When it comes to getting around, the game's also generous with mounts, starting with a cameo appearance from Belmont's spectral talking horsey, and throwing in things like giant spiders and lopsided trolls, all of which can be pummelled into submission and then taken charge of. Sure, these beasts generally serve as means to a very specific end – getting you across a large gap or ramming down a door – but they're a nice touch all the same.
Even if its new influences are fairly obvious, it would be wrong to write Lords of Shadows off as a mere clone of God of War or Uncharted – as if there was anything easy about aping two of the most successful franchises of the last decade in the first place. Castlevania still blends puzzles, traversal, and elaborate boss battles far more aggressively than either Kratos' or Nathan Drake's handlers would dare to.
While its fantasy setting is a little more generic than you might hope for, once you're discovering new ways to get past old hurdles and coming up against the odd dead end that will have to wait for a second run through, it's clear that a fair amount of the series' DNA has survived. The puzzles tend towards the locked-door variety, but Castlevania is fairly imaginative with its interpretations of the concept of keys. By the time you're threading channels of light through a haunted abbey and stumbling through the obligatory nod to Portal, you'll realise MercurySteam's game is far more thoughtful than the linear channels of its opening levels might suggest.
And even at their most linear, the places it takes you are still beautiful and filled with detail. In its early stages, as you trudge between swamps and dew-dappled forests, Lords of Shadows can resemble a night locked in a Tolkien theme pub, but beyond that lies a wealth of gorgeous, and distinctly European, vistas. Icy castles are strung across mountain ridges, balmy ruins lurk within teetering piles of golden Mediterranean rock, and snowy plains riddled with frozen lakes house artfully ravaged villages and tumbledown churches. The delivery is sharp and well-lit, and if it wasn't for the shambling undead always trying to have at him, Gabriel could make a fortune by ditching demon slaying in place of package tourism: a fleet of 757s would actually be an ideal means of exploring the game's generous levels. And there would be dry roasted peanuts.
If anything, Lords of Shadow is generous to a fault, bulking out its already lengthy campaign with fetch-quests and fiddly asides. While the 2D Castlevanias offer genuine intricacy, this game often resorts to padding – locking gates or busting door mechanisms a few too many times, and reusing a handful of its other tricks a little too regularly as well. In fact, it's one of those rare games which would be better for – whisper it – being a little shorter: Konami's medieval ramble is already sufficiently roomy without a handful of moments that are so clearly thrown in just to add a bit of time to the clock.
So even though the wait continues for a 3D Castlevania that truly matches the elegance, complexity and spatial intelligence of the 2D games, this is a polished and enjoyable blast of musty Gothic action in its own right. In the future, we can only hope that a developer finds a way to deliver more of the core series components – of buildings that you piece together through exploration, of back-tracking that never seems like a chore. For now, though, even with a missing piece of that magnitude, MercurySteam has managed to deliver a game that's heartfelt, handsome, and quietly distinct. It's nice to see Robert Carlyle getting a bit of work, too.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will be released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on 8th October.
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