Review by Ashley Winchester

Reviewed: 10/22/03 | Updated: 11/04/05

Beats 64, But Still Not Quite All Its 'Whipped' Up To Be

A brief note about this review before I begin: Readers, please remember that we all share different opinions on different things, so just because I may say such-and-such does not mean you may not feel differently; you may disagree with everything I say altogether, such is fine as well. Some may herald this game to be the work of pure genius, others will believe more along the lines of my thoughts, and some may just plain hate the game altogether. Also note that although this game ‘officially’ came out today (10/22), some of us have the ability to get things early; you can believe I am lying all you want, but while the general public only began to play the game today, I, in fact, just completed it.

I believe that in reviewing a game such as Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, it is essential to offer you, the reader, some background on my history of the series. To put it simply, I own every console Castlevania game made, both the Japanese version and the domestic version. (Obviously I can’t own the import version of this game yet as it is not out in Japan). I’ve spent a fortune on Castlevania games as one can well imagine. This all said, please rest assured that I am not some ‘newbie’ to the series or such, but rather I’ve been a fan of the series since childhood. My all time favorite game in the series is the often-pirated and seldom owned Dracula X (for the PC Engine), with Nocturne in the Moonlight (Symphony of the Night to the non-import crowd) ranking a close second. To say that my anticipation for Lament of Innocence was high would be an understatement indeed.

At best, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is a decent 3-D action game; at worst an “enhanced” version of the horrendous Nintendo 64 installments. What Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is *not* however, is a perfect installment in the series; a so-called golden entrance into the series true venture into the third dimension. One must truly wonder just how different the ill-fated Dreamcast installment, Castlevania: Resurrection, would have be had said game ever made it past development stages. It’s difficult to discern any specific element that renders Lament of Innocence (hereafter referred to as ‘LOI’) such a mediocre game in truth; rather the issue seems to be with a variety of factors instead; there is, after all, much more to this issue than simply the fact the game is not in 2-D.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the game itself, or rather that which it represents. LOI is heralded as the first game in the series’ time line (Konami apparently ignoring the installment for the GameBoy Color entitled ‘Castlevania Legends’) and seeks to explain the reasoning behind the Belmont clan’s incessant hunting of the malicious Vlad Tepes, better known as Count Dracula. Story wise, LOI is definitely lacking, however Konami needs to be cut some ‘slack’ as a gripping storyline is not one of the factors associated with the series. (‘Slack’ that really should not be cut in the end, as such just proves the developers continually fail to place any real emphasis on the plot; if other action games can do it, there is no reason Konami can not as well). To sum up LOI in a nutshell, Leon Belmont, the first whip slinger in the Belmont family, is on a quest to rescue his fiancé from the evil vampire that abducted him. Sure there is some mildly interesting content to go around this premise, but at its core the game has little more to offer story-wise than Capcom’s Ghouls and Ghosts or other such brethren. The game, in fact, begins with a somewhat lengthy set up of the events which are to transpire (offered simply as a narration with a few cut scene images to give ‘detail’) and then provides an explanation of where Leon got the sacred whip from. Honestly this whole thing came across as more boring than anything else; even with the ‘twists’ in the LOI story I often have fonder recollections of the events depicted in the most recent Gameboy Advance installment, if not also (get ready for it) the Nintendo 64 offerings…

But like I said earlier, the story is hardly to blame for the game’s ordinary quality. As many of the gaming periodical reviews alluded to, LOI features somewhat bland environments, of which the player will constantly find themselves seeing over and over again. This issue can only be truly realized once a gamer experiences the problem first hand: The *huge* castle is essentially broken up into hallways and chambers, all linked together by a main hub in the form of the vampire’s castle’s main hall. While the areas themselves are interesting for the first few minutes, the player will soon realize that a vast majority of the rooms in each of the game’s five areas look alike, just with a few minor differences. Furthermore, irrespective of where you are, the hallways that connect the chambers *all* look alike. What this accomplishes is nothing less than a forced sense of monotony and boredom. At first this repetitiveness appeared to be just in the game’s “introduction” areas where Leon learns how to climb ledges and such, however the issue continues for the remainder of the game. It is worth mentioning that no other installment in the series, be it 2-D *or* 3-D, has managed to accomplish this task, and thus one truly begins to wonder just how much (or little) creativity went into layout and design given this issue. The five areas of the castle may be noticeably different from each other in terms of geography (so to speak), but instead of presenting players with a journey into another world via a castle, it instead simply offers a castle *of* another world, nothing more. It is one thing for a game to reuse similar themes or locations in an effort to accomplish a task, but LOI exploits this condition to the maximum, creating tedium that makes just a few minutes of game play feel instead like hours.

