I recently played all the way through Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow for Xbox 360 on Hard difficulty.
- The sense of impact you get from successful hits is really sharp and satisfying, which is an interesting feat considering the fact that the main character fights with a whip. The brilliant audio has a lot to do with it; the impact sounds are a combination of whip cracking, something getting cut open, high pressure gas being released, and a hard impact of some kind.
- The impact effects are quite good. They're very exaggerated in form and motion but not in color, which makes them exciting but still appropriate for the game's relatively dark and drab gestalt. That's not to say the game looks very dark and drab, in fact some of the environments in this game are more colorful than the environments in most modern games. But I digress.
- The actual combat flow is incredibly fluid and engaging. The moment to moment is not particularly dynamic (of course this depends on the combination of enemies you're fighting) but I found myself undergoing the typical circuit of item > attack > attack > dodge, except in a really fun and snappy way thanks in no small part to a very well implemented dodge mechanic. Very few beat 'em ups accomplish this kind of addicting fluidity and this games deserve the recognition for achieving it.
- You are given two types of attacks and they are different from each other in a meaningful way, which is refreshing. One attack hits only the enemies in front of you with a lot of power and the other hits all enemies around you with very little power. There is a downside, and I'll list it in the cons.
- The game properly incentivizes you to employ variety in your attacks! And it does it elegantly while rewarding you greatly for doing so! Yay! I'm so happy about this because most beat 'em ups fail to do this yet it's one of those simple things that makes combat so engaging.
- Items were fun and useful! This was my fault, but I was hesitant to use them at first (like I am in most games where my gamer instincts tell me to preserve resources for the real challenges). But once I got comfortable they became a pleasant part of the moment to moment game. They all had great effects and every last item felt very valuable.
- The dark/light magic system is inventive and interesting and fun. You could choose to either make your attacks do extra damage or you could use them to heal yourself. Each mode had different meters that you could refill at a moderate pace by killing enemies or refill it quickly by using and maintaining variety in your attacks. It's an amazing system and the cherry on the cake is that the game eventually requires you to quickly and carefully switch between the two modes to damage very powerful enemies.
- You knew it was coming; why do I have to unlock mechanics?! If you want to provide an extra layer of pacing then great, give me something else to unlock, please. If you want to ensure that I properly develop my vocabulary of mechanics then great, do it in a training mode please. Having to earn my toolset of fundamental mechanics while I also am trying to progress through the game is maddening.
- They gave me a block mechanic that I never used after the first chapter. While I understand that the ultimate point of the block is to counterattack and punish enemies, I very quickly found the difficulty of execution grossly out of proportion with the reward for success. The problem is that most enemies have attacks that were specifically designed to break your block, and these attacks are not only performed at high speeds but the visual tell on these attacks is communicated very poorly. This wouldn't be a huge problem if the counterattack was very powerful, but it is not.
- Like I said before, the dodge was implemented wonderfully but performing it is needlessly complex. If they'd bail on the block and make dodging as easy as it is to do in God Of War or Bayonetta, Lords Of Shadow would have been a diamond of defense.
- While having a button devoted to attacking all nearby enemies with less powerful attacks seems very useful, it actually loses its usefulness over time as the game throws more and more combinations of fewer, more powerful enemies at you. Eventually I was making large strides of progress without ever using it.
- The shallow bit of air game that was there was well implemented but it suffered from the common problem of being just too risky with little justification. Generally speaking, the air game is something that has never really been taken to the next level (it's the same air game that the first Devil May Cry gave us that no one except Vanillaware (Muramasa) and From Software (Otogi) have bothered to play with). I don't want to crucify MercurySteam for this but based on the combat in Lords Of Shadow, I feel like they had it in them to take it to the next level but didn't for whatever reason. C'mon guys, you're good enough for this! :)
- A couple of the boss fights were incredibly frustrating, and it always came down to a couple very punitive and difficult to perceive-and-react attacks. Strangely, the rest of the boss fights were pretty straightforward; I might even say easy. I'm just not sure what happened here. Also, there were a couple boss situations where I had to refill every time I died since this game made the common mistake of establishing my checkpoint PRIOR to filling up. If you're going to provide me with the gift of a pre-boss refill, don't make me unhappy about it by coating it in tedium.
- The final boss did a very strange thing where suddenly you've got to accomplish something that you were not prepared to do through the usual tools of earlier foreshadowing or prior training. It's a really neat idea, and beautiful to boot! But suddenly having to do that and getting repeatedly knocked on your ass trying to use a completely different part of your brain felt really jarring. (I'm talking about the glyphs on the ground, by the way.) Minor quibble though, it was just a remarkably strange thing to occur.
The overall synopsis of the game's combat is that it is amazingly constructed, has near immaculate flow, and was interesting and fun all the way to the end. It has enough variety to feel fresh, enough strong mechanics to feel very powerful, and just enough systems in place to stabilize the combat from the top down. I'm seriously impressed and amazed at the work that was done here in this game and I can't wait to see what Mercury Steam does in the future. If they ever make the conscious decision to push game combat forward, then they could actually change the game and write MUCH NEEDED new rules in to the game combat rulebook. Brilliant work, guys.