Impressions: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

It wasn't the playable demo I'd been hoping for, but I did watch an awful lot of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow gameplay yesterday. The footage was screened during the Konami Gamer Night 2010 event and was narrated by the game's producer, David Cox, from developer Mercury Steam, as a remixed version of a Super Castlevania IV track played in the background. (Cox would later tell me that I'd "feel chills" when I heard the finished game's updated, fully orchestrated takes on many classic tunes from the series.)

Lords of Shadow looks absolutely incredible. From the opening seconds of the preview, there was no questioning that this was a Castlevania game -- a proper, "next-generation" Castlevania with visuals that immediately drew comparisons to God of War III. Now, again, I don't know firsthand how well Lords of Shadow plays, but there was nothing in the footage to indicate that the final product wouldn't be anything less than a competent action-adventure. In fact, it showed the promise of being a great one.

The first several minutes of the demonstration focused on the game's setting, with the video moving through castle corridors, past the building's exterior, spiraling up along an incredibly lush forest path, across snowy terrain and onward. What struck me more than how beautifully rendered the environments were was the tremendous diversity of the scenes.

In his narration, Cox said that the finished game will feature 50 levels through which protagonist Gabriel Belmont must fight his way to the iconic castle. Along the way, as I saw, he'll encounter a vast number of enemies -- their diversity was equally impressive -- though there will also be allies, human and animal. Gabriel's mentor, voiced by Patrick Stewart, was shown, as was the spirit of his wife, who in the game's story has been killed (along with many others) by the creatures set free by an evil sorcerer. At different points, Gabriel was shown riding a horse and a giant eagle.

Continuing beyond talk of the setting and plot, the demo footage switched gears into actual gameplay. First came combat, with Gabriel lashing away at enemies with the chain from his "battle cross," but also utilizing classic sub-weapons, such as throwing knives. The action looked smooth and stylish, with Gabriel performing moves that would look right at home in Soul Calibur -- he's clearly not just a re-skinned Kratos.

Another transition and the Lords of Shadow footage turned to platforming, a series' trademark, with Gabriel leaping across shattered staircases, swinging over pits using his battle cross and shimmying along ledges. At one point, he used his cross's chain to run along a wall Nathan Drake–style. In talking with Cox after the footage was shown, he told me that while some areas in the game will be linear, others will "open up" for exploration. Traps and environment-based puzzles were also previewed, with Cox assuring the audience that the game's not just jumping and whipping about.

Then came a big surprise -- or, rather, surprises. Cox debuted the "titans," massive enemies that Gabriel will face several times during the adventure, each one larger than the last. Here, the development team is clearly drawing inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, as Gabriel must free-climb the giant enemies and destroy the crystals that are giving them life. Here, the platforming looked extremely fluid as Gabriel ran along one titan's arm, lept onto its shoulder and hung from it with both hands, swaying as the monster tried to shake him off.

The footage wound down with quick shots of various important characters, including series regulars like Death. There was one very noteworthy omission, however: Dracula. I asked Cox about the arch nemesis' absence when I interviewed him later in the evening, but he stopped me mid-question with a friendly "can't go there."

The video concluded with a cheeky sequence showing a skeleton enemy sneaking up on Gabriel as he turned a wheel to open a door. In the final shot, the enemy is right over his shoulder and a exclamation point flashed above Gabriel's head, complete with the Metal Gear Solid alert sound -- a cute nod to Hideo Kojima's involvement with the game.

Konami plans to have the first publicly playable version of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow at E3 this June. After last night, it's at the very top of my "must play" list.