Inside Pulse 12

Review: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Nintendo DS)

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 10/22/2008


There really hasn’t ever been a bad 2-D Castlevania. Now I can probably say the opposite for the 3-D Castlevanias, but thankfully those are a drop in the bucket that is this series. The climax of the franchise is easily Symphony of the Night, which was the shift of the series from action-platformer to action RPG. Since the game went from console to handheld though, I haven’t been that impressed with the series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found all the games since Circle of the Moon on down to be, at worst, above average games. It’s just they haven’t wowed me like SotN or Dracula’s Curse. For me it’s felt like the innovation was gone, and that the series was trying too hard to recapture the magic of SotN rather than try something new or original. When Dracula X Chronicles is the best Castlevania I’ve played in 7 years and it’s a compilation/remake, that’s a bit distressing to me.

So here we are with Order of Ecclesia, the latest for a franchise that spans over two dozen games. You’d think by now that Konami would be out of ideas involving haunted castles and that Dracula would be sick of being resurrected and slain by the latest protagonist du jour. Indeed this appears not to be the case as we return once more to The Land Beyond the Forest.

So does Order of Ecclesia rouse the series out of topor or is it the first CV game to, if you’ll excuse the pun, suck?

Let’s Review

1. Story

It’s the end of the 19th century. The Belmonts are gone and the forces of darkness are in full swing. You play as Shanoa, a member of the occult society known as the Order of Ecclesia. Raised from a small child to wield the glyph of Dominus, a power that can destroy even Dracula, Shanoa loses her memories and personality when the Dominus ritual is disrupted by a man named Albus. Albus it appears, wishes to wield Dominus himself and feels betrayed by the order when Shanoa is chosen instead. Now, little more than an automaton, Shanoa must relearn his skills, track down Albus, recover the glyph of Dominus, and slay Dracula. Ecclesia doesn’t ask for much, does it kids?

As you go through the game, you’ll discover 14 different locations besides Castle Dracula itself. You’ll free villagers from Albus’ topor glyphs and resurrect a small town near the Order’s home base. You’ll also discover more about your character, the real reasons for Albus’ betrayal and the truth of the Order you have been raised by. All in all. It’s decent little story, but there’s very little plot or depth to the game. It’s a little more linear than your average post SotN Castlevania, but it makes up for it by having items in each region that you can come back and collect once you have the appropriate relic or glyph.

I found it hard to care about Shanoa, simply as she has no personality. Of course it’s a side effect of the miscast Dominus ritual, but it still makes her a very hard protagonist to get empathize with. I was also a bit unhappy with the end of the game, simply because I was able to predict the exact ending after the intro scene at the beginning of the game. It really is a paint by numbers plot, with a lot of heavy handed foreshadowing and little character development. I actually laughed out loud at the ending at one point because Shanoa does her best impression of “Why Posh Spice never smiles for the camera.” It ruined the entire ending for me.

These negatives aside, the story is passable. Where previous Castlevania games for the GBA and DS have featured some pretty interesting (albeit predictable) stories balanced out by gameplay that has best resting on its laurels for a decade, Order of Ecclesia is the opposite, putting more into the gameplay and innovation in that department and allowing the story aspect to slide into a mediocre tale that pretty much writes itself.

Also spoiler alert – Dracula is the last boss and you kill him. Surprise!

Story Rating: Mediocre

2. Graphics

Visually I’d say OoE is a step down from Portrait of Ruin< but PoR is my pick for the best looking Castlevania so that’s not really a negative here. I love the look and feel of Shanoa though. She’s the most original and graphically striking Castlevania protagonist so far. She has a great design to her and even with the lack of personality, I can see Konami running several games with her as the main character, something they haven’t done since poor Simon Belmont. Albus however, well I’ll admit I didn’t like him at first simply because he uses a gun. No guns in my Castlevania please. Still, he has an interesting look about him and his flintlock pistols are appropriate for the time period, so I quickly got over it.

