Review by Ormiss

"As long as there is evil in men, Castlevania will return... Sweet!"

Introduction

Nearly a thousand years have passed since one great truth was imprinted into the hearts of men: Castlevania will always return. Nearly twenty years ago, it was a simple creation with little finesse, but the years have been kind to this game series, and the latest installment builds and improves upon a tradition that, in gaming years, is ancient.

In 1986, Akumajo Dracula (Demon Castle Dracula) was released in Japan. The following year, it made it to the United States and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Someone decided that the hilarious name "Castlevania" (presumably comprised of the elements "Castle" and "Transylvania") would be an excellent translation, and the game was released. To people like me, Castlevania is action gaming.

Fast forward nineteen years. Dozens of games across dozens of platforms later, Castlevania keeps returning. As fashion changes, so do the protagonists--the muscle men of the 80s have been replaced by effeminate warriors, but the concept remains the same: Bash your way through a castle filled with every imaginable type of monster, surmounting all odds and conquering Death itself until you find yourself face to face with the personification of evil: Lord Dracula--and banish him to the abyss.

Gameplay

Except that there is no castle. Well, there's a castle, but it doesn't fathom the game, as it is wont to do. Instead of a single castle filled with all the monstrous haunts you'd need, Castlevania -- Curse of Darkness deposits our protagonist in a series of linear regions that need to be explored before the final battle can be fought. Compared to Lament of Innocence, this is a major change, but one which I found welcome. Rather than choosing in which order to complete the areas, as in Lament of Innocence, the player follows along a path that leads to fun and violence. It's not as beautiful as Aria of Sorrow or Symphony of the Night, but it's a good method of making a three-dimensional Castlevania.

Where Lament of Innocence saw a return to the classic arcade elements of Castlevania, such as a single weapon--the legendary Vampire Killer whip--and sub-weapons powered by hearts, Curse of Darkness courts the expanded details of Symphony of the Night. The protagonist gains experience and levels, and is able to use a variety of weapons which are significantly different from each other. Unlike Symphony of the Night, however, weapons are no longer strewn across the landscape for intrepid vampire slayers to find.

How do you obtain weapons, then? Our protagonist is an ingenious fellow; part of his power is that he's a master blacksmith. His abilities allow him to combine materials and existing items in order to synthesize new and (hopefully) improved weapons and armor. The beauty of this system is two-fold. Firstly, making new weapons is not a matter of searching for that "+3 attack" bonus: Every other weapon you make has some property that is different from the one you were using before. Even within categories, the differences are often significant, which makes combining a lot of fun. Different kinds of swords, for instance, use different move sets, allowing the protagonist to choose a style that suits him best for each encounter with the horrible undead. Of course, to make weapons, you need materials...

Here, we arrive at the heart of Curse of Darkness. After an hour or so, you will gain access to the "steal" skill. Every single enemy--boss or not--can be stolen from, and each different type of enemy has a different kind of item to be stolen. Stealing can be straightforward, but often it's not. You see, in order to steal, you need to find the monster's window of opportunity. This window is different from each monster: Sometimes it's as easy as running up to them and yelling "yoink" (well, you don't have to yell that, but it gets you into the mood), but often it's tricky, and on occasion, it's downright difficult. Figuring out how to steal from different enemies--and being rewarded with a new material that will allow you to make several unknown weapons and armor--is perhaps the single most entertaining aspect of Curse of Darkness.

Let me give you some advice. Like me, you might want to figure out how to steal from enemies without resorting to using FAQs. Know this: You cannot miss an item or material. Although it's easiest to steal from bosses the first way around, you will get as many chances as you'd like later on.

The other part of the protagonist's power is his ability to summon "Innocent Devils." As the game progresses, you will obtain the use of various different categories of Innocent Devils, and each one has a branching evolution tree where it will gain different skills and abilities depending on which path you choose. The path chosen depends on which type of weapon you're using to kill the enemies while the particular Innocent Devil is at your side. Since the active Innocent Devil will occasionally drop a "Devil Shard" that allows you to create the next generation of the same type of Innocent Devil, you have the opportunity to keep evolving Innocent Devils along all the available paths. In addition, the new generation inherits part of the current Innocent Devil's abilities. It's not terribly elaborate, but it's fun, and the Innocent Devils are both intelligent and extremely useful, not least against the bosses.

Another significant difference between Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness is the platforming aspect. More accurately, it's gone. The prequel made a great deal out of leaping between platforms, using the whip to swing on things and dodge traps. That aspect of Castlevania has been almost completely removed in Curse of Darkness. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I didn't think much of it while playing the game. There's plenty of other things to take up your attention.

The bosses in Lament of Innocence were varied in quality. Some were fun, some were not so fun. It's understandable, considering that it was the first Castlevania to use three-dimensional graphics... successfully. Either way, Curse of Darkness has improved upon this: The boss battles are terrific.

What about the camera? The camera is always an issue in a three-dimensional game. In Curse of Darkness, it behaves. The fact that you can spin it as you please is a helpful addition, and the targeting system ensures that you'll never lose track of where your enemies are. It's not perfect--sometimes the camera can behave in frustration ways--but it's good.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is that the protagonist runs at a fairly slow pace. Unlike Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow, he never obtains any method of accelerated travel, aside from the teleportation chambers which are placed around all of the areas. The result is that you find yourself rolling a lot, gaining only a slight increase to speed in return for a lot of effort. It's not a major issue, but it's noticeable.

