And Then They Dropped the Ball: The Last 5 Minutes of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Disclaimer: I know. I know. Lords of Shadow is really old news. But this isn’t a review–it’s a lesson. If you’ve already beaten LOS or haven’t and don’t intend to, read on. If you’re even considering playing it and don’t want anything spoiled, then seriously–stop reading now. Spoiler Alert. I repeat, Spoiler Alert.

It’s rough being a Castlevania fan. The 2D installments have been using mostly the same enemy sprites for the past nineteen years, and Konami’s attempt at bringing the franchise into the third dimension have been disastrous time and again, going from the not-quite-Castlevania-enough Castlevania 64 to the downright linear mess of Curse of Darkness. When I heard that Hideo Kojima was involved in the making of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, however, I knew that the tables were about to turn for 3D Castlevania.

And really, they did. Lords of Shadow is a great game. No, it isn’t absolutely perfect, but it has more than enough awesome art, action, and game play to earn the price of admission and make up for those times where you miss a ledge.

And seriously, on the 360, it had to be split onto two discs. You just aren't going to find many better looking games.

But really, like I said, this isn’t a review.

The major tension in the story is within our protagonist, Gabriel Belmont. An orphan and the very first of the famous clan (in this reboot), Gabriel is suffering over the death of his wife, Marie. This shows, more or less, throughout his adventures; we find Gabriel sleeping less and becoming more ruthless in his quest to find all the pieces of the God Mask, a relic that can be used to bring his wife back from the dead. But we also see Gabriel taking other relics that use dark powers from the enemies he defeats and the corpses of members of his Order of Light. He also takes relics from the Lords of Shadow as he defeats them, and although the relics themselves are not evil, the implication is that Gabriel is absorbing and using each Lord’s strength.

Now, by themselves, these details are only kind of interesting. But things get intriguing the further along you go. Particularly when you reach the Vampire’s Castle (not yet called Castlevania) and discover that there’s no Dracula. The name doesn’t even come up; the lord of the castle is a woman–a vampire named Carmilla. So what’s the deal? Gabriel isn’t going to find Dracula and absorb his… Wait a minute…

In classic Castlevania, Dracula’s only real redeeming factor is his love for Lisa, a human and Alucard’s mother. Sure, it was only hinted at in Symphony of the Night, but it was there and it was all the evidence I needed.

Gabriel Belmont is going to become Dracula. I was certain of it pretty early on.

With this possibility in mind, I was ready to tie up the story this morning by defeating the last boss in Chapter XII. I knew who it would be–it was obvious from his last few diary entries that Zobek, a member of Gabriel’s Order of Light who helps you throughout the game, was actually evil.

But that’s where what I expected to happen and what did happen stopped correlating.

What I Expected to Happen

  • Gabriel gets the last piece of the God Mask. He tries to use it but Zobek stops him.
  • Zobek reveals that he’s gone insane from being that one, super badass member of the Order of Light for too long. He’s used Gabriel to get the ultimate power with which he’s going to destroy the world, thus ending the battle between light and darkness forever. I know, it’s cliche, but that’s really what I expected.
  • You fight normal, human Zobek, but then, in a cut scene, Zobek gets the mask from you, puts it on, and becomes some giant monster. But like, a heavenly one. It is the God Mask after all.
  • In order to beat him, Gabriel has to make the ultimate sacrifice, giving himself completely to Dark Magic so that he can defeat Zobek and save the world from this self-proclaimed god.
  • Although he defeats Zobek, Gabriel is forever cursed. He disappears from the land and among the people he saved becomes forever known as the Prince of Darkness.

Ta-da. If I’d written it, I would’ve reinforced the curse by playing more on Gabriel’s growing insanity, a sub-text that the game touched on a few times. I would have introduced a voice a ways through the game that would help Gabriel–a voice that he would assume was just a part of his broken mind until the end, when it offers him the power to kill Zobek, who’s deceived him and wants to take over the world. Perhaps it would’ve been Satan, perhaps it would’ve just been a nameless demon or something–I dunno–but I would have put the player in a situation where they could not turn the voice down. It would’ve been such a solid way to make Gabriel into Dracula with a nice, stable support structure rooted in the middle of the game–at the very least. And the whole affair would have mirrored one of my favorite alternate origin stories ever–Punisher: Born by Garth Ennis.

