Saturday, September 18, 2010

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow | Worth Being Optimistic?

Though the only thing I have left on my personal list to play for this year is Epic Mickey, I've also have received a donation today that will allow me to finally play (and subsequently write about) Demon Souls. There is a wildcard for me this year however, which is what this post is about, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Crushing Legacy
Now that God of War is finished (sort of...) and Dante is apparently on crack, I'm predicting that even more people will be willing to place an unfair burden on this game. This is especially prevalent in the current population of gamers who don't have the time and patience (*coughorintellectcough*) to digest what could be the successful transition which we've only seen in this industry a few times before. This would be the change that an inherently powerful 2D game franchise makes when moving into 3D Space.
As it stands, Castlevania has birthed a sufficiently confused audience. Most that have praised Kratos's outings for example, have also hidden themselves within a sphere of insularity, built specifically to ignore its lineage as well (look at something like Dante's Inferno and try to debate this). Due to this, Castlevania has indirectly suffered, if nothing else---in mere general perception. I wouldn't go as far to suggest that this has bled through to its development as well, but I don't necessarily think it would be that big of a stretch either.
Mediocrity
Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness were not bad, they were just unabashedly mediocre. This troubles people because the Castlevania lineage is a strong one. So strong in fact, that it has 50% of a genre description along with Samus Aran's exploits (i.e. 'Metroidvania'). This is where the inherent problem is too, as the metroidvania setup prioritizes exploration above all else. Combat is simply something that happens along the way. The transition to 3D however, has caused Castlevania to take on a distinctive hack-n-slash persona, to which people have regurgitated rather angrily (though in my honest opinion, healthily is a better adjective there).
So what happens if this game is simply a mediocre button-masher again? Well personally speaking, it will be Konami's official third strike with trying to make the series stick with me in 3D (I'm not counting the Nintendo 64 version). I have nothing against MercurySteam, but I think they're just a part of what has recently become the main theme in Japanese game design (seen on full display at this year's Tokyo Game Show): Westernization (which isn't new really, but damn have they hit the gas on that shit this year). At best, these guys (a European studio I believe) seem poised to make a slick and polished but still formulaic hack-n-slash with RPG dressings. If it's just that, I'll be okay with just a rental a nod of praise. If however, it does turn out to be a 'questionable' God of War clone, I will be angry and you will read about it. I don't have the type of mental energy it takes to simply ignore all the facts and expect the the 2D realm of one of gaming's most revered to just magically translate to 3D space. If you want to be blindly hopeful, you're reading the wrong blog.
"In his narration, Cox said that the finished game will feature 50 levels through which protagonist Gabriel Belmont must fight his way to the iconic castle. Along the way, as I saw, he'll encounter a vast number of enemies -- their diversity was equally impressive -- though there will also be allies, human and animal. Gabriel's mentor, voiced by Patrick Stewart, was shown, as was the spirit of his wife, who in the game's story has been killed (along with many others) by the creatures set free by an evil sorcerer. At different points, Gabriel was shown riding a horse and a giant eagle."
-Joystiq [Source]
The fact that it's expansive does suggest the potential for exploration, but being a big playground full of diverse enemies can also be fairly deceptive. If these guys step up to the task, they can really make a name for themselves.
The Transition to Tales

"Astounding? It looks like a Japanese soap opera. It's got God-awful cliches and corny mocaped acting. The purpose of the trailer was to show off the amazing story, cutscenes, and all star voice cast, and it showed something that, were it a film, would play at 2am Sunday on SyFy. I appreciate the set and character design and the game itself may be quite good, but these are wretched cutscenes. Unwatchable."

