by Robert Zak
previewed on X360
Konami's Castlevania series, approaching its 25th year of existence, is one of the more understated videogame franchises to grace gamers' screens. This is maybe because it has resisted moving with the times, relying instead on nostalgia and traditional platforming gameplay to create a fanbase for itself. Also, it would seem that fighting your way through waves of ghoulish creatures on your way to killing Dracula himself never gets old.
Be prepared for a shock then as the upcoming Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, developed by Mercury Steam, breaks with the past and brings the series howling into the current console generation. While a Belmont descendant and his trusty whip return to reap death on the undead, everything else about this title has been overhauled to compete with the big boys of action gaming.
Lords of Shadow is set in 1047 and takes place somewhere in South-Eastern Europe. It is a time when Earth's eternal alliance with Heaven is being jeopardised by the Lords of Shadow, meaning that various lost souls and nocturnal creatures are terrorising the land. It just so happens that one of the victims of this scourge is the wife of Gabriel Belmont, who in turn happens to be a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group dedicated to keeping malevolent forces in check. Consequently, Belmont goes in search of the God Mask, a mysterious object that has the power to resurrect the dead. Inevitably, his quest for the mask brings him into loggerheads with the Lords of Shadow.
While Konami have been quick to renounce any similarites with God of War III, the game borrows heavily from the stalwart series. The basic gameplay involves a direct attack, an area attack and the ever-handy evasive roll which sets you up for counter-attacks. As you defeat enemies, you gain experience, which is then spent in your haggard old 'travel book' on new moves, weapon augmentations etc. There are said to be over 40 combos for the gamer to play around with, as well as dark and light magic and brutal weapon add-ons such as a wooden stake attachment for your whip handle. On top of that, you'll come across plenty of disposable weapons such as throwing daggers and Holy Water to fend off the ungodly hordes. This may sound like a generous amount of aid at your disposal, but Konami have stressed that you'll be forced to use all of your skills. Given the series' tradition of high difficulty, I'd take their word for it.
Footage of Lords of Shadow, while not giving too much away, gives a good taste of the gameplay style on offer. One sequence has Belmont arriving at a fear-stricken village at night time, where the locals call on him to fend off a werewolf attack. The whole scene feels just how current-gen Castlevania should feel; pouring rain, wolves howling, and a sense that the dark forest surrounding the hapless village is enveloping it. The subsequent werewolf confrontation shows off the impressive range and versatility of Belmont's whip. While direct attacks are very focused and more damaging, the occasional area whip does a good job of keeping enemies away. Should they get too close, you can always counter-attack by pressing the right combination of buttons at the right time. After disposing of the grunt lycanthropes, Belmont then fights a Warg and - after a gripping battle - defeats it in a slick quick-time sequence.