Review by femiwhat

"Curse of Insistence on 3D Gaming"

First, a little background. The first Castlevania game that I played with anything resembling competence was Symphony of the Night, and I've played just about every game to come out since then, as well. SotN remains by far my favourite.

SYNOPSIS

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is the latest console installment of the Castlevania series. The successor to Lament of Innocence's generally bad press promised to retain the advantages of 3D gameplay while going back to the RPG elements and detail of SotN. It was with high hopes that many gamers picked up this game, but they found, at best, mixed results.

STORY - 5/10

Okay, so story has never been an incredibly strong point of the Castlevania series. Belmont slays Dracula, the usual staple, has had the occasional twist (Alucard slays Dracula, Fernandez/Belnades slays Dracula, Cruz slays Dracula, etc.), but the general structure is more or less the same. Perhaps it's unfair to criticize Curse of Darkness's hero, Hector, for having a weak motivation and we-just-thought-this-up-ten-minutes-ago background.

Then again, maybe it's time to take a look at the trend the series is taking, step back, and say...huh?

Hector is a devil forger (who apparently have existed for a long time in the CV timeline, but only recently in the minds of the developers) who lost his bride (or girlfriend, or whatever--I didn't really pay attention, and I'm sure IGA didn't intend for her to be important: she's just a girl, right?) to the inexplicable machinations of a former friend, Isaac (who appears to have painted on his clothes). Quest for revenge, blah blah blah, dead wife's identical twin shows up to sell items, blah blah blah, time travel, blah blah blah, Dracula's curse, blah blah blah... Every element of the plot is either so completely random as to be absurd or utterly cliched.

The problem here is that the story has too many details for it to fit together smoothly. When the writers barely tell you anything, you can fill in the logical details on your own. But when the writers tell you a lot , it had better make sense. Most of all, the more pseudo-significant bits of information that are included without explanation (no, seriously, why does Julia look like the dead ex?), the more it just feels like no one put any effort into the story.

Especially in light of IGA's recent decisions to exclude good bits of the Castlevania timeline from official canon, this laughable attempt at a story is a slap in the face. We're expected to poo-poo the brave efforts of Sonia Belmont because she's a woman, but Hector the Helmet-Haired gets a place in the hall of fame?

SETTING/LEVEL DESIGN - 3/10

Okay, so putting every game inside of Dracula's ever-changing castle might have been getting a little stale. The developers score points for including a wider range of environments: forest, mountain, (some random) temple... Not all of the choices make a lot of sense, and none of them have any significance to the events of the game (not even a "quick! chase Sephiroth to the...Mortvia Aquaduct!"), but the variety is a definite improvement.

Then again, calling several screens of identical-width corridors with no secrets or platforming and only sparsely populated by monsters level "design" is a misuse of the word.

That's really what we have here. Secrets are few and far between--probably fewer than ten in the entire game. Each area is just a series of connected corridors and the occasional boxy open space. The corridors are too large for their contents; most of the time, Hector is twirling around in empty air, as monster spawns are very infrequent. Far from there being a monster in every room, sometimes two rooms in a row will be simply...empty. They're just there for you to walk across.

Even when an area seems to skirt the rectangular requirement, you find yourself arbitarily denied access to a portion of the room. Why can't Hector walk on that fallen beam or jump onto that turning gear? No reason except that the game won't let you. The same goes for alcoves and ledges; they're just there for decoration. Hector is meant to occupy long hallways and quadrilateral rooms.

The problem here really comes down to an insistence on bringing Castlevania to the 3D gaming world. The developers just don't know what to do with this extra dimension of space. They don't seem to realize that a three dimensional room needs to have three dimensions worth of contents.

GAMEPLAY - 8/10

But at least they got something right, right? The system of combos is refreshing. Different attack patterns yield different results, and mastering a few of your favourites makes battles go more smoothly. Each of a wide variety of weapons has a different set of combos.

There are no sub-weapons in the main game, but this is replaced by the Innocent Devil system. The IDs are pretty lame story-wise, but their function is fulfilled beautifully with everything from magical attacks to healing to a gargoyle fighting at your side.

All in all, CoD could have a fabulous combat system, and, in places, it even pulls it off. Every once in a while, there's a small enough room with a large enough group of monsters to make you feel like you're really settling into butt-kicking mode. Most of the time, however, there either aren't enough monsters, or they die too quickly, or the best way to win is to just mash the same button over and over and over. There's no strategy involved.