Buuuut that’s not what happened…

What Actually Happened

  • Gabriel gets the last piece of the God Mask and makes it whole.
  • Zobek shows up and reveals himself as the Lord of the Dead.
  • You think to yourself, Didn’t I just beat the Lord of the Dead? And then you shrug and think, Well, the way I “defeated” him was kinda off… This is still cool. Zobek is Death and Gabriel is Dracula. Dracula and Death were always friends, so it makes sense. It’s all good.
  • Zobek reveals that you’ve been his pawn for the whole game. It’s not a big surprise, but the next 5 minutes of Zobek talking about it somehow make it less of a surprise.
  • He also reveals that he possessed you and made you kill your wife… which is completely unnecessary outside of supplying shock value. If they’d wanted to go this route, they should’ve given me a cinema that told me exactly how she died. Instead they spring a 3 second clip of the murder on you–which is extra ridiculous because Gabriel is in full armor in the flashback. I mean, sure, maybe when he goes with his wife on picnics to the lake, he does it in full armor. Hell, maybe he bathes in full armor… but seriously? Anyway, this implement falls flat on its face because it seems–and possibly was–very rushed, lacking any dramatic drive whatsoever.
  • Zobek pimp smacks you and takes the God Mask.
  • But before he can use it, Satan shows up.

Wait, what? Satan?… What?

  • Yeah, I know.
And joining us tonight, from left field...
  • Satan burns Zobek with a thought and takes the God Mask.
  • Gabriel’s dead wife brings him back to life.
  • Gabriel honestly beats the shit out of Satan. Well, after you beat him as the last boss (which still is honestly not the hardest fight in the game [fuck you, Pan. I’m glad you’re dead]). Anyway, even though Satan burned Zobek, the Lord of the Dead (remember him? He bitch slapped you) even though Satan burned that guy with a thought, and even though he’s now wearing the super powerful God Mask, Gabriel Belmont Goku’s his ass in about 30 seconds. The Chain Rule means nothing to Belmonts.
  • Now that Satan’s dead and Zobek’s dead, the curse that Zobek placed on the world, cutting earth off from heaven (the official reason why you were on this quest in the first place) has been lifted.
  • Your wife and another person you killed under Zobek’s influence show up in ghost form and express that there’s no hard feelings. Considering how he helped you kill Satan when you asked, it’s safe to assume God also forgave you. You save the world and everything’s great. And sure your wife is still dead, but yo–
  • Gabriel collapses in grief and asks his wife to forgive him as she fades away. This is seconds after she forgives him for killing her and he seems content. You think, Seriously? We’ve been over this, Gabriel.
  • Credit roll.
  • Cut to what must be some time later. Someone enters a chapel. You think, Is that Zobek? And then, a second later, That IS Zobek! And you don’t think, If he’s alive, why did his curse lift? because you’re too busy thinking, This has something to do with Dracula!!
  • Zobek breaks a wall in the chapel and flies up into a room that seems empty. He turns and addresses “the Prince of Darkness.”
  • You think, Holy shit! Holy shit! Yes!
  • Zobek addresses Dracula as Gabriel.
  • You knit your brow.
  • Zobek talks about how Satan’s coming back to take over the world and you need to help Zobek defeat him or he’ll enslave the both of you.
  • You think, What??? And then, Well… Okay. I mean, playing as Dracula would be kind of–
  • Gabriel attacks Zobek and Zobek knocks him out of a window–
  • –into a crowded, modern city street.
  • You think, Oh what the $&*@? And then, SIGH.
  • In the crowded street, while everyone’s staring/listening, Zobek tactlessly makes more of a scene by talking about how Gabriel can’t die, a detail that is definitely just thrown in there. But, hey, Zobek can find a way to kill you if you’ll help him.
  • Gabriel (I’m not calling him Dracula) screams and BAMF’s away.
  • You realize that if there is a sequel, it’s going to be Dracula 2000.
... with... Jonny Lee Miller?

