Review by Emptyeye

"Most companies would kill for a slump like this..."

Castlevania. One of the most exalted gaming series in existence, up there with Super Mario or Final Fantasy. Since 1987, Konami has packed the Castlevania series with some of the best action ever to grace any console. Its early efforts--Castlevania I-IV--gave the series a reputation as offering some of the best 2-D side-scrolling action this side of Mario, while later games--Castlevania for the N64 and Symphony of the Night--showed the series could handle more non-linear 2-D and 3-D gaming, respectively.

But in the mid-1990's, the Castlevania series hit a bit of a slump, particularly in the United States. While I use the term loosely, as the two games released in the US at this point are still better than most other games at the time, these were generally thought of as below par for the Castlevania course. One game released during this slump was the watered-down Dracula-X for the SNES. The second game....1994's Castlevania: Bloodlines.

To be fair, Castlevania: Bloodlines turned the series on its head in a number of ways. The first way is what it did with the story. Like any other Castlevania game, some evil is attempting to revive the nefarious Count Vlad Tepes Dracula. This is the first time, however, that that evil has been given a name. That name is Countess Elizabeth Bartley, a rather hot servant of evil, particularly for someone with purple skin. In any case, Bartley travels all across Europe in the year 1917, enlisting the aid of the powers of darkness to assist her in her quest.

For the first time in the series, however, the task of destroying Bartley and Dracula does not fall to a Belmont. Rather, it's up to the ancestors of the Belmonts (Okay, then explain how Richter Belmont confronted Dracula in 1792 in Dracula-X....125 YEARS before this game.) to put the big vampire back in his place.
Yes, that's right, I said ancestors, as you have your choice of two young, elite vampire killers, and which one you select is a matter of whether you like the old or the new.

This multiple-hero revelation in the story carries on to the gameplay as well. The two heroes you can select from are John Morris and Eric LeCarde. Morris will probably be the character most Castlevania veterans will enjoy, as he uses the trusty Vampire Killer whip and is a little stronger than LeCarde. LeCarde, on the other hand, brings a completely new weapon to the Castlevania table, the Alcarde Spear. This weapon isn't any faster than Morris's Vampire Killer, but it seems to be a little more forgiving timing-wise.

The differences between the weapons will affect the way you play through the game. While Morris can hit enemies at angles while jumping and swing off of certain ceilings, LeCarde possesses the ability to thrust his spear straight up, as well as using it to pole vault high into the air (This gives LeCarde an increased versatility with his weapon, making up for his power disadvantage). As such, the two characters will take slightly different paths through certain levels, depending on the obstacles than stand in their way.

The gameplay itself is the same as most Castlevania games: Your chosen character walks through a two-dimensional world, navigating through everything from rivers of blood to giant clock towers, killing everything from your typical one-hit wonder skeletons to axe knights who stand almost twice as tall as your chosen character and take upwards of 5 hits before they finally go down. Rest assured that Bloodlines is not your typical cutesy 2-D action game; the experience is Castlevania through and through, featuring such classic baddies as Frankenstein's Monster (Fun Fact! The monster was never actually given a name.) and Death.

Yet the game has one major flaw: despite all the Castlevania goodness packed into it, Bloodlines, at 6 levels, is simply not long enough, especially in comparison to Castlevania III and IV. Konami did their best to stretch the levels out as long as they could, giving each one roughly 10 numbered sections, yet the effort isn't quite enough. As fun as Bloodlines is--and it will hold your attention --you'll find yourself scratching your head when it's all over, wondering where the second half of the game is.

Fortunately, while this installment of the Castlevania series isn't a particularly long affair, it is a rather difficult one. Part of the reason for this is the enemies that are thrown at you, which range from the mundane skeletons to the bizarre gear boss of the fourth level (''Mundane'' and ''Bizarre'' in relation to Castlevania, anyway). A larger portion of the game's challenge, however, comes from the fact that you're only allowed two continues before GAME OVER. ''But Emptyeye!'' you're probably saying, ''this game has passwords that allow me to start at the beginning of the last level I was on!'' You are correct. But these passwords also keep track of the number of lives and continues you had at that point. In other words, if you lose all but one life on level 1, you get one life to go through the rest of the game with (Unless you grab extras), passwords or no.

Some people--including me--like to complain that this is a cheap way to increase the difficulty of the game. Whether this is true or not, the tactic is certainly enough to keep you playing through Bloodlines for some time. The fact that there are two characters, each with their own weapon and way of getting around tough situations, further adds to the game's replay value. Moreover, before beginning, you can adjust the number of lives you start with from one to five to give yourself more (Or less) of a fighting chance against the hordes of evil that stand between you and European peace. All nice touches, to be sure, but they sadly don't overcome the lack of length present in the game.

Another problem with the game that really has nothing to do with length is the control. Sure, both heroes move well enough. The buttons are also laid out in a logical order, with A attacking, B jumping, and C using whatever auxiliary weapon you may have in your possession. But at times, attacking itself is a problem. Particularly with John Morris, there are times when your timing has to be absolutely perfect. So much as a microsecond too soon or two late, and your whip only hits air (or never even shoots out) and you take damage. This can be quite frustrating, particularly when fighting bosses or near precarious ledges when you get whacked and plummet into a bottomless pit, thus being robbed of a life that you shouldn't have lost.

Bloodlines's superficial elements are varied in quality. The graphics, for instance, will alternately amaze and nauseate you. The massive stone statue heads that must be pushed out of the way in stage 2 are offset by the sickening tower that sways back and forth as you ascend it in stage 3 (Because someone couldn't get the effect right at all). Some of the bosses are truly frightening, and the mirror effect in the last level is awe-inspiring, but again it's offset by the mono-colored water in the second level (I know what you're thinking, but in this case, the water comes off as rather lifeless), amongst other things.

Very few Genesis games can overcome the system's limited sound hardware, but thankfully, Castlevania: Bloodlines is one of those games. The excessive synth effects of the system seem oddly fitting for the game, as level 4's upbeat yet somehow creepy tune attests to. Level 2's Atlantis theme, likewise, was good enough to be recycled (In classic Konami tradition) for the Game Boy Advance game Circle of the Moon. All in all, Bloodlines's soundtrack adds to the gothic mood of the game quite well.

Alas, that lovely Genesis sound hardware can only do so much, and so the game falters in the effects department. Of particular note are the ravens of level 1, who QUACK at you in an effort to intimidate you. The rest of the effects are average, although the powered-up whip of Morris makes an interesting crystalline noise. This would be great, if only the whip weren't on fire at the time. As such, the calming, cooling effect seems radically out of place.

Overall, though, Castlevania: Bloodlines is a worthy addition to the Genesis action game library. Its biggest fault, really, is being named Castlevania--this automatically puts almost impossibly high expectations on a game, and Konami could only raise the bar on itself so many times. As such, while Bloodlines isn't as engaging as other Castlevania games--particularly on multiple playthroughs--it's still better than most other action games out there. You won't come back to it again and again, but that first run will keep you as entertained as any--despite the sometimes sloppy control. Seeing as last I knew you could get a new copy at Toys R' Us for $5, you might as well grab it--I can think of far worse things to spend that money on.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/07/02, Updated 03/07/02

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