This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Normally I spend the first paragraph of these little tonsil exercise sessions leading into things with some rambling spiel of only borderline relevance, like maybe in this case wondering aloud if one could improve every Castlevania game by replacing Dracula with The Count from Sesame Street (although probably not Symphony of the Night, because you'd have to rename Alucard to Teerts Emases Morf Tnuoc Eth). But this week, let's get straight to the meat of things, shall we?
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow contains a Portal reference. That is literally all you need to know. It's attempting to jump on a bandwagon so late that the band has completed three sellout world tours and sold their wagon to a scrap dealer. It's not even a clever reference. A note found on a dead character ends with the words "the cake is a lie." There's no contextual sense; it's just thrown in there like a random zombie wearing Groucho Marx glasses, the sort of thing you might do if you don't know what comedy is but once looked it up in an old dictionary you found in a toilet.
Might as well continue the review, although it hardly seems necessary now, since the bar has already been set on the floor of Satan's wine cellar.
Now, Castlevania shares an issue with the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise in that whenever it gets in bed with 3D it always blows its load thirty seconds in and has to sleep on the wet patch. The Castlevania 2D stable can boast such stallions as Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow, and what does the 3D stable have to offer, Castlevania 64? If you trotted that horse out at the auction, your highest bid would be two shotgun shells to the back of the head and a free ride to the glue shop. Still, if Resident Evil 4 taught me anything it's that it's never too late to stop being shit, however briefly, so what the hay.
You are Gabriel Belmont, a member of an order of holy knights tasked to rid the world of three dark lords so he can have his dead wife back before she starts to smell. And virtually everyone in the plot knows what a bad idea this is going to turn out to be, but once Gabriel sets his appallingly thick mind on something he can't be shifted out of it without a decent-sized crowbar and a carpenter's mallet.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: beefy bloke with poor coping skills gets a big nark on after something kills his wife and takes it out on mythological creatures with a weapon on the end of a chain that can do light attacks and heavy attacks. But before I can bring down my well-used "like God of War but" stamp like the terrible hammer of judgment that it is, the game dodges my swing and goes:
"Wait! Here's something original. Every now and again, you have to have thrilling boss fights with monsters so big you have to ledge climb all over their bodies, pausing to hold on when they try to thrash you around like a little, murderous nipple tassel, and chip away at their health by pecking at glowing weak spots."
"Say," I reply, "another word for 'giant monster' is 'colossus', isn't it?"
"I know what you're thinking," retorts Castlevania: Lords of Shadow of the Colossus, " but we're not like that game at all. That game had 16 colossi and we've got three. That's a completely different number!"
"So where do you want this 'like God of War but' stamp?" I ask after an embarrassed cough.
"On my face, please!"
So far, Castlevania: Boards of Plywood is like a lot of things. It's like God of War but also like Shadow of the Colossus and it gets a bit Dante's Inferno-y at times, especially when Satan shows up looking like Marilyn Manson coming out of the shower wearing a towel made of vegemite. But the one thing it doesn't feel like is a Castlevania game. There's none of the free-roaming element that characterizes what some incredible genius termed Metroidvania. Nor, indeed, is there any Dracula. I'd have thought the very first thing you do when starting out a Castlevania game is write the word "Dracula!" in the middle of big piece of paper and work it out from there. He only shows up right at the very end, in a way that seems to have been pulled right out of the story writers' biggest and sweatiest arse. Not that I'm demanding everything remain within the same formula forever, but if you're not going to have Dracula or free-roaming, then calling the game Castlevania seems rather misleading when what you're actually making is God of War: Germanic Mythology Edition.
And it's not even a good imitation of God of War. It gets as far as the nice scenery, but it's racked with the usual issues a fixed camera brings; if a monster is outside your field of vision, about to attack, then your first warning is when you gizzards flutter prettily across the room. Coupled with the amateurish and sometimes confusing level design, the toughest fight in the game is with three standard enemies, because you have to do it in a broom cupboard while the camera's busy staring at the mantelpiece.
Meanwhile, I beat every single non-colossus boss fight by flicking quick attacks at them and dodge-rolling away before they could react, like a packet of digestive biscuits on the deck of a lifeboat. You have two magic bars, light magic and dark magic. Blimey, there's a dichotomy rarely seen in video games! So whenever magic pickups are up for grabs, you have to press in the left or right thumbstick to decide what flavour you want. But the thumbstick buttons don't flow naturally into gameplay at the best of times, and in the middle of pitched battle it's like stopping halfway through sex to wipe off the phlegm you just coughed onto your lover's forehead. And then your lover stabs you.
The other thing is it's a fucking long game. It comes on two DVDs, so if you have any inclination to replay previous levels to find all the upgrades, the disk-swapping will be gleefully kicking the back of your seat the whole way. It does have some actually rather cleverly designed puzzles but practically apologizes for it and gives the option to skip them. That's like providing the option to skip past all the paintings at the National Portrait Gallery so you can concentrate on staring at the floor. How about an option to skip your boring, repetitive quick-time event-rattled boss fights, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow?
So, basically, my first instinct was completely correct on this one. If a game has a Portal reference, whatever purpose it serves, it tells you everything you need to know about the absolute wankers who had creative control of the thing. If Portal had the comedic value of a perfectly timed fart, then Portal references at this stage are a fart that has been going on for six or seven minutes, and now the stench in the room is causing bouts of spontaneous vomiting, and a strange, blood-flecked liquid is dripping from the perpetrator's anus.
And only one third of it is actually in a castle: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
ONE miserable little secret! TWO miserable little secrets! A PILE of miserable little secrets! Ah, ah, ah!
Patrick Stewart can do a good Sean Connery when he needs to