But worse (almost) than that, if Konami sets the sequel in the present, they’ll be shooting themselves in the foot. I know that Lords of Shadow is a reboot–characters like Brauner, Olrox, and Cornell pop up in very different roles than they did in Portrait of Ruin, Symphony of the Night, and (especially) Legacy of Darkness, so the game really asserts its reboot status. But there are still things that people like to see in their reboots; in Ultimate Spider-Man, Spider-Man still fought the Green Goblin. In The Incredible Hulk movie, the Hulk still smashed things. These are staples of those series. Castlevania‘s staple?

Belmont VS Dracula

Sure, after Symphony, Castlevania games gave us nothing but androgynies, none of them true Belmonts (excepts for Leon…

... but we never talk about Leon.)

Lords of Shadow is not only the first solid 3D Castlevania game, but it’s the return of the Belmont Clan, which all real Castlevania fans have been waiting a long, long time for. And now Konami’s going to get rid of them again, right away, and deny us the epic conflict we thought we’d be getting? And they’re going to pull us right out of the incredibly beautiful, myth-heavy, ancient world they set Lords of Shadow in to give us the pile of garbage on the street corner? It’s just bad for business in so many ways.

I would’ve had Gabriel disappear and then would’ve had a cut scene a lot like the one they gave us, only instead of Zobek, it would have clearly been another Belmont. Dracula could have asked for his name, and the Belmont could’ve said “Simon”, or “Trevor” or any other famous Belmont name. They could’ve had a tense chat in which Gabriel as Dracula talks about how God abandoned him and men are full of lies, like he always does, only this time, it would’ve mattered!

And then, before the screen cuts to black, Dracula would’ve stood. Light would’ve touched his face and we would’ve seen that, without a shadow of a doubt, he was Gabriel. He would have thrown his glass of blood at Simon and said,

“But enough talk. Have at you!”

Gamer Quirks

Some time last month, while chatting with a friend of mine (I don’t remember who, but let’s call him Ted) about our favorite games, I mentioned that one of mine was Flashback. To this Ted naturally replied:

“Never heard of it.”

So I explained: Flashback was a PC game that was ported to consoles in ’92. It came out for the Genesis, Super Nintendo, and the Sega CD. And I rented each port about 9 times before we finally bought the Sega CD version, at which point I played nothing but that for a solid year. Of course, Ted was shocked and, assuming he’d missed something, asked what the game was like. I replied:

It was a Prince of Persia-esque side-scroller, only, your guy, Conrad, probably had less flexible controls; it was like trying to control an ent, only the ent’s limbs were on hinges and rails, so it could only move in very specific ways (no nudging, for example; you press left and Conrad takes a perfectly measured step left. You press the button to draw your gun and Conrad stops moving and draws it, always, unless you’re rolling or jumping). There were AI aliens that would kill you in two seconds if they weren’t too busy being complete idiots, getting stuck on very simple obstacles. But all things considered, even though the game worked on pretty solid (if invisible) rails, it still managed to be ridiculously hard and incredibly interesting; one of the stages had you walking around a city called New Washington, doing menial jobs (like delivering packages) to insanely intense ones (like fixing the city’s overloaded power generator before it exploded and killed you and everyone).

“Oh,” Ted replied, mostly because I didn’t tell him exactly what I just wrote. I probably said something like, “There were aliens and you controlled a guy but the controls were kind of retarded… And I loved it.”

I remember later that night, coming home and talking to my brother about it. Really, I’d played the crap out of Flashback, a game most people haven’t even heard of. I felt like such a weird choice for me… Like the black sheep of my gaming career, only it was hilarious to admit it. Yeah, a little embarrassing, but also incredibly nostalgic and oddly empowering; we all have our favorite games of all time and they’re all usually taken from the same handful, but this was something different–something I realized I didn’t have to share with anyone. A gaming experience that, even if it was off kilter and full of faults, was still mine.

