Pokédemon

The culprit: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PlayStation 2)

Enter the heroMy feelings about Curse of Darkness are a rather mixed bag. Its predecessor had it easier. As the first Castlevania game chronologically and a valiant attempt to reinvent the series in 3D after the lacklustre efforts on the Nintendo 64, Lament of Innocence could get away with being formulaic in a series that pretty much epitomises the word. Curse of Darkness doesn’t have that luxury: it’s third in line chronologically, and the 3D novelty doesn’t work anymore. And while it does try to mix things up a little and ends up being more than a little quirky, the effort feels distinctly half-baked. As if the developers were mostly going through the motions, rather than genuinely trying to produce something new and interesting. But then, ‘new and interesting’ tends to be too much to expect from most long-running game series.

Curse of Darkness is set three years after Dracula’s Curse on the NES, in which Dracula–formerly Mathias Cronqvist, as people who have played LoI will know–was defeated by Trevor Belmont, a descendant of Mathias’ friend, Leon Belmont. However, before he died, Dracula cursed the land, resulting in a recrudescence of monsters and general proclivity for conflict among the people.

Dramatic posingThe first thing worth noting is that the main protagonist is not a Belmont, although this has happened before (e.g. Alucard, Soma Cruz) and will happen again in later games. Trevor does make an appearance, but he’s not the main focus. Thus, the player is put in control of Hector, a former Devil Forgemaster of Dracula’s. During the events of Dracula’s Curse, Hector was sent to confront Trevor, but used the opportunity to escape, as he couldn’t tolerate Dracula’s evil any longer. Dracula was defeated, and Hector tried to live a quiet life. However, another Devil Forgemaster, called Isaac (who clearly thinks he’s too sexy for his shirt), was jealous of Hector’s status as Dracula’s favourite and wanted revenge for his betrayal. He kept tabs on him and orchestrated a plot that got Hector’s wife executed for witchcraft in order to draw him out. Isaac’s other goal is to resurrect Dracula, which is why Trevor eventually gets involved as well.

Yes, reallyThe more atypical characteristic of the game is the environment. The main focus of most Castlevania games is the actual Castlevania, i.e. Dracula’s Castle, which tends to be the setting for most, if not all, of the story. Here, Castlevania doesn’t even exist for most of the game. Thus, Hector spends most of his time in the Wallachian (N.B. a region in Romania) countryside, traversing forests, mountains, temples and even a town (although it’s deserted). Before you get all enthusiastic, though, the difference isn’t really blatant. The colour palette is generally a variation on ‘drab’, and the level designers don’t seem to have mastered much beyond corridors. Thankfully, transportation is somewhat facilitated by Memorial Tickets, which will take Hector to the last Save Room he used (marked in red on maps), or handy teleporter…chairs. Actually, saving is also achieved via chairs. In fact, chairs are a recurring joke theme in this game. Each area in the game features several seating items (often in hidden locations) that Hector can plonk his rear on, which are then collected in a completely surreal secret room.

"Ziggy played guitar"Another prominent difference lies in combat, which is one of the main points of interest in the game. As he is not a Belmont, Hector doesn’t have access to their trademark whip weapon. He is, however, a Forgemaster, meaning that he can use a whole plethora of other stuff, including swords, spears, axes, knuckles, and some joke weapons such as a nail bat, a frying pan or even an electric guitar (and yes, he actually plays it to attack…). Every weapon has its own set of attack combos. Hector’s equipment also includes the more traditional helmets, armour and accessories. Most of this can be crafted from items, which can be dropped or stolen (once Hector learns the skill) from enemies.

"Bring meee tooo life"Weapons are not Hector’s main speciality, however. As a Devil Forgemaster, he has, first and foremost, the ability to create Innocent Devils (IDs). If you’re wondering about the name, the explanation is that, while they are dark beings, they have no inherent moral compass and simply serve their creator with utmost loyalty. Certain areas in the game contain forges: small rooms where Hector can unlock a new type of ID, which he can then name and summon to accompany him. Familiars have been used in other games in the series, but this is their most involved and detailed iteration. There are six types of IDs: fairies, melee, birds, mages, actual devils and, making a comeback from LoI, pumpkins. They all boost Hector’s stats in some way, and every type has a speciality. Fairies can heal and open locks; melee-types can smash walls and floors; birds can carry Hector over chasms; mages can stop time and burn vines; devils can hide Hector underground (to pass under obstructions); and pumpkins, while worthless in combat, give him the heftiest stat boosts.