The stealing system is interesting. It requires the player to wait for the moment of opportunity and then execute a grab. In some cases, this is far easier said than done. Some items can only be obtained by stealing, and the windows are so short or so oddly placed as to render this impossible. Overall, it ends up being pretty frustrating.

Finally, item use is, once again, arbitrarily limited. I'd hoped that one of the changes from LoI would have involved the item quantity limits, but this hope was in vain. The number of items you can hold is not based on size or weight, but rather on how challenging the developers wanted to make the game. Therefore, you can carry 9 potions, but only 5 high potions. It's one of those irritating things that just plain knocks down the gameplay score.

SOUND EFFECTS/MUSIC - 8/10

On the one hand, the music is very good. Almost all of it is pleasant to listen to, and it fits the general mood of butt-kicking gothyness that one expects from Castlevania. On the other hand, all of the music sounds the same. The forest, the castle, the temple...it all has the general mood of butt-kicking gothyness. There's nothing special here.

Other sound effects are okay. The voice acting isn't great, but it's also not so terrible that it's good again ("You steal men's souls!"), so it hovers somewhere around mediocre. The dialogue is rather stilted in places, but, overall, it's pretty good for a Konami game.

GRAPHICS - 2/10

First of all, that cool-looking guy on the box with wavy charcoal hair and a menacing expression on his face? Forget you ever saw him--that's like glamour shots for Hector. In the actual game, Hector wears a perpetually confused demi-frown and has pale grey helmet hair. Julia looks inbred; Isaac looks like a porn star; and Trevor alone made me swoon...but that's not the reason for the low score.

Character models aside, the real place this game loses is the complete and total lack of effort that was put into the monsters and level backgrounds.

Out of all of the monsters in the games, there are about five unique models. After that, there are a few variations; floating robed things with blades instead of staves, big ball-and-chain guys with helmets and without. Then there are palette swaps. Factor all of this in, and there are still less than 20 different monsters in the entire game. Instead of having new and more challenging monsters as you increase in level, the existing monsters simply appear at higher level, and otherwise completely identical to their earlier counterparts.

Furthermore, the monsters are ugly--not ugly in an oh-no-it's-Cthulhu kind of way, but in that they're all brown and grey and completely boring and not fun to look at. None of the monsters are cool. None of them are scary. Very few of them have neat-looking attacks.

The utter inanity and repetitiveness of the level artwork is what really puts the final nail in this coffin. All of those endless rooms and empty corridors I mentioned up there have the same carpet, the same indiscernible portrait on the wall, and the same purple-flamed (yes! purple! WTF?) torches by the same doors. There is none of the extraneous furniture, artwork, or background that lent character to the areas in the 2D games. The rooms are practically identical to each other within the various settings.

Even beyond the lack of contents to the identical rooms, the backgrounds--the faraway horizons--are an absolute joke. Liberal use is made of obscuring mist, yawning chasms, and distant mountains to avoid having to put any effort or style into the setting. This is the laziest graphic design since the Superman game that enveloped everything in a white mist and tried to explain it as a Kryptonite haze or something. Is the real 'Curse of Darkness' the dim lighting and inability to see over the battlement railing because the developers didn't put any effort into making the game interesting to look at?

Ordinarily, the "prettiness" of a game isn't a big issue for me, as long as it isn't painful to look at. In this case, though, neat-looking rooms were the only thing that could have redeemed repetitive rectangular corridors. Without anything to look at or anything to do...what were we supposed to be doing?

DIFFICULTY (not scored)

Playing the game is not difficult. Doing everything in the game perfectly, especially stealing, can get pretty tough pretty fast. Overall, the difficulty progression is good with a decent learning curve. There's room to hang around and improve if you're having a hard time, and the more advanced fights never fully become a cakewalk.

SUMMARY

This really isn't such a bad game. It's entertaining, and the fact that you can play as Trevor on replay is a great addition. The combat is fun and the item-collecting held my attention for quite some time. You can probably beat the game in a rental, but as long as you don't pay full price for the game, you probably won't regret it.

The real problem with Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is that Konami tried to do too much, too soon: they pushed for another 3D game before they figured out how to it right. Everything that made Castlevania a popular franchise--the platforming in the older games combined with the intricate detail and endless exploration of the castleroids--was completely lost when the transition was made to 3D. The cost of filling up that empty space may have been too high for the CoD budget, but that's no excuse. If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing right. Either make 3D work or go back to what you know you can do.


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 10/30/06


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