My brother smirked and said, “Well,  *I* beat Dracula for the Sega CD… way too many times.”

And I said, “Oh my God, that’s right!”

It was like duplo Castlevania! Only completely unfair! I didn’t remember until my brother reminded me a moment later, but there was a 50% chance the game would crash when you finally reached Dracula!

And man, it was true! He did play the crap out of that game! Determined to beat him, I reminded him that I beat Overblood about 5 times when we rented it, not comparable at all to my weird Flashback obsession (I’m *still* waiting for them to put it on XBL), but yet another of what I started thinking of as “gamer quirks”.

Now, I’m a guy who loves video game culture; the effect of MMO’s on gaming society, the myths gaming society creates and maintains, the slang associated with different games, all of it interests me. So discovering my gamer quirks meant defining them–“An addiction to an unpopular game or a small element of its game play. Also, a particular, ingrained gaming habit.”– and defining them meant immediately asking all of my friends for theirs:

  • Ken, a math professor in training living in Mineola, NY confesses his crime: “Remember that Cool Spot game for the Genesis way back when? Well there was a spinoff of that game for the Gameboy. Except while the Genesis game was a platformer, the Gameboy game was a complete ripoff of the board game Othello. Also, the CPU was a cheating bastard. I could never win a damn game. I got so into my quest to beat the CPU that I actually stole this game right out of my best friend’s bedroom and played it until it stopped working some years later, having never earned a single victory.”
  • Liam, a loss prevention detective in Manhattan tells about his gamer quirk, and, no, it’s not an addiction to an unpopular game, but it is an addiction to one of its errors in programming and, hey, that counts: “I’d just beaten Link’s Awakening for the first time and my brother finally agreed to tell me how to exploit the map glitch. The glitch itself is fairly simple; whenever Link has reached the edge of the gameboy’s screen and the game was about to switch to the next screen you pressed the Select button to bring up the map. If you timed it right when you exited the map you’d be on the next screen but at the far side of where you should have been if you’d entered the screen normally.
    The possibilities with this glitch were numerous. You could use it to access parts of the game that shouldn’t be available to you; awesome and a load of fun, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.  For me, the full potential of the glitch could only be accessed in caves. Caves were fairly limited designs guiding you along a specific path. The beauty of the glitch was that you could warp onto the walls of the cave, where the designers never expected you to be. Because they never figured you’d get onto the walls the designers didn’t put barriers around the edges preventing you from trying to walk onto the next screen. They also didn’t put any terrain there. So what happens when the rules of the game allow you to walk into a room that doesn’t exist? You force the game to create a room for you to enter. Each room was new and unexplored. The same wall could yield different rooms if you leapt off from a different place. It was  like exploring an undiscovered country.
    “I spent hours and hours exploring weird glitched-out rooms that were composites of other terrain in the game mashed together in sometimes grotesque ways, opening chests to find items that didn’t exist and never showed up in the inventory or duplicates of already existing boss items. In fact, I spent more time exploiting this glitch than playing the game the way it’s makers intended.”
  • Joshua Kenney, founder of Professional Misanthropy, explains, “I am a loot whore. I don’t mean that I run end bosses in World of Warcraft until my fingers fall off to get that complete Tier 4 armor set.  I would, ‘cause I do love the shinies, but I’m usually too busy grabbing every single piece of loot every monster I killed has ever dropped. So I guess I’m more a loot kleptomaniac. Perhaps the gamer part of my brain grew up during the Great Depression, because I can’t stand to see perfectly good loot fade away simply because it’s not “worth it” to pick it up and sell it to a vendor back in town. Loot is always worth it.
    “It’s a useful skill early on in these games, when you’re trying to build up a bankroll, but the farther in you get, and the more you find yourself carrying stacks and stacks of loot, the more folly it becomes.  Which is why I’m usually so poor in Diablo-esque loot fests: I spend all my time picking up leather scraps and orc snot, even when that shit is way below my level.”

Okay. So, be honest; do you have one of your own gamer quirk? If so, comment below, or post #MyGamerQuirk on twitter! I’m dying to hear more of these!