I love that the villagers all have their own unique character portraits. This was a nice touch to balance out monsters that have almost the same exact sprites and attacks since the dawn of the series two decades ago like the bone throwing skeletons and those poor fish men. Some classic Castlevania characters FINALLY have a new look to them, like The Creature. Although his attacks are a bit suspect (Fire attacks for Frankenstein’s Monster? Really? REALLY?), it’s nice to see him (and others) get a much needed face lift. Anyone who complains about SNK reusing Neo*Geo sprites needs to take a look at how much blood Konami has squeezed from the Castlevania stone.

I really enjoyed the glyph attacks Shanoa uses throughout the game. There are some subtle differences even when an attack looks exactly the same. For example, a Sickle and a Hammer look the same when Shanoa uses them, but if you keep a close eye on the screen, you’ll notice that the sickle is just a little bit longer. I also liked seeing some weapons that generally haven’t appeared in CV games before. The Lance glyph is my favorite melee weapon, both for how it looks and the fact it’s not something you usually see here.

Like all Castlevania games, the title has excellent backgrounds, some really original and fun level designs (My favorite is the prison island), larger than life bosses, and some excellent character designs. This isn’t the best looking CV game on the DS, but it’s still a beautiful game to behold. Well except for Shanoa’s endgame smile. Ick. That’s a bad drawing.

Graphics Rating: Great

3. Sound

Has there ever been a bad sounding Castlevania game? The one thing the series has been known for since day one is the amazing scores the game comes with. Heck, I preorder CV games just for the bonus soundtracks. They’re simply sublime. I even own the SotN remix collection. I’m happy to say that OoE is no exception to the lineage of amazing Castlevania soundtracks. One can just sit there and close their eyes listing to the haunting melodies or frantic paced classic pieces. Just remember that if you’re going to do that, pause the game first.

I think my favorite song in the game is the one that plays while you are in the village. It sounds remarkably like the music for the old tv show Dark Shadows. Sadly this song isn’t on the bonus CD. Speaking of that, if you pre-ordered the game you received a CD with six game tracks (about 15 minutes long). There are some great melodic tracks on here, but the best tracks are in-game only, which is a bit disappointing.

There’s some voice acting in the game, albeit not much, which surprised me. Each of the villagers and several prominent characters have a few lines of dialogue recorded. Although you’ll hear these lines many times over the course of the game, they’re are well done and the recordings are full of life and energy. Nice job here.

Order of Ecclesia boasts excellent sound effects, a nice dollop of voice acting and a wonderful score. The music alone earns the game top honours here. Everything else is just a bonus.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control and Gameplay

This is the heart of the game right here, and I’m happy to say this is the best CV game I’ve played since Symphony of the Night. I loved the gameplay, boss battles, how tight the controls were, and the overall feel of the game.
One of my big nitpicks with the Castlevania has been level design. For many of the games, you’re just in one big castle. Thus, there’s not a lot of variety that can be done. I suppose that’s why I like Simon’s Quest so much, even though the bad translation kills that game at times. Here though, you have so many unique look levels that still maintain the Castlevania stereotypes. In the castle environments there are only so many ways you can fit fish men in without repeating yourself. Here? You encounter them when crossing a channel in the midst of a raging storm. I love this.

Controls are great and one will find them reminiscent of SotN, but better. You equip normal armour pieces and accessories, but the big piece here are your glyphs. You can equip three glyphs at a time – one on each hand and then one on your back. The two on your hands are usually glyphs representing melee weapons or magic spells. The glyph on your back is usually a defensive or movement based glyph such as a magnetic field or a pair of wings. Even better, once you’ve gone through the Prison Island, you’ll find a relic that lets you set up three different glyph combinations for you that you can quick switch between by holding down A and then pressing one of the shoulder buttons. This is a wonderful idea because glyphs can be divided into attack types such as slashing, piercing, or blunt weapons, and then magic can be divided between say, electrical, fire, and other elemental type attacks. By using the glyph switch you can preset different glyph combinations and switch from one set of glyphs (say slashing and fire) as Set A to Set B which is oh, a ranged melee attack like a bow and a blunt weapon like a hammer so that you can optimize your attacks against an enemy’s weakness.