Moving on, LOI offers a ‘different’ take on the series, or rather a return to the older aspects. Newer players weaned on the Gameboy Advance ventures may be a bit surprised to find out that ‘fundamental’ concepts such as that of the ‘level up’, experienced point based game play as well as other issues are nowhere to be found in LOI. Key members of the game’s staff alluded to the removal of these aspects because previous games became too easy when players opted to exploit the system of growing character statistics. (My reply to this argument always lingered on the notion of it is the player’s decision whether to ‘exploit’ the system or not and thus the difficulty level is really not in question). For better or worse, therefore, LOI offers a return to the old fashioned Castlevania game play but at the same time still keeping some of the newer elements such as expandable abilities/powers, an inventory system, Life Up and Magic Up status increases, equipment and the likes. This alteration has both positive and negative aspects associated with it: on one hand, with the removal of experience points, players no longer have any incentive to kill monsters (a task the game thus attempts to force upon the user by frequently locking rooms that require full monster elimination to escape from) but at the same time requiring that more skill and attention be given to battles since there is little chance of being grossly overpowered via exploitation of an experienced-based growth system. Battling monsters, I might add, becomes increasingly annoying as you play given the mindless nature of fighting, and after enough time I found myself simply avoiding altercations altogether unless they were required. (Is it just me, or is there a fundamental flaw in design when combat actually is tedious in an action game). In all truth however, because the game uses save points (which, I might add, refill your life completely), there is never the same level of difficulty or threat which the older games in the series provide; just because the growth system is no longer present does not change the fact that save points and life refills are, as well as the inventory system. Because of this, any ‘accomplishment’ the removal of character growth aimed to make is rendered invalid.

One of the greatest disappointments with the gameplay is LOI’s use of a fixed camera system. Perhaps an issue of more notable presence since my gaming experiences of late have fixated on Jak II and Maximo: Army of Zin (two games which give the player full control over the camera; Maximo 2 is imported BTW.), but still an issue nonetheless. While I have serious issues with the decision Square made to use a fixed camera in Final Fantasy X and X-2, the fact remains that said games are of the role-playing variety, not the action. For an action game to use fixed camera angles, it is essential that it be done correctly (see Devil May Cry 2, for example). Unfortunately, LOI’s developers somewhat failed in their efforts; players will frequently be trying to run ‘off camera’ only to discover that part of the room/hallway/area is in fact untraversable since the camera won’t display it. What this accomplishes is a constant sense of being forced along a rather linear path despite the game being 3-D since the player is not able to see everything, only what the game wants them to. It is also worth mentioning that with the use of a fixed camera, there is no option to switch to first person perspective and better view some of the more impressive environments and scenery. What the camera does provide, luckily, is generally done well with little to no instances of mistaken action a result of camera issues ever arising. Those that do arise are almost entirely related to missing key jumps, a problem that indeed can grate on the nerves. I suppose a well designed fixed camera is worth its weight in gold (since some games can’t even get something this simple right) but is ultimately overshadowed by the lack of full exploratory capabilities. Furthermore, for unknown reasons the game is constantly on “help mode” so to speak: whenever players get anywhere near the vicinity of a doorway, the game will display glowing arrows to indicate you can enter it. While some (?) may appreciate this hand-holding experience, I, for one, find it intolerable and just plain annoying. There is, unfortunately, no way to turn off this feature.

Aurally, LOI is a decent experience, however by no means is the game on the same par with the scores of Dracula X and Nocturne in the Moonlight. (Anyone who played the awful Super Famicom port of Dracula X need not even bother to reply). This is not to say the game has bad music or such, rather its just like the rest of the experience-adequate but which could have been much more. What actually surprised me is the parts where music is *lacking*, such as throughout the entire introduction cut-scene that plays when you officially start the game. It’s nice to be entertained with conversation, but without music to supplement, the experience is quite similar to any situation in real life (comparatively boring). Even the music that plays during the data select/enter name screens is severely lacking when compared to previous installments (heck, even the Gameboy Advance games trump LOI on this aspect). Effect-wise, the sounds are decent as well; monsters make typical noises and grunts, as does Leon himself. It is worthwhile to note that the voice acting in the game is quite well done, although I admit I only listened to the game’s introduction in English. Following a small but growing trend, LOI features multilingual voice acting, allowing the player to (in this case) select from either English or Japanese voice acting. Subtitles are, however, on all the time.

