Review: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (XB)




Genre: Action Adventure
Platform: Xbox (also available for PS2)
ESRB Rating: Mature (Blood, Violence)
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 11/01/05
Official Website: http://www.konami.com/gs/officialsites/castlevania/

A little over two years ago, Konami released Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (you can read my review here. At the time, it was Konami’s latest attempt to bring the beloved Castlevania franchise into the third dimension. The goal was simple: make it feel like Castlevania and make it a game worthy of inclusion in the series. While the game wasn’t even close to the quality found in some of the side scrolling classics of the series (Symphony of the Night, Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow), it certainly wasn’t as awful as the two games on the N64, which was the first attempt at a 3D Castlevania game. Those two titles were such utter failures that Konami focused entirely on handheld Castlevania titles in 2D, not wanting to risk that people would remember the N64 games.

Lament of Innocence was a good game overall, and it had a feeling of a Castlevania game, but it also felt like something was missing. It didn’t have that “omph” that the side scrolling versions do. It was a paint-by-numbers action adventure game, in the vein of Devil May Cry, but it was nothing more than a step in the right direction.

So Konami went back to the drawing board, and looked at what made the aforementioned classics so popular. Hmmm, white hair. Hmmmm, different weapons. “Eureka! We’ll make a Castlevania game about a dude that’s a lot like Alucard but isn’t!” Thus, Curse of Darkness was born.

In all seriousness, this game is also the first Castlevania game to be truly cross platform. Granted, there have been Castlevania games that have ended up being ported to different systems, but in the end, they were not the same game. Curse of Darkness for the Xbox and PS2 is exactly the same (well, except for button layouts, of course). It is also the first Castlevania game to be on an Xbox system. So that tells me that Konami is serious about truly bringing this franchise into the third dimension. Whether or not they plan on mothballing any further 2D versions of the series (please, no!) is something that only they know. But they seem bound and determined to make the franchise work in 3D, which is exactly what they need to do. There is more money to be made on the home consoles, and for the series to move on, it needs to take that ultimate step.

So, how does this one stack up to its predecessors? Is it another “step in the right direction”? Or does it hit the nail on the head, and is the perfect and most faithful translation of the series? Read on, my friends. Read on and you will see.


Story

The story is set 3 years after the events featured in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. For those that are unaware, in that title, Dracula had set a curse upon the region that his castle inhabits. When his town is besieged by the curse as well, Trevor Belmont of the famed Belmont clan goes to Castlevania to defeat the Lord of Darkness. He is joined by the pirate Grant DaNasty, the sorceress Slypha Belnades and Dracula’s son, Alucard.

They succeed in defeating Dracula, but the curse does not end. During their hunt for Dark Lord, one of Dracula’s subordinates, a Devil Forgemaster known as Hector, decides he is tired of his Lord’s methods and leaves him, and goes to live with the non-undead (you know, humans). He falls in love with a beautiful woman named Rosaly, and they live happily ever after…for about 3 years.

For some reason, the townspeople become convinced that Rosaly is a witch, so they murder her. Outraged, Hector travels to confront the one person he believes would be so vile as to spread rumors of Rosaly being a witch: Issac, the other Devil Forgemaster under Dracula’s employ. And thus begins our quest…

Really, the story is pretty good. It’s not spectacular, but it’s on par with other Castlevania titles. It is a nice continuation from Castlevania III, and yes, you do have some interaction with characters from that game, but for the most part, you meet entirely new characters. Take for example the monk who keeps pointing you in the direction that Issac is going, or the weird dressed fellow in a top hat who warns you to NOT listen to the monk. These intriguing fellows make you wonder who is on whose side and do they actually want to help you or hinder you. Regardless, you know full well that your quarry is Issac and that your mission is to find him at all costs, and to gain your revenge.
Rating: 7.0

Graphics
Personally, I think this game has some of the best graphics available on any current generation system. I know that’s a bold statement, but I stand behind it. First of all, the character designs are just as good as any of the best Castlevania titles. They are, of course, very gothic in nature, and the characters have a lot of detail. My only problem is that Hector looks quite a bit like Alucard. And Issac reminds me a lot of Sydney from Vagrant Story.

