This is so obviously a Hideo Kojima game.
Make of that opening as you will. Though he has had no direct contact, his name on the box is as much an indication as you're ever likely to get from this - its a game where the story holds sway over the content, and what content there is is contained by the story. Plot, exposition and dialogue are ever present, the cutscenes traditionally long and drawn out. The plot goes completely barking to the end, speeding towards a conclusion both patronising and yet logical in its simplicity. And of course, the indication of a sequel after the end credits have rolled.
Oh yes, this is a Hideo Kojima game. Make absolutely no mistake about it. But the question is, is it a good game?
Well, the simple answer is yes. But just. And also no. But barely. It's a complicated mess which isn't as easily reviewed as you might think, as it takes a backwards glance and an open mind for the future to see its place in the grand scheme of things. It's a game that is both archaic, and yet progressive. Old and new. Yin and Yang.
Let's cut to the chase. See that word "Castlevania" on the box? Yeah. This ain't it. But it also is. Gone is the Castlevania we knew and loved - the old 2D stylings and exploration borrowed from Metroid, with an RPG system confiscated from some old Konami RPG that never made it to primetime. Lament its passing - for it is unlikely to return to us again. We shall remember you, old friend. You shall live on (and if we don't get Aria of Sorrow on the 3DS Store, there will be serious trouble!).
Instead, Lords of Shadow sees fit to borrow from a whole new generation of ideas - and it is as obvious as the Metroid influences were in Symphony of the Night. Unlike its old classic 2D counterpart, however, Lords of Shadow never quite manages to cover up what its stolen. It's rohypnol-laced thievery has resulted in liasons with Prince of Persia, God of War, Tomb Raider and Devil May Cry, as well as Dante's Inferno and God Hand. It's difficult when such influences are not only obvious but barely concealed, despite the changes and the gloss and even the competency in which such influences are used. There is no escaping it - the gameplay is not original. Not in the slightest. It just borrows - and it even borrows countless jokes from games today. Oh yes, there are several Portal jokes in here. Can you think of a less fitting place for Portal jokes than a gothic action adventure? Also a very very long-winded Doctor Who reference. Again... in a gothic horror action game? Seriously, I'm all for easter eggs and the like but come on...
And it gets worse for the gameplay as well. Whereas all the aforementioned games had a learning curve, Lords of Shadow doesn't. It has difficulty settings for the fights, but the combat mechanics - whilst servicable - are not in any way, shape or form refined enough for a game where the combat is required to pad out a harsh truth - the game is small. The journey is broken up into lots of little steps, and combat and boss fights are there to just stretch it out a little further. The boss fights are the lynchpins of the game. And yet even here, they borrow. There are of course the subtle God of War quick-timey-wimey-bollocks bits, and then bosses where you climb around huge structrued creatures to destroy runes on them... oh wait, yes, of course, it's also ripping off Shadow of the Colossus. How quaint! Whilst these interludes are certainly capable, the quick time events are too easy whereas the Colossus-inspired fights are too tedious and annoying. They're never bad, per se, but they're never more than okay - at best.
The story isn't Castlevania either, and for the most its two parts traditional Biblical Conspiracy to one part Predictable Plot Development. At no stage does the plot surprise - although its told well with some good (and bad) voice acting (The masterful Patrick Stewart furiously dry-humping the line between the two as if desperate to get to the end of the script and get paid, countered with Gabriel's soft-spoken take on David Beckham and his tiny voice for a big man) it builds to a logical and satisfying conclusion. But it's not earth-shattering, it isn't surprising and it's only after the credits have rolled that the gentle teaser for a sequel actually raises even a glimmer of satisfaction and hope - a few minutes of slick FMV right at the end just whet the appetite, but the main course isn't there.
There are of course the usual mechanics - upgrades to your abilities, your subweapon capacities and some hidden treasures to find - but these are for the sake of completionists. After a few hours traipsing back around old stages, I found myself incapable of giving even the most vague hint of a toss - I'd seen what I came to see. The game offers little surprise or delight beyond what is there, and hidden items merely give it a tiny sliver of appeal when the appetisers have all been eaten. Something for the Gamerscore Addicts to devour - although some of the challenges posed for this are probably too much effort, the game may be blacklisted to Gamescore Addicts. Too much effort, too much luck involved.
The monsters are certainly a highlight, but I cannot begin to tell you the surge of hate I developed for the Chupecabra - an annoying little midget who runs off with all your relics and powers at certain stages of the game. Often when you kind of need them, and then have a long-winded run around to find the annoying little git and beat the shit out of him until he gives you your stuff back. Again, it's so obvious its more padding but I still hate it. I hate it so much. In my dreams, I kill legions of them in their sleep. Beating them senseless - into walls, doors, tables, each other. Rarely have I encountered an enemy in a game that infiltrates my thoughts like that - and the even vague realisation they could be back in a sequel makes me want to send a very stern message to Kojima Productions. Like a dead rat in a box. Or a horses head in Hideo Kojima's bed. That sort of thing.
And yet, somehow, the game works. And at the same time, it doesn't. Lords of Shadow is a prelude to something, a hint towards something greater to come - and yet never delivers itself. But it doesn't seem to pretend to. So you can't really blame it on that front - it is as it was designed, a teaser episode and nothing more. But that it doesn't deliver itself is also a massive issue, as it is still a full-priced game that starts slowly, gets somewhere eventually but is never as satisfying as any of the games it has ripped off.
And that is probably where we can go back to where we started. It's a game that hints to greater things, but doesn't quite deliver them itself. It's a game which deviates, but doesn't innovate. It's a game that screams, "I HAVE A BUDGET! WOOOOOOO!", throwing the horns and delivering eye candy at a million miles a second, and yet then quietly whimpers at times, "What do I do now?", rocking back and forth as it retreats into familiar concepts and boundries.
And yes, that last FMV after the credits does appeal. There's something delicious about that idea, finally bringing the series bang up to date, but that you have to go through the content in the game first is somewhat disappointing. None of it is broken - none of it is outdated. It's just by-numbers. Safe. Boring. That is Lords of Shadow - a game more interested in the future than the present, of what its going to do - not what it actually does. Where the crescendo at the very end is there to justify all that came before it - even though you obviously feel somewhat cheated that they didn't just make that bloody game to start with.
For better or for worse... this is a Hideo Kojima game.
You have been warned.