For a series that has such firm roots planted in side scrolling exploration and gothic narrative, it’s surprising how many games ‘Lords of Shadow borrows from. Memories of Shadow of the Colossus, Gears of War, Tomb Raider and Ikaruga (seriously) are all present, contextualised in a mythical tale of werewolves, necromancers and vampires. Opting for the God of War approach over the Metroid Prime one, it successfully recreates the atmosphere established by its older brothers. The voice acting isn’t quite as bad/funny, and the music isn’t quite up there with Symphony of the Night, but it remains true to its roots, despite being a bit of a thief.
The story is the usual series trademark of pretentious god bothering. Protagonist Gabriel is annoying the Gods as he wants to resurrect his dead wife. Although its nothing original, it does have its charms. Quietly spoken Kings of Leon stand in Gabriel is a likable cause, as are his cast of cohorts. Each level is introduced fittingly with baritone narration, retaining an ambiance of hammy gothic horror as you progress.
The first four hours are borderline disastrous. Combat is initially limited and uninteresting, involving switching between area attacks and direct attacks. New moves are unlocked through collecting experience, but are drip fed slowly. The much vaunted ability to ride beasts serves no more purpose than using a key to unlock a door, the game refuses to let you have any actual fun with them. Except when told to “press L and R to strangle your mount.”
The level design is dated favouring menial fetch quests. To further the irritation, keys and crystals that are needed to progress are often hidden behind the fixed camera’s blind spots and are easily missed, often resulting in lengthy backtracking. The platforming sections are basic at best and are framed in generic environments. Jungles are adorned with flat, dull textures and resemble boxy corridors, whilst the mine level basks in its overbearingly brown tedium. It provides all the ingredients to make a gourmet medieval banquet but only lets you cook a fried egg.
However, stick with it, because eventually LOS finds its stride. Once magic and the focus meter have been unlocked combat becomes a joy. Magic is divided into two forms. Enabling light magic heals Gabriel when he successfully hits enemies, whilst enabling dark magic deals extra damage. The magic meters are filled by collecting glowing orbs from defeated enemies. Should you fill the focus meter – which is done by repeatedly causing damage to enemies with a variety of combos without being hit – then these orbs appear upon every successful hit.
It perfectly compliments what is eventually revealed as an intricately layered combat system, meaning the best offence results in the best defence. The ability to directly strike an enemy whilst keeping others at bay with area attacks whilst switching frequently between dark and light magic is key. Skilled players that can nimbly dodge, strike and counter will be rewarded with a near infinite supply of magic, turning the initially dull combat into a mesmerising hypnotic frenzy.
In tribute to its two dimensional brothers, LOS features upgrades and items that allow Gabriel to progress to previously unreachable areas, meaning revisiting levels to search for gems that increase Gabriel’s maximum health or magic is worthwhile. The gauntlets, for example, allow Gabriel to break through walls and unlock relic powers such as the shoulder charge, which when combined with dark magic inflict serious damage. The breadth of combat options available is staggering when LOS finally gets its act together.
Beyond the fourth chapter environments become more fully realised, the uninspired opening jungle mazes become sprawling gothic castles that run deep into the horizon, one of which must be scaled as the brickwork crumbles around you. The foreboding clock tower demands precision leaps across multitude of turning gears. In a nod to Bionic Commando, the cross grip upgrade allows Gabriel to swing from ledge to ledge and paves the way for excellent platforming sections. Traversing the Necromancers Abyss – a series of rock formations suspended in mid air – is a gripping experience. It’s a shame the fixed camera prevents you from sensing the scale of these lovingly crafted environments.
Gameplay devices have been unashamedly pilfered from many established franchises, but they are used sparsely and abandoned when the game becomes bored of them. Grenades have to be snatched from goblins to blow up weakened doors, Gabriel has to use the cross grip to pull monuments across pits that spawn legions ghouls. Where most titles continually recycle gameplay crutches, LOS never milks its assets and continually looks for new inspirations and surprises as it progresses. Puzzles occasionally rear their heads and although they never really amount to anything more than sliding statues around or solving basic conundrums, they are a welcoming change of pace.
Boss fights deserve a special mention. Several are pasted directly from Shadow of the Colossus. The Titans are gargantuan in size and impressive in stature, they must be scaled in order to discover and attack their weak spots. It‘s plagiarism but it‘s expertly executed. Other pivotal fights involve frenzies of well timed lashes, skillful dodges and split second counters against Vampiric Lords, Necromancers and gigantic armoured knights . The relentless pace of some of the utterly thrilling boss encounters leaves you breathless. Checkpoints are placed generously, falling to an unexpected attack will never feel cheap. A particularly nasty encounter with the broth guzzling castle chef and the astounding finale – which borrows tricks from Ikaruga of all things – are some of the finest boss encounters in the genre.
Lords of Shadow plays like a ‘best of’ compilation, borrowing elements from a range of successful franchises and framing them within its trademark European mythology. Most importantly it never extends any of them beyond their lifespan and reinforces the level design with a rewarding combat system built on variation. If you can bear the sluggish crawl of the first three chapters, Lords of Shadow reveals itself to be a brilliant example of the genre that constantly surprises. Mercurysteam have managed to shift the series into three dimensions successfully. Like the myths the series revels in, Lords of Shadow is like Dr Frankenstein’s creation, made up of many parts, a little fleshy, but ultimately a monster of epic proportions.