'Castlevania: Lords of Shadow'

Since 1986, the action-adventure Castlevania games have featured the Belmont clan battling a stable of classic horror creatures - from skeletons, vampires, and werewolves to iconic characters such as the Grim Reaper and Frankenstein's monster, all under the lord of the night, Dracula. While the series thrived as a two-dimensional side-scroller, it has for almost 10 years suffered from substandard attempts at 3D gameplay, resulting in poor combat and platforming.

The new Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes a big step in the right direction. Borrowing heavily from the play style of God of War with a great presentation is one thing, but the story is a powerful light that repels the darkness of doubt.

The setting is Europe, 1047 AD. Gabriel Belmont, a knight of the Brotherhood of Light, has seen his wife murdered by evil beasts, and a spell is preventing the souls of the dead from ascending into Heaven. Gabriel volunteers for a quest to undo the darkness that the Lords of Shadow have brought unto the land.

What was in the late 1980s a series stripped of religious ideology has now embraced it, with forces aligned with either Heaven or Hell. It's a stirring yet classic tale of good versus evil, black and white until Gabriel's involvement throws a ton of gray into the mix. Gabriel seeks to end the tyranny of the Lords of Shadow, but darkness begins to form in his soul as his desire for vengeance grows. Well-timed confrontations with bosses and revelations about the Lords of Shadow keep the story interesting up to the very end, with an epilogue that is legitimately shocking.

Particularly noteworthy is the game's length. Most action games take six to eight hours to complete, but Castlevania stands at about 15 hours, not even counting backtracking for hidden character upgrades. Nothing feels unnecessary, and there's a story-driven purpose behind every chapter as this extensive and well-told story plays out.

Gameplay is highly comparable to God of War - peppering waves of enemies with light and heavy attacks, blocking and dodging to keep you alive, and jumping and climbing for exploration. Its peak performance lies in combat, with platforming and puzzles delivering occasional variety. Players get eased into combat with tutorials on basic maneuvers in the early chapters, but the game requires strategy as the combat situations get more difficult.

Light magic heals you as you land attacks, while dark magic makes your attacks more damaging. Landing continuous attacks without getting hit by an enemy grants a focus bonus that helps keep your magic supply built up - perfect for large-scale enemy encounters. Stocked items can be used to exploit enemy weaknesses, such as silver daggers to injure werewolves. Despite the number of options, these elements rarely make you feel overburdened.

While the game's style has plenty of benefits, Castlevania isn't immune to the typical glitches of the action genre. Sometimes your legs seem glued to the ground, and climbing down a ledge you just climbed up might lead to your death. The biggest shortcoming - one that's common in the action genre - is the fixed camera, resulting in angles that can hinder you in both exploration and combat. It's 2010; why can't we fix that blasted eye in the sky, or at least give the player some control over it with the right analog stick?

But when it comes to presentation, Lords of Shadow is striking. Backgrounds and foregrounds are detailed, delivering a proper sense of dread and awe, such as the deteriorated gates of the Lycan arena. The symphonic soundtrack creates a dark and powerful atmosphere, underscoring Gabriel's fearless stand against the evil creatures. Credit must go to the voice cast as well, with Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart leading the pack as Gabriel and his mentor Zobek, respectively. Both actors deliver a great, emotional performance that absorbs you into the tale.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the best third-person action game I've played since God of War III in March, and I'll go as far as saying that it's better. The combat is exceptional with many similarities; both games have issues with fixed camera angles; and they both look and sound great. But what distinguishes Castlevania is the story. It's fresh; retreading old levels (while beneficial) isn't forced; and Gabriel is a much more relatable lead than God of War's Kratos. The Gods of Olympus are mighty, but they pale in comparison to the Lords of Shadow.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is now available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $59.99. For this review, the author completed the story on Knight difficulty, replaying multiple levels several times.

Luke Hamilton is a buyer, creative designer, and online coordinator for Video Games Etc. He can be reached at ssj_4luke@hotmail.com.

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