Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Castlevania's 'Shadow'

Completing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow over the weekend has granted me a new appreciation for Castlevania's current state of affairs in today's gaming landscape. This is mostly because of the tendency for everyone to get tunnel vision in terms of what they think of when coming to the series in general. What I'm mostly referring to here is the nigh-sacred reverence for Symphony of the Night. I'm guilty of this myself, though I'm personally more accountable in bias for the artistic design and influence concerning people like Ayami Kojima, rather than getting too romantic concerning the actual playstyle[1][2].

Initially, my cautious optimism caused me to delay the purchase crosshairs on the game because there were a couple of paths it could have taken[3], so I held off while still keeping it in the back of my mind. After playing the demo, I was convinced to keep waiting because I was an idiot and made the classic mistake of offering up too much judgement by a demo alone. Then after finally snagging it for eighteen bucks through Amazon, I sat down over the weekend and dug into it properly. My general consensus is it's a great 3D action game with no desire to become a fantastic one. Part of me is a little hurt by that feeling, but the rational side outranks it in asserting that this game is not obligated to reclaim is former days of glory due to a misplaced sense of nostalgia on my part. There were more troubling things about the game that I think were far more pertinent regarding its overall experience, and the series's namesake was just a trivial matter in the end.

So, the first thing I wish to comment on is the frequency of times that I felt myself falling into approach of playing the game as I would have the previous console entries in the God of War franchise. I consider this a major problem as the game (Lords of Shadow) is good enough to stand on its own, but most of the time it simply makes no effort to assert that case. Some of this is a reflection on me too, as I felt myself slipping into autopilot in how I went through the motions regarding the game's various setpieces and formulaic action sequences. I also noticed that this weakness if you will---was typically offset by a strength which has always been an attribute the series possessed (which I've also always favored). That is of course, the artistic design of the series. The gothic-medieval aesthetic that's more or less defined the entire series since its inception is embraced full-bore in Lords of Shadow, and it's no slouch in this game either. Though it's somewhat generic, the presentation and attention to detail in the game is no less phenomenal. Even disregarding the admirable technical aesthetics, the implementation of things like the in-game bestiary went a long way in helping me connect with it. Added polishes such as the hand-drawn animations of combos and upgrades were small things that made tedious management in the game a pleasure to access.

The depth of the combat is contingent on a number of factors, and what I mentioned above (concerning my 'autopilot') bleeds into why I took away a more negative perspective from it and that was that the game doesn't really stress you to the point where you'll need to act with proficiency with the combat cross. Even though I went through and bought a couple of upgrades for myself, I still ended the game with more than 40,000 experience points to spend. I rarely felt the need to upgrade and half of the time forgot it was even available option to me until I got a trophy regarding passing a certain experience gain. Once I grasped the concept of parrying attacks (which I didn't really get pushed to do until about the 60% mark through the game), the game's setup of feeding more rune meters became the core rhythm of play for me (in a good way mind you, just not in terms of developing the potential of the combat mechanics). I didn't need any of the extraneous attacks and bought some of them based solely on how they looked rather than any real strategic purpose.

What I found out by the end of the game is that it actually does have a depth that's on par with the more heavy hitters such as Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, but it's only there if you go out of your way to grasp it (which is a problem for me). I must stress again though, I didn't notice this at first, but after seeing how I transitioned from just whacking things with the cross in the first three to four chapters, to honed moments of timing in terms of dodging/counterattacking showed me just how much I was taking for granted in this game. It does go beyond the limits it sets up for itself, but it doesn't vastly exceed those limits for the most part; it spends more time trying to make the player think it does.

I realized as the game drew past that 60% mark how much my perspective on playing God of War (a title I'm really not that fond of) specifically colored some knee-jerk reaction in me, which was manifesting through me hyper-judging the way I played in terms of not addressing the game on its own terms. That's something I blame myself for. Somewhere between my distaste for God of War and my reverence for Devil May Cry lies Castlevania's rebirth, caught in the middle like a victimized child in a bad divorce.