Unleash the dragonIDs fight alongside Hector, and you can either control them manually or let the A.I. handle it. Some can even chain attacks with Hector when an onscreen prompt appears. IDs level up from combat, just as Hector does, gradually learning new abilities and extending their Heart Meter. This not only serves as their HP, but also depletes a little whenever they use a special move, thus making them the equivalent of sub-weapons in other Castlevanias. Hearts can be found by smashing candles, dropped by enemies or regained by performing a Perfect Guard (i.e. guarding right before the enemy attacks), once Hector learns the ability.

How to grow your pumpkinWhen first unlocked, each ID appears in a default form, and each type has several different evolution paths to choose from, except the devil-type, which only has one, and the pumpkin, whose evolutions are purely cosmetic. When Hector fights alongside an ID, enemies drop different coloured Evolution Crystals, depending on the weapon Hector kills them with. Once you pick up a certain item, you’ll be able to consult each ID’s evolution Fuzzballchart in the menu, showing how many crystals are needed for each form, and what that form’s stats are. Some are more useful than others, and some look decidedly goofy, considering the general atmosphere of the game. E.g. all of the pumpkins; the Proboscis Fairy, with its fake nose and moustache; or the adorably cuddly Iytei (probably a misspelling of “yeti”), which even features in a boss battle, as Isaac has one too.

BenignIDs will also sometimes drop Devil Shards, which allow Hector to create another ID of the same type, but with improved stats. These increase with every generation, so it might make sense to go through several iterations before settling on your favourite. Early on in the game, Hector will encounter Julia, a witch who has escaped persecution by living in isolation in the mountains and looks uncannily like his deceased wife. I’m sure you can guess where this is headed. What I’m not sure of is why in the world the “she looks like my dead wife” trope is considered as a good basis for a budding relationship. Anyway, Julia offers to help Hector defeat Isaac: he can buy items in her shop, but she will also store his surplus IDs for him, and he can swap them at will by visiting the shop using Magical Tickets (another Castlevania staple). This makes it possible to have several evolutions of one ID type available, which can be a definite plus (e.g. with Fairies).

"Fly me to the moon"Other elements in the game are more typical. There’s an optional dungeon, accessible with a bird-type ID, called the Tower of Evermore, which consists of a series of 50 identical, enemy-filled rooms (wahey), and an optional superboss, accessible with a devil-type ID. Once you finish your first playthrough, there’s a Boss Rush mode and a Crazy mode, to increase the difficulty. You can also replay the game with Trevor, who can use whips and sub-weapons (instead of IDs), and collect stat bonuses instead of EXP, but can’t access Julia’s shop or store consumables. And last but not least, Michiru Yamane’s and Yuka Watanabe’s soundtrack is still one of the game’s main attractions, even though I found it to be somewhat less memorable than in LoI. The highlights are the darkly blazing “Abandoned Castle – The Curse of Darkness”; the groovy “Balhjet Mountains”; the ominously lilting “Garibaldi Courtyard”, complete with tolling bells; or the surprising “Mortvia Fountain”, with its salsa-like rhythms.

Cannot...unsee...To sum things up, this is a rather uneven effort. It’s fun enough while you’re plugging away at it, but rather forgettable when all is said and done. None of the characters manage to rise above the generic, the dialogue and plot are as exciting as stale bread, Isaac should REALLY put some clothes on, the Saint-Germain character feels out-of-place, the attempts at humour are rather jarring, and the level design is, to put it bluntly, boring. On the other hand, the music is great, and raising Innocent Devils is quite entertaining, adding a distinct “gotta catch ‘em all” vibe to it all. Then again, this is supposed to be Castlevania, not Pokémon.