But despite that, the execution is near flawless. The character models are all very well designed. Hector has a nice flowing cape and a lot of detail on him, which makes sense since you see mainly him for 99.9% of the game. But even the enemy characters are very well designed as well. And boy, are the bosses spectacular! Almost all of them are huge and have awesome detail. Take the first real boss you fight, an Iron Golem. He is a suit of armor, but he has spinning gears and other details that really stand out. And all the bosses are just as detailed. They really put a lot of work into the models and designs here.

But the environments are no exception. While the map layout leaves a little to be desired, the texturing is simply beautiful. Every place you go makes you feel like you’re actually there. From the tattered carpets and tapestries in the Abandoned Castle, to the water worn walls of the Aqueduct, to the trees and crumbling arches in the forest, there is so much detail in the environments that it was simply amazing at times. The only real problem I had with the environments is that they were just sometimes so damn big that running from point A to point B seemed to take FOREVER, but that wasn’t all that often.

The only major problem I had with anything graphics related was the camera. Oh, the bane of the three dimensional game. There are a lot of times when the camera works just fine. In fact, it works great. But there are also a lot of times where it is downright annoying. The main camera problems come in the smaller rooms. If the room is small, the camera zooms WAY in to Hector and you can barely see what’s going on around you. They did a good job of making enemies transparent when they obscure your vision, but they didn’t do the same with walls, so that you can stay zoomed out and see the action. It becomes really annoying when you are zoomed in so close and can hardly see anything. Another problem is with the lock-on feature (more explained in gameplay). If you are locked on to an enemy, the camera will follow him, and if an enemy is fast and keeps zipping behind you, the camera can make you seasick fast.

Despite that pretty big problem, the graphics really are great. I experienced no slowdown whatsoever, every screen loads in about a second, and everything just looks really, really good overall. I could see myself giving another full point or so if the camera wasn’t so damn wonky.
Rating: 8.5

Sound
Doth mine ears deceive me? What is that wond’rous voice I doth hear? My word, that appears to be CRISPIN FREEMAN playing the lead character! Oh ecstasy! Oh bliss!

Ok, yes, yes, I’m alright now. But it is true, the role of Hector is played by none other than Crispin Freeman, only the single greatest male voice actor in the history of the world. And there’s a funny little connection that can be made. Hector looks like Alucard. The Hellsing anime featured a vampire main character named Arucard that was incorrectly translated when dubbed into English as Alucard. And guess who does his voice? That’s right, Crispin Freeman. Stay tuned for more episodes of 6 Degrees of My Screwed Up Head.

Though I tried and tried I was unable to place any of the other voices featured in the game, but that isn’t to say they weren’t good. On the contrary, each voice fit their particular character like a glove. From the seemingly obsequious monk, to the odd top hat guy, to the lovely Julia, all are played well. But truly, Crispin is the star. Having heard him play Hector, there is really no doubt that he was perfect for the part. Crispin truly excels at playing two types of characters: full on crazy evil guys (Albedo from Xenosaga) or anti-heroes (like Arucard from Hellsing). For the record, Hector is in the latter. He’s a good guy, but he was bad, and now he’s just really pissed. And it shows.

But really, voice acting isn’t what Castlevania is about. One of the Castlevania series’ strong points has always been the music. Hell, for the longest time, the titles were musically themed (Symphony of the Night, Aria of Darkness, Harmony of Dissonance, etc). And this game is just as good as any other. There are a lot of standard types of themes, with a lot of guitar and harder instruments you wouldn’t expect, but that are written so well that they fit with the Castlevania theme. Every theme in the game fits right into what you’d expect. The only problem is that none of them really stand out. To this day, I can play certain themes from Symphony of the Night in my head, and I haven’t played it or listened to that music in at least 2 years. But by the same token, I’ve played through that game all the way at least 4 times, so I SHOULD know it.

