I couldn't play Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for five minutes without wanting to punch somebody involved in its creation. No question that a lot of talented people worked on this one, but you can't take five steps without getting cold-cocked by some stupid design decision. And though there might be a deep, rewarding action game somewhere in here, I don't want to meet the person who's masochistic enough to find out.
Castlevania's 3D iterations have a checkered history, so it's not surprising that the folks at Konami rolled the dice with Lords of Shadow. What is surprising is that they handed development duties to MercurySteam, the team who gave us the similarly dunderheaded Clive Barker's Jericho a few years ago. Kojima Productions is also given credit, though it's hard to imagine what Hideo Kojima could have contributed besides the aimless monologues that kick off each chapter.
I don't like to describe a game in terms of its similarities to other games, but this one is practically daring me not to. Mostly, it wants to be Devil May Cry. Your character, Gabriel, a moody white guy with a freakishly tiny head, slashes his way through levels that consist mostly of arenas filled with enemies. Defeating enemies earns him points that he can trade between levels in order to earn new moves.
So far so good. But Lords of Shadow lacks the snappy, responsive controls of Devil May Cry, miring its hero in long, uninterruptible animations. Collision detection is wonky as well — both Gabriel and his enemies will take damage despite attacks that make no contact. It's like watching a fight in a high-school stage play.
The game also rips off Shadow of the Colossus with chapter-ending battles against Titans who look so much like the Colossuses, you suspect identity theft. The folks at MercurySteam even copied some of the problems from SotC, like a camera that doesn't always show you where the next attack is coming from, and checkpoints that set you frustratingly far back.
The idea is that you'll want to replay each level over and over, in order to find hidden items and earn more experience points. That might be tempting if the levels were more fun the first time. They're lushly designed, sure, but it's also hard to see where to go, and in one memorable moment, I found myself battling brown werewolves against a brown background, with the camera pulled way back. Clear as, yes, mud.
Even where Lords of Shadow does things well, it tends to backfire. Casting Patrick Stewart to narrate those ponderous voiceovers: smart. Giving him the script mere seconds before turning on the microphone: not so smart. As Gabriel, Scottish actor Robert Carlyle sounds by turns bored and confused. The whole thing is so silly and self-consciously epic, you begin to long for the knowing excess of something like Bayonetta.
Lords of Shadow won't be the last Castlevania game, and thank goodness for that. Whoever makes the next installment can use this one as a guide for what not to do.