The culprit: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PlayStation 2)
My 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.
The 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
IDs 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.
When 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 chart 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.
IDs 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).
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.
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.