I'm all for a bit of realism in games, but from time to time I want fantasy. I want trolls, chupacabras, golems, massive titans, werewolves, vampires, undead freaks, fairies, mystical lands, gorgeous scenery, magic and over-the-top action. That, in a few words, is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the most epic hack 'n' slash adventure I've ever played, packed with the kind of dark fantasy that video games are perfect for. Despite being a relative unknown, developer Mercury Steam has outdone itself here, crafting a rip-roaring adventure that delights from start to finish.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (or CLOS as it will now be known) casts you as Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light. This knightly group protect the innocent from supernatural and undead creatures, roaming the land after the connection between the Earth and the Heavens was severed. An evil group known as the Lords of Shadow is behind all this, and it's up to Gabriel to save the world. With his wife falling at the hands of these evil creatures, his desire to rid them from the land is even greater, and a mysterious mask seems to hold the key to resurrecting the dead.
Several secondary cast members are introduced throughout the adventure, including mentor Zobek and man of the forest, Pan. Each character is surprisingly well developed, and one early twist had a real impact despite the character in question only being around for a few hours prior.
Whereas Castlevania is predominantly known as a 2D old-school action platformer, CLOS is in the God of War mould, complete with fixed camera, multiple button combo attacks, magic, puzzles and a little bit of platforming. Gabriel's main tool is his Combat Cross, which combined with a whip lets him perform directional and area-based attacks. Depending on the situation you can focus on one enemy or fend off a group by swinging the Cross around. A host of secondary weapons bulk up your combat options, with daggers taking down enemies from range, holy water making short work of vampires, fairies distracting foes and an incredibly cool crystal summoning one of the most deadly, evil-looking creatures I've ever seen.
While the weapons are at the core of the combat, the real depth lies in the use of Light and Dark magic. When activated, Light magic replenishes Gabriel's health as enemies are attacked, whereas Dark magic dishes out more damage per strike. Each can be upgraded to offer more moves and special attacks, but the fundamental idea is this balance between being the ultimate badass and making sure your health meter isn't about to run dry.
Magic requires neutral orbs, gained by defeating enemies or by attacking them with a full focus meter. This central bar fills as you fight enemies while avoiding being struck, with it returning to zero if you fail to dodge in time. Evading and counterattacking are absolutely essential if you're going to get anywhere in Lords of Shadow, as without them your Focus is never going to fill and you're not going earn the orbs needed to power your magic. If this sounds a little complicated, that's because it is. Like the Castlevania games before it, CLOS isn't afraid to dish out the pain, so don't expect an easy ride - especially on the two hardest difficulty settings.