Castlevania in 3D has always been a slippery slope for Konami. Despite having a fantastic pedigree in 2D space (thanks in no small part to the brilliant direction of Koji Igarashi), the third dimension has always eluded the series, resulting in either mediocrity (Castlevania: Curse of Darkness) or unspeakable awfulness (Castlevania 64). When the announcement was made that there was going to be a new 3D Castlevania, developed by Mercurysteam (Clive Barker's Jericho), I was justifiably apprehensive. Even with Metal Gear producer Hideo Kojima on board, I felt that yet another attempt to bring Castlevania's 2D gameplay to 3D space was going to fall flat on its face. However, Mercurysteam skirted the issue in a surprisingly ballsy move that takes Castlevania in a bold, if derivative, new direction while paying homage to the rich history of the series.
To be perfectly frank, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow plays nothing like any of the Castlevania titles before it. Instead of trying to shoehorn the traditional mechanics into a 3D engine, Lords of Shadow instead draws its inspiration from titles like God of War or Devil May Cry, with those games' trademark huge bosses, combo-based combat, and platforming elements dovetailing well with the gothic horror of Castlevania. The Kratos/Dante analogue in the game is Gabriel Belmont, a member of an order of warrior knights whose battles the undead with the Combat Cross, a crucifix that extends into a vicious chain whip. Gabriel is tasked with defeating the three Lords of Shadow and resurrecting his dead wife, but not before discovering the truth about the Lords of Shadow themselves and how they tie in to his order. The story itself takes some pretty obvious cues, and never really brings anything new to the table, but there's a certain hamfisted charm to its heavy handed melodrama, enhanced by the game's production values.
Indeed, the game's production values are what truly make it shine. Whereas the 2D titles had a gritty, low-fi vibe to them, Lords of Shadow pulls out all of the stops in its graphics and sound. The visuals themselves are unbelievably gorgeous, lent an extra cinematic air by using a gentle shakiness to the perspective to emulate a handheld camera shot. The sound design is equally stunning, with perfectly realized sound effects helping to convey the mood just as effectively as the gorgeous score by Oscar Araujo…seriously, the score is better than many films, let alone game titles. Perhaps the greatest asset the title has is its voice cast, who lend some credence to the amusingly over-the-top writing. Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later) carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as Gabriel, even with the angelic encouragement of Natascha McElhone (Californication) as the departed Marie. However, it's Sir Patrick Stewart who truly classes up the production, providing between-level narration as Zobek that would be laughable under normal circumstances, but becomes weighty and rich in the honey-throated voice of Stewart.
Much like its Belmont namesake, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has broken the curse of 3D Castlevania titles by finally understanding that what works in 2D won't necessarily work in 3D. It may be derivative of other games, but its production values and moody gothic atmosphere ensure that it's no less entertaining.