Goth and cheese

The culprit: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2)

I’d never played a Castlevania game before, but I’d heard plenty about them, so I thought I’d see for myself what the fuss was about. Lament of Innocence being chronologically the first episode in the series, that’s where I decided to start. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it (mostly) chronicles a century-spanning feud between one family, the Belmonts, and none other than Dracula (it even integrates Bram Stoker’s novel into its chronology). The gist, then, is killing vampires. With whips. Go figure.

Full-on gothConsidering the subject matter, you may expect cheesiness. And you’d be right. As is fitting when dealing with vampires (*throws bricks at Twilight*), the games are steeped in gothic and baroque imagery, albeit with an anime twist. Expect looming castles filled with ominous statuary; rainy nights over dark forests; pale, virginal maidens who get abducted; demonic creatures and fiendish traps; hammy dialogue; long-limbed, sharp-featured virtuous heroes, and a (thankfully) non-sparkling Dracula waiting for them at the end. Although you have to wonder at the efficiency of it all…I mean, if Dracula keeps coming back, maybe they should take a hint and start using stakes instead of whips? Just saying.

Indy called, he wants his whip backBe that as it may, since Lament of Innocence deals with the origins of Dracula, he’s not actually the game’s main antagonist. That title goes to another vampire, rather ludicrously named Walter. Don’t know about you, but that says ‘dignified English butler’ rather than ‘bloodthirsty fiend’ to me. Anyway, the game takes place in 1094, and the hero is Leon Belmont, a blonde nobleman in a distinctly non-XIth century outfit, whose bride gets kidnapped by Jeeves. Obviously, he rushes to the rescue with help from an alchemist named Rinaldo who lives in a cabin near the vampire’s castle (read: he will be Leon’s go-to supplier throughout the game). It seems that Alfred gets a kick out of kidnapping brides and defeating the suitors who come to rescue them, and Rinaldo’s not exactly down with that.

Is that tomato juice?Leon is fairly reactive and easy to control, and the game guides you through a tutorial sequence at the beginning to get acquainted with his moves. He can run, jump, double-jump (i.e. gain an extra boost in midair) and latch onto things with the magical whip given to him by Rinaldo. The whip is also his main weapon, and he can upgrade it by facing three optional bosses. There are several combos he can perform with it, all of which are automatically learned and helpfully listed in the menu. He also has access to several sub-weapons, such as an axe or a vial of holy water, of which he can equip one at a time (you do have opportunities to swap them, however). Sub-weapons can be used to perform special attacks, but consume energy, measured in hearts. These are sometimes dropped by enemies, but can also be found by breaking Holy protection, bitchez!candle-stands. Sub-weapons can be further powered up by coloured orbs obtained after defeating the main storyline bosses, which lends a lot of variety to combat. Things tend to get a bit hairy when enemies attack in large groups, however, which isn’t helped by the fact that opening the menu in combat doesn’t pause the action and renders Leon unable to attack.

In terms of defence, Leon has a magical gauntlet, which can be used for guarding against attacks. Furthermore, if guarding against a special attack or performing a perfect guard (guarding at the last possible moment before an attack hits), Leon will recover MP. Unfortunately, this is the only way to do so, which can sometimes be aggravating. MP are used to power relics: various offensive or defensive magical objects (such as the Invincible Jar or the Crystal Skull) of which Leon can also only equip one at a time. A suit of armour and two accessories complete his outfit.