With all the processing capability of the Playstation 2 hardware, some gamers may be quite surprised to find lacking one aspect of the series which previously continued to grow as time went on: beauty. The first game in the series to place a strong focus on detail, the Playstation/Saturn’s Nocturne in the Moonlight was magnificent: Alucard animated with such elegance and articulation, a blazing trail of energy accompanying not only him, but also his weapons. At such point, the Castlevania series finally became one which could appeal to more senses than just the gratification of an action-high. Heck, *I* was even left in awe, and honestly, I do not really give a crap about amazing scenery and such. The two recent installments on the Gameboy Advance, Hakuya no Kyousoukyoku and Gyougetsu no Enbukyoku (Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow to the more domestic release-friendly) also opted to utilize this feature, the latter of the two arguably eclipsing the level which Nocturne managed to achieve. LOI provides nothing of the sort however. While some gamers may not care, while some gamers may not even notice, I do. It is somewhat difficult to understand exactly what the expansive nature of the DVD medium and the amazing processing abilities of the PS2 were used for in making LOI, as nothing really stands out as being impressive at all. As mentioned before, the environments are all similar; furthermore, the graphics-while quite detailed-could definitely have benefited from more development time: LOI’s looks managed to improve somewhat since the first screens leaked out of Konami some months ago, however in the end I never got a sense of the PS2 being pushed at all, nor did I ever get a sense of why the game needed to be on the PS2 in the first place: aside from smoother polygons, can anyone notice any *real* differences between LOI and the aforementioned Dreamcast effort? (Note to Readers: Do a web search for ‘Castlevania Resurrection’ or ‘Dreamcast + Castlevania’ and you can indeed find pictures). Again I must really ask if Konami developed the game from scratch, or rather simply absorbed the USA-developed structure to Resurrection as a template. (This happens all the time, look at the recently released Kirby’s Air Ride: this evolved from a pre-release Nintendo 64 demo). It’s somewhat misleading to argue that Konami lacks talent in 3-D development, as it *did* produce the Metal Gear series at last examination. Where then, did the lack of programming know-how arise from? Furthermore, would it really have been difficult to animate Leon in the same vein as Alucard or Soma Cruz? Heck, Konami could have even thrown in the option to slow down the same a la the Matrix and allow players to (if desired) watch as a crack of Leon’s whip destroys a candelabra into a million pieces. With that said, by the way, the whip animates quite generically, nor is there any option to manually control it via Castlevania IV. In an even more surprising move (or lack of for that matter), when Leon equips new items, his appearance does not change. Sure many gamers would be quick to call this “superficial”, but anyone who played the recent 2-D offerings (save for Circle of the Moon) can more likely look back to new weapons and armors as being interesting on a visual level too. (Especially in games like Nocturne, where even Alucard’s energy shadow changes colors, as well as his cape, etc.). Finally, on this topic, while the game’s artwork is as wonderful as ever, this time there is a noticeable lack of adherence to it; Leon’s in game persona looks quite different from his hand drawn depictions (as do all the other characters), an issue once again arising from the aforementioned lack of attention to the game’s beauty and graphics. Well, not different per se, but rather more like a low-end 3-D model of what the characters are suppose to resemble. Honestly, if the 2-D Nocturne in the Moonlight can create such wonder on a 32-Bit console, there is *NO* excuse why an installment finished over 6 years later on hardware *FOUR* times more powerful could not accomplish-at bare minimum-the same standards, especially when a Gameboy Advance installment released some months ago graphically surpasses this game on a ‘beauty’ level.

There are no major complaints with the controller scheme of LOI, as it is quite sufficient. One button swings the whip for a “normal” attack, another offers a “hard” whip attack that swings the weapon around not un-like a dominatrix (which can be pressed along with other buttons for more types of attacks), another jumps, and the last of the four main buttons uses the sub-weapon. As players advance further in the game, Leon will learn new abilities and gain new powers, in addition to those he already possesses (such as double jumping). Some new moves to the series are indeed quite creative, such as the ability to augment jumping with use of the whip (in a “hook shot” fashion) to further the hero’s affiliation with the Indiana Jones character. Perhaps not the most original use of the whip, but I can honestly think of no other game to have a feature like this. The only minor issue with control worth mentioning is that because of the fixed camera, jumping can sometimes become problematic. Also, the game features no lock-on system for targeting enemies and thus it may at times be frustrating to attack when Leon is surrounded. Because the right analog stick is not used for camera control, Konami opted to map a menu shortcut to it: by pushing left or right on it, players can cycle through various screens and use items and such in “real time”. It’s worth mentioning that this is the *only* way to use items during the game; you can not use any healing items or such by the pause menu and thus problems may arise in the heat of battle should you need life. Pushing select opens up the map screen (which, along with almost the entire the game, *thankfully* requires no loading time at all) however the control for using the map seems to be permanently on reverse, which means you must push upwards to view downwards, etc. The map itself is fully 3-D, not unlike that used in Metroid Prime, so anyone wishing for the ‘old fashioned’ map screen of the Playstation or Gameboy Advance incarnations may be a bit disappointed.