If one steps back to look at the superficial similarities the games possess, it becomes clearer to see how easy it is to slip into this mindset. Some examples include:
  1. The QTE sequences in Lords of Shadow, an unpopular design choice that more or less began with the God of War titles (as far as the genre is concerned) are sprinkled everywhere throughout the game.
  2. The setpiece moments are akin to God of War as well, where the 'epic' production value of the two games can be taken as more similar to each other than they are with any other games in the relevant genre bracket.
  3. Piggy-backing off that last point, both Gabriel and Kratos are depicted as very distinct demigods who have been ordained by the Gods themselves to perform feats of extreme supernatural strength. This is very unlike the over-the-top craziness of something like DMC, and has more of a mood of a 'mere mortal' who has just breached the perimeter of the pinnacle of human strength and combat effectiveness. Both are single-minded men who are stubbornly focused on either revenge or redemption (and I'd even make the argument that Kratos works far better as a character in his game that Gabriel does in his).
  4. Visually, the Combat Cross will look more or less like the Blades of Chaos to anyone just glancing at the game. Functionally the two diverge quite wildly after Lords of Shadow's initial four/five chapters, but it doesn't help matters as far as this general perspective-alteration will go.
  5. God of War's marketing prominence works to Lords of Shadow's lack thereof as a detriment. Being one of the major mascots for Sony since the original PS2 game, God of War has more or a less become a premier title for Playstation owners at large. Lords of Shadow in comparison is a reinvention of a dated action-scroller that has had two mediocre 3D installments on the PS2 with this new game being a 'reboot' by a relatively unknown Spanish developer. The only people likely familiar with the series outside of its namesake anyway are older players too jaded to care giving it a further look, and I don't mean simply mean playing through the game either. I mean accepting a self-awareness of these things and addressing them mentally as they go through the game[4].
I think it's fair to say that there were a lot of contextual pressures pushing the general perception of the two games together. I personally had to continually apply extra focus to appreciate the game's combat more than I do and in the process of doing so (which I'd liken to the effect of having to use my imagination in an unnecessary fashion), it causes a rippling of sorts which just cancels the damn effort out as a result. MercurySteam needs to find some way (any way) to distance itself from even the superficial appeal of the God of War series. I knew that was going to be a problem two years ago when the game was first shown (the referenced entries here at the bottom of this post show that sentiment as well). It (GoW) is just too pervasive of a title that many people have invested their interest in now, and I'd even go as far to call it a threat to the Castlevania's future on that basis alone. Just in public perception, the game is a danger.

I do applaud the game's presentation and world[5], but the narrative itself is marred by by an arguably useless main character and a sense of gravity to the game's situation. Wygol village is the only area (other than the introductory village) off the top of my head in which Gabriel is even given any more human contact aside from Zobek, so it's kind of hard to grasp me and my quest to 'save the world'. Gabriel as a character is stoic, flat, and exists mainly as a reactive force throughout the entire game (defined only by a 'dogmatic will to move forth for the sake of love'), and the only factor which counteracts this is---Zobek. If I didn't have Patrick Stewart's voice narrating Gabriel's supposed thoughts and intentions to me after each stage, I'd outright hate the game's main character. This kind of tertiary character development is a good way to pick up the slack, but I don't think it was an intentional move; it would have helped so much more if the themes Zobek communicates throughout the game were in turn actually expressed by Gabriel himself, no matter how subtle. Having him simply reply '...no...' to his part in Claudia's death for example, is kind of missing the whole point. His damn-near motto to all the titular Lords of Shadow in the game can pretty much be summed up simply as some variation on the phrase:
"You will not stand in my way."
Moving along, the puzzles in this paticular title were moments where I constantly found myself annoyed, not because I feel they're out of place on principle in this type of game, but because these paticular ones just didn't belong (that or they only exist to make me think the game is grander in scrope than it actually is). Every single puzzle in Lords of Shadow is an arbitrary time-waster that does more to hamper progression through the game (cheaply extending the game's length) rather than making one gain more appreciation for the world itself. The scrolls of fallen brotherhood warriors tries to fill this void somewhat, but it's simply not enough given this is a 20+ hour game for most people.
“Puzzle” is such a loose term in the case of Lords of Shadow, as what are set up as tests of logic have one obvious solution, or a solution that can be brute forced without much thought. There is an equal amount of lever turning and switch activating, sometimes while under assault. There are switch panels that will do damage if they are selected in the wrong order. There is a game of battle chess. Lords of Shadow is already a game of substantial length, so these activities do more to sidetrack the player than searching for a glowing ledge to leap over a wall. Well, all except one."[6]
As a more positive note to that. Lords of Shadow also accomplishes three mechanical allusions to other series which I didn't expect at all. The Shadow of the Colossus 'shoutout' if you will---was the flimiest and comes out mainly through the three major titan battles that do more damage in perception (look above at that list I made) than good. The middle-ground one for me was the Portal callouts which is referenced humorously in two brotherhood scrolls and in-game mechanically as an entire sequence in the Necromancer's realm. The strongest was something I didn't even notice until late in the game as something I'd been taking for granted the whole time and that's Prince of Persia. the platforming in this game is abundant, yet fluid and enjoyable with very few wonky or weird areas. My only personal complaint on it works in tandem with the game's linearity. A glowing ledge will always show you the path you're to take next. The game isn't set up for exploration and that's certainly a topic worthy of discussion here.

