"Trouble in Transylvania"

Dracula's Curse

It's difficult to make heads or tales out of a game like Curse of Darkness (CoD), namely because of how one must evaluate it: Does it loose points for failing to live up to the series name? Does it gain points for the improvements made since the last 3-D installment, Lament of Innocence? For basic purposes though, it's safe to say the latest “next generation” Castlevania release is the most refined and well executed of all the prior attempts (and yes, that includes the Nintendo 64 games). For all those “out of the noose” to the reference “IGA” that will sprout up many times during this write up, it refers to the man responsible for the game, Koji Igarashi. And yes, that is indeed what he likes to refer to himself as.

I can't remember where the observation came from-probably the November issue of Play Magazine, which had an in-depth look at the game-but it's true: something about Curse of Darkness screams “Simon's Quest” (AKA Castlevania 2, released in the early days of the Famicom). Perhaps it has something to do with the expansive nature: rather than taking place exclusively in a castle, CoD sees our anti-hero, Hector, venturing through the entire Wachalla countryside in order to get revenge on the man responsible for his wife's death. Though Dracula seemingly exists only in the form of his plague-like Curse-see Castlevania 3 on the NES or else pay attention to the prologue in this game-suffice to say that Issac, the villain, is more than resourceful enough to play the one that must be destroyed, especially since he is, in fact, propagating Dracula's Curse.

Stale Candy

Visually, this game is nothing much to speak of. There are a few background images or whatnot that spark a second-or-two of awe, but for the most part, this game looks exactly the same as the previous PS2 installment, just with far, far more darker environments; at times, it's somewhat difficult to even see what you're doing it's so dark. Truth be told, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if most of CoD is nothing more than an edited build of Lament of Innocence; it just plays and looks too similar to inspire and kind of belief that Konami built it from scratch. On the other hand, the visuals are sufficient enough not to warrant major questions about what “generation” of programming this is, though I might point out that for all the extra power available on Microsoft's Xbox, you'd really think it would make the PS2 build look like crap. “Fortunately” because the multi-platform issue was more of a profit based one rather than a development based one, Sony loyalists need not feel deprived.

As mentioned earlier, the game takes place over a variety of terrain, not just that of a castle. Each location has its own specific map, and each map with a tally of how much you've explored (thus you can rest easy at the though of 75% completion within the first hour of gameplay). Whereas Lament of Innocence opted for a hub like layout design, CoD's progress-based levels mean that backtracking can be a bit of a problem. The game now allows the player to manually select the Save Point they wish to use as a “warp point” when possessing the necessary item (a Magical Ticket) so this theoretically solves the problem, but not really. In the second area Hector finds a store-ran by a terribly familiar looking face-which realistically doubles as the only plausible means of backtracking…you'll see when you play.

Gameplay Gorging

Anyone who followed the development of CoD should already be familiar with the overused term “Innocent Devil”, or “I.D.” as the game abbreviates. IDs are essentially damned souls which a Devil Forgemaster (read: a demonic “blacksmith”) infuses into a body/form and which are for all intents and purposes, slaves. The system itself is quite dynamic to say the least: IDs undergo experience growth along with Hector allowing them to gain more power and stamina; they learn new abilities, they can evolve with proper “food”, they come in a multitude of functions (flying, fighting, etc) and can even lay eggs to hatch into new ID. And yes, your inference is correct: thankfully this time the main character can level up.

Suffice to say, we're not talking about any kind of radically new or innovative system here; it's more like IGA simply took the “Familiar” aspect of the renown PSOne Castlevania installment and fleshed it out. Despite that, Innocent Devils add a lot of depth to a game series typically associated with a one-dimensional method of exploration and execution. Whereas Nocturne in the Moonlight (AKA Symphony of the Night) featured very few areas where the Familiars could actually affect gameplay (triggering an out-of-reach switch, for example), basically ALL secrets in CoD require the help of IDs. With the use of

To be quite honest, this whole thing triggers flash backs of Final Fantasy 12, really. Having played the new demo at the Square Enix Party back in July, I managed to summon a monster and have it tag along with me. Indeed not only did it look exactly like the second ID you obtain in this game, but it even acted the same way. Of course unlike in FF12 where your summon has HP and can be killed, in CoD they run on Hearts and are immortal. Each time your familiar takes damage or uses a special ability, it expends hearts. Once your supply is depleted, the ID then waits for you to collect more so that it can offer its services once again. But “yes”, to answer your confused question: Hearts are NOT used in this game to power special weapons, they are exclusively for ID functioning.

Speaking of weapons, however, that is the other core aspect of gameplay. Whereas the modern Castlevania games all see the hero purchasing or finding equipment, in CoD the process is entirely player-sponsored, though the aforementioned shop does sell some weaker variants. In addition to tinkering with life itself, Hector can also forge equipment by refining the materials and relics that monsters occasionally drop or that he finds in treasure chests. Simply by accessing the Main Menu (press “Start”) you can create all new equipment on the fly-there is thankfully no need to find a blacksmith shop or anything of that irk. The game features dozens and dozens of weapons, armours, and accessories to create and all have their own unique features and functions.