Seemingly each new entry into the Castlevania series as of late also brings with it a new attempt at special powers. Continuing with this trend, LOI offers the use of magic relics to offer Leon new abilities of a more heretic nature (a fitting term given the game’s somewhat overall concern with the Church). Shortly after beginning the game, players will find their first relic which allows Leon to use a fire attack, with many more relics hidden in the depths of the gigantic castle for intrepid adventures to seek-out. LOI handles the issue of magic quite well: to gain magic, the player must simply block an enemy attack with Leon’s alchemy-augmented gauntlet (a type of wrist guard) and it will absorb magic energy from the monster. Leon, in turn, is then able to use the stored energy (magic) in the various relics and attack the monster with it should he wish. While it is not nearly as creative as the monster-soul aspect Soma Cruz could utilize, it still comes in handy with certain monsters which require magic in order to defeat.

One of the great aspects which all games in the Castlevania series provide is the amazing bosses that await the hero at the end of every area. LOI manages to both impress and disappoint in this area: Anyone who saw pictures of the bosses in this game pre-release already knows how huge (and ugly) they look, and I am here to say that they are even more impressive in ‘person’. Bosses require a great deal of effort to fell and on this part, Konami definitely succeeded. Where the game fails however, is in the overall *lack* [of bosses]. Without spoiling anything, even after playing the game to ultimate completion, there is still a definite sense that Konami could have added even much more challenges, a number of additional areas, and more bosses (honestly, why so short with so much ability to do more?).

One must really question the release date of LOI, especially why is it the Japanese version will not release for another month While Konami is keeping moot on the issue, I for one would not be surprised if, as with Metal Gear Solid 2, the Japanese version will have new features or elements to make up for the “crime” of letting Americans play the game first. One aspect that could definitely be retooled is the non-functional and yet quite present combo counter. For every successful attack on an enemy, the game will display a combo count as well as the total damage issued. Why the developers sought to implement this is beyond me, as there are no bonuses for high combos nor anything else typically associated with this kind of tallying. It seems the aspect is in for the sole idiocy of keeping track of how much damage you can do, not to actually provide a useful function. (There are many, many instances in the game whereby players may wish Konami had tried to emulate Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, especially in this aspect. I for one, would not have had a problem with unlocking new moves and such in a Castlevania game via credits, points, or such; it would have provided some *real* innovation to the series). The possibility of changes aside, ever since Konami announced the release date of LOI, I was concerned as the date seemed far too soon for a game of such purported caliber. The issue does indeed arise, as to if the game got rushed near the end for the sole purpose of making it out (in the USA) before Halloween. It will be particularly interesting to see if any gaming publications speak with the LOI design staff and get their afterthoughts on their creation.

Another aspect sorely missing from LOI is the (now) series staple of a destructible landscape. While it’s safe to say the Castlevania games were never about wreaking havoc in rooms, they did, in recent years, have tables, lanterns, boxes, and other various structures which could be destroyed for hidden items and the likes. This time around, however, Konami basically decided to create game as simplistically as possible; the only real thing to destroy are the candles which are literally everywhere. Once your hearts (used to fire your special weapon) are full, these candelabras will dispense money in the denomination of $1 (the dollar: surely the currency of medieval Europe, no?) and which are more annoying to collect than anything else. [On that note, the game once again sees the return of a merchant whom you can purchase items from via the money Leon accumulates from killing monsters.] This lack of destructible elements only furthers the overall element of boredom, as players will journey from chamber to chamber to find loads of content that could and *should* be destructible, only to instantly find out that Leon is unable to interact with it. This aspect, as well as many mentioned earlier (and some not mentioned at all), truly make me wonder just how “true” the fact is that Nocturne’s staff designed this game. I, for one, find it increasingly difficult to believe the fact that the same people who originally crafted a game with so much brilliance, could then spend almost a decade working on such a bland cookie-cutter 3-D game.

In the end, where does all of this leave Castlevania: Lament of Innocence? Despite what so many reviews claim, I never actually got a sense that this game is a true Castlevania game, rather it just felt like a more polished version of the Nintendo 64 games; what those games could have and *should* have been had Konami hired competent programmers to create them. In the end however, I see little to nothing in terms of what the creative team behind Nocturne in the Moonlight managed to actually do for this installment other than prove that Konami could produce a Castlevania game of more competence and direction than the previous 3-D offerings. Lament of Innocence is a great introduction to the presumed 3-D path the ‘next generation’ of Castlevania games will most likely take, however the game just feels somewhat rushed and (more importantly), bland. As it stands, Konami’s endless stream of PR involving this game proved to be far more impressive and hopeful than the actual product itself (something not unlike that which occurred with Shiny’s Enter the Matrix). I really can’t specify exactly what Konami needs to accomplish with future 3-D installments in the series, but it’s quite obvious that even though there is more to the ‘show’ since the days of the Nintendo 64, there is still quite a *long* way to go.

Rating:   2.5 - Playable

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