Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the newest iteration of the beloved franchise. This outing is a reinvention of the game with a whole new protagonist and storyline. You are Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light on a quest to avenge the death of your wife. A quest that requires you to kill a lot of vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night. Pretty standard setup for your average puzzle/hack-n-slash game.
The core gameplay in C:LoS revolves around the use of your chain and light and dark magic. You have basic light, heavy and area attacks that you can upgrade using credits earned from banishing hellions back to whence they came. While the combat is extremely deep in the variety of attacks you can purchase, I did find that the more complex moves were rendered totally useless in boss battles as they required too much time to execute, and the bosses are able to interrupt your attacks at any stage. So I ended up relying on a few tried and true moves throughout most of the game. That's not to say the attack combos aren't worthwhile - they definitely are - but they are better suited for the minions rather than the bosses.
The use of light and dark magic adds another layer of depth that really makes you think about your strategy. Using dark magic increases the damage your attacks deal, helping to take down more difficult enemies with ease. Using light magic during combat will replenish your health bar. It's a great dynamic and very easy to switch between the two, providing for some very interesting magic choreography during the more challenging sections of the game.
As you progress through the campaign, you are awarded with upgrades to your combat mechanics. These range from adding functionality to your chain to secondary items such as holy water, throwing knives and even your own cadre of fairies which act to stun enemies and make them vulnerable to your direct attacks.
There is also a good amount of platforming and some exploration as well. Similar to Enslaved your clamboring routes are highlighted so you know where to go. Unlike Enslaved, only the starting point of a platform section is highlighted. So if you get lost, you at least get a starting line, after that it's up to you to figure your way around. You also can miss jumps and fall to your death, which ramps up the gravity of your gameplay quite nicely.
There are also several puzzle elements peppered throughout the game. While they tend to lean towards the banal (rotate these cylinders to align them, find a colored gem to match the colored door), the majority of them are designed in a way that fits nicely within the storyline and make perfect sense within the universe the developers have created.
This. Game. Is. Fucking. Beautiful. There, I said it. The environment design is truly staggering in C:LoS, on par with the likes of the best that this current generation has to offer. It's no Mass Effect 2, but it's pretty damn close. The range of color palettes is awesome: you have your typical gray/brown tones for the dungeon crawling sections balanced with some amazing forest and desert scenes and topped off with clear white snow covered mountain tops. This really highlights the epic scale of this adventure.
Speaking of scale, C:LoS is LONG. For anyone who complains about short campaigns in full priced games, do yourself a favor and buy this game. It will easily take you at least 20 hours just to go through the main campaign. This doesn't include returning to certain levels to reach areas that require the upgrades you earn. Or replaying levels to complete certain challenges (i.e. defeat enemy X in under 2 minutes; complete the level with defeating X number of these enemies, etc). So not only is this game lengthy, it also encourages repeat playthroughs to earn 100% completion. The great thing about this option, is that a new game+ will start you with ALL of your upgrades from your previous playthrough. No need to hunt down all your upgrades again, because once you get them, they are yours for good.
The voice acting is also extremely well done. Outside of the narration at the beginning of each level - which veers a bit too close to over-the-top-high-school-drama-theatrics - it is very appropriate to each character and to the overall storyline. Sir Patrick Stewart lends his talent to one of the main characters that provides a great twist to the end and an amazing epilogue (hint: STAY TO WATCH AFTER THE CREDITS!!)
The one complaint - actually two - deals with control mapping. You play this game entirely with the left analogue stick and buttons. The right stick is totally unused. Usually that is reserved for camera movement, but since C:LoS uses a fixed camera, it sits alone and unused for the entirety of the game. The 2nd complaint - and this ties in with the right stick - is the fixed camera. While it heightens the cinematic feel of the game having the camera placed at just the right spot for each scene, sometimes it is poooooooorly placed for combat. So poor that one must get used to the fact that you will be attacked by enemies who are not even visible on screen. If the developers had just mapped even rudimentary panning controls to the right stick, both of these problems would have been fixed in one fell swoop. And considering how much in common C:LoS shares with Dante's Inferno and God of War, it's surprising they didn't consider this (or dashing) as an option.
As it stands though, I was able to get used to the camera quirkyness and handle myself with little to no problems for the duration of the game.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is truly one of the great games this year. A lot of die hard fans of the series have been very vocal, complaining that this is NOT a Castlevania game. I never really played the original series, but I do remember it from my childhood. All I can say is that if you are that hung up on a re-imagination of something you love, go dig up your old NES and play the original. You can't expect a game coming out in 2010 to use the same graphics and mechanics as a mid 1980s side scroller.
That said, this game is pretty bad-ass, and it would be a shame for folks to pass this up because they are judging the book by it's cover. If you want a nice change of pace from all the Halo of Duties dropping this holiday season, do yourself a favor and jump into the tale of Gabriel Belmont.