I must admit that it is quite fun to consider what the newest upgrades will look like, how they might handle (heavy axes or javelins are more cumbersome than small swords) and what kind of abilities they might possess-more on that last bit shortly. Scourging for materials also makes fighting monsters more rewarding, since you'll need specific quantities of specific materials to do your metal-workings. This aspect, along with the ID development and experience point return ensure that the gameplay experience as a whole is a far more involved and interesting play than the pointless nonsense that Lament of Innocence tried to pass off as “fun”. Of course there is trouble in Transylvania as you will notice in a bit; these welcomed changes hardly manage to conceal the glaring inadequacies.

Devil in the Details, Corpse in the Controls

Control-wise, CoD is more or less on par with the previous installment. Although Hector can lock-on to opponents, the whole feature seems rather clunky and more often than not, it's more of a camera-related element than it is targeting; far too often you'll end up attacking thin air as opposed to monster flesh (be it rotten or otherwise). Whereas the previous game only featured a whip (this one seemingly anything but) there was a system in play such that as you progressed through the game, Leon (the hero) gained new skills. This time around, Hector's weapon prowess is specific to the weapon itself, as well as your button combinations: By default control settings, the “Circle” button serves as a “Final Attack”; by including it in your normal button mashing, Hector will unleash high powered blows; discovering them is part of the fun and indeed makes each weapon have a purpose.

For better or worse, the active menu system employed in Lament of Innocence is not retained. Those familiar with the game will no doubt recall how all item use and equipment changes had to be done in real time as opposed to on the Main Menu/”pause” screen. Personally, I would much rather have seen the prior game's feature revised (such as pausing the gameplay while accessing it perhaps) than scrapped, as it's somewhat tedious to access the Main Menu and whatnot every time you want to change weapons. And since your weapon type helps to determine the manner in which your ID will evolve, this can turn into a frequent procedure. Additionally, it's equally tedious to resort to the menu to use something as basic as a potion. As much as I disliked Lament because of this issue, I actually expected and anticipated its' return.

What isin real time, however, is the controls for your ID. Those of you who saw pictures of this game probably noticed the “Metal Gear Solid menu” located on the bottom-left part of the screen. This is how you control the ID's actions. By default, they will act on their own will (“Auto”), however you can opt for the friendly familiar to focus on the opponent you have targeted. Some have additional settings as well. All of the ID's special attack abilities can also be manually triggered here.

All in all, nothing spectacular in this department really, at least nothing that you haven't seen used in countless other games. Thankfully the aural side of CoD is worth praising however…

Double-Duty Defiance

Musically, I can't even articulate what this game is. When one considers that Michiru Yamane had not one, but *two* Castlevania games to score near simultaneously (this and the 2-D Dawn of Sorrow on Nintendo's DS), the expectation would be that one-or both-would be sorely lacking. Having played Dawn months ago and finding the soundtrack to be truly superb, I assumed CoD would be the victim of divided efforts. Somehow (perhaps the fact that Yamane didn't create the entirety of music for Dawn) all expectations were blown away, as not only is the music heard in Curse outstanding, it's arguably the best in the entire series.

In my mind, it takes a true genius to score a videogame, and do it effectively. Sure, there are tons of “talented” music composers that sit down and churn out hundreds of tracks that sound exactly like everything else they've ever done; indeed there are people who can create an “epic” score that makes one think of Hollywood blockbuster productions rather than a game, but ultimately what does that actually speak of in terms of talent? To me, a truly perfect musical score is one that you can listen to infinitely, one that never sounds rehashed, and one that actually compels you to play the game. Dare I say it, but part of the excitement I have when playing a new Castlevania game is just that: wanting to hear the new music.

As someone who is loath to subject myself to the so called “talent” employed in English voice acting (I say it again: pleasant sounding does NOT at all indicate ability in the slightest), I opted to play the game with the original Japanese voice track…though calling it “original” may seem strange given the game doesn't release in Japan for weeks. Anyway, while nothing is outstanding, the cast do their jobs sufficiently…maybe if there was more emotion or dialogue to be had then the actors could have shone better.

Sound effect wise, the game is basically a total rehash from Lament: doors lock shut, menus make noises, monsters groan, etc. Most of the time you can actually close your eyes and, if you've played Lament recently, not even hear a difference. Depending on your own preferences, this may or may not be a good thing; suffice to say, however, that the sound effects serve their purpose and functionality.

Three Strikes and You're Out

For the most part, my major gripes with CoD break down into three basic categories and as such, are addressed accordingly. Please note, however, that while I discuss these issues from the perspective of a Castlevania fan, they are still more than applicable to the game when examined on its own merits. Each and every one of these grievances are complaints I would issue were this product released without the Castlevania association, however the moniker allows further critique in light of the disparaging inconsistencies.

