Head to Head: Castlevania versus Castlevania

Comparing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Symphony of the Night might as well be no different than judging apples from oranges. One has a significant technological advantage over the other and the play styles couldn’t be any more different. What inspired me to discuss these two games was a quote I dug up from a Game Informer interview with Lords of Shadow producer David Cox: "We wanted to get away from the art style of the originals and make it a bit darker," Cox says. "The old games had this boyish depiction of vampires and monsters and we wanted them to have a darker edge this time around."

I bring this up not to launch a tirade against Cox, after all he has a point, but to suggest that  Lords of Shadow and Symphony of the Night are so different is, in hindsight, a bit of a misstep. In a number of ways, MercurySteam’s interpretation of Castlevania still retains a “boyish” depiction of monsters, albeit in a setting that isn’t nearly as campy and cartoony as the 1997 PlayStation classic. One doesn’t have to look very hard to see that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a diversion from “classic Castlevania.” The game uses a linear progression of levels, a callback to the franchise’s early roots, that replaces the acclaimed open-ended design of Symphony of the Night, a game that created the genre-defining shorthand, “Metroidvania.”

There are numerous elements that put Symphony of the Night into the realm of camp, like the oft parodied localized voiceovers and its pixelated, colorful art style. The limitations of the early PlayStation software created a cartoonish bestiary filled with monster designs modeled after the classic Universal creatures. Werewolves, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy and Dracula himself are hardly original villains. With few exceptions, none of the creatures are presented with any sort of pathos, traits or characterizations that would lead anyone to sympathize with them. As a matter of fact, few people actually speak. Dracula’s army is bolstered by additional monsters of comical design, like the giant ghost skulls found in the Clock Tower, the trio of skeletal marksmen, and the thoroughly obnoxious Flea Men. Beyond the major story bosses, the monsters that make up Dracula’s castle are one dimensional meat sacks waiting to be cut to pieces by Alucard’s blade.

True to Cox’s word, Lords of Shadow represents a significant departure in style. Gone are the retro-graphics and floating medusa heads, replaced with high resolution and advanced creature rendering. On presentation alone the game earns its “dark” stripes. Where Symphony of the Night existed in a world normally visited by late night B-movies, Lords of Shadow wants to be grounded in reality. More of a reboot than a prequel, it depicts the fall of Gabriel Belmont, a member of the holy Brotherhood of Light, who has set out on a quest to “reunite” Heaven and Earth by defeating the forces of evil. He is not out to kill Dracula, as he doesn’t exist, but fights against an even greater foe. While Symphony of the Night shied away from overt religious overtones, Lords of Shadow has its feet firmly planted in the secular world, as Gabriel’s final battle pits him against Satan, the Fallen Angel himself, who has manipulated Brotherhood and Gabriel into enacting his revenge against God.

With its dark fantasy leanings, Lords of Shadow accomplishes the goal of finding a “darker” edge. MercurySteam created a catalog of frightening creatures that benefit from the graphical power of modern consoles. Vampires are truly frightening creatures that do not hide the fact that they are monsters, not sparkling Calvin Klein models. True to life the game is over its old school forebears, Lords of Shadow’s monsters are cut from the same cloth as Symphony of the Night. Though far more detailed, Gabriel will fight against comic-style creatures like goblins, the Animated Armor, the Oogie-Boogie like Deadly Toy, and the very pointy Scarecrow. The graphics make these abominations look frightening, but they are also not-too-distant cousins of Symphony of the Night’s “boyish” monster designs. Many of the monster designs in the older game are design to be evocative of their Universal counterparts. The infinitely spawning Mermen near the beginning of the game resemble the Creature from the Lagoon. There’s even a boss modeled after Frankenstein’s monster.

The edginess of Castlevania David Cox references also extends to Gabriel. Apart from bringing God back to Earth, his journey is motivated by the promise that defeating evil will resurrect his beloved wife. However, the final confrontation with Satan reveals this to be a lie, turning Gabriel into a shell of a man, transformed by the powers that fueled his journey and turning him into Dracula. There is no battle for Heaven and Hell in Alucard’s quest, only his singular goal of killing Dracula who, once again, is out to destroy humanity. That shouldn’t suggest that Symphony of the Night is weaker for its one dimensional plot. There’s a good story found within that’s much more emotionally gripping than the story of a son out to kill his father.

Lords of Shadow and Symphony of the Night may have different design philosophies, but both games depict characters that will do anything for love. Love motivates Gabriel to risk his piousness as he travels the world. The events that spur Alucard into action involves the circumstances surrounding the death of his mother, who just so happened to be Dracula’s greatest love. Before Twilight, mainstream culture chose to depict Dracula as a bloodthirsty and bored tyrant that seduce young village girls to make his immortality a bit more exciting. Dracula’s characterization in Symphony is closer to the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is revealed his quest to purge humanity came from the pain of losing his wife to simple minded villagers who burned the woman after declaring her to be a witch. This event took away his capacity to love, sharing a close similarity to Gabriel Belmont, and led him to damn the entire human race as punishment for the actions of a small few.

True to MercurySteam’s intent, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow took the franchise in a bold new direction that extended to its sequels. Though more realistic, the game still retains the magic and mystery franchise stalwarts have been entranced by from the very beginning.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.