You can also do what is called a “Glyph Union” which allows you to combine the power of your two hand glyphs into a special attack. These special attacks consume hearts, of which you have a limited supply, but they are generally worth it for the extra damage. The special attack will also differ based on your glyph combinations, so try different combos and see what you can get.

My only problem with the glyph combo is that to activate it, you need to press Up and Y or Up and X. Due to a lot of fighting games and 2-D action-platformers in my day, when I jump at an airborne enemy I tend to press Up + the attack button. In OoE, this means I accidentally waste a Glyph Union. Even worse if I am out of hearts and I press up and the attack buttons, I don’t do anything. It doesn’t default me to a basic attack. You just stand there and then get hit by an attack. This sucks, but it’s less the game’s fault that me needing to break two decades of previous Castlevania experience.

Another nice addition to the game are quests. These are your basic run and fetch quests that we’ve come to see in RPG’s and 3-D platformers. Someone asks you for an item. You run and get it, if you can, and then you get a reward. Although this has been done many times before, this is a nice little addition to the usual gameplay. It gets even better with the ability to use the DS’ wi-fi connection to trade/sell items with your friends or anyone else you give your friend code out to. Anyone need a Death Ring? Check online!

There’s a lot to see and do here in OoE. The game take the age old hack and slash exploration aspect of Castlevania we all know and love and has added a new style of fighting and a little more depth by having you search for and rescue villagers (and cats). I had a lot of fun with the new pieces and trying out all the new combinations. It really have Castlevania the breath of fresh air I’ve been waiting for.

Control and Gameplay: Classic

5. Replayability

After you rescue all the villagers and beat the game, there’s a lot of new stuff to try out. There’s Boss Rush Mode, which is just you trying to beat all the bosses in the game in a row. There’s Hard Mode which is exactly what it sounds like. There’s a sound test mode and even a version of the game where you can play as Albus which is a lot of fun. It’s similar to unlocking Maria and Richter in SotN. Once Castlevania: Judgement comes out for the Wii in November there will be additional content you can unlock in both games, so that’s something else you can look forward to.

As for the main game with Shanoa, it may be a mostly linear affair, but due to all the glyphs you can absorb and combine, there’s really a lot of replay value to the title. Even better, each grouping of the glyphs have their own experience point system as well. The more enemies you defeat with a type of glyph (not a specific glyph), they more powerful you will be at using that glyph type. I love particular skill/weapon experience options, which is a reason I loved Grandia for the Sega Saturn so much. Implementing a system like that gives a game a lot of replay value, and OoE is no exception. There’s also several endings (SAVE ALL THE VILLAGERS) and oddly enough, I prefer the bad ending.

This is the first Castlevania since SotN that I’ve wanted to keep playing after I beat the game. Generally I’ve played them games, kept the pre-order CD’s and then traded the games back in. The only CV games I currently own are I, II, III, SotN and this one. The fact I’m considering keeping Order of Ecclesia as part of my permanent collection (I only allow myself 20 games per console) is high praise indeed.

Replayability Rating: Good

6. Balance

This is the only real weak spot in the game. Because this game is an action RPG, it is very easy to invest a lot of grinding time in and then just overpower your opponents while taking little to no damage from their attacks. I was level 25 when I went into Castle Dracula, but I could have easily spent an hour or two killing zombies in the Monastery and raised myself up a couple of levels and cakewalked through the game. This can be done at any time and although it means anyone can beat the game, it also means killing Dracula is inevitably less of an accomplishment.

Boss fights in CV are generally known for their toughness, but in OoE, there was only one boss I couldn’t figure out how to beat at first and that was the giant Crab in the lighthouse. All the other bosses in the game are surprisingly easy as their patterns are as obvious as characters in an 8 bit game. Even Dracula was jaw droppingly easy in this game. I loved that he was very different from other CV incarnations with a wide variety of attacks though. It was just too easy to avoid the attacks and survive this particular end boss. You can definitely tell the game is easier boss wise then in other CV games because there is a reward system for beating a boss without being hit. If you can do this you receive a special medal. This is a lot easier than you would expect and I, who usually go crazy kamikaze in action RPG’s, found myself earning five different boss medals. Wacky.