Overall, the sound in the game is superb. From the flawless voice acting of Crispin Freeman to the excellent music, they really couldn’t have done much better. And they did even better than I expected. Great job Konami.
Rating: 9.0

Gameplay and Control
Translating the general gameplay from the 2D Castlevania games to 3D shouldn’t be all that hard, right? You’d think so, but it’s not as simple as it would originally seem. First off, you’re turning a game that is essentially all vertical into a game that is (in theory) on all three dimensions. The execution isn’t quite the level that you find in other Castlevania games, and it makes me wonder if a true translation simply isn’t possible. That’s not to say that they didn’t do a good job. On the contrary, they did a great job with what they could.

See, from what I can tell, they wanted to take Symphony of the Night and change it up some and then turn that into a 3D title. Character design aside, many of the gameplay concepts were popularized by SotN. Take the more RPG style for example. This game features RPG elements such as a life meter, levelling up by gaining experience, and statistics like Strength, Constitution and Luck. In addition, like RPGs as well, you can change out your weapons and armor.

And taking a page right out of SotN is the Devil Forging system. Basically, as a Devil Forgemaster, you have the ability to befriend/enslave Innocent Devils (aka I.D.s) who will help you out. There are several different types, such as Fairy types, which primarily heal you, and Battle types, which fight your enemies. Basically, they work much like the Familiars did in SotN. And similar to the familiars, the I.D.s gain experience from enemies and can level up. And to draw a comparison to another title, your I.D.s can also evolve a la Shin Megami Tensei. See, whenever you kill an enemy, they will occasionally drop an Evo Crystal. Each weapon type you have (Sword, Spear, Axe, Knuckle, and Special) produces a different color Evo Crystal, and by collecting a certain amount of a certain color, you can determine which path of evolution your I.D. takes. The different evolution paths determine the different skills they can potentially learn. It’s really a neat system, and it makes fighting more interesting. Oh, and your I.D.s can lay eggs also, which allows you to grow a new one from scratch, taking it on a different evolution path if you so choose.

As for the controls themselves, they are really pretty easy to get down. The left thumbstick moves Hector. The two of the face buttons are attack buttons (one is a regular attack, and one is a “finishing attack” button that does extra damage if used at the end of a combo). There’s jump and the final face button activates your I.D.’s special attack. The right trigger guards, the left trigger centers the camera. The most annoying buttons are the black and white. One of them locks on to your closest enemy, and the other switches your lock-on target. Lock-on basically sucks and causes your camera to move around too quickly, but unfortunately it is required for one of the newest and neatest/most frustrating additions in the game. See, when you’re locked on to a target, the lock-on crosshairs will occasionally turn purple. This usually happens at a specific time, like when the enemy does a certain attack. If you hit the final attack button when it’s purple and you’re next to the enemy, you will steal from them. What makes it frustrating is that it’s hard to judge when you can steal, and there are times when the enemy won’t do this certain attack unless he’s far away from you…too far to steal from. What makes it neat is getting materials.

Materials are something that is also new to the series, but are similar to the weapon upgrade system in Dawn of Sorrow. See, you can use materials to make new weapons and upgrade existing ones. As soon as you get enough materials to make something, you know because it says NEW next to the combine menu. And really, this is probably the most fun thing about the game. It’s really cool trying to find new materials to make new weapons. You can steal them from enemies or they will just be dropped by killing one. The problem is that materials are either really rare or really easy to come by. When you really need a material, it’s impossible to find them, but when you’ve got just enough, they start pouring in like crazy. I guess that’s one of Murphy’s laws.