1. The environments are just too boring, even more so than in Lament. Whereas the previous game at least tried to spice things up with multi-tiered rooms, Curse seemingly opts for a completely flat existence. Jumping is more of a tool for escaping from fiend-ly fire than it is any kind of an exploration assistant. Castlevania has always been about platforming, and hence this is a definitive reason the 3-D installments fail to embody the name. In the end, Capcom managed to create more of an “authentic” Castlevania in its Onimusha series given its use of jumps, whip swinging, and other “old school” staples. Heck, even the Nintendo 64 games were more true-to-form. I'm sorry to say it, but one truly gets a sense that Konami (as a whole) has no clue how to produce a 3-D game, with the exception of perhaps Hideo Kojima. Everyone else reeks of being a hardcore 2-D fanatic that has yet to understand what 3-D is all about and hence can't even understand why their modern games just don't execute like they are intended to (Suikoden anyone? Ninja Turtles?).

In addition to the confined locales, I might also comment that it's high time that more attention be put into their appearances. While it could theoretically be a hardware related issue, I find it inexorably tedious that each location LOOKS exactly the same, save for a detail or two. Anyone who has ever played a 2-D Castlevania will tell you flat out how each location has a specific look, theme, and “presence”. Dawn of Sorrow (Nintendo DS) is the epitome of this diversification with backgrounds and detail so minute and extravagant that you'd think the game an artist's canvas more than a programmer's coding. So why it is, then, that the 1st area of CoD looks almost exactly the same as the 3rd; why is it OK to skimp on the production values of the big budget product, but more than acceptable to tinker away at the portable installment? Considering how the Metal Gear Solid franchise is, I fail to believe this has anything to do with hardware confinements; rather it's just plain laziness and downright apathy on the part of the staff. Shame on you.

2. There is a severe lack of enemy variation. Perhaps this is unfair of me to criticise the game for given the complexity of 3-D programming, but I grow so tired of fighting the same monsters over and over and over again. It's as if each area has three unique monsters, and any others are simply rehashed from prior ones. In Curse, your opponents have experience levels as well and hence encounters with them later in the game prove slightly more difficult in terms of higher HP count or whatnot, but they are still the exact same monster-not even pallet swapped! I might also add that despite efforts made to diversify the attack patterns of Hector's opponents, it's still far too common to mash buttons than it is to carefully engage in combat.

I realise that the original Castlevania installments featured a sparse diversity of monsters, but let's be honest here: in this day and age they aren't even relevant anymore, other than as a look back to where the series began. The 2-D “Metroidvania” as people refer to them, are the modern irk and they all feature hundreds of enemies. Step up to the task, IGA, and start putting more effort into this department.

3. Holy crap it's time to hire someone to write these games. Sorry, but IGA has no clue how to write, at least not on a professional level. The cookie-cutter plots he churns out might be suitable for elementary school writing assignments, but please: some of us expect a bit more out of our $50 “professionally created” piece of entertainment. And the way he talks about the series' timeline and plot in interviews, as if there is any kind of actual depth to it. News flash: NINTENDO has managed to do more with the stale-storied Legend of Zelda series. I give the man credit for the plot twist at the end of the final Gameboy Advance Castlevania (Aria of Sorrow), but let's be honest here: if you want this series to become a million-seller, changes MUST be made, including in the story/scenario department.

The “depth” to Lament of Innocence or Curse of Darkness…this is the kind of nonsense we saw back in the Famicom era, when videogames were nothing more than amusement for dorks and work for geeks, when no one expected elaborate storylines and such. Hate to break it to you IGA, but Castlevania is not the “arcade” experience of the 1980's, it's a damn home console project and it's time you start thinking that way.

Eviscerating Evaluation

Hands down, Curse of Darkness is far more refined than the previous installment, Lament of Innocence. Likewise, it is also far more intuitive and entertaining than the button-mashing mess that was IGA's other 3-D game, Nanobreaker. Those introduced to the Castlevania franchise by way of Lament will no doubt have a far greater entertainment experience than had before, and even those of us who've been with Castlevania since it's inception will no doubt find much to have fun with...assuming you don't place too much emphasis on the game's moniker. In all regards, *this* is the game we should have had back in 2003, though perhaps it's just as well we have it period-irrespective of when.

Notice I said “game” however, as at the end of the day Castlevania just does NOT work in 3-D and deep down inside, I think everyone knows it-including the creator himself. There is always talk about how it would be ideal to create a next generation 2-D installment, yet time and time again, excuse after excuse, it just doesn't happen. The claim is always sales related, though I beg to differ in pointing out that, by this point in time, there are so many 3-D action games out there that the only ones who really buy Castlevania are the fans, and those fans want a damn 2-D installment. Cut the crap already and put forth a REAL Castlevania game for a change…or at least learn how to make a proper 3-D one. Just save us from anymore of this pathetic incompetence.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 11/03/05, Updated 11/04/05


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