In these days of vocational study and core-learning due to malnourished educational budgets, the ability to tell a story is becoming a little bit of a lost art. Last week I attended the Playful10 conference; a series of talks by a cross section of charismatic individuals from all facets of gaming (video, board, guerrilla, actual reality, transmedia). Pat Kane author of The Play Ethic(and one half of Hue & Cry no less) talked about how Podcast Old Jews Telling Jokes gave him back his sense of humour (after having it stamped all over by cynical shock merchants such as Frankie Boyle). He referenced this by way of relearning how to spin a yarn – to eek out a shaggy dog story, build anticipation and then deliver a left hook of punch line.
Games are very often guilty of a lackluster story (good article here from Edge Magazine). It can be deficient in source, lazily lifted from the real-world events or rushed facsimiles of films and books. And its true, a coherent story isn’t always a necessity to make a game enjoyable. But when it is required, it’s rare to find a game that tells an articulate, emotional story. One that isn’t solely about getting from A to B, but involves the impact of past and present events on the protagonists unique personality, so that when you do reach point B, they’re very different to when they started at A. To tag this emotional journey onto a decent game engine, and to add further replay value (in this age of social bragging rights) to that package is even tougher. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow manages to pull this off with aplomb.
The Castlevania franchise seems to have been consistently unable to embrace 3D, with a string of generally poor to average attempts since 1999. Perhaps buckling under the weight of its own name, producers Konami have sensibly continued the 2D lineage for the duration of its 25-year heritage – presumably in an effort to keep the faithful onside.
LOS is an ambitious, next-gen revamp of the whip-cracking franchise. It’s the year of Our Lord 1047 and the forecasted “end of days” is nigh. Gabriel Belmont’s recently murdered wife has been prevented from ascending into heaven. Therefore, the damaged widower sets off on a quest to unite heaven and earth to release his wife from limbo.
Sound a tad grandiose? Perhaps that’s because Konami enlisted the help of Metal Gear series uber-producer Hideo Kojima – a man known for his love of film and of a credible story, stitched up with lengthy expositions on… well, pretty much anything. Team Kojima’s influence is rife throughout LOS. The story is driven by the creamy narrative tones of Sir Patrick Stewart (oh yes) and lots (LOTS) of soul searching cut scenes. Gabriel faces not only wild monsters but his embittered past which leads to plenty of self-doubt on his lonely journey.
The framing of each scene is also purely Kojimian (too early?) – no adjustable camera here, just a series of frames for each scene. Initially confining, it soon provides a palpable kinetic excitement in the visualization – engineered for maximum cinematic effect. The camera zooms out to pan across lush tropical clearings, before zooming into a tight tracking chase camera as Gabriel races through jagged cracks in the icy tundra. The effect is of the game positively cheering from the touchlines, urging you on to the next section.
A far lazier journalist than I could describe LOS as a medieval God of War. The battle systems are nigh on identical – Gabriel’s ‘Combat Cross’ is deployed just like Kratos’ ‘Blades of Chaos’ through face button combinations to strike forward, around, or up to enable some mid-air evisceration, as well as throws and holds. Close quarter ‘fatalities’ can be initiated to vanquish weakened assailants and ranged side arms can be incorporated into battle. Combat delivery is deliriously weighty and varied (with 40 different attack combinations to learn) and responsive controls combine to ensure satisfy orchestrated violence.
Gabriel also does a spot of cavernous puzzle solving (Tomb Raider style!). Puzzles involve collecting, moving and climbing, with a quick restart if you accidently fall to your doom, very reminiscent of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Extraneous puzzles can be skipped if you’re not of a cerebral bent, but forfeit achievements by doing so. Additionally, hidden in the 50 locations are goodies that can only be gained once you’ve improved your skills. Each location has its own series of tasks to complete (i.e. “kill 30 goblins with their own grenades”). Mastering LOS requires some serious time investment.
It has to be concluded that some of the best routines from God of War, Devil May Cry, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia Two Thrones and Sands of Time are all present in LOS. This is precisely the reason it may miss out on a plinth the halls of gaming greatness. Its reliance on so many borrowed aspects that are key to the game is regrettable and while it shows that developers Mercury Steam are technically competent, they aren’t the most original.
But the success of LOS is the package as a whole. It looks incredible, with the feel of a truly epic fantasy film. Further bolstered by Hollywood standard voice actors (Robert Carlyle voices Gabriel, and Natascha McKelhone his wife). It’s a huge journey split over two discs, with some serious replay value. Even though the game dynamics might well be borrowed, they’re packed together in an immersive package, all complementing each other to create a truly monumental experience. And the root of this? An emotion-led story, directed by a master. In days of free thought and consumer engagement, it’s refreshing to let yourself just get swept up in a story.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is out on Friday October 8 for Xbox 360 & PS3.