Apart from the engaging combat system, the game also does a good job in the setting department. Nestor’s castle is enormous. I mean, it’s the size of a town. The entrance lobby is a hub area, from which Leon can access various wings of the building. There Do vampires go to church?are seven in total, each with its own general thematic, atmosphere and overdramatically pompous name. For example, the House of Sacred Remains looks like a sprawling cathedral, the Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab is a fiery forge, and the Ghostly Theatre looks like you’ve stumbled backstage at the opera, while the Garden Forgotten by Time is an overgrown ruin and the Dark Palace of Waterfalls is just a poetic name for the sewers. These five areas are available from the beginning, and clearing each one will earn Leon one of the aforementioned coloured orbs, which will light up a corresponding globe in the lobby. Once all have been lit, he will gain access to the Pagoda of the Misty Moon, He could use a makeoverwhich looks nothing like a pagoda, but leads up to the final confrontation with Jenkins. The seventh area is the Prison of Eternal Torture, containing a very difficult optional boss, if you’re eager for a challenge and an extra coloured orb. Although it’s definitely not for the squeamish. There’s just one problem: the only indication as to the order in which to explore these areas is a hint on where to go first, but after that, you’re on your own. Which means that you could pick wisely…or wander into the Dark Palace of Waterfalls and tear your hair out. It doesn’t help that each area features a locked door which usually leads to a nifty item, but requires a key found in a different part of the castle. That means backtracking through respawning enemies, which can get distinctly tedious, due to the sheer size of the areas and the developers’ inordinate love for all things corridor-y. That being said, there are some ways to ease the pain. First of all, save points (situated in small rooms marked in red on the map) will always replenish Leon’s HP. Secondly, Magical Tickets will whisk him off to Rinaldo’s shop from anywhere within the castle, while Memorial Tickets will take him back to the latest save point he used. Thirdly, he can use coloured Marker Stones to signal points of interest on the map.

Floor websThe one indisputably successful aspect of this game is the music. Michiru Yamane’s score is simply fantastic, featuring beautiful, haunting melodies, such as the theme of the House of Sacred Remains (my personal favourite), with its slow buildup, the measured lilt of the Garden Forgotten by Time or the dramatic flair of the Ghostly Theatre. Even the more surprisingly rhythmical Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab works well with its environment. This is a great bonus for the game’s atmosphere, almost counterbalancing all the backtracking, and possibly what I enjoyed the most about it.

Girdle of smokeThe game also makes an effort in the replayability sector. Once Leon is done showing Poole who’s boss–notably lambasting him with a ham of epic proportions (“I’ll defeat you AND the night!”)–you have several new options. You can play in Crazy mode, which will significantly raise the difficulty level. You can also play the Boss Rush mode, which strings all the game’s bosses together back-to-back, provided you’ve beaten them in the course of the storyline (this includes all optional bosses). You can start a new game with all of Leon’s skills learned, or, more interestingly, with a different protagonist. The first one available is Joachim, a vampire whom you may remember as a boss. He has a longstanding feud with Winston, and the story changes accordingly. There are a few crucial differences between him an Leon, namely that he uses magical swords which circle Blade barrieraround him instead of a whip and can’t block enemy attacks. The lack of a whip also means that he can’t perform acrobatics, but the game accommodates him by introducing moving blocks instead. Joachim also can’t equip or carry any items (Rinaldo won’t deal with him, and anything he finds is consumed immediately), although he can collect stat upgrades. All in all, it makes the game distinctly more challenging, especially if you decide to take on the optional bosses.

Trick or treat?Once you’ve cleared the game with Joachim, you’ll unlock another protagonist: Pumpkin, an…adorable little munchkin with a pumpkin for a head and giant sweets for hands. He has puny HP and MP, and his only sub-weapon is *gasp* a pumpkin, but boy, does he pack a wallop. Especially since he starts with the strongest whip in the game. In all other respects, he handles exactly as Leon did, which, amusingly, makes him the most powerful character of the three. As an added bonus, leave him idle for a while, and he’ll start humming Joachim’s theme tune.

My name is WALTER, dammit!All in all, this is a decent bit of entertainment. The storyline is nothing to write home about, the characters are cardboard cutouts, the voice acting is mediocre at best, the dialogue is cheesy as all hell, and Wilkins is a terrible name for a vampire. On the other hand, the combat system is entertaining, and while exploration does get repetitive, the lavish, gloomy gothic castle and its various musical pleasures do have definite style. I’ve noticed that Castlevania fans tend to snub this particular entry in the series, but while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it’s not a complete disaster either, as some may lead you to believe.