Castlevania's history is one of gaming's most idolised, impressive and intimidating.
The legendary series began way back in 1986 - and for almost a quarter of a century it has enthralled hundreds of thousands of gamers with its 2D side-scrolling exploits, RPG progression and hot stake-through-the-heart Dracula-slaying action.
Unfortunately, and I say this with a hint of contrition, I'm not one of those gamers - having missed out on all the early Castlevania action. Still at least that means I come fresh to the party for this newest instalment.
Lords of Shadow has always been billed as a major series reboot (when it wasn't masquerading under a code name) that modern gaming demanded. And having just progressed a couple of hours into the action, I'm really glad there's still more than twenty hours to go.
Rarely has a game managed to grab and grip me so quickly. Lords already been billed in some quarters as the sleeper hit of this year, but early review scores have suggested it will do even better than that. After spending some time with this newest incarnation, it's easy to see why.
Mists and Shadow
Lords begins with an introduction that's part Brothers Grimm fairly tale, part Guillermo del Toro fantasy nightmare. The story's told via an illustrated story book with the sonorous, liquid tones of Patrick 'I can see everything' Stewart giving a fine narration.
It's a great scene-setter and from its very beginnings, Lords positively drips with a brooding medieval menace. Its epic score, excellent vocal talent and lashings of visceral supernatural slaying form an impressively gothic world, rich in enchantment, mystery and atmosphere.
So first a bit of background. Lords' hero is Gabriel Belmont, latest scion of the vampire-hunting clan. But he's no muscular Van Helsing-style scourge of the undead - rather a grief-stricken holy knight, haunted by the death (or undeath) of his lost love.
Why? Well the titular Lords of Shadow have cast a fearsome dark spell which has unleashed the usual waves of havoc throughout the land, but has also trapped Gabriel's murdered wife Marie (the divine Natascha McElhone) between the worlds of the living and dead. No wonder Gabriel's a touch on the moody side.
Yet hope springs eternal, and to defeat the Lords' spell, Gabriel needs to seek out the legendary God and Devil masks - one of which incidentally has the power to resurrect the dead.
It's quite a complex set up, but the pieces fall quickly into place, and Robert Carlyle brings a real doom-laden feel to our angst-ridden hero - raising Lords way above the walking clichés and time worn-tropes that inhabit most standard fantasy fare.
The action commences in a benighted village under siege. Naturally it's a full moon, and werewolf prowlers and were-beasts immediately start leaping over the walls to harass the terrified pitch-fork wielding yokels. Enter our knight errant, wielding his mighty combat cross, primed and ready to give some hammer to the lycanthrope menace.
Although this serves as a fairly gentle introduction to the game, you can see Lords' core mechanics and primary systems take shape from the off.
The stylish combat cross may replace the series' iconic Vampire Killer whip, but it has a remarkably similar effect, bludgeoning single enemies or flailing wider to sweep up groups. Later upgrades allow you to hook onto and swing from the scenery, but as you begin to smite the werewolves, you quickly pick up all the basic attacks and counters, with successive kills unlocking crunching new moves like the Guillotine and additional missile weapons like the throwing knives, with occasional relief appearing in the form of health fonts which replenish your vital energy.