The conclusion is that the gameplay makes for a boatload of fun; a terrific journey from the first minute to the last hour. On the other hand, the suspense and horror themes that were so prevalent in certain of the prequels are gone. You can blame the camera for removing the feeling of helplessness and uncertainty that prevailed in Lament of Innocence, but nervousness is about all the little things, and those little things just aren't there in Curse of Darkness. I would have to assume that it's a deliberate choice, and while this choice doesn't make or break the Castlevania games for me, it's a negative in my book. I was never nervous in Curse of Darkness; paranoia and the element of surprise are gone.

Story

This game is the timeline sequel to Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse, which is an old game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, in which Trevor Belmont vanquished Dracula with the aid of several potent allies. Three years later, Dracula's curse prevails, infecting the hearts of men and driving them to hatred and violence. The curse spreads throughout the world, threatening to bring civilization to its knees under the power of Dracula.

Hector, who once served Lord Dracula as a Devil Forgemaster, has lost his wife Rosaly to the curse, and he blames his former companion, Isaac. Together, these two are the only Devil Forgemasters in existence, and fate has seen fit to make them enemies. Isaac, who remains loyal to Lord Dracula, hates Hector for betraying their master, while Hector desires vengeance against Isaac for the death of Rosaly. When Hector arrives at an abandoned castle, it becomes apparent that Isaac has his own plans for him: Isaac wants Hector to regain the powers he once possessed as a Devil Forgemaster, driving him down the dark path he abandoned in order to fight a final duel where one of them will obtain the vengeance he seeks.

As Hector takes up the art of Devil Forging and chases after Isaac, his path will be shaped by those he meets along the way, and his final choice will determine the outcome of the diabolical plot that is being spun around him...

Curse of Darkness is a predictable tale about love and hate, vengeance and redemption, and the eternal battle between the forces of darkness and humanity's proud champions. The basic fundaments of the plot have great potential: Hector's struggle with his guilt for serving Dracula, his aimless rage at the death of his beloved wife, the spark of new love, and the machinations of the ultimate lord of darkness are the makings of an incredible story that still waits to be told. Curse of Darkness sets up the ambition, but it does not carry through. As usual, it falls to the individual to imagine what could be, and believe me: In my mind, Hector's story is as bittersweet as it is amazing.

Castlevania is meant to be shameless, thoughtless fun, but the ambitions of producer Koji Igarashi (fashionably self-entitled "IGA") shine through. Please, do something with it. Castlevania has come so far over the course of these past nineteen years: It's time to leap the final boundary and create a truly beautiful story.

Graphics/Sound

For a game produced during the final year of PlayStation 2's expected lifespan, Curse of Darkness is nothing special. The graphics are solid; neither disappointing nor exciting. The characters look fairly good, but Ayami Kojima's divine artwork doesn't translate that well onto the PS2. The landscapes are rather beautiful, but I found that the panoramic sceneries were lacking. You're outside quite a bit, and I was disappointed to find little other than a blurred mist staring at me as I walked up to the edge of a cliff and looked out. It's kind of amusing to think that perhaps those who are accustomed to making Castlevania games are also unaccustomed to open spaces.

On the other hand, the sound excels. As usual, the highly competent Michiru Yamane delivers an excellent soundtrack driven by the trademark "gothic rock" that is best described as "Castlevania Music." Each area has its own theme, and there are a couple of battle themes which are especially excellent.

Voice acting is a natural evolution in the craft of video gaming, but it's not always a good idea, partly because of the simple fact that the business is still so young. However, the English voice actors in Curse of Darkness are surprisingly adept. They're not as superb as in Baldur's Gate II, but they're good enough that you never feel embarrassed listening to them, even though they're speaking archaic English. In addition, the Japanese voices and subtitles remain in the game, in case you want to hear or read them. It's a nice feature that I haven't explored.

Play Time/Replayability

There's a lot of content in Curse of Darkness. I don't know another way of expressing it. There's a lot to see and do, and there's a lot to gather. Having decided to get everything there is to get, I beat the game after about 24 solid hours of gameplay, and I'm still not done. Compared to Lament of Innocence, it's a huge game, and when you're done, you can start all over with the optional game modes, which I won't spoil for you. One of them is pretty cool, though.

So, what does it take to obtain all of this content? Curse of Darkness is a fairly easy game. The fact that you level up naturally takes the edge out of the challenge, compared to a game like Lament of Innocence, where some of the bosses were truly challenging. The real challenge in Curse of Darkness instead lies in stealing and combining. Beating the bosses isn't hard, but stealing from all of them is. Curse of Darkness is what you make of it, and that goes for the challenge too.

Final Recommendation

First off, I'll say this: If you liked Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow, you'll probably like this game. If you liked Lament of Innocence, you'll probably like this game as well. For those of you who aren't Castlevania veterans, I'd say that this is as good an opportunity as you're likely to get to become one.

Curse of Darkness is just about everything we expect Castlevania to be these days. In closing, this is an excellent game, but doesn't deserve a 9 or a 10. Curse of Darkness would be a 9 if it improved on a couple of gameplay flaws and restored the horror element. The leap from 9 to 10 would be achieved if the game had a vein of epic storytelling, with lots of dialogue, emotion, and romance. I dare you to make me cry, "IGA!"


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/08/05


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