So OoE is a lot easier than the other Nintendo Handheld Castlevania‘s that have come out over the years, but it still provides a decent amount of challenge in the exploration of various levels and defeating strange new monster. God knows I’m happy that the freaking platformer “Get the jump right or you die” aspects of this franchise are long since gone. Besides, if you find the normal version of the game too easy, you can always unlock Hard Mode.

Balance Rating: Above Average

7. Originality

Although the game brings some new characters and gameplay to the Castlevania franchise, the game is still mostly the same as it was back when most of us played the original on the NE S(or in the arcade for some). There are only so many times you can kill vampires, skeletons, fish men, Madusa Heads, and the usual cannon fodder of these games before everything blurs together. OoE may be the most original Castlevania in a decade, but it’s still sticking to the same old formula that first brought the series to the table in the olden days of 8 bit cartridge blowing.

I’m a big fan of the glyph system and even some of the weird new bosses in the game. It’s nice to see Castlevania branching out a little, but it’ll take something like Castlevania: Judgment to score high in this particular category. Then again, from all the talk about the game that might be the ONLY category it scores high in.

Originality Rating: Below Average

8. Addictiveness

Because the Castlevania games are equally about exploring and finding your way through the maze of the levels as they are about killing monsters, it’s easy to find yourself quite engrossed in the game trying to find the next save point, teleport spot or hidden area that gives you a new nifty glyph. You’ll also find yourself going back to levels to complete a villager’s quest when in other CV games you rarely go back to an area once your defeated the boss.

There’s something else I’ve noticed that really kept me glued to the game. In several locations the boss fight comes at the start of the level. This is a nice touch and once you’ve beaten the boss you find that you’re more compelled to explore the location rather than take a break now that the hard work is done.

It’s funny that I usually harp on the importance of story and well designed characters, yet Order of Ecclesia has a pretty transparent plot and lackluster characterization and I enjoyed this game more than say, playing through the adventures of Soma Cruz. I guess this proves a good story can carry a video game only so far and that playing a game that feeling like a dozen others can drag a game down as much as good gameplay can make up for a mediocre plot.

Again, I haven’t been glued to a CV game like this since Symphony of the Night. When I’m getting a hand cramp and I try to ignore it as best I can so I can keep playing, that’s pretty impressive.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor

Castlevania games always score high here. They’re well made games sporting excellent graphics and sound. Even when the games are following a predictable format at the expense of originality, they tend to have well made engines to make up for it. Because Castlevania has arguably the best reputation in gaming for consistence in quality, the franchise has a large amount of loyal fans who will buy up anything with the logo.

So it’s great for their fanbase that Order of Ecclesia is the most original, most fun, and most entertaining Castlevania in a long time. Even people like myself who have slowly become bored with the series, or others who have abandoned it all together for the cookie cutter aspects of the game design will be excited to see how fresh the series feels again. This is a great game to return to the series with, in much the same way that people returned to CV with SotN after games like Bloodlines. I guess you could say Castlevania has its third wind with this game. Unless you really can’t stand the franchise, or action RPG’s in general, it’ll be hard for you not to have fun with Order of Ecclesia

Appeal Factor: Great

10. Miscellaneous

I’m pretty happy with this game. I’m hoping that we’ll get another Castlevania featuring Shanoa, albeit one with more of a story and characterization. Even if we don’t I’d like to see the glyph system make a comeback. It’s a nice alternative to whips, swords and lances (if you’re Eric LeCarde). For thirty dollars, you’re getting the first real piece of innovation to the series in a while mixed in with a lot of post game bonus options. This is the first game for the DS besides Ubisoft’s “My XXX Coach” and a myriad of Pokemon games that I would consider a “Must buy” for anyone, regardless of genre preferences. OoE is a wonderful balance of action, RPG and fetch quests that is sure to entertain anyone who picks it up.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores:
Story: Mediocre
Graphics: Great
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Good
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the best Castlevania in a decade. It’s one of the best games released for the DS this year and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a new title for their Nintendo handheld. The game is sharp, stylish, boasts an amazing score and offers a whole new way to commit monster genocide. OoE offers something for everyone and here’s hoping we see Shanoa make a return trip to Castle Dracula in the years to come.