The linearity of the game itself is a tossup for me. At times I enjoy it, others---not so much. I love Symphony of the Night, but i hold no devout loyalty to it, so my appreciation for a title such as LoS has more room to grow. What I will say is that due to the more accessible approach to the stages, there's no real incentive to explore apart from the few areas where the design itself is arbitrarily making things unnecessarily tedious (I recall a specific instance in the Titan Graveyard that's a shining example of this simply because I couldn't move the damn camera). Some areas should be more dense instead of pathlike (e.g. Carmilla's castle), but that's asking the developers to approach its method of progression in two separate fashions; something I know not many of them are fond of (and even less are competent at).

I'll wrap things up by stating that I'll glady purchase a sequel if MercurySteam feels up to it, Lords of Shadow at the very least proved to me that they know what they're doing. I'll take their 'rebirthing' of the franchise for as long as they can develop it and I'll far prefer it to the likes of any future God of War entries[7]. If they can find a more lasting method of melding the Prince of Persia-style platforming with the battle system (while making the latter a more engaging learning experience), it will easily be a favored game setup in my eyes. As is, Lords of Shadow is still a more-than-worthy entry into the series and I'd go as far to say I enjoyed it more than the majority of the older titles.

1. The term is known as 'Metroidvania' and not 'Castleroid' for a reason, and was used trenchantly in the days of SotN's heyday as a pejorative and not the mark of design prowess it typically carries now.
2. Notice how every game (mostly portable) after SotN tried to be SotN too? Yeah, that didn't do well to gain my favor in the long run.
3. See my initial post(s) on the game's announcement a few years back. [http://snakelinksonic.blogspot.com/2010/09/castlevania-lords-of-shadow-worth-being.html]
[http://snakelinksonic.blogspot.com/2009/06/pensieve-post-2-castlevania-lords-of.html]
4. I can't imagine Lords of Shadow pulling great sales figures in mostly for these very reasons. One also has to consider that even under the assumption it 'has to', is it only because of its namesake?
5. Despite the mass hordes of demonic and satanic forces in video-games (in addition to the plethora of titles using Christian mythos), I enjoyed an actual confrontation with Satan himself. That is a surprising rarity in video games at large. This came at the expense of however, my treasured encounter with series mainstay 'Death' (who is still in the game as a major character, but never actually fought).
6. Andrew has a far more generous take on the game's combat, but I think he's using 'assert' in a slightly different manner than I am, because I found myself still agreeing with the gist of his post.
7. And I'm assuming an inevitable competition there as people will continue to waste time comparing the two when it belongs in a separate league. I suppose there are worse comparisons like Skyrim and Dark Souls to worry about though. As long as it remains there however, I'll continue to instigate the drama with Castlevania's superiority. ;)