Review supplied by Xbox World 360 magazine issue 97, which is on sale now. Buy it online here.
Castlevania loves a good resurrection. From console to console the series flits, a digital Lestat boffing his way through the hottest tech in history. NES, SNES, PlayStation, DS: Castlevania's conquests are legendary. Lords of Shadow, however, finds the series in different mood. Nostalgic. Self-reflective, even. Is this old vamp settling down?
The model, says producer David Cox, is Super Castlevania IV - an inexplicably regressive promise in a climate obsessed with shiny new toys. He's bang-on. Lords of Shadow feels like 16-bit design filtered through 20 years of innovation. There is a passion here for the old ways: health-bars, HUDs, levels and bosses - all buffed to a 2010 gleam. Levels parade past linearly - from forest to swamp to mountain to trope to trope - almost gloating about how self-contained and bitty they are. How dare they! It's enough to make David Cage implode. Hooray!
Cox and his team understand that it wasn't the template that we grew tired of in the 16-bit days - it was playing 16-bit games. Embracing the format with what we know now is a revelation. Swamp level (snore) now actually feels like a swamp (awake again), complete with labyrinthine sprawl and shoe-sucking mud. Exploring the clock tower no longer asks you to hop from cog sprite to cog sprite, but frames it as an epic Prince of Persia climb. Grappling through gnashing cog teeth and riding pulleys hundreds of feet above thrashing mechanics - this is how Super Castlevania IV wanted to look all along.
Long way round
Fundamentally, devs Mercurysteam rediscover the sense of 'the journey'. Masterful as it was, Symphony of the Night's freeform castle sucked the pacing from the series. You progressed in baby steps, arsing around while Dracula literally sat a staircase away. Lords of Shadow gives you a whole world to traverse. It takes ten hours to even see a castle. That's ten fat hours of premium 'Vania in which you'll scale a mountain, explore Pan's domain, storm a fortress, meet a witch... and so on. When the castle spires finally emerge, you've earned those goosebumps. And you're just over a third in.
Yes, Lords of Shadow is an absolute bruiser of a game. Forty-something levels clocking in at just under 25 hours. What with the eight-hour campaign being in vogue, it's a flabbergasting volume. Incredibly, the game isn't just 25 hours, it's a pretty lean 25 hours. Combat is the main course, followed by a Zelda-flavoured puzzle dessert and broken up with a platforming palate-cleanser.
Even with added grappling hook moves, the platforming won't trouble Prince of Persia veterans, but it lets the devs cook up some truly epic set pieces. Throughout this hearty dinner Mercurysteam constantly throw in other ideas (the tapas of innovation, if you'll forgive one last desperate metaphor). Large animals can be tamed and exploited, thieving midgets steal Gabriel's abilities, there's even a self-contained board game to be mastered. List any more and surprises are spoiled (wait until you see the music box!), although you can look forward to a fun section fighting beside a bellowing Patrick Stewart - although hearing Jean-Luc Picard talk about a "an old bitch" is a little disconcerting.
Bit of sweet Symphony
For all that Lords of Shadow embraces Castlevanias of yore, Symphony of the Night gets a bit of love. Although XP is relegated to purchasing new moves, the game encourages you to return to past levels once you have new skills. Health, magic, item upgrades - all just a freshly acquired double jump or shoulder barge away. And just in case re-running a level for a tiny power bump seems like a chore, every stage gets a nails hard combat trial. Looking at the world maps' giddy spread of completion percentages feels like playing a grown-up Lego Star Wars.