---chargen, [Source]
How 'intelligently stupid' can we gamers get before we're just plain stupid? P.C. gamers will answer that one before anyone, but this guy seems like a good advocate for the point at hand.
Should Castlevania have a 'tale' now? Well---I'm going to go with yes on this particular case. In an age of new wave titles that have proven themselves to have impressively engrossing and engaging tales, Castlevania as a concept is one that can still plug itself with a bit of innovation if done correctly. The staple enemies, weaponry, and aesthetics all mean something in the game's twenty-year old lore. Now, the 2D games only needed minimal narrative points to chug the player along, but pretending like that's tantamount to what a 3D game has become is these days just silly. For a useful compare/contrast, look at Sonic the Hedgehog, which is in the exact opposite position now; given a story and characters where they were never needed (or at least expounding upon them excessively and unnecessarily). When they actually were effective, they were minimal, and this is because they were not meant to be the substance, but rather the flavor. The shift for Castlevania on the other hand, would have to be more nuanced and FAR more balanced. This is a tough design plane to dance on as well, because at the end of the day, Sonic had it rather easy (and Sega still managed to fuck that up). All those platformers had to do was was focus on the structure of designing play that meshed with old 2D design principles, but this was ignored out of a blatant attempt to capitalize on Sonic's already-waning '90's coolness' instead.
"We wanted to have big enemies and things like that, the scale and the epicness of it all. The comparisons to God of War are, I think, unfounded. When people see the game, play the game, they'll see that Lords of Shadow is actually a slower-paced affair. There's more exploration, there's more freedom for the player to look around levels and find things. Sure, we have cool combat and cool setpieces; you need to have something like that to appeal to gamers today. But we still have those elements that made Castlevania great. We're not moving that far away. I think when people see the game they'll go, 'That's Castlevania.'"
-Dave Cox, [Source]
I have absolutely no evidence apart from this guy's word that he's not just saying what he knows everybody wants to hear.
Castlevania gets a much dirtier hand to play in comparison to the likes of Sonic though, having to balance a real-world anchored art design with a responsive system of play that nurtures exploration AND combat. Not only that, but what used to be narrative vectors in the 2D landscape have become engagement tools in 3D, which I will admit and predict most likely to just be cliche tropes we can find in any pulpy fantasy novel. The balance is the key here, but I think what I mentioned above in 'Crushing Legacy' will play far more of a factor than it has to, while also letting the tale take up space where it has no business occupying. This is what defines most hack-n-slashers too. There's typically no room for permeability between play and narrative when both are obnoxiously flying off the charts to draw attention to themselves, neither of them making any kind of meaningful commentary on the other.
Recycling
The audiences are expecting a God of War clone, but God of War only exists because of Devil May Cry and Devil May Cry only exists because of Castlevania (a tad facile yes, but true enough for this post's point). See where this is going? The series is about to begin eating its own tail by playing up to consumers' latent desires for the next 'glowing-shit-to-hit-fuck-yeah' game. I sincerely hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see how or why MercurySteam would be interested in breaking the mold here. If it's a good God of War clone, then people will pay for it, plain and simple. They're not out looking to revitalize the genre, nor to bend it, or even to break it. If you think about it that way, the likes of Retro Studios are a true aberration in this context. What's missing from all the footage I've seen on the game has been a sense of exploration, but this is something that will only reveal itself with the game's actual release.

"Lords of Shadow is a melancholy tale of this guy trying to bring back his dead wife. So we wanted to have a somber and dark musical score to go with it. We still have Castlevania themes throughout that you'll hear and you'll find familiar, but they fit into the game and the world that we've created...I'd say a third of the score includes classic tunes that long-time fans will immediately recognize."

-Dave Cox, [Source]
The periphery importances I don't doubt at all. What little I have heard and seen has definitely led me to expect a legacy-worthwhile scoring and impressive visuals, but those things can't save the experience if the above factors aren't addressed. What works in Castlevania's favor here is that these two things are extremely important to the series as a whole. So if the developer is displaying some sort of competence there, perhaps not all is lost.

It looks fluid sure, but if the game is simply a linear and cinematic romp, fans (myself included) will revolt, and the countless God of War accusations will be proven to not simply be the result of excessive trolling.

At the end of the day, I'm just not expecting something that will successfully harken back to the above mentioned principles that the earlier games had (and I'm beginning to think that it's a lost cause to even desire at this point as well). This also means I'll be placed to enjoy the game in such a light that could very well be far removed with what made me and many others love the series to begin with.
That said, I don't really think anybody else should either. It's pretty much parallel to low expectations, but I think that's more than fair here. Misplaced optimism will only end up leaving us broken and beaten here. If I'm completely off the mark with this---well, that means we finally got something rarely seen with these types of games. I'm perfectly fine with that.