The story is set in 1047. The titular Lords of Shadow have risen to power and are preventing the souls of the deceased from leaving Earth whilst evil creatures from historical tales (and previous Castlevania titles) roam the land causing chaos. You assume the role of Gabriel Belmont, an orphan and member of the Brotherhood of Light driven to seek revenge for the murder of his wife Maria. Gabriel’s dual objectives are to save the world from certain doom and to obtain the God Mask as it is said that it has the power to resurrect the dead. From the outset it is clear that, to Gabriel, resurrecting his beloved is of paramount importance; saving the world is merely a happy coincidence.
Gabriel is equipped with the Combat Cross, an upgradeable steel whip that serves as an aid to many of the puzzle sections as well as the third person combat. In a similar fashion to more recent Castlevania titles, experience points are gained from defeating monsters and these can be used to unlock new moves. While the combat may seem initially marred by a small moves list, you soon begin to expand your repertoire to a bewildering set of skills that even the Son of Sparda would be impressed by.
This is combined with the ability to command both Light Magic and Shadow Magic, each the antithesis of the other and a traditional video game staple. Yet Mercury Steam has found a novel way of implementing their use. Whilst LoS does feature life pickups, they are few and far between. The main way of keeping your health topped up comes with the effective use of magic. Enemies release neutral orbs when vanquished and these can be used to top up either your Light Magic or Shadow Magic. Each successful strike with Light Magic refills your life bar. A successful strike with Shadow Magic deals additional damage.
Skilful play is not only encouraged but becomes something of a necessity in the later levels. This dual system is complimented by a focus bar. Dodge, block, impact block and attack without getting hit and your focus increases. Achieve maximum focus and each successful strike with the Combat Cross releases a large amount of neutral orbs which can be used to refill either of your magic stocks. The only small problem with this system is that absorbing orbs is conducted by clicking either thumb stick in. The controls in LoS are complex and the thumb sticks aren’t the easiest to use in frantic situations but it is a small concession for a combat system that innovates and doesn’t just copy.
In true traditional Castlevania fashion, Gabriel can use side weapons including daggers, holy water and, through upgradable attacks, holy crosses. Tied to this is another key facet of the ‘middle age’ of Castlevania games: upgrades. By way of explanation, LoS does three things well. The first is to innovate, being unafraid to try something new. The second is to incorporate elements of the ‘old age’ of Castlevania. It achieves this by both incorporating well managed platforming elements and splitting its locations into distinct levels rather than one complete world to appease fans of Super Castlevania and Rondo of Blood. The third is that it caters to fans of the ‘middle age’ of Castlevania by hiding upgrades around the levels. You can upgrade life, magic and side weapon capacity and crucially, for which backtracking is required (including respawning enemies to increase your experience points), as you upgrade your Combat Cross and abilities, granting access to previously unattainable areas.
LoS is also a stunning looking game. Not just in terms of the game engine but in terms of the art design. It is clear that a lot of time has been spent capturing the Castlevania ethos and implementing it into this reboot. Familiar locations return including fantastic forests, stunning vistas, intricate castles, huge bosses and detailed gothic architecture all featureing in this lengthy adventure. And it is lengthy. The twelve chapters all vary in the number of discrete stages they feature but as a whole adventure it weighs in a good deal longer than many of the short single player campaigns that the current generation seems to have forced upon us. Factor in to that the trials that unlock for each stage upon completion and you get a lot of content for your cash. Each trial sets a specific goal that Gabriel must complete before ending the level, some of these are extremely difficult and will take a great deal of skill to master. They won't be to everyone's taste but they offer a sound reason to play through the stages again.
There are some design decisions that spoil the experience slightly. Jumping is occasionally a fiddly affair and there are invisible wall issues that serve to dampen your immersion but these are problems of the genre rather than LoS alone. There are also a few questionable design decisions where the solution to puzzles requires you to purchase a particular move (one that is very difficult to use in a precise manner) with absolutely no indication or signposting that it would be required to progress. Unfortunately for players with little patience (or without access to the internet walkthroughs you can use) this is literally game breaking.
The other surprising fault with LoS is Patrick Stewart. The rest of the cast (including Robert Carlyle as Gabriel) manage to put in good believable performances that fit in with the sombre tone of the title. Patrick delivers the worst over acting of his career. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if he was used sparingly throughout but he narrates the introduction to every chapter (as well as featuring in the main game at certain points) and his usually excellent voice grates after just a few hours.
The story has come under some criticism since release, but it is largely unjustified. Konami and Mercury Steam have historically stated that LoS is non-canon to the main Castlevania timeline. Presumably this decision was taken in case the game failed and was disliked by fans of the series. Yet LoS is not a failure, it is a triumph of innovation, re-invention and careful homage. The plot twist at the end of the game will upset series veterans but really, it should excite them. It is so seldom that gamers are treated to a real plot twist, a proper reveal or at the very least something unexpected that it would be a crying shame if Konami upheld the decision to keep the plot non-canon. The ending is mind blowing for any Castlevania fan and it deserves to be discussed and added in to the series expansive chronology.
Another criticism of the title is that the music isn’t representative of the Castlevania series. Whilst this is fair comment, the soundtrack isn't as good as previous games in the series; the gaming landscape has changed and what was once considered appropriate for a 2D action orientated gothic platformer doesn’t fit as well within a fully realised 3D world. The music in LoS is of a high standard and whilst not perhaps as epic as some pervious Castlevania Titles it is rousing, delicate and overpowering as the situation may require.
LoS is a resounding success. Its small flaws are eclipsed by the ambition of the project, the dark retelling of the Castlevania franchise and the fact that simply put, it delivers. Combat is satisfying without the need to rely on over the top brutality. Unique puzzles are included to break up the flow of the game. The story is (despite the efforts of Patrick Stewart) engaging and well crafted. It looks beautiful, it plays well and most importantly it gives the Castlevania name the opportunity to find a fresh audience alongside the faithful.