So overall, the gameplay is cool and fun, but at the same time, it just doesn’t feel EXACTLY like a Castlevania game. While in the 2D games, there is no sense of depth, in this game, there is no sense of height (except in a few places). Still, the I.D. system is really well done, as is the awesome material system.
Rating: 8.0

Replayability
Really, I can’t give this a great score. As is the case with most Castlevania games, once you win the game, you’ve won it. Playing through it again won’t make much difference. But as with most of the most popular 2D titles, you can play through the game as a certain Belmont after you win the game. Likewise, you can also play through on a harder difficulty. But still, the game is essentially the same, and very little changes other than how hard it is. While playing through as Trevor makes things much more interesting, it doesn’t change the story or totally affect the game.
Rating: 4.0


Balance
Another bane of the Castlevania series. Well, of the series after it became “Castleroid”. Being a fan of RPGs, I love how the series allows you to improve your stats and weapons over time, but many fans of the older versions of the series don’t like that. They like it to be hard. And hard this isn’t. There was one battle that I fought that I thought was really hard, and it was just because I wasn’t supposed to win it. But I always fight every enemy I see, and I was ahead of the curve in making sure I had upgraded my weapons. But still, there were few times when I actually thought it was difficult. Most of the times I would just wack away without any concern for Hector’s well being. And I’d always win.
Rating: 3.0

Originality
There really isn’t anything you haven’t seen anywhere else. You can compare all aspects of the game to other games. The gameplay is like Devil May Cry, the I.D.’s are like something out of Shin Megami Tensei, and the weapon upgrade system has been seen in various forms in RPGs for a long time. But as much as I can say “well, they’ve done that before!” I honestly feel they didn’t rip any other games off. They took concepts that have been in other Castlevania games and improved upon them dramatically. I really like the I.D. and weapon upgrade systems, and I think they did a damn good job with them, and they made them different enough to make them worthy additions to the game.
Rating: 5.0

Addictiveness
I’ll be brutally honest. When I played the demo of this game a few weeks ago, I got bored very quickly. I though the game was alright, but not that fun. But then when I played the actual game, it was a world of difference. I don’t know if anything actually CHANGED, but I just really got in to the game. It was a lot of fun. I had tons of fun levelling up and evolving my I.D.s and tracking down materials to make new weapons. Most of the time, it was hard to put the game down. But there were a few times when it was just so dreadfully boring. On the whole, the game has a much larger scope than 2D Castlevania games. As such, there are a few areas that are very long and take a while to traverse that have no enemies. That didn’t happen often, but when it did happen, it stood out. But other than those times, the game was tons of fun.
Rating: 7.5

Appeal Factor
I think this game probably appeals to a fairly wide audience. It should appeal to Castlevania fans of course, but it should also appeal to fans of games such as Devil May Cry and God of War. It’s rated M, and has Blood, so that has to count for something. It’s just the type of game that appeals to all sorts of people, from Action fans to RPG fans, and I think each of those types of people will like it.
Rating: 7.0

Miscellaneous
So the question now remains, was this a success. As I have said before, Lament of Innocence was “a step in the right direction”, but was not as faithful a Castlevania game as there could be. But is Curse of Darkness? I believe so. I honestly believe that this is the best 3D Castlevania game that is possible. I don’t think it’s possible to completely transfer the feeling that the 2D games have to 3D. And I don’t think they can get any closer than this. But I would love for them to prove me wrong.
Rating: 8.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 7.0
Graphics: 8.5
Sound: 9.0
Gameplay and Control: 8.0
Replayability: 4.0
Balance: 3.0
Originality: 5.0
Addictiveness: 7.5
Appeal Factor: 7.0
Miscellaneous: 8.0

Average: 6.7
Final Score: 6.5 (Decent)

Short Attention Span Summary
Konami deserves some props for making a good game and finally getting it right. They’ve finally made a 3D Castlevania game that truly deserves its title. It’s not the best game in the world, but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s probably the best the series can be in 3D. It makes you wonder really what they can do with the series now. It’s covered about as much ground as it can and they can’t really do anything more without rehashing even more than they have. So it may be time for Konami to hang up the whip. That is, unless they can totally reinvent the series, which I think they are afraid of doing.