Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has to be something rather special to really spark excitement, and not just because I had to get up at 8am on a Monday in order play it for this preview. Previous Castlevanias Judgement and Harmony of Despair have both left everyone justifiably wary of the words 'series reboot'. Perhaps only the words 'family-friendly remake' could be more dispiriting.
Lords of Shadow – which is extremely un-family-friendly, incidentally – reshapes Castlevania into a Devil May Cry-style action game. It's beautiful and violent and flavoured with more than a touch of Gothic horror. Just looking at the list of names involved with the game – Robert Carlyle, Sir Patrick Stewart, Hideo Kojima – suggests this is an important game for Konami. Important enough to involve Kojima Productions as well as Western developer MercurySteam.
The Metal Gear Solid creator's role on Lords of Shadow is an advisory one, as you'll know if you read our previous preview. However his studio's influence can certainly be seen in the game's flamboyant cinematography, which is both ridiculously beautiful and beautifully ridiculous.
In one of the opening levels, Gabriel speeds through a forest on the back of a sparkling, magic horse with eyes of blue flame and an unexpected Eastern European accent. He's pursued by goblin-werewolves riding hulking bear-beasts. It's a heart-racing vignette culminating in an improbable leap across a massive chasm as the steed melts away into the air.
There's a touch of Gothic magic in Lords of Shadow's presentation. The forest that serves as the setting for the game's opening chapters is gold-dappled, overgrown and shimmering with dust motes. Its guardian, whom hero Gabriel Belmont meets at the end of his first journey, is a hunched, ram-horned, fang-toothed old creature clothed in bark and moss, looking like something straight out of Pan's Labyrinth. Birds rest on enormous tree-roots in the foreground as Gabriel runs through forest passageways.
Between levels the story is narrated in diary-form by Patrick Stewart. He plays Belmont's mentor, Zobek. His words unfurl across the worn pages of an old storybook which serves as the level select screen, its illustrations depicting scenarios from the levels themselves. The ability and item screens are also presented in this distinctive style, in keeping with the medieval art direction and the plot's mythological feel.
When you get to the first castle you find the aesthetic is no less impressive when applied to a more traditionally Castlevania setting. The game frequently interrupts itself with cut-scenes, giving the story ample room to stretch its legs or giving itself over to sweeping, wide-pan shots. These show the scale and detail of the vistas and constructions. Such self-assurance you'd expect from Kojima Productions, but not necessarily from MercurySteam. It's a pleasant surprise.