Preview: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

It's difficult to comment on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow as a product of the long-running (and now rebooted) gothic action franchise. Abandoning large-scale exploration in favor of linear action -- which was itself abandoned when Castlevania: Symphony of the Night debuted in 1997 -- Lords of Shadow invites comparison to God of War more than any other modern game.

That's an admittedly tiresome shorthand as far as game previews go -- "It's like God of War but with whip-swords!" -- but it's still useful in conveying how Lords of Shadow plays. Your attacks are sweeping and imprecise, yet bolstered with enough combos and violent flourishes to make you feel in charge. Castlevania's sub-weapons return to your repertoire as well, with the first two levels of the game allowing you to quickly dispatch a flying dagger into approaching enemies. The resulting explosion of bloody mush is a fair indicator of the game's disgusting, wonderful violence.

Even the most trivial battle, such as Gabriel Belmont's tutorial tussle in a rain-slick village under siege, is given a certain gravitas by the game's tight camera and atmospheric visuals. And if there's one thing that brands Lords of Shadow as a promising 3D Castlevania game, it's the effort that's gone into creating dark, imposing environments that feel like they extend far beyond the boundaries of the level. Developer MercurySteam has delivered an impressive showcase of scale and animation here, with even the lowly warg becoming a pouncing cause for concern. So yeah, it's a few steps up from recycled Game Boy Advance sprites.

After dispatching the town's feral problem, Gabriel ventures into an autumn-colored forest atop a magical, talking horse (umm, that seems a lot sillier written out). That alone would be noteworthy, but Lords of Shadow seizes the opportunity and makes it a high-speed chase scene. Surrounded by wargs and their riders, you attempt to knock enemy riders to the ground and stab their beasts in the back. If you get knocked down yourself -- and it happens frequently enough to become irritating, I found -- it initiates a quick-time event. Rather than demanding a sequence of button presses, however, the QTEs in Lords of Shadow simply require you to poke at any button just as two concentric circles overlap, making it a quick rhythm game of sorts.

If the rest of the game is peppered with unique sequences such as this chase, and steadily unlocks more combat maneuvers through its XP system (something that Castlevania: Lament of Innocence actually did very well), Castlevania: Lords of Shadow could be an excellent action-adventure, if not a fitting resurrection of Konami's undead franchise. The elaborate presentation is hard to fault, what with Robert Carlyle voicing Gabriel and Patrick Stewart saying things like THESE ARE DARK TIMES, but it remains to be seen whether things like level design, pacing and combat will flourish to the same degree as God of -- well, you know.