The Castlevania series has been releasing new material on a yearly basis since about 1986. Back in the day you were running into 2D bats and trolling a 6-level-long castle to battle Dracula but since that point the series has been hurtled at just about every major platform within the last two decades. It became a parody game in the early Nineties under the title Kid Dracula, it showed up on the Wii as a fighting game a year ago, and this year it comes out on Xbox 360 and PS3 as a 20-hour long 3D action-adventure with little real connection to the original canon.
You play Gabriel Belmont, the game's sulking hero. As a series reboot the relation to the original games begins with the Castlevania title and ends with Gabe's surname, adding him to the long list of Belmonts that have been chasing down evil since the '80s. Beyond a vague family-relation CLOS has been developed into a much darker title than its predecessors. Even the design of Gabriel goes down a medieval gothic route, giving the guy an Assassin's Creed frock and the pouting face of a svelte Morrissey.
And gently steering you toward the new gothic maturity is a premise involving Gabe's murdered wife whose soul has been trapped in oblivion. Your task is to defeat factions of the Lords of Shadow and collect pieces of the God Mask, an artefact that can be used to resurrect the dead. In this case your wife. So you move across a world-map killing wargs, lycans and trolls. They've already been spending their time attacking citizens and leagues of knights. Just walk into a new area and you'll stumble on at least three corpses, loot them and you'll get scrolls describing how they've died and tips on fighting incoming enemies.
It's all a slightly meatier variation on your standard light-versus darkness theme that continuously crops up in JRPGs. The introductory zone has you protecting civilians from incoming swarms of werewolves, learning basic button combo's that largely all end in an explosion of blood. You are part of the Brotherhood of Light, tasked to protect the innocent. So you swing your retractable Pyrokinetic whip and defeat bastard-dogs by whipping them into the air and slicing through them in a Guillotine finishing move. A warg will jump into town, an enormous Volvo-sized dog-thing, and you'll be left to impale it in the stomach with a log. That's Minute 12 of the game.
An hour later you'll stun a giant warthog and shuffle up onto its back, using it to ransack a troll village, controlling it so it gouges any trolls that get in the way. You'll finish that one off by strangling it with your whip. In fact, generally speaking, most things that you use as a mount you end up strangling to death. In terms of tone, that's one of the more obvious shifts toward darker material if we're still using the series to compare. But by this point you shouldn't be. CLOS tries to wipe the slate as clean as it can, and in reality owes more to any major action-adventure title of the last ten years than it does to two decades of Castlevania.
The fact that its gameplay is incredibly similar to God of War has been mentioned since in-game footage started making the rounds on the Internet. Combat largely just involves that retractable Pyrokinetic whip of yours that gets flung about based on various button combos. Compare that to Kratos' visually similar Chain blades and it looks like the CLOS devs took a bit of tracing paper and went to town. Hell, even ignoring the weapon, the game implements another feature that has more than a touch of GoW as you recharge special abilities, in this case light and shadow magic, based on building hits on foes in combat. Hit them while avoiding their attacks and they'll spill out magic orbs that you'll sweep up with the touch of a button.
But it's not the first in the Castlevania series to take influence from other games. In fact, consider it a bit of a tradition. The 1997 release for PlayStation, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, spent years being referred to as MetroidVania because of the similarity in gameplay to the Metroid series. The game had been one of the more important milestones for the franchise, steering away from the straight-forward level-to-level formula of the earlier titles and introduced a less linear style to the series.
CLOS goes beyond a simple single-game imitation. For better or for worse, the game is built on a framework of references that very clearly point to some of the most well-known aspects of gameplay that have popped up in the last five or ten years.
When you're introduced to Gabriel he's skulking into a dark town, hood up like a natural Ezio impersonator, peeled right out of Assassins Creed 2. Give it an hour and a half or so and you get into sections that involve walking across beams through medieval towns and clambering up walls, left and right, to get to higher platforms. You'll get variations on the same kind of theme, with beams made up of spider webs that you're forced to cross to get further into particular areas.
Rounding off the list are the Titans: in-game bosses with more than a hint of Shadow of the Colossus' colossi to them. You'll meet the first, bursting through the centre of an Arctic tundra. He'll swing at you with a giant ice-rock fist and plunge it into the ground. Throw a grappling hook at his knuckle then start scaling the rock-ledges of his arm. Like SotC Titans will continuously try to shake you off as you scale their body. Like SotC Titans have evolved glowing weak spots. Hit one you'll damage them, then move on to the next. You swing and climb from the guy's knuckle to his neck, and while the idea is borrowed from elsewhere it's still a bloody great piece of gameplay.
And that's the game in a nutshell. In essence Lords of Shadow is an enormous step forward for the series; a move toward extremely fast-pace third-person action. It's not particularly imaginative but it compiles enough good ideas from other titles that inevitably those aspects are about as fun as they are in the games it's mimicking.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 on October 8.