who stepped up to play the game, but once they got what needed to be done, you could practically see light bulbs going off above their heads as they put the formerly intimidating boss down for good.

The next area was quite a surprise in the form of a beautifully rendered winding forest map where not a single enemy lurked. Instead, a puzzle needed to be solved that required finding a few stone icons and using them to figure out how to unlock a massive gate. The solution was pretty obvious, but ti was nice to see the game take this sort of interlude just to show off more gorgeously rendered environments. Interestingly enough, unlocking the doors gave way to a long cinema where a new character called Pan was introduced. The large, wise-looking talkative creature was obviously inspired by del Toro's fantastic film, Pan's Labyrinth (see it if you haven't yet), which made me think how awesome a del Toro directed Castlevania film might be (hint, muy mucho hint!).

The lengthy cinema that followed liked to another puzzle section in which Gabriel had to save his beloved wife before she was split in two by a giant pendulum blade. Here, a series of three rings needed to be aligned so that a walkway would appear allowing Belmont to make it safely across. While the puzzles wasn't all that difficult to solve, it had to be done quickly as the blade continued moving with each turn of the rings. The game also allowed players who don't want puzzles in their action game to get the solution told to them at the cost of losing out on bonus points to spend in the post-level shop.

After this sequence (and its surprise ending), it was back out into a new level where a boss battle would occur on the ice against a massive stone titan. Here and in a number of other key boss battles, Lords of Shadow takes inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus (and a bit of Painkiller in term of the size of some of other bosses). Defeating the ice giant required dodging his blows until his fist became trapped in the ice, then running up his arm, latching on and clambering around looking for glowing areas. The key here was to hang on for dear life using button presses when prompted, then when the prompts were gone, getting Gabe to those spots where ho could land successful attacks. The climax of the battle was worth the effort, but I don't want to spoil the fun here.

Other stages I saw and tried were even more spectacular, showing off a wide variety of enemy types in massive (and gorgeously detailed) environments. What's key here is that as many fans of the series as possible hop on board the Belmont Express and hang on for dear life as this new adventure put them through its paces. Hell, I walked away even more impressed that I'd thought I'd ever be, that's for sure. At this point, I'd bet real money on LOD becoming required playing for any Belmont fan whether or not there's any love for the other 3D Castlevanias. I happen to be a fan of all of them, so it's absolutely fantastic to see the triple threat team-up of Konami, Kojima and Mercury Steam is pulling out the stops to give core gamers a truly memorable experience and an all-new Belmont to die for.

October 5th is lurking just around the corner and Konami is offering up LOD in two formats: standard as well as Limited Edition packages for both the PS2 and Xbox 360. Of course, I'll need to get my hands on a complete version of the game just to see if the big picture matches and exceeds my impressions. Nevertheless, I'm really sure I won't be disappointed... and